On 16 June last year, the day after the 3-week-old and peaceful occupation of Gezi Park was forcibly ended in a hail of teargas, 14-year-old Berkin Elvan stepped out in his nearby neighbourhood to buy a loaf of bread and never came home. Instead, after being shot in the head with a teargas canister, he spent the next 9 months in a coma, turned 15 in January, and died Tuesday, 11 March. The tragic news of the belated victim of the 2013 protests — internationally condemned for excessive use of teargas by the police — brought on nationwide mourning and further protests. Over two days and across 53 provinces, some two million people marched in anger and grief. Likewise, similar outpourings took place place across the world in demonstrations from London to Washington. On 12 March, the funeral procession looked like this as it passed through Şişli in İstanbul:
On the day before, when Berkin passed away, the elected 60-year-old Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, stayed silent. True to form, it was no different from his reaction to the other well-documented Gezi fatalities. A stark contrast, by the way, to the glossy tears he shed live on TV for Esma, an Egyptian teenage girl killed during Morsi’s military-backed ouster. He said nothing the day Berkin Elvan died, but he passed comment the next day, the day of the funeral. It went like this:
They did the same things last May and June [during the Gezi events], the market then picked itself up. There is no question of [investors] running from Turkey. Unfavorable things happened this morning, but then the stock exchange started to increase in the afternoon and rates got back on the track.
Come the evening after Berkin was buried, the expected and brutal police clampdown against demonstrators brought a further two deaths. One was a police officer who died from a heart attack, reportedly in reaction to teargas use in the eastern province of Tunceli. The other was 22-year-old Burakcan Karamanoğlu, shot dead in a controversial stand-off with local youths in Berkin Elvan’s neighbourhood of Okmeydanı, Istanbul.
It was only on Friday, 14 March, two days after the funeral, that Erdoğan finally spoke about Berkin Elvan — at an election rally in the southeastern city of Gaziantep. Based on a widely circulated photo showing the boy wearing a red scarf across his face and carrying a slingshot — supposedly linking him to an outlawed leftist group, prominent in Okmeydanı – Erdoğan wasted no time out on the campaign trail.
As Tulin Daloğlu wrote in Al-Monitor on 16 March, “Erdoğan defined Elvan as a terrorist and praised Burakcan Karamanoğlu, 22, who died on the night of Elvan’s funeral, as a martyr.” Apparently justifying Berkin’s death, the elected premier said:
“This kid with steel marbles in his pockets, with a slingshot in his hand, his face covered with a scarf, and who had been drawn in by terror organizations, was unfortunately subjected to pepper spray,” Erdogan told the crowd. “How could the police determine how old the person was whose face was covered with a scarf, and who was hurling steel marbles with the slingshot in his hand?” he questioned.
Despicable as it was, exploiting the death of a teenage boy barely in his grave, the AKP PM, now over a decade in power, took electioneering to an unthinkable low. Referring to Berkin’s mother, he pointed to her grief-stricken complaint that over the past nine months the police who killed her son had never been found. Or rather, as Gülsüm Elvan put it the day Berkin died, “It’s not God who took my son away, but Prime Minister Erdoğan.” The massive, worked-up crowd at the Gaziantep rally retorted in kind to Erdoğan’s sucker punch: they booed Berkin’s mother.
Erdoğan is not just beyond the pale. Like a rat cornered, he is desperately scraping for a way out. The past four months have seen the ruling AKP rocked by an endless series of leaked wiretapped phone calls revealing wholesale corruption throughout the echelons of government, right up to Erdoğan himself. With the initial corruption investigation effectively blocked by removing thousands of police from their posts (hailed as “heroes” after the Gezi protests by Erdoğan), as well as scores of prosecutors, and amending laws to keep the probe under wraps, his only route is to pander to his own electoral gallery with the most offensive of methods. But such context is only armchair analysis. Pretty useless when people have died. And, it has to be said, will continue to do so with such divisive rhetoric fomenting chaos.
It beggars belief that any democratically elected leader, let alone a supposedly religious man, could be capable of such gross manipulation. Even if it were the case that Berkin Elvan donned a scarf that day en route to buy bread, and fired his catapult at teargas-wielding police, his death would still be murder. Worse still, Berkin was only a child. And again, if — hypothetical scenario — he was “drawn in by terror organisations” as Erdoğan put it (the “evidence” for which is only the red scarf he wore, and the neighbourhood where he lived), everyone was young once, full of idealism and subject to influence. Simple logic which escapes a crass prime minister.
