Filiz Gazi / Duvar
A month ago, 17-year-old Anıl Polat was killed after being caught in the middle of a skirmish between two undetermined groups as he was leaving the cafe where he worked as a waiter in Istanbul’s Gazi neighborhood. In that same skirmish, 17-year-old Ulaş Bal was injured. He passed away 26 days later.
Such deaths are no recent affair in the Gazi neighborhood. In most cases, those responsible for them are not found. The area’s residents agree on one thing: despite the fact that armored police vehicles can be found every 100 meters, gangs run wild.
The police presence in Gazi has to do with the neighborhood’s large population of Alevis – a minority religious group – and its connection to leftist groups. It is mostly known for a series of riots in 1995 that erupted after a gunman carried out a drive-by shooting on several cafes in the area, killing several people. Residents deemed the police’s response to the attack as insufficient and stage a demonstration. Within a couple days, several thousand people had assembled. Police ruthlessly quelled the riots, 23 people were killed.
Today, Gazi is overwhelmed by youth street gangs. “They collect money, engage in illegal gambling, kidnapping and extortion. They are 15 or 16 years old. Those in their 30s are involved in other activities,” one resident told me about the gangs.
As we were sitting at a café in the neighborhood, a group of 10 youths pass in front of us. “These are the gangs I’m talking about,” said the resident. To me, they appeared to be children.
“Gazi is a political neighborhood. It has a history of resistance. These [gangs] are part of a state policy geared toward breaking down this resistance,” another resident told me. “Here, you can see many things that you will not see anywhere else in Istanbul. In many places you cannot sell alcohol without a license, here you don’t need one. This area became a center for Istanbul’s drug market. If you shout a [political] slogan, you’ll be taken into custody within three minutes though that won’t matter since the guns talk. There are skirmishes two to three times a week where the guns and knives do the talking.”
The state of emergency that followed the 2016 coup attempt stormed through Gazi like a steamroller.
As yet another resident put it: “No revolutionary element remains. Most of militant figures were arrested. Back in the day, while problems prevailed, at least the revolutionaries would deal with them. Now there’s a major void that is being filled by gangs. And despite the police presence, the death of a 17-year old goes unnoticed.”
The neighborhood’s walls serve as frescos to the history of the Turkish left. Gazi was once a neighborhood in which all the country’s leftist organizations were present. But today, it is no longer the case. Strolling through the area, I did hear negative comments of those organizations blamed for their power struggles, ideological skirmishes and tough interventions to establish law and order.
For one resident, the local youth’s behavior is related to television shows, which engage in selective censorship. “Gangs made up of 13 or 16 year-olds are fighting against each other. They shoot guns at each other. And if you tell them off, they point the gun at you. On TV shows, alcoholic drinks are blurred out, flowers cover cigarettes yet guns are all over the place,” he said. The resident added that a certain mafia leader – well known to Turks -has ties to the neighborhood. “There are 16-year-olds who possess cars for. They don’t work, so how do they earn this money?”
The muhtar, or elected head of the neighborhood is Ümit Doğan. He has lived in the area since 1979.
When asked about the youths, Doğan told me “they had formed gangs for the past 5 or 6 years. They preferred to earn easy money. The end result of this is that they either end up in jail or die. I doubt such incidents will cease.”
Bülent Çavuş leads a platform that combats the spread of weapons. His 17-year-old son Ahmet Emre Çavuş was shot in the back of the neck and killed one day in 2015 whilst walking through the Gazi neighborhood.
“We were born here, we got married here, we had two kids here, but in 2015 but my son was killed with a bullet of which the state records do not know the origin, and our efforts failed to determine where it came from. My son struggled for his life for two years and 11 days [before succumbing to his injuries],” Çavuş said.
Thinking of his other son, Çavuş decided to move out of the neighborhood. The people I spoke with told me that many families had left the neighborhood for the same reason.
“The suspect accused in Emre’s death was not tried. At the moment he’s in prison for 24 different convictions. The youth call some people ‘brother’ and they have no idea what kind of harm that ‘brother’ can cause. Those who shoot and those who die come from the same walk of life. We explain this to people but at a certain point you get stuck. The person across from you doesn’t acknowledge anyone. Can you be acknowledge by a person who doesn’t acknowledge their own family?” Çavuş said.
“The police come after the event has taken place. They take the surveillance camera recordings, and the judicial process begins, but the killers are never found. Currently, court records show that my son’s killer was never found. No suspect, nothing,” Çavuş added.
Nevzat Altun, Gazi’s muhtar for twenty years, is now a member of the Sultangazi Municipal Council from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Altun is know as one of the “old school” guys in the neighborhood.
“Gazi was a neighborhood established at great costs. It is a neighborhood formed by the leadership of workers, socialists and revolutionaries from all over Anatolia; it is like a miniature Anatolia here. In the past twenty years many things have changed. The youth have drifted toward earning easy money. Of course there are state institutions that tolerate this. There is definitely state support of things that the morality of society would not accept,” Altun said, adding that the neighborhood has experienced a period of degeneration.
“Do the leftist groups contribute anything to the people of the neighborhood? This is a matter of debate. People are forced to trust the state. How can they trust it under these conditions? The police have no communication with the people. They look who is coming and going from houses but they don’t know who shot the man in the street. There are surveillance cameras everywhere. In the past fifteen years, close to 150 of our youth have been killed,” Altun said.
“Personally, I’ve never seen seen a Alevi-Sunni fight on the street. There has never been an Alevi-Sunni-related skirmish in this neighborhood and there never will be. But the gangs are seeking trouble. And this is what the state wants anyway. In Istanbul there are 960 neighborhoods, and only 5-6 that are similar to Gazi. Is this a coincidence?” Altun said.
Hıdır Karataş, the leader of the Gazi Education and Culture and the Gazi Cemevi – the Alevis’ house of worship – explained how the neighborhood has changed over the years:
“The weakening of societal solidarity began with the 1980 coup. A more apolitical, cyclical lifestyle began to emerge. All of us were implicated in this process. We can’t just blame the youth. Democratic mass organizations, civil society organizations and institutions of faith are all responsible. When we say the ‘state’, it is a mechanism. It is you, me, all of us. We couldn’t provide an alternative. Triggered by economic conditions, the youth rapidly found ways to earn money,” Karataş said.
“As the Gazi Cemevi, we’re not just a place of worship and a facility that conducts funerals. These issues did not arise overnight, and the solutions cannot be found over night. We are conducting home visits based on these problems,” Karataş said.
Urban transformation efforts have obliterated some of Istanbul’s neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were swiftly emptied out and some that had Bosphorus views or were located near the city center and represented lucrative opportunities were declared to be areas of criminal activities.
Neighborhoods like Gazi, referred to by leftists as “liberated areas,” have long functioned as semi-autonomous areas. Now, they appear to dominated by gangs. In fact, this is one of the mechanisms of urban transformation. Once they have become “marginal neighborhoods,” the areas are forcibly integrated into mainstream society.