-This is a short story of how the care of strangers rescued me from a political crisis. Being at the wrong place in the wrong time, I got stuck in Ataturk Airport during their attempted coup this summer, 2016. Unfortunately, I was not able to remember the names of the people that rescued me in the airport but I am forever grateful for their care and gratitude. Also, thank you Tony for being brave enough to come to my aid.- Jalita Moore
When I found out I would be spending ten weeks in Skopje, Macedonia interning for the U.S. embassy, I immediately began planning my weekend vacations. I wasn’t going to let a summer in Europe slip past me without seeing as much of it as I could.
A few months prior to my departure, I booked roundtrip tickets to Venice, Barcelona, and a roundtrip ticket to Istanbul. “Wait – Istanbul? Isn’t it a political hot bed right now?” I thought. But I reminded myself that it’s also notorious for being a beautiful city filled with rich history and culture. I got to see a little bit of the city during a 14 hour layover and promised myself I would return. On a ledge, I looked to my colleague at a travel company I was interning for at the time for her seal of approval. “Jalita, a terrorist attack can happen right here in NYC at any moment, just book it.” It was booked. Skopje to Istanbul, July 15th- July 17th, 1.5 hour flight.
A few months later, I was still set to go. Then a suicide bombing happened in Ataturk airport. My ticket was non-refundable, and I wrestled with various friends and roommates some more. My thirst for travel and adventure wouldn’t let me throw away a plane ticket, so I decided to go at the last minute.
The plane ride was speedy and turbulent making sharp dips. I didn’t feel like I was on a plane, but on a light jet racing through the night sky. It seemed like it was an omen for what was to come.
At around midnight, the plane landed and I boarded a shuttle to the terminal. “Be careful, there are some guys fighting outside.” a Portuguese man on the shuttle informed me. I thought, fights happen all the time near my apartment in Harlem. What kind of fight? He said “Some men have guns.” His demeanor was so calm and humorous and his English was so simple that I couldn’t feel alarmed. No one else seemed worried either. I thought it was typical craziness that happens in major cities, not an attempted coup.
I get to the thick line for customs and border control. Something felt so wrong. There was a buzz in the air and a sense of anxiety. A British man in front of me demanded to his business partner over the phone “I want the next flight out of here by tomorrow morning. I don’t want to be here.” He hangs up the phone. Then I get a Facebook message from my roommate “attempted coup is happening Jalita. Give me your email, they are going to cut off all social media.” I then realized that the possibility of my death was on the other side of the customs gate. But I remained calm but alert, knowing my ride was waiting for me on the other side and everything was going to be fine. Everything was going to be fine. That kinda stuff doesn’t happen to me. Right?
I made it through.
“Great, now where the f*ck is my ride so I can get out of here”, I thought.
I called Tony, an employee of the hostel I was staying at, and he answered.
“Jalita, my friend, do you know what’s happening right now?”
“Yeah, but I thought you would be here.”
“All of the main roads are blocked off, the bridge is blocked off too. I’m stuck, I can’t get to you. Just hang tight, when everything clears I’ll get you.”
My roommate in Skopje reminded me to stay away from the exit, but I didn’t know where else to go. I thought it would be a good idea to look for a plug to charge my phone. Everything seemed fine, kinda. I mean, except for that one family huddled in a corner around a big bottle of water.
“I’m fine, I just need to charge my phone”, I thought as I continued not to panic.
Then it happened. The sound of two explosions set off a stampede. What we all were hoping wouldn’t happen was happening. I remember how bright the halls were and the dark contrast of all the bodies running in one direction, but with no direction. I remember dropping my duffle bag and my purse because my instinct told me one extra pound of weight would slow me down and keep me closer to whatever other bomb or explosion could detonate. I remember running over bodies, watching elderly bodies flop to the floor, parents trying to hold onto their babies, and people running with tears in their eyes. I saw it, but I didn’t get caught up in the scene. I was sure death was right behind me so I kept running forward in full speed. When I approached a wall, I ran to the left through the small hallways. I looked for bathrooms and exits but all doors and paths were locked. As I was running, I saw families huddled in crooks, some screamed in shock when I came across them as I looked for my own hiding place. I saw flight attendants and I followed them upstairs to an annex-like area.
I was panicking. I called my dad just to yell at him and tell him a bomb when off in the airport then hung up the phone. Wasn’t the best idea. The flight attendants isolated the safest zone in the room for themselves, keeping other civilians closer to the entrances, stairwells, and elevators – closer to danger. There was a mixture of anxious emotions in the room. A flight attendant was sitting down and cried as she held her hands over her mouth in disbelief. Some crouched by the wall waiting for the next loud noise to explode. Mothers were trying to console their crying children. We were expecting to be hit by a series of bombs.