Erdoğan should remember his own younger, wilder days. Like in 1993, when he sat at the foot of an Islamist Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, responsible for some two thousand deaths the previous year. The then 39 year old is seated to the right :
Of course, this all just guilt by association. After all, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. As severe as it is, Erdoğan’s idiocy isn’t just limited to exploitation of a child’s death for electoral gain. That a prime minister can try to bullshit his own citizens and yet be so readily exposed is the ultimate in stupidity. Even though there have been eyewitness reports of Berkin’s final conscious moments since he was shot in June 2013, now with his actual death comes the supreme irony. Like any death, it requires an official judicial investigation. And two corroborative accounts of the moment Berkin was hit in the head with a teargas canister go into such painful detail, there is no moral ground left at all for Erdoğan. Not that there ever was.
Monday, 17 March, saw the publication in two news outlets, Bianet and Evrensel, of two witness statements as given to prosecutor Faruk Bildirici. The two similar reports were written by the same journalist, Ayça Söylemez, and leave little uncovered. Except, that is, the identity of the police officers who killed Berkin.
Both witnesses were at the scene when Berkin Elvan was hit in the head, and both accompanied him to hospital. The first witness, 17-year-old Ö.K. (only revealed by his initials because of his age), described himself as Berkin Elvan’s friend. On the morning of 16 June, he was in Mahmut Şevket Paşa Street where it all happened. His statement is as follows (and note, it is far from an easy read):
Because police were shooting teargas, people were running away in the streets. I was in the street opposite the street where Berkin was shot. Berkin was in the next street from his home, and I could see him from the corner. He was with three to five people. When Berkin turned the corner, teargas guns started shooting, and Berkin raised his hand to the police, shouting “I’m going to buy bread! Enough is enough, don’t shoot!” The moment Berkin put his head around the corner, they started shooting. When Berkin heard the sound of the teargas gun, he was startled. When he wanted to go [past the corner] he was hit in the head by the teargas canister. He started to scream [and] the teargas canister was in his head.
He hit the teargas canister with his hand and got it out of his head [and at this point] he was conscious. We asked him questions, tried to make him talk. We put cotton etc. on his head, his eyes were closed, he passed out. We picked him up, got into a shop owner’s white vehicle and went to the hospital. When we picked him up, he started vomiting. Because the police were still attacking, we couldn’t use the main road. We went through the backstreets to Okmeydanı Hospital. Here, the doctors took over and called his family. Berkin passed out 20 minutes after he was shot.
The implication here is that had the police not been continuing with their attack, the journey to the hospital could have been quicker and Berkin could have received medical attention before he became unconscious. Ö.K.’s testimony continues:
The police officer who shot him was wearing a gas mask, but he didn’t have a helmet on. They had 20 metres between them, he shot from 20 metres away. The police officer who shot Berkin was standing in front of [the] KIM supermarket.
In Turkey, police helmets have identity numbers on — it’s a common perception among hardened protesters that Turkish police who remove their helmets are there to do maximum damage, and (obviously) don’t want their identity revealed.
The second witness, Sunay Yildiz works as a waiter in Fatma Girik Park, and that morning he was trying to get to work through the backstreets:
I’ve known Berkin from beforehand; he used to come to the park, where I worked, to play. Because the buses weren’t running that morning [due to the lockdown on nearby Taksim Square and Gezi Park], I took a taxi and got out at the beginning of the street. I was walking to Fatma Girik Park through the backstreets. The moment I got to the street where Berkin lived, I saw him, and I asked him where he was going. He told me that he was going to buy bread, and when I told him the corner shop was closed, he said, “I’ll go to the baker’s.” I walked with him, [and] we went into the next street.
We walked for about five minutes, and the police started shooting teargas. Berkin put his head out a little [probably past the corner the other witness mentions] and right at that moment a shiny silver object struck the back of his head, right above his neck. He got the teargas canister out by hitting it with his hand. When he was shot, he screamed “Mum!” and started running towards his home. I ran after him and caught him, blood was pouring out of his head. He lost consciousness 20 minutes after he was shot.
A white minibus stopped for us when he saw us, I put Berkin on the minibus with [other witness] Ö.K. and took him to Okmeydanı Hospital. It was around 8:30 in the morning. The doctor said they might need blood, so don’t leave. We waited until his family arrived.
There was 20 metres distance between where we were and where the riot police were. Because the police had gas masks and helmets on, I am unable to tell you how they looked. Berkin was targeted [on purpose].
The Radikal newspaper also published the same testimony, with an additional detail from witness Ö.K. that a “blonde, well-built person” was also present at the scene. Apparently he had a gas mask on top of his head, as opposed to on his face, and was “pointing at citizens and shouting ‘Shoot!’”
And in a follow up report in Bianet on 18 March, also by Ayça Söylemez, the spot where Berkin was hit and where the police stood has now been published:
Without a doubt, Berkin Elvan was murdered. His killer is still out there. Maybe you’ve seen him: