The Agony of Watching a Coup Live Online
It was like being inside a haunted house. Every time I clicked on a video feed, I was opening another door to unknown terror. Except it was live. We were all living it together. Click. Life. Click. Another life. Click. Another view of the coup. There was no way to know what would happen.
One scene was a man with his scalp partially ripped off his head. From a bomb? I watched him being lifted into the back of a car. I knew I wasn’t there. Not really. But I was. The man taking the footage was holding me in his hands. As he ran from the chaos, he carried me with him. Did we run together? I felt like we did.
More than a week after the attempted coup in Turkey, I am still astonished. Still reeling. I watched the events unfold live on Periscope via Twitter, and it was one of the most amazing and devastating experiences of my life. I wonder now how to recover from it. How to make sense of what I saw.
I am not new to social media as a vehicle for terrible real-time news. I used Twitter extensively following the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Initially, I used it from a distance, as a way to figure out who was dead or alive. Later, I tweeted from Haiti and reported many events as they happened.
I’ve tweeted with celebrities and dictators. Through riots. I’ve reported from some of the most tragic human scenes on Earth. Starving kids and rotting bodies. Nothing prepared me for this.
In the first place, I wasn’t the photographer. With Periscope, I looked through someone else’s lens. And they weren’t photographers, either. I discovered something important: Journalists show us what we ought to see. People with cellphones show us what they’re actually looking at themselves.
Journalists show us what we ought to see. People with cellphones show us what they’re looking at.
Click. I’m in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. It’s nighttime and the streetlights show a crowded square. We are walking toward a tank. We are yelling. Everyone has flags. “God is Great!” we yell. Is he? We are crossing the street to get closer to a tank when shots are fired. “They are shooting,” I hear the man say. “Friends, come!” Everyone needs to run. Run!
Click. A camera bounces. I am walking down another road with a crowd. I can see the man walking in front of us. He’s about 50 years old. His pants, his shirt… they don’t fit very well. He is not a rich man. I see him holding a hammer behind his back. He’s hiding the hammer. But I see it.
Click. I stumble into the hallway of a hospital, and I watch as a bloody body is carried into an operating room on a stretcher. I watch the hurried doctors in the yellow light. More victims come through the door, and the man taking the footage is explaining it all. I can’t hear him. All I hear is the screaming.
I’ve never heard Turkish men cry like this. Proud men in agony. But as I listen and watch, being held in the hand of a stranger, I’m not embarrassed. I’m not scared. I feel dead. I don’t have to scream because they are screaming for me.
Click. I am walking with a man at the airport in Istanbul. We’re outside Arrivals. The people around us begin to climb on top of a tank parked in the road. The soldier is so young. He can’t be older than 20.
The crowd hops up, and men crawl towards him on the tank. He looks scared. And amused? He looks like he isn’t planning to shoot anyone. He laughs. But there is something else in his face, a hesitance, a raw fear. He might shoot. He hasn’t decided what to do.
The man with the camera walks into the airport. Inside, we watch a 14-year-old girl get into a fight with her mom in the middle of a crowd. She’s melting down. We don’t understand. Is she angry? Is she crazy? Does she know there is a coup attempt underway? Or is she mad at her parents about a party, a slight? Something personal?
She tears at her hair, begging in her mother’s face. I understand now. She is angry at her parents’ incompetence. She is suddenly, and for the first time, realizing they can’t protect her. They can’t get her out. There are limits to their powers and she is furious, hurt.
We walk through hallways and doors, and there is sky again. Then an airplane? We are on the runway of the airport.
I shuffle back into the streets. Click, Ankara. Click, Istanbul. Click, tanks. Click, flags. Click, chanting. Click, gunshots. Click, the mosques begin the call to prayer. But what time is it? Click, fistfights. Click, traffic jams. Click. A guy on a motorcycle holds me on the handlebars. We are watching the summer night speed past us. I feel safe again. Let’s go. Let’s get out of here.
Click. In Ankara, I open a door into a darkened room. I feel as if I’ve just woken up with this young man in his apartment. He is sleepy, he stumbles to the balcony. I guess he lives alone. In the darkness, we watch a firefight in midair. Is an F-16 shooting at a helicopter? Is the helicopter shooting at the ground?
From his bedroom, the gunfire looks like comets. Like cascading fireworks in the dark. I wonder if he is still in his pajamas. If there is leftover dinner sitting on his coffee table. What kind of life is this? Looking out the window in the night at a city under siege?
I don’t speak Turkish perfectly but I speak enough. I sat all night, until the dawn rose in Istanbul, watching Turkey fall to pieces. I searched for words I knew: sokakta, halklar, tanklar, ateş, bomba, hastane. In the streets, people, tanks, gunfire, bomb, hospital. I realize now, I don’t know a lot of words about war in Turkish. I will study them. I’ll make a list.
I need to learn: traitor, purge, torture, death penalty. Next time, I will be ready. That is my worst grief. Knowing next time, I won’t be surprised at all.