SUMMER nights are notoriously hot in Ankara and the night of July 15, 2016 was no different – clear, calm, but stiflingly warm.
Nineteen-year-old Eleanor Beattie was on her way back from babysitting when events in the Turkish capital that night began to change.
“My mum was house/dog sitting for the ambassador at the embassy residence and I had been babysitting for another family about a 10-minute taxi-ride away. On my way back, I noticed a few low-flying, relatively loud jets but kind of thought nothing of it.
“I joined my mum for tea and we heard and saw a few more jets and both noted that it was quite strange. We brushed it off, but by the time we were climbing into bed I had a bad feeling about it and so insisted on staying in my mum’s room until my dad got back.”
A few blocks away, in the Gaziosmanpasa district, Eleanor’s father, Colonel Christopher Beattie, the military attaché to the British embassy, was enjoying a night at the Ruhi Bey Bar with his son, Tom, watching fellow diplomats perform in their jazz band, Funk Congress.
A similar sight greeted the colonel as he stepped outside, urged to do so by an aide – F-16 fighter jets circling ominously in the Anatolian summer sky.
Having served in Bosnia, Sierra-Leone and Iraq, he knew all too well that something was not as it should be. “As I walked on to the pavement to the deafening roar of low flying jet aircraft, I sensed it wasn’t going to be a normal weekend,” he said.
His senses were correct. Turkey was in the chokehold of a vicious military coup d’état.
Chaos had erupted across Turkey and, being in the governmental quarter, Eleanor was in the middle of the military maelstrom. “I can’t specifically remember in which order, but things started to get noisy. We heard tanks trundling down Ataturk Boulevard [just behind the embassy] and then sporadic gunfire.”
The heads of the Turkish army and air force were abducted, while helicopters bombed the police special force and air force headquarters just outside of Ankara, killing 42.
Over 200 miles away, in Istanbul, a similar scene was unfolding. Both the Fatih Sultan Mehmet and symbolic Bosphorous bridges were closed and jets circled the ancient capital of the Byzantine Empire like great metal vultures.
— ANADOLU AGENCY (ENG) (@anadoluagency) July 13, 2017
Anti-government forces, announcing themselves as the Peace at Home Council, had launched an attack on the Erdogan regime, targeting key government locations in Istanbul and Ankara and also striking at the president himself, holidaying in Marmaris.
At the embassy residence, Eleanor’s dad had returned. “My dad came back to the house and told us ‘right, something is going on but we’re not sure what. It might be a big terrorist attack or a military coup’. He told us to stay where we were, that my brother was being escorted back, and that he had to go to the office.
“The first feeling that buzzed through me was ‘what the f*** is a coup?’. Secondly, excitement. Then finally, fear.”
Well aware of the embassy’s vulnerable location, Colonel Beattie hurried to tell his family to get to cover.
Despite only travelling 50 yards across the complex, he was exposed to the full extent of the horror unfolding.
“It only took the very short walk from embassy to residence for me to realise that the CNN version of the coup that I had been watching was considerably less alarming than the real thing. The rattle of gunfire and the smell of cordite and aviation fuel in the air was quite unworldly.”
Eleanor had watched the hellish scene unfold from her vantage point overlooking the city. “I was very frightened but glued to the window which has an incredible view of the whole of Ankara. I noticed red lights firing from the sky which I later learned to be helicopters firing.
“I suddenly saw, about a mile off, an explosion. A big ball of fire with a billowing mushroom smoke cloud against the black sky. I had managed to ask my brother ‘did you see that?’ before the sound of it reached my ears.
“That’s when I thought I may not survive.”
Eleanor with her father, in Cappadocia
In Istanbul, soldiers had occupied Taksim Square and air-to-air fighting broke out as Erdogan’s warplanes attempted to wrestle control off of pro-coup forces.
The sense of anxiety and fear gripping the British Embassy was felt across Turkey as the night sky filled with the criss-crossing of gunfire and the sickening screech of falling bombs.
