The message, right in the wake of the attack against the İzmir courthouse on January 6, 2017, from a loved one abroad was a one-liner: “I’ve always thought Izmir was safe. Very sad.”
Safe is a relative term if you live in a country that had suffered half a dozen acts of terrorism in less than a month. Safe has become a selfish word that makes you blush and cringe every time you pronounce it or mark it on your Facebook timeline. Safe now means that you are not among the ones who died or were injured – this time. “We are OK,” is even worse because it means that people who died were people we did not know.
So yes, in this dark, selfish and slippery new vocabulary, I felt safe in İzmir. So did the majority of the inhabitants of this mostly homogenous, devil-may-care city that loved trade, sun, sea and a drink on the coastal front. We laid low, dimmed the New Year’s lights, and kept a careful eye on the alerts by foreign consulates which we shared immediately. We held fewer protests and mourned for the victims of the loss of life elsewhere.
“The loss of innocence in İzmir” was coined by a foreign observer, an intelligent and sensitive woman who has been observing Turkey for at least two decades. When she made this observation, right in the wake of the attack, I asked whether we had indeed been innocents before.
Surely, we knew about the operations that were going on in İzmir. Several operations, including one in Gaziemir last year, had caught outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members transporting arms and explosives in the city. On the same day of the courthouse attack, a suspect had been caught after allegedly coming to İzmir to recruit militants for the terrorist group and was trained in PKK camps in Syria. Major operations against Fethullah Gülen’s power base in İzmir have also taken place, including a clean-up operation in the İzmir judiciary. Several Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) members were captured in operations in İzmir last year. Dozens of people were arrested related to the Reina attack earlier this week and also on the day of the courthouse attack. İzmir, with possibilities of an easy escape from Turkey, is not only a hiding place but the final point of the escape route for terrorists who want to flee the country. We read that, knew that, but like a lucky child who took it for granted that nothing bad could happen at home, we felt safe, or at least, safer. When I heard the attack, I phoned a lawyer friend and felt relief when she said she was in Istanbul – what irony.
When, a month ago, a Twitter user posted, “Why are there no attacks in İzmir?” and added, “The infidels do not harm each other,” the reaction of most of the İzmirians I know was anger at the insult, rather than a feeling of foreboding, or a fear that they had been just designated as a target. After the attack, the particular tweets reposted with the question, “Are you happy now?” mixed with abuse and rage. In a more sober tone, the İzmir Bar Association, a highly professional and efficient group on a number of key social issues, said they had taken legal action on the hate speech against İzmir.
But a day after the attack, the predominant sentiment in the city is not of hatred but of solidarity and the desire to honor the memory of the city’s hero, police officer Fethi Sekin. Sekin prevented a larger tragedy by stopping the terrorists before they entered the courthouse. The city has held two ceremonies for his funeral, one in front of the courthouse and another in front of the Town Hall. Then his body will be transported to his hometown, Elazığ.
Did we lose our innocence? Possibly. But we cannot lose our compassion, the solidarity, the passion to live and the determination to live the way we do. These are the sentiments that caused an old woman to make helva for Sekin (a Turkish tradition to honor the dead) and give it to everyone who lived in her building or a cab driver to wait until his customer, a woman sobbing after the attack, safely entered her house or of people calling each other up to attend the funeral. It meant people calling each other up to console.
İzmir needs to go on being İzmir – saddened but defiant. Otherwise, the attack will have succeeded.
This article was published in Hurriyet Daily News on January/07/2017