ISTANBUL, Turkey — At 7:40 a.m. on March 11, a Twitter feed notified followers that 15-year-old Berkin Elvan had died. He had spent 269 days in a coma, unconcious since police fired a tear gas canister that struck his head outside a bakery in Okmeydanı, the Istanbul neighborhood where Elvan lived. In the four days since his death, country-wide demonstrations have rocked an already tense Turkey, where critics and opponents say the government has lost legitimacy.
Since December, the country has been riveted by both a police investigation into alleged government corruption and the government’s response. Hundreds of police officers and prosecutors have been fired or reassigned. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blames the probe on US-based religious leader Fethullah Gülen and his supporters in the security services and judiciary. Audio files claiming to be wire-tapped phone conversations between Erdoğan, his associates, and family members are routinely posted anonymously on Youtube and allege massive, systemic graft. Local municipal elections, which Erdoğan has cast as a referendum on his government’s legitimacy, are scheduled for March 30.
Berkin Elvan became known to the wider Turkish public after being hit outside the local bakery where his family says he had gone to buy bread. It was during the height of the Gezi Park protests that gripped Turkey last summer — protests that started out over a development plan for the park, erupted as a response to the harsh police intervention, and grew to encompass complaints about restricted rights to freedom of expression, privacy, and more. A Taksim Square press conference called regarding Berkin’s health status in July 2013 resulted in a police intervention with tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets. The day before Berkin died, there was yet another confrontation, this time at the hospital where he was being treated. In a statement issued after the clash, the Istanbul police denied reports that they had used tear gas, but stated that they had intervened "within the law" to clear the hospital entrance area of a group keeping vigil, arresting 10 individuals "with plastic sticks in their hands, that had set up tents, set dumpsters on fire, shouted slogans, and disturbed patients."
Since June, Berkin Elvan had been through surgeries, infections, and heart failures; the massive brain damage sustained in the initial trauma meant he needed a life-support system to stay alive. A statement from family lawyer Evrim Deniz Karatana, made two days before Elvan died, noted that the once 100-pound teenager weighed just 35 pounds.
News of his death sparked country-wide demonstrations. On March 12, tens of thousands of people converged on Okmeydanı to join the largest funeral march the city has seen in years. Minutes after Berkin Elvan was buried, mourners and demonstrators attempting to continue along a main avenue to Istanbul’s central Taksim Square were blocked by riot police, water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. In the disturbances that followed, Burak Can Karamanoğlu, 22, was confirmed dead from a gunshot wound suffered near Okmeydanı, and police officer Ahmet Küçüktağ, 30, died of a heart attack reportedly after exposure to tear gas during related demonstrations in eastern Turkey.
From the hospital to the streets
On Tuesday, outside the Okmeydanı Teaching and Resesarch Hospital, where Elvan had been cared for and where he died, a small crowd huddled out of the rain, under the entrance overhang, watched by a few news crews with TV cameras and gas masks clipped to their belts. Only hours ago, Berkin’s body had been taken to another facility for an autopsy. To the sliding glass doors someone had taped four copies of a stylized portrait of smiling Berkin Elvan with a red backdrop and a yellow, five-pointed star. Red carnations had been tucked in behind two of the portraits. Written along the bottom of one portrait in black, felt-tip marker: The killer state will be held to account. Exiting the hospital, an elderly woman noticed the portraits and gently touched Berkin Elvan’s image, pointing the pictures out to a small boy holding her other hand.
“Berkin was such a joker!” Başak told me under the entrance overhang. Başak and her friend Deniz had known Berkin since they all attended primary school together. “He was so good,” Başak said.
A few minutes after I left the hospital to walk to Berkin’s neighborhood, a police bus arrived. A clash ensued and police tear-gassed the hospital entrance.
Just over a mile from the hospital, mourners gathered in Okmeydanı’s cemevi, an Alevi house of worship, filling several floors. Upstairs, in a large, fluorescent-lit room decorated only with a picture of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and reminders not to litter, a hundred people, mostly women, pulled their chairs in towards a core group of about twenty women standing in a tight circle around Gülsüm Elvan, Berkin’s mother.
“Berkinim. Berkinim. Yavrum!” she sobbed and cried. My Berkin. My cub. “Kuzucum!” My lamb.
“My son wasn’t taken from me by God,” she had said earlier. “He was taken from me by Tayyip Erdoğan.”
Up the steep main street of Okmeydanı, already darkened with drizzling rain, most shops and storefronts—the barbers, grocers, stationaries—were closed-up, lights-out, iron grills locked, and metal shutters down. Red flags of the revolutionary left stood fluttering where they had been planted in the road’s median.