In Ankara, Eleanor and her family had set to work making food for the busy diplomats. “We made sandwiches galore and a couple of big salads,” she said. “We had just finished making them when my dad rushed back over and pretty urgently told us to hurry across to the embassy where we were moved to a safe room.”
The situation was getting worse and Eleanor’s father had ordered this move. “By now the fighting was getting more intense and closer. Tanks had moved up to the prime ministry, which neighbours the embassy, and air strikes seemed to be getting closer. The decision was taken to move everyone under hard cover.”
Along with their whippet, Twiggy, Eleanor and her family took shelter in the embassy offices with 50 diplomatic staff and security guards.
“We heard what we thought were bombs, in hindsight they may have been sonic booms, but they were loud and you could really feel them,” said Eleanor.
“I didn’t really sleep at all and at around 5am the loudest of bombs shook the room.
“I was scared. At this point I was lying on the embassy floor and I remember thinking ‘please stop. When can this end?’.”
Just two miles away, there were multiple direct hits on the parliament building. The fighting was intensifying and the cowering group had no idea if they would awake to a Turkey under new rule.
The embassy staff were locked in crisis talks with their diplomatic counterparts across Turkey and with Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, only two nights into his new job.
The speed with which events unfolded would have left many in bewilderment, but the embassy staff had trained thoroughly for crisis.
“Lucy Smith, still wearing her saxophone harness, which I don’t think was shed for the entire weekend, took her place as political manager and the rest of us, who without exception had earlier been swaying to the strains of Funk Congress, took our places in the team,” Colonel Beattie wrote in the days after.
“We had morphed entirely from party mode to crisis mode. And if we needed any help in making that shift, the chilling realisation that we were witnessing an all-out military coup attempt conclusively dispelled any levity that we might have brought with us from downtown.”
Colonel Beattie and his wife, Winky
As the night crept on, government forces began to overcome their opposition. The president made an appeal on TV for those loyal to him to take to the streets and oppose – and take to the streets they did.
Civilians swarmed into city squares across Turkey, prepared to uphold the regime and prevent the fourth coup in the republic’s bloody history from coming to fruition. Slowly, the military regained control and scattered the disloyal to the wind – some even fleeing in desperation to the old enemy, Greece.
Eleanor recalls the slow march of the morning after that brutal, unexpected night. “By midday the very sporadic, distant gunfire had stopped and by 3pm, when we were informed the coup had failed, I was sunbathing by the pool.”
For Eleanor, the events were over. As terrifying as that night was, it was in the past. For others, the nightmare had only just begun, with the inevitable soon occurring.
Over the following days and weeks, the Erdogan regime began systematically rounding up and imprisoning all those who might have sympathies to the Gulen Movement – the political dissent association blamed for masterminding the attempted coup.
The military, the judicial and education systems, and the press were purged. Over 15,000 people were detained in the aftermath and over 8,000 of them were arrested.
Reflecting on the night, Eleanor says: “I can’t really believe it happened. But when I discuss it, it’s very real.”
“I’m now much braver. I think to myself ‘I’ve been through a coup, what could be worse?’. But I am more nervy and on edge when I hear loud bangs or see a low jet.”
The trauma is still evident, both with those involved at the embassy, and with the Turkish people. Some 179 civilians lost their lives that night (more than either side’s military casualties combined), over 10,000 passports were suspended and over 50,000 civil servants sacked.
The country still reels from an air of suspicion, with freedom of expression and press being limited and over 100 media outlets across all platforms ordered to cease operations.
The effects of the attempted coup were profound and, a year on, the state of emergency is still in place – a fact that has led some within Turkey to believe it was a staged coup, orchestrated to enhance state power.
Colonel Beattie, for one, is unsure if another coup could happen. “Very hard to say. It is not a very harmonious place but the government have, and are, doing an awful lot to stop it happening again.”
The Beattie family
So with echoes of dissent and suspicion bouncing around Turkey’s ancient walls, only time will tell if the events of July 15, 2016 will be repeated. Chillingly, a quick glance at any nation’s history will point to a repeat.
One thing for certain, however, is that the harrowing ordeal will not deter Eleanor from living her life or going back to the country she adores: “If you’re living fearfully, why live at all?”