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March 30, 2001
The Coup


September 12, 1980. We left the hotel at dawn -- my mother, father, and my 13-year-old self. That is, we tried to leave, but paused in mid-step as were coming down the steps upon seeing an inordinate number of soldiers about.

They were boys, conscripts, cheeks barely fuzzy, and red in the cold morning air. One of them approached. "Sir, you'll need to step back inside the hotel," he said to my father.

"Why? What's happening?"

"What's happened is a coup has happened," the kid said. "As of 4 this morning the army's been in charge. There's a curfew, no one's going to be allowed outdoors."

"Until when?" asked my father, trying to stop himself from being alarmed. It was the last day of our vacation and if we drove all day we'd make it home to Istanbul by nightfall. That had been the plan.

The soldier shrugged. "I really don't know." He couldn't be expected to know, since he was only... "I'm only following orders," he said. "You can't be outside."

"But I'm already outside," my father said.

"Which is why I'm asking you to go back in."

"No, you don't understand, yavrum, we have to go back to our home. Aren't you telling everyone to stay inside their homes today?"

"Well, yes, amca, but..." Now he was just a boy talking to a grownup; the dynamic had shifted.

"Well then, I'm going home. Nothing wrong with that."

The soldier looked around, his standard issue rifle pointing to the ground, but all around there were only people like him, dropped off in neighborhoods with no clear orders. "I just don't know," he mumbled.

"If we were traveling on the road, wouldn't soldiers tell us to hurry on home?"

"Yes," he perked up, happy to finally have an unequivocal answer.

"Well then we're hurrying on home." My father paused, then added, "I'll be sure to clear it with a commander before we leave town."

"Please do that," the soldier said, sounding a little relieved. "There's a command center set up a kilometer that way; turn right where you see the bank."

We got in the car.

"Are you sure this is smart?" my mother asked.

"Let's get out of here," my father said.

We started off, watching the soldiers in the mirror. When they could see us no more, we proceeded to try to get out of town by taking side streets to the outskirts, looking for an exit to the highway. Surely we'd be better off once we were traveling at high speeds with all the rest of the interstate travelers.

The checkpoints were not all in place yet. It must be quite a demanding task to mobilize a drafted army to take control of every block, every street, every neighborhood, every town. At times we would clear an intersection and miss a military truck barely; looking back we'd see it stop for a few seconds to disgorge a couple of skinny green shadows before rumbling on to the next strategic location. It was like slowly squeezing out of a can of grease while the opening was being patched. I was thrilled, feeling like I was in a getaway movie -- little suspecting that the real one was a few hours ahead. Lights were coming on inside apartments, behind tightly drawn curtains, as neighbors alerted each other and fiddled with their radios and TVs to catch a rebroadcast of the 4 am announcement.

The town suddenly fell away and it was clear sailing. We drove for a few minutes and then hit the main road at a deserted junction (the "interstate" was a one-lane-each-way, rat-gray tar strip crumbling around the edges). In the distance blackish green trucks were still scrambling to cover all exits around this not-terribly strategic medium-sized town. The early morning sun had turned their tiny windows into darting orange eyes. And farther out, the lake was coming alive with whitecaps -- little lambs jumping up and down, as fishermen liked to say. It was time to go.

There was, naturally, not a single civilian vehicle to be seen.

"Well, it looks like we have the entire road to ourselves today," my father said, trying to cheer us up. "Can I have a sandwich now? Let's eat."

And so our beat-up Renault 12 sped on, sucking on its quarter tank of gas.

Part II



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