(note: this post was published a few years ago, but it is equally relevant now)
Before I left for Istanbul last week, my mother – of course, my mother – called me very concerned about my trip and my safety. I explained that Istanbul is in Europe. It is sophisticated and safe. I further told my mother that this wasn’t Israel – that Gaza was very far away, and, furthermore, that the areas of Turkey where there had been some recent unrest was at the Syrian border, many hundreds of miles away. Won’t Run for Miles, listening to his own mother, was filling with trepidation over the Turkey trip.
To satisfy them, or perhaps to quell my own doubts, the day before the trip I looked at the United States Department of State’s website as well as the website for “OSAC”, the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Both websites are powerhouses of information.
The Department of State website confirmed that (as of the time this post was written) there are no current travel warning or advisory for Turkey.
Travel Warnings are issued when long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead the State Department to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country. A Travel Warning is also issued when the U.S. Government’s ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of its staff.
The countries with current travel warnings are: Chad, Congo, Honduras, Mexico, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi, Tunisia, Columbia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Libya, North Korea, South Sudan, Guinea, Mali, Syria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, Central African Republic, Kenya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Haiti, Somalia, Philippines, Mauritania, Iran and Entrea.
The websites give detailed information on traveling or living abroad in Turkey. Being interested in the safety issue, I turned my focus to the topic entitled Threats to Safety and Security. This section is enough to scare the crap out of anyone. You are free to read the entire section, but I’ll excerpt some relevant portions of the text, relative to Istanbul, below.
There have been violent attacks throughout Turkey, and there is a continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests throughout Turkey. Terrorist bombings over the past several years – some causing significant numbers of casualties – have hit various targets in Turkey. Some attacks deliberately targeted U.S. and Western interests. In July 2011, 15 terrorists claiming association with al-Qaida were arrested for gathering explosive materials in preparation for a planned attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. These incidents show a willingness on the part of some terrorist groups to attack identifiably Western targets. The possibility of terrorist attacks,from both transnational and indigenous groups, remains high.
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… U.S. citizens are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness; you should follow local news sources during your stay to remain abreast of any potential areas, dates, or times of concern, as well as registering with the STEP program [Smart Traveler Enrollment Program]…
Past terrorist activity and other threats to safety and security in major cities and regions in Turkey include:
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Istanbul: In May 2011, a bomb believed to have been placed by the PKK to target a nearby police facility exploded in a residential area, injuring eight. In June 2010, two roadside bomb attacks, one on a police bus, and one on a contract bus with Turkish military passengers caused many casualties, including at least eight deaths; the PKK-affiliated group the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility (see below). In October 2010, a suicide bomber struck a Turkish police bus in Taksim Square, injuring 15 Turkish police officers and 17 Turkish civilians. In 2008, there were three significant events starting with a bombing in July in the Güngören neighborhood that killed 17 Turkish citizens. On July 9, 2008, a terrorist attack on the Turkish police guarding the U.S Consulate General in Istanbul resulted in the deaths of three police officers and the wounding of two other police personnel. Small-scale bombings, violent demonstrations and vehicle arson occur on a regular basis. Most of these incidents happened in neighborhoods not generally frequented by tourists.
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While recent May Day (May 1) celebrations in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have been peaceful, past May Day celebrations have resulted in violent clashes between police and workers, and should be avoided.
Exercise caution and good judgment, keep a low profile, and remain vigilant with regard to your personal security. Terrorists do not distinguish between official and civilian targets. As security is increased at official U.S. facilities, terrorists may seek softer targets. These may include facilities where U.S. citizens and Westerners are known to live, congregate, shop, or visit. Be especially alert in such places.
International and domestic political issues sometimes trigger demonstrations in major cities in Turkey. However, even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can become violent and unpredictable; they should be avoided.
The section concluded with information that is useful to all travelers: “Be alert and aware of your surroundings and pay attention to what local news media say. Obey the instructions of [Local] security personnel at all times. Information on specific demonstrations can be found under ”Messages for U.S. Citizens” at each of the respective US Mission websites..
The website suggests that citizens stay up to date by:
Downloading our free Smart Traveler iPhone Appto have travel information at your fingertips;
Calling 1-888-407-4747 toll-free within the U.S. and Canada, or a regular toll line, 1-202-501-4444, from other countries; and
Taking some time before travel to consider your personal security. Here are some useful tips for traveling safely abroad.
After reading the above, I decided to register my travel plans with the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
Fast forward to our trip to Istanbul. We had a wonderful time. We enjoyed the sights, the people, the food and the hotel. We were vigilant but felt comfortable and safe in our travels.
|Taksim Square (photo: myturkiye.com)|
On our last day in Istanbul, we went for a walk down the shopping streets near Taksim Square. It was a good area to stroll and buy souvenirs. We must have walked past one section and returned on our way back around 20 minutes later. In that short time, a demonstration of a few hundred people had mobilized, and there were people moving in from various directions. There was some chanting, but, since we don’t speak Turkish, we had no idea what they were saying. Some were holding up pictures of a man in the air. Some were holding red carnations. What were they protesting or demonstrating about? I don’t know. Maybe Gaza, maybe Egypt, maybe some local political issue. It looked like something that could stay peaceful or, then again, the climate could change to violence in a snap. We knew we had to get away from there ASAP. As we started hightailing the hell out of there, barely a street away, we saw at least 50 police officers organizing themselves – they meant business, with clubs and Lucite shields in hand.
We walked away from the area, and away from harm’s way as fast as we could go.
We still don’t know what the protests were about, but we left the area safely.
And, now you know why I didn’t bring back any souvenirs from Istanbul for you.