A bomb in Sultanahmet Square on January 14 killed at least ten tourists and injured many more. (Photo: AP/Emrah Gurel)
I had been late waking up the morning of January 14 and was in a rush to get myself to the fabled Blue Mosque before it got too crowded.
I chatted with the friendly receptionist at Cheers Hostel in the popular Sultanahmet area, just a stone’s throw from many of Istanbul’s most impressive mosques and historical sites. Olga told me that the mosque was just up the street.
I finished my coffee and made for the door.
The air pressure changed and the hair on my arms rose. I heard a sound like no other, deep and hollow. It echoed across the city like a thunderclap.
Something was wrong.
I turned and looked at Olga.
“It is just a dumpster truck, it is okay.”
I knew she was wrong.
That was a bomb.
In the distance, the first siren began, quickly followed by others.
Wanting to help, to know what was happening, I ran towards the sound.
It took me under a minute to get to Sultanahmet Square.
Ambulances and police cars raced past me; I could hear screaming and my worst fears were confirmed.
If I had woken up earlier, skipped my coffee, not indulged in small talk with Olga, I would have been in the center of the square — right where the bomb went off.
Throngs of medical personnel raced to the scene, attempting to calm the wounded and save the dying.
The next ten minutes passed by in a whirlwind of activity. Two hundred emergency response vehicles passed by me. Police shouted at the throngs to keep back.
Concerned that I was simply getting in the way and aware that a second attack was likely, I turned to leave.
The streets began to empty and the police shut everything down, gripping machine guns in one hand and waving at us with the other, their eyes scanning every window, every alley.
I wandered back towards my hostel, in a state of disbelief.
An ancient Turkish chap in a battered cap sidled up to me.
“Good morning, where are you from?”
“England,” I responded.
“Today is a beautiful day, would you like to look at my carpet store?”
I turned to him, flabbergasted at his timing.
“You think now is a good time to sell carpets?” I asked, gently.
“Brother, life does not stop, we must all carry on, later, when we know more, then we pray.”
I slipped past him, disappearing into the fray of Turks and tourists keen to get as far away from the blast as possible.
Incoming reports on the explosion began coming in. The reports were conflicted but one thing was clear — this was a suicide bombing aimed at killing tourists.
I could have left. But I decided to stay.
I was supposed to leave Turkey today, to make my way East, onwards to Iran and then Pakistan.
Instead, for a few days at least, I have opted to stay, to hang with my Turkish friends, to play darts, smoke shisha, explore the crowded alleys of the Grand Bazaar and to soak in the fascinating vibes of this ancient city.
In the wake of the bombing, I received numerous messages from friends and family.
One friend, who is due to come to Turkey, asked me for an honest assessment of the situation — surely I wanted to get out?
My response? Now is not the time for panic or half-baked decisions. Now is the time to say no to conflict, no to hatred, no to fear. Now is the time to stand up, be counted, to support the Turks in their time of need and to ensure that the world continues to assist Syrian refugees determined to escape ISIL; this is, at the end of the day, the right thing to do.
The streets of Istanbul are far from recovered. There is a quiet somberness hanging over the city and yet, the people remain friendly, delighted to see the few tourists who are still here.
Armed police patrol the streets, smiling at everybody, guardian angels in black body armor, providing a sense of security.
Shrines of flowers and card, messages of support, photos of loved ones, fill the square.
The Muslim call to prayer, defiant in the face of terror, washes across the city five times a day.
The people are angry, they are hurt and yet, everybody I have spoken to — Turks, Syrians, expats and tourists — we are all of one mind.
We will not be intimidated by mindless violence.
In the words of my friend, Salim, “Sultanahmet has stood for two thousand years, it shall stand for another two thousand, The Turkish people will not be afraid.”