“We are shutting down Okmeydanı!” a young man named Okan bellowed to people looking down from their windows at noon on the day Berkin died. Okan was posting notices that the neighborhood’s businesses would be closed for two days. Barricades were already in various stages of assembly. One nascent barrier consisted only of plastic vegetable crates strewn across the side street I had followed from the hospital. An hour later, all that had been added were vegetables.
Okmeydanı is well-known in Turkey for its socialist and revolutionary leftist residents. But Sabri Comart, the local elected muhtar (headman) of the neighborhood told me that though the revolutionary left had a strong and visible presence in the neighborhood, the people were very mixed. “People here come from everywhere in Anatolia. They have all sorts of different views,” he said.
A woman looking to buy bread pulled at a locked door, surprised she was too late. This was the Ipekci Bakery where Berkin Elvan's family says he had come to buy bread when he was hit by the tear gas canister. Mustafa, the proprietor, was working with his staff to close down operations for the funeral.
News of the tear gas used at the hospital earlier that morning had gotten confused along the grapevine: As Okan posted another notice, he told me he had heard police had gassed the crowd waiting where the actual autopsy was being performed. “You remember in the old wars, when both sides would call a ceasefire so they could collect their dead and wounded from the field? That doesn’t happen here,” Okan said.
A group of boys came bounding down the hill selling pillow-case sized pieces of red fabric to hide protesters’ faces and help with the expected tear gas. “You can tie it around your neck and use it as a mask,” they told me. I said I was a journalist. “Abi (older brother) please don’t photograph us,” they said, and left to look for other customers.
By mid-afternoon more than 1,000 people had gathered outside the cemevi, chanting political slogans and waiting for Berkin Elvan’s body to arrive. At the top of the hill, where Okmeydanı opens up to a park and ramps leading to thoroughfares, a substantial main barricade was in place, manned by a hundred people warming themselves beside a big bonfire burning in the middle of the street. Okmeydanı had been shut down.
People gather following the announcement of Berkin Elvan's death. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
Outside the gates of the Forensic Medicine Institute, about 10 miles west of Okmeydanı, a few more hundred people waited for Berkin Elvan’s autopsy to finish. Near the street a simple cardboard sign, weighed down against the wind with water bottles and a camera lens, said “I was hit while getting bread, Berkin”. On the ground in front lay a loaf of bread.
The crowd shouted, “Killer Erdoğan!” and other slogans denouncing fascism and the state. The demonstrators pressed forward when a typical open-platform hearse appeared from behind the building and approached the gate.
“It’s not him!” people quickly called out. Hearse and coffin, draped in green, passed the gates with quiet, respectful applause from the crowd.
Soon another hearse drove towards the gate, its coffin draped in unmistakable red. The crowd surged. Fists, phones, cameras, and “V”s for Victory filled the air overhead. “Berkin Elvan is our honor! Berkin Elvan is immortal!” the crowd chanted. Once past the gate, Sami Elvan, Berkin’s father, left the hearse and stood in front of it, offering a few quiet words of thanks.
The family’s lawyer, Ms. Karatana, gave a statement to the crowd and the TV cameras that echoed what Berkin’s mother had said earlier: Berkin had been “taken out of our hands” by the police, the governor of Istanbul, the interior minister, and by the prime minister.
Six friends rode in the back with Berkin’s red draped coffin. With “V”s for Victory thrust to the air, three of them perched ridiculously precariously on the tailgate as the hearse pulled out towards the highway for the trip back to Okmeydanı.
The coffin of Berkin Elvan is carried while his family appears crying at a window of the cemevi.(Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
“Berkin Elvan!” “HE LIVES!”
Police kept their distance from Okmeydanı that night. Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu would later tweet that "security forces" had "been instructed to carry out their duty carefully during Berkin's funeral." But demonstrations had already begun elsewhere in Istanbul and across Turkey.
That night in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district, on the Asian side of the city, protestors slammed and beat shuttered storefronts like taiko drums.
Up the hill from the ferry terminal, silhouetted in the orange haze, riot police, water cannon trucks, and armored jeeps were intermittently blocked from view by black bonfire smoke or fully lit-up by protestor-thrown fireworks.
When the tear gas inevitably came, many in the crowd joined in singing a protest anthem, popular among soccer fans and heard often during the Gezi Park protests: “Go ahead, fire your tear gas. But put down your batons and take off your helmets and let’s see who’s tougher!”
A government election campaign banner was thrown on a bonfire. Applause for the idea started a trend. Graffiti artists were busy at work. In red pen on a wall outside a bookshop one message read: “Gone to where there are no police. Sleep well Berkin.” Another: “Children are quiet when they sleep, not when they are dead.”
