Caught in the Turkish Coup: Lessons on Travelling in Uncertain Times
By Edina Dizdarevic –
I am Bosnian. I lived through the Bosnian war for about 7 months and recently I found myself at the Istanbul airport during the military coup in the country. It was still scary. I watched people scream in panic and stampede down the airport as I held my 23 months old son, Khal, close. No one knew what to expect or do.
Arriving in Istanbul
We landed from Sarajevo at the Istanbul airport just after midnight, on June 16th. The phones were on fire with incoming messages about the military coup and the closure of the airport. My heart sank as I was watching my sleeping baby, all dreams of giving him a comfortable trip back to Kuala Lumpur, swiftly evaporating into a thin air.
Stepping through the transit already indicated that it was not ‘business as usual’. The airport staff were calm but they were trying to rush people through while, at the same time, being extra thorough, which just contributed to everyone’s mounting panic. The officer did the routine checks, then asked me to take Khal out of the baby carrier to check his little body. Thankfully, he managed a smile for the baby and I was talking soothingly so everything went on fine.
But as soon as I stepped into the transit area and saw the massive announcement board flashing ‘flight cancelled’ inline with every single flight, I figured this wasn’t good. So. I did what anyone who has been through a war would do – headed to a café, bought 4 bottles of milk for my boy, 3 bottles of water and 10 croissants.[quote align=’right’]”So. I did what anyone who has been through a war would do – headed to a café. The basic food and water essentials are a must.”[/quote]The basic food and water essentials that won’t go easily off are a must. Because moments later, when the panic started, people were pushing and shoving to buy the same and when the shopkeepers and the airport staff dwindled over the next 30 minutes, folks were just grabbing the drinks off the café shelves.
With that sorted out, I went into the bathroom to change my son and just as I did, a panic-stricken lady started screaming at the top of her lungs. She was quickly joined by others, so I grabbed Khal and duck into a bathroom stall, locking it behind me. Ten minutes later, everything seemed calm again. We came out and were told by other passengers that an army with guns at the ready came into the airport, which prompted that first bout of panic.
I decided to hang around the bathroom for a moment, just to make sure there were no more incidents, when, barely 10 minutes later, a sizeable stampede of terrified, screaming people poured our way.
I ran back into the bathroom stall, trying to pretend like we were playing a game, to keep my son calm, while all along thinking, okay, this is really, really bad.
This time I strapped the baby into the Ergo baby carrier close to me, put all our essentials like passports, money, food, water milk and diapers into my backpack, leaving his books, toys, clothes and blankets in the pulley bag. I knew that if we had to run, I’d have to leave the pulley bag behind.
“I strapped the baby into the Ergo baby carrier close to me, put all our essentials like passports, money, food, water milk and diapers into my backpack”
Steering Away from Large Crowds
As I came out, I looked for a group of people that looked calmer than the rest and approached six French travellers, who turned out to be also traveling to Kuala Lumpur. We found out about what was going on from their embassy and got some useful tips, like to stay away from the panic-driven stampedes, large crowds and to keep our phones tucked away. This was no time for selfies and Instagram shots.
“I was in some weird state of disbelief – I couldn’t believe that something like that would’ve happened to me again after Bosnia”
We chose one of the emptier waiting lounges, I think it was the one for the gate 207 and sat on the floor between the wall and a row of chairs. Just then, a large group of civilians started gathering around the airport, marching around, swelling in numbers. There were shots fired somewhere, not too far away, and we dug ourselves deeper between the wall and the seats. Next, we heard the civilians march through the airport and finally, it all went quiet for a while.
The lovely French group ‘adopted’ Khal and me for the next 13 hours making sure we were comfortable, looking after our stuff when I went to change him. They kept offering me water, cookies (there was nothing else left to eat) and a chair to sit on because for the six hours during which we heard sporadic shots and explosions, I refused to let my son down or put away the backpack with our essentials.
I’ve been in shellings before and it all happens so suddenly. You often have no time to think before you run, let alone put your backpack on, or chase a toddler around. So for 6 hours, I carried a 12-kg toddler in front and a 7kg backpack on my back, but in all honestly with all that adrenaline rushing through my body, I didn’t even notice the weight.
