The Conflict Heats Up
For almost three years, the conflict simmered under the surface. There were occasional demonstrations, but they were peaceful in nature. Things began to boil over, however, in April 2011.
Companies about to build power plants in Turkey are required to hold meetings in nearby communities to inform residents about their plans, and answer any questions they might have. The Anadolu Group scheduled their meeting for the Gerze’s basketball court in April, and invited company representatives and energy experts to speak to the community.
The event was boycotted by the Gerze opposition. A large protest was staged outside of the arena. As the protesters advanced on the arena doors and Anadolu’s vehicles, police were called in to disperse the crowd with pepper spray and batons. The meeting was canceled.
Four months after the community meeting, in late July, YEGEP received word from a government source that surveying was being planned for the coal plant site. On August 1st, a tent city was established to prevent the machines from arriving. Hundreds came, waiting in patience, and often commuting to work in nearby Gerze.
At midnight on August 22nd, the protesters got a chance to make their stand. Tractors equipped with drills and surveying equipment moved in on the scene with the support of hundreds of soldiers and policemen. The timing was designed so that machines could slip by while there were few protesters, and it almost worked — only thirty people were present when the envoy appeared. But within a half hour, hundreds more arrived as calls were put up around town. The protest was led by nine Yaykil natives, older women who laid themselves out in the road to block the tractors. The standoff lasted no more than a few hours. While it was difficult to ascertain who commanded the stalled troops, a minister-level official in Ankara decided it was not a day to fight, and called off the police and army.
The skirmish only prompted a further build up in the tent city, and the numbers swelled into four digits. They knew Anadolu would make another push, and they waited patiently.
On the night of September 4th, a festival was being held in Yaykil to celebrate the circumcisions of 4 children. Most of the protesters were in attendance. But during the ceremony, a source in Sinop passed word to the protesters that a large build up of police and military personnel were organizing in the city and preparing to head to Gerze. They arrived at 8:30 AM. Witnesses estimate that there were roughly 1000 troops at the site, divided evenly between the army and police. As for the number of protesters, the estimates vary widely, and cannot be confirmed. YEGEP claims that the numbers swelled to 6000 during the day. Other witnesses cap the protesters at under 2000. Even direct witnesses cannot be sure, as the protests were spread between six different sites that needed to be drilled. What is sure though, is that there were sufficient numbers to produce stiff resistance to almost 1000 riot control troops.
Hale Okuz, an activist we first met in Sinop, was on the front lines and gave an account of police tactics. “They squeezed pepper gas into our eyes,” she said, and added that they threw pepper bombs into the crowd at random. “I was subject to the gas 11 times during the day, and badly affected for two days afterwards.” The government troops had closed the roads leading to Yaykil, but small numbers of protesters arrived by hiking trails through the mountains. Lemons were passed out to help clean the eyes of the resistors. At the climax of the fight, during the afternoon, military armored vehicles blasted the protesters with high-pressure water cannons. They dropped so many pepper bombs that they ran out, and had to be resupplied by ambulances.
Despite the increasingly aggressive advances of government troops, the tractors arrived at only one of six designated drill locations. At 8:30 PM, exactly twelve hours after they arrived, the troops departed, dropping pepper bombs around them to clear the way. Twenty five protesters were hospitalized. According to Today’s Zaman, an English language newspaper based in Istanbul, at least 150 people came under investigation, and 1 person was incarcerated until December.
Newpapers around the country ran headlines, and Gerze entered the national limelight. In the weeks that followed, the resistance against the coal plant was invigorated by attention from numerous NGO’s, especially a focused campaign from Greenpeace International. A spontaneous demonstration of 5-600 people, made up dozens of Istanbul environmental NGOs and organizations like “Friends of Sinop”, was held on Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s central shopping district. A sit-in of a McDonald’s was also organized, and protesters ordered hundreds of hamburgers that they later refused to pay for.
Greenpeace particularly targeted Anadolu Group’s Efes Pilen brand, asking supporters to send emails to the group’s chairman. 70,000 people signed the petition, and the call center for the brand was flooded with calls protesting the power plant. As a play on the company’s own marketing tactic, which uses the slogan “beer is under this cap” Greenpeace distributed flyers and online material with the slogan “coal is under this cap.” In an act of pure Chutzpah,Greenpeace covered half of the Anadulu Group’s skyscraper headquarters with a banner saying “Efes, don’t bother your lovers.”
Finally, on November 10th, the third annual rally in Gerze was held against the coal plant. About 10,000 people attended the rally from all over the region. They protested in peace, but the rally was a symbol that the opposition had gained momentum and unity.
In the meantime, Anadolu backed out of the community. They have been keeping a low profile ever since, biding their time. A new strategy has been developed, that much is sure.