For Özcan, a university student, his anger had changed. “For the last two weeks I’ve been getting angrier every day,” he said, referring to the regular publication of alleged evidence of the prime minister’s corruption posted on Youtube. “Then this death came,” Özcan said, making a Turkish gesture of tugging off his lapel, meaning I’ve had it.
Further uphill, pubs were darkened; some posted signs saying, “We have a funeral. We’re closed tonight.” Unlike Özcan, Leyla, a medical student, wasn’t sure it was any different. “It’s one death and then another death, and then another death. It just continues.” She had left her studies to join the protest after she “cried for an hour” upon learning of Berkin’s death.
Just outside Kadıköy’s Ayia Triada Greek Orthodox Church, between gusts of tear gas, a protester stood on a sidewalk bench, recently dragged into the street, bellowing, one by one, the names of individuals killed in last summer's protests. After each—names such as Ahmet Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük, and Ali İsmail Korkmaz—the crowd bellowed back: “He lives!”
“Berkin Elvan!” “HE LIVES!”
By midnight the crowds left. Stragglers wandered about in the wisps of gas and bonfire smoke. Police relaxed, masks and helmets off. Social media kept track of the injured and arrested.
A funeral march a mile long
Berkin Elvan’s funeral was set for noon, March 12. By 10 a.m., crowds filled Okmeydanı and more kept flooding in. People wearing red pinafores of Halk Cephesi, a revolutionary leftist group, controlled traffic. Barricades in the back streets had become substantial. On the crowded steps of the cemevi someone held up a sign that said: “Thief. Murderer. Faith-peddler. 3-in-1.” A clear reference to the Turkish Prime Minister.
When the funeral march from the cemevi to the cemetery started around 1 p.m., the crowd likely totaled 100,000 people, calculating by the size of the area filled. Hürriyet Daily News would later report that “two million marched” that day, in total across Turkey. In Istanbul, they filled both a major avenue and a parallel highway, and stretched for a mile.
Drivers on the opposing carriageway honked and slowed in support. As the march passed a high school, students hung out the windows, shouting slogans. Some boys even began to gleefully defenestrate their desks.
When a police bus was found parked along the route, the men in red pinafores who had been controlling traffic and the barricades at Okmeydanı prevented a clash by pushing and shouting down some marchers who had been begun lobbing rocks and water bottles and calling the cops on.
By half past five in the evening, as the funeral ended, Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu tweeted: “Berkin Elvan has been buried. I thank the police and everyone that has taken care, until now, to hold such a largely attended ceremony.” Shortly after, police began using water cannons and tear gas to prevent marchers from continuing on to Taksim Square and Gezi Park.
The death of Burak Can Karamanoğlu
Twenty-four hours later Burak Can Karamanoğlu and Ahmet Küçüktağ had also been buried. Injuries were also reported, as were arrests. And two politicians of Erdoğan Justice and Development Party (AKP) had taken to Twitter, further exacerbating the tensions.
Turkish riot policemen walk behind a barricade as they clash with protesters after the funeral of Berkin Elvan in Istanbul.(Gurcan Ozturk/AFP/Getty Images)
Egemen Bağış, the former Turkish Minister of European Union Affairs (and who was once in charge of managing Turkey’s negotiations to join the EU), and who has since lost his cabinet position due to the corruption investigation, posted a message from his Twitter account during the funeral using the word “necrophiliacs.” He later deleted the post. Şamil Tayyar, an AKP member of parliament, tweeted a message implying that Berkin Elvan was taken off life-support so that his death would help the opposition in the upcoming elections.
Rumors and rhetoric swirled on social media, among them that dead protester Burak Can Karamanoğlu had been killed by the “Gezi Park protestors” that had attended Berkin’s funeral march. Later, one of the revolutionary groups active in Okmeydanı issued a statement saying that Karamanoğlu had been among a group of "civilian fascists" trying to enter Okmeydanı and provoke violence — something Karamanoğlu's father denies — and had been killed when the local group "defended" the neighborhood. That night the governing party’s local campaign building was burnt down. Okmeydanı remains tense.
Friday in Gaziantep in southern Turkey, Prime Minister Erdoğan told a crowd of supporters that Berkin Elvan was involved with terrorists: “How will police distinguish the age of an attacker that’s masked, with iron bearings and a slingshot in his hand?...But this Kılıçdaroğlu [leader of the main opposition party], is telling lies like always, saying he was a child going for bread. Be honest, be honest.”
Hurriyet reported the same day that the fathers of Berkin Elvan and Burak Can Karamanoğlu had spoken to one another by phone, and "agreed that their pain should not be used as a political tool."
With two weeks till the municipal elections, many fear there is more unrest ahead.
Editor's note: All crowd calculations in this piece except where otherwise stated have been made by comparing first-hand observation of space filled to available maps and using a "packed crowd" estimate of one person every two square feet.