I was in some weird state of disbelief – I couldn’t believe that something like that would’ve happened to me again after Bosnia; while the other part of me was busy being pragmatic figuring out how long I could feed my baby with what I had. 24 hours or less, I thought, hoping it would all stop by then. [quote align=’right’]”You often have no time to think before you run, let alone put your backpack on, or chase a toddler around. So for 6 hours, I carried a 12-kg toddler in front and a 7kg backpack on my back”[/quote]
The French gathered in a restaurant on the first floor and I went with them. Our families were texting us, saying that the news stations had reported it was all over and the whole situation would stabilize in a couple of hours. Right then and there a loud explosion detonating somewhere close, brought about a new round of fear and panic. We ducked on the floor but then the F-16s started flying pretty low over the airport, and people, already rattled by all that was going on, thought it was an airstrike and piled into the bathrooms to the point of suffocation.
I held my group back – airstrikes are a lot louder, I had been near one. The buildings tremble and windows rattle even if the bombs are dropped on targets kilometres away. Besides, the bathroom already looked like a human trap – full to the brim with people trying to hide inside.
So we stayed back, putting together the heavy wooden cafe tables and ducking underneath to hide from the debris should the airport be bombed. Folks were crying, some were praying, but thanks to some massive grace, my son slept through all that. For four hours. Strapped to me!
The Sun Comes Out
At about 5.30am everything stopped and the night went quiet. The sun was coming out and it looked glorious, rising behind the dozens of grounded, white aircraft sitting on tarmac. Everywhere I looked it seemed as if it had snowed aircraft that night.
[quote align=’left’] “Everywhere I looked it seemed as if it had snowed aircraft that night.”[/quote]
After the harrowing night and some 12 hours of delay, we weren’t convinced the plane was going to take off until the very moment it did. And when it finally did, it was absolutely quiet. Even the kids were silent. A combination of shock and exhaustion was palpable.
Keep Travelling. But be Prepared.
There is no doubt that we live in troubled times but not traveling is not an option. At least for me. Some of us have to travel for work, and honestly the rest of us should not give in to fear. Traveling is still the best way to expand one’s horizons and become a greater, more caring, intelligent and interesting person. But seeing the world we live in, it’s good to have some tips at hand and know the basics just in case you find yourself within the vicinity of a potential danger.
The most essential measures I’d pick, are:
1) Before you leave, get the phone numbers of your embassies in every country you plan to visit.
2) Upload copies of all your documents on the cloud (Dropbox, Google Drive etc.)
3) If you are traveling and you end up in the general area of any form of attack, first make sure you find a safe spot. Next get food and drinks for at least 12 hours or more if you can carry.
4) I know they say it’s not safe to travel with too much cash on you but the times have changed and I’d feel unsafe not having enough to buy a new ticket back home on a completely new airline, should I have to. Or anywhere else out of that situation. And have a little bit more for 2-3 nights hotel stay. If you can afford it do that, because, in extreme situations, the credit card system could go down.
5) Look for a calm group of people and stick together. There is safety and convenience in numbers.
6) Don’t film the proceedings, it could land you in a bunch of problems.
7) If you are traveling with a baby, bring along something to help you wear her. It’s the most practical and easiest way to ensure they are safe by your side while you have 2 free hands to do the rest.
8) Bring a back-pack for the same reason. I used to travel only with a pulley bag all this while, but holy cow, was I happy to have my backpack with me on this trip. You can’t run and pull a suitcase.
9) Carry a mobile battery charger or two with you. Your phone will be your lifeline to the family and sources of information and you might not be able to charge it for a while.
10) Try to stay calm. Remember no-one’s looking specifically for you. So as long as you can find nearest shelter, you will be fine.
And with that taken care of, enjoy the journey and the destination! I know I still will.
About the Author
Edina is a Bosnian working in Kuala Lumpur as the mother of Khal. She pays for his whims by being the founder and chief loudmouth at SWOT Communications consultancy by day while dreaming of the next strange travel destination by night.