I was pacing back and forth hyperventilating. I snatched a small paper cup filled with water from a tray of cups a male flight attendant was passing around. I needed more.
A young turkish woman saw me pacing back and forth. Well, I guess she saw a single young woman in a foreign country by herself.
“Calm down, sit down right here. What is your name?” She demanded.
Still breathing heavily I breathed out,
“Where are you from?”
“The United States”
“How old are you?”
“Stay with us. You will be ok.”
This young woman was amazing. She radiated enough bravery for the entire room. Her husband was a nervous wreck though. He wanted to be the man and help his wife, his friend, and me, but he kept looking down at his feet wondering how we were going to escape this situation.
We continued to hear indistinct yelling by men down stairs. Were they going to set off a bomb? Who was yelling and why? With every scream we heard downstairs, there were 100 cries in this tiny room. Eventually people got tired of being scared and went downstairs to leave. Then they would run back up and people would panic some more not knowing why they were running. We were all at a nervous standstill. We continued to wait for the flight attendants’ final word.
We finally got the OK to head back downstairs.
“I need to get my duffle bag and purse. My iPad is in there.” I begged the young woman.
“It’s not worth it. Just follow us.”
She was right.
We went downstairs and waited in a hallway and down the hall there was an angry mob of protestors with signs. The halls were packed with people trying to figure out how to leave. It wasn’t an easy exit. Outside, there were thousands of protesters, and speaking no Turkish or Arabic, I had no idea what these people were protesting for or who they belonged to. Mobs and mobs of people flooded the airport from the outside in. You could see all kinds of flags, dissenting chants, and could feel so much anger and frustration in the air.
The energy was so intense and I was still waiting on another bomb. I called my dad again.
“Dad, I’m safe. I’m with a lovely turkish couple. They’re going to take me home.” I tried to assure him. Or maybe I was trying to assure myself.
“What?! Who are these people? How do you know them?”
“Dad, I can’t talk about that right now. I need to save my battery. I gotta go.”
I think I made things worse for my dad with every phone call. I called my mom and she never answered.
Then I called Tony again from the hostel.
“Give me the phone.” the woman said. “She’s with us. We’ll bring her to you safely. Where are you? Ok, we will bring her there.”
She quickly handed the phone back to me as if she wanted to tell me to calm down.
I kept looking left and right scanning for anyone who looked suspicious. Everyone was doing the same thing. We looked outside towards the parking garage and wondered if we should just leave. It was like jumping in a cold lake. We knew if we were going to do this, we had to do it quick and with no hesitation.
Finally, we gave each other the final look and ran through the crowd and towards the parking garage with our remaining luggage. Once we made it past the crowd, we couldn’t find their car. As we looked, some young assholes were taunting and yelling at us. After 5 long minutes of running through the garage, we found their car. There were 5 of us, but the luggage wouldn’t fit in the trunk. We threw ourselves in the back, and shoved the luggage over our bodies, and slammed the doors air shut. My entire mouth and throat was sand dry from the hyperventilation.
I called my dad on my Macedonian cellphone.
“I’m in the car on my way to the hotel. Cancel all my credit cards. Here are the passwords.”
I had about 5% of battery left on my phone. The woman swerved out of the parking garage and gently but aggressively drove through the thick crowds. People were cheering and yelling and we honked for them to move out of the way. I had to record a little memorabilia for myself. Then my iphone died.
As she drove through the traffic in high speed, we got stopped by the Turkish police at certain checkpoints. We were going the opposite direction away from the city and the commotion. When we got on the freeway, I finally felt safe. We stopped at a Holiday Inn. When we all got out the car, the couple and their friend dropped down on the sidewalk to smoke a cigarette and I walked inside.
“Dad, I need your credit card number. I’m at a holiday inn and I need to book a room.”
I handed the phone over to the concierge and he handled everything. I called my mom again and she finally answered.
“Hello” She answered casually.
“Uuum, did you get my message?!”
“No, what happened?”
“What happened? I just survived terrorism, that’s what happened.”
“Uh-hun, see what I told you about travelling alone?”
I couldn’t tell if she was concerned about my life or happy to prove a point. The conversation was interrupted when it was time to get my room key.
“I gotta go mom. I’ll call you back.”
“Anything you want to eat is free.” The concierge clerk promised to me.
I went upstairs to my room, with my passport still around my neck in my passport holder. I plopped myself on the bed and smiled. Tony called my Macedonian cell phone.
“Jalita, where are you? I’m gonna come get you.”
“I’m at the Holiday Inn.”
“Ok, I need you to go down stairs and let me speak to someone so I can get the address.”
