A Tuesday night in Istanbul

Taken from malaysiakini

Most journeys begin with a sense of expectation of arrival at the destination, but last Tuesday – as terror struck Istanbul’s Ataturk airport – the experience was one of rising above expectations. As the world rightly condemns the use of violence against innocent civilians, there is a tendency to overlook the ordinary humanity and heroism that is often present in crises. I witnessed this first hand at Ataturk airport this week.

Arriving less than half an hour after the bombs exploded, my flight from Ankara was one of many held on the tarmac. Passengers while expressing shock remained surprisingly calm, and reached out to assist one another, be it to carry a baby stroller onto the bus for a passenger with a tired child in their arms to translating for the non-Turkish speakers who sought information. In serious crises, there is often a sense of clarity of priorities.

Upon arriving at the domestic terminal, swarms of passengers awaited directions and assurance. Initially this was not forthcoming, as it was evident that security was more important than service. Police personnel with machine guns were making their rounds, confirming that there were no other threats. Airline staff understandably could not immediately provide the answers passengers needed, as many of them were in shock themselves.

The situation was rife with uncertainty. As the evacuations from the international terminal continued, visibly shaken passengers came out, often holding hands, sometimes even with strangers. There were tears and tremors, as thousands of people were shepherded to hotels. Turkish Airlines absorbed the cost, busing people to a temporary sanctuary.

I decided to stay at the airport, determined to get on the next flight to Kuala Lumpur and be back for Hari Raya with friends. A small gang of comrades – from Albania, United States, Romania and Indonesia – joined me as we believed the airport was the safest place in the wee hours of the morning.

We sat patiently in an airport café in the domestic terminal, drinking water, tea, and lemonade chatting about everything. I opted for lemonade – remembering the old adage when given lemons make lemonade. This was a moment of making new friendships, of companionship in a crisis.

As the crowds swelled and thinned, there were many moments of kindness. The café staff offered a woman without money a cup of tea. Immediately she was flooded with offers to buy it for her. Phones were shared. E-mails to loved ones of previous strangers were sent. Comfort was selflessly given. There was a real sense of community, as people from all over the world from many faiths and countries, often without words, reached out to one another. My Indonesian comrade was especially chuffed when he finally found rice to eat.

We spoke regularly to the staff who were trying to manage the unknowns. It is here where the reality of what had happened really started to hit home. A manager was openly traumatised, as he discussed the deaths he witnessed. Another staff member showed me his phone with a picture of his dead best friend. He missed the bomb by minutes as he went on a smoking break. We teared up when I hugged him. Others came in to ask about loved ones, as the difficult task of identifying people began. It was heart-breaking to witness.

Shared humanity

These victims are not unknowns – they are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and friends. In this age of global terrorism, they could have been any of us, any traveller passing through any airport. With over 10,000 people in the Istanbul airport, the casualties while serious and very tragic, could have been much worse. The security personnel at the airport bravely saved lives, and the airport staff in the aftermath enriched lives.

As airport personnel worked through the night, the staff handled the drama of passengers and their own personal traumas. Indeed, there were communication challenges, but all in all they were heroic. Medical teams, cleaning staff, airport authorities, security personnel and airline representatives stayed on duty to make the airport function as best they could. Within five hours, flights began arriving and eight hours after the bombs, the airport fully reopened at 6am.

Each staff member that arrived for the morning shift through security in the wee hours, showed a sense of resilience and courage. I watched how they cleaned the airport, to make it ‘normal’ and removed the smell and debris of the bombs. They had the bodies immediately identified. In each of these tasks, they were showing that the terrorists were not winning, that despite losses, the battle for life was ongoing and thriving.

It was a long trip back to Kuala Lumpur from Turkey, but one that will always be etched in my memory. For me, the experience was reaffirming of our shared humanity. The news focuses on the horror in this terrible incident. Rightly this should be acknowledged and addressed as best we can.

Our hearts and prayers reach out to those who have lost loved ones and affected by this needless violence. Yet behind the shattered glass in the airport, Tuesday night in Istanbul reflected the power of faith, love, compassion, and courage in the human spirit. This also needs to be appreciated and remembered.