ISTANBUL ― Merve Ispirli couldn’t take her eyes off the television as the news anchor held up an iPhone to the camera late Friday night. Her president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had survived a coup attempt and was speaking to the country via FaceTime.
“We will overcome this,” he said defiantly. “Go to the streets and give them their answer.”
Ispirli, a 23-year-old law student, didn’t think twice before leaving her house. But she didn’t get far. The sound of gunshots stopped her dead in her tracks. A group of fellow protesters rushed past, carrying three bloodied men in what looked like a bed sheet.
“I was shocked ― it looked like war,” she recalled, speaking by phone with The WorldPost. “Soldiers who shoot their own people and bomb the parliament cannot be our soldiers.”
Turkey’s government ― crediting the heroism of loyal police, military and civilians who risked their lives ― was able to squash the coup attempt. And yet, for many Turks, the horror of that night continues on.
Anxiety and paranoia have taken hold of daily life here. Some Turks say they’ve lost trust in the military, fearing that any one soldier could violently rebel. Others, already hypervigilant and fearful of terrorism, worry the weekend’s tumult could open the door to even more attacks. And then there are those who worry they’ll be wrongfully labeled a coup supporter as the government detains, fires and suspends from work tens of thousands of people.
“What the soldiers did was an act of terror more than a coup,” said Ispirli. “Naturally, this caused paranoia among citizens. Now any time we see a soldier, there is suspicion that they are connected to Gulen.”
Turkey blames U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen and his global following, known as the Gulen movement, for orchestrating the coup. The 75-year-old ally-turned-arch nemesis of Erdogan currently lives in self-exile on a compound in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Turkey says Gulen is a terrorist and has demanded that the United States extradite him.
Gulen denies any involvement in the violence, instead pointing a finger at Erdogan for possibly staging the entire coup ― a popular conspiracy theory among government critics ― to cement power and root out opposition.
At least 232 people were killed during the bloody coup attempt.
Many Turks are furious that members of their own military violently tried to take over the government, and demand the death penalty be reinstated. Several Turkish leaders, including Erdogan himself, have hinted that such a legal change may be considered given the gravity of the situation, a move that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned would bar Turkey from European Union accession.
Pro-government protesters hanged an effigy of Gulen by a noose in Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square on Monday night.
Turks are still trying to make sense of Friday night’s violence. At a funeral for Erol Ince, a police officer killed by pro-coup forces, friends, family and strangers gathered to mourn outside of Eyup Sultan Mosque.
One young police officer, standing in a single-file line of uniformed men, held back tears and silently mouthed prayers under his breath. Pinned to his black uniform was a photo of his fallen comrade.
Security forces were on high alert at the funeral, with both uniformed and plainclothes police and military patrolling.
The botched weekend coup is far from the only security threat plaguing the country. Turkey, a NATO ally and partner in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, has suffered from a deadly string of terror attacks blamed on ISIS and Kurdish militants that have left hundreds of people dead.
Several of the most shocking attacks have targeted historic and tourist areas, as well as transport hubs like Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Other attackers have singled out military forces and Turkish civilians.
Thousands of police officers, soldiers and high-level military personnel have been detained or dismissed in recent days.
Some Turks say they’re concerned the attempted coup and its aftermath could be fertile ground for terrorist attacks, as counterterrorism resources are so strained.
“My wife is pregnant and especially because of that I’m much more afraid of the future,” said Orhan, 30, who works at a popular bar in Istanbul’s Cihangir neighborhood on the European side. “I’m afraid for my child to be born.”
The father-to-be, who asked to keep his last name anonymous out of fear, says he’s considering leaving the country with his wife. He’s not alone in his fear. Tourism has drastically dropped in recent months.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State is urging U.S. citizens to “reconsider travel to Turkey at this time,” and has warned of increased terror threats in the country.
“Anything can happen at any time,” Orhan said as he worked behind the bar. “I could’ve died on the way to work today.”
As the Turkish government purges state institutions of tens of thousands of suspected coup supporters ― including over 15,000 education staff, 2,700 judges and prosecutors, and nearly 500 employees of Turkey’s highest religious authority ― some people say it’s turning into a witch hunt.
Nermin, a 58-year-old public school teacher who asked that her last name not be printed, had wondered aloud if she might be next.
She’s one of many Turks ― some vocal, some silent ― who say they are fed up with the current leadership, but still vehemently opposed the military coup attempt and its attack on the bedrock of democracy.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “Erdogan is dividing us all. But that’s not how it’s supposed to be.”
She doesn’t hold back when describing Erdogan as a dictator, a sentiment shared by critics who slam the ever-popular but increasingly controversial leader’s rule as authoritarian.
Erdogan served as prime minister for 11 years before winning the presidential seat in 2014. He has since advocated that Turkey switch to a presidential system, though there is little doubt he is the most powerful leader in Turkey even without a constitutional change.
Nermin says the attempted coup has only compounded her suspicions of Turkey’s politics, calling it a “play.”
“Who is on what side?” she said, her voice lowered to a whisper. “We don’t know.”
Erdogan has insisted that Turkey is not after “revenge,” but merely wants to bring the coup perpetrators to justice.
Turkish police are now calling on citizens to report people who “support terrorism” or who spread “criminal information” online, according to state-run media, and some Turks fear they could be arrested for anything deemed disloyal to the state.
Nermin’s eyes focused on a group of young policemen in uniform striding past.
“I’ll call you when the police show up for me,” she said to this reporter, laughing nervously.
Maria Merve Amasyali contributed reporting from Istanbul.