I followed the orders, but all of my worries were gone. I didn’t want to leave the hotel and go back into the commotion again.
About 30 minutes later, a tall bearded Turkish man walked into the lobby when I was on the phone with my dad.
“Let me speak to your pop. I’m gonna tell him i’m taking you home.”
I let him take the phone.
“Hello dad, my name is Tony. I’m gonna take your daughter home safely. I just risked my life to come all the way to the European side of Istanbul to rescue your daughter. We are going to get on my motor bike, and ride past the checkpoint to my car. Don’t worry. I risked my life to come get her. She’s safe”
From the tone of the conversation, I can tell my dad seemed unsure from the other side of the phone.
He gave the phone back to me.
My dad sounding nervous said to me,
“I think you should just stay. Who is this man? Is there a helmet on the back of that bike?”
“No, but everything seems fine. I gotta go now.”
My poor dad’s anxiety spiked again.
I left out the part where Tony had the smell of at least 5 shots of Vodka on his breath and was yelling like he was about to ride this bike across an opening bridge in an American action movie.
I said goodnight and thank you to the couple and their friend still sitting on the sidewalk. They were too exhausted to care. They nodded and politely wished me a goodnight.
“Jalita, those pussies back at the hostel were too afraid to come get you and I’m a real man. I wasn’t going to leave you here!” Tony reminded me. “I can’t believe those pussies!”
When Tony and his colleague from the hostel were on their way to come get me, they got stopped at a checkpoint and couldn’t pass through. So Tony got out of the car and offered a man on a small motorcycle 40 turkish lira to drive him to the Holiday Inn and drive us back to the parking lot where the car was parked.
I hopped on the back and we rode through the empty streets. The night air felt cool and refreshing after the heat of anxiety and stress that permeated through my body at the airport. I felt free and safe, but also blessed because I knew there were thousands of people still nervously stuck at Ataturk airport.
Me and Tony made it to his friends car and got in. His friend was waiting in the driver seat and Tony continued yelling with excitement “All those men at the hostel are pussies! We came and got her!” Tony blasted the radio and we headed on the freeway. “Panda” by Desiigner came on the radio, as if the night couldn’t get any weirder, and all of a sudden, my reality went from political chaos and life-threatening danger to a carefree car ride with two drunken Turkish strangers. My dad called my cell phone.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Hey, are you safe?”
“Yeah, i’m in the car”
“Why are they so loud?”
“Um, I don’t know…that’s how they talk. But i’m on my way to the hostel.”
“Ok, call me when you get there.”
When I arrived to Cheerslighthouse hostel, it was about 4 am. They made dinner and a drink for me and I sat on the balcony and watched President Erdogan’s announcement on the TV screen as I tried to enjoy some snacks and a drink. My dad called again.
“What’s going on there”
“Nothing just watching TV.”
“Why are they so loud? Why are they speaking in Arabic?”
“They’re speaking Turkish and they’re talking about the announcement, dad”
“I’m gonna head to bed soon, i’ll talk to you later”
Tony, looked over at me with slight disappointment. “Tell your dad you’re safe.”
As I sat on the balcony and I heard the sounds of sonic booms and airstrikes flying over our heads. I got up and demanded to be sent to my room.
They tried to calm me down but I was so certain that a civil war going to break out. I went to bed shortly after.
I was a nervous wreck my entire trip and ended my weekend early. When I returned to Macedonia the following week, I suffered post traumatic reactions to loud noises.
There are a few things that stayed with me after this ordeal…
First, is the hospitality of the Turkish people I met. Although my vacation wasn’t ideal, I feel so blessed to have witnessed such kindness, thoughtfulness, and care from complete strangers. In moments of danger, they saw a girl alone and instead of choosing apathy, they decided not to leave her behind. Furthermore, the care I received was unconditional. They didn’t look after me because they were looking for something in return,
they looked after me because it was the right thing to do for another human being.
Secondly, my experience had nothing to do with politics, and unfortunately, for many people who are impacted by political violence, this is the case for them as well. My life was put at risk because of politics, but ultimately, my experienced was the case of an innocent woman caught within the environment of military occupation. I was not Turkish, I was neither a supporter for any political party or group. So the question for human rights activist to explore is…
how do innocent people become collateral for evil elites around the world and how can we fight this?
Third, my privilege of living in the U.S. became starkly real. It wasn’t like I didn’t know I was privileged before. But to feel it is deeper than knowing it. American lives are rarely in danger because foreign conflict doesn’t happen on our soil.
While this is a memory for me, this scene is a common occurrence for so many others.
It is usually a scene for the marginalized as a result of the actions by elites. It made me wonder if violence could ever be normalized and to what extent. How do you fight for human rights for people who may not be used to having them?