Anxiety in Istanbul after series of extremist attacks

Carnations left at the scene around photo of victims as people protest an attack at a popular nightclub in Istanbul. (Emrah Gurel, AP)
Carnations left at the scene around photo of victims as people protest an attack at a popular nightclub in Istanbul. (Emrah Gurel, AP)

Istanbul - For Ethem Salli, life in what he still calls one of the greatest cities on earth has been pared back to little more than his commutes to and from work.

These days, with a string of extremist attacks targeting Istanbul still fresh in his memory, the 41-year-old environmental engineer doesn't venture outdoors much.

"I am afraid just like everyone else around me. Because I don't feel the government is able to provide much security," Salli said on Monday as he trudged through a snow-blanketed park near the Bosporus Strait. "Now everyone is mainly feeling that anything can happen to anyone anywhere. And so Turkey and Istanbul have become scary places."

Worldwide fear

It's not just Turkey and Istanbul.

From Berlin to Brussels, Florida to France, deadly attacks on public places are leaving citizens wondering whether they need to adjust their daily routines out of fear of a possible future attack.

In France, Parisian cafe society is largely back to normal after the November 13, 2015, attacks targeting the city's nightlife, but many schools still limit outings for children, fearing they will become targets.

Belgium remains on its second highest alert level, with soldiers and extra police now a routine sight on the streets. Belgians remain cautious about going out, and a national poll conducted by the country's traffic security authority found that a third changed their behavior last year because of attacks in Brussels, including avoiding venues like cinemas and shopping malls.

In Germany, where a truck attack on Berlin's Christmas market claimed 12 lives, people are warming to the kind of pervasive camera surveillance already found in other European countries but previously frowned upon there due to the country's 20th century history of totalitarian dictatorships.

In Istanbul, the deadly New Year's shooting spree by a gunman at a swanky nightclub on the banks of the Bosporus Strait struck at the city's wealthy elite and foreign visitors, but it also dealt yet another blow to the hopes and grand ambitions of this metropolis of more than 15 million that stands proudly at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

The deadly attack on the Reina nightclub, claimed by the Islamic State group, left 39 dead. They were far from the only victims of a grim year in the historic city. In some of the other attacks, 10 German tourists were killed in a suicide bombing in the city's historic heart on Jan. 12, 2016, and dozens of people were killed at the city's main airport in June.

The country's leaders have gone out of their way to urge frightened Turks not to succumb to fear.

"Our citizens should not change their daily flow of life," Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last week. "If they do so, they will serve the agenda of these terrorist organisations. Their aim is to slow life down, to stop it, to make people afraid."

Citizens demoralised

People don't appear to be listening. On a recent day, it wasn't just heavy snow that was hurting trade at the cramped kiosk where the 21-year-old Rumeysa Acar sells everything from tobacco to gum, to razor blades and even sunglasses. The attacks, she said, are keeping people at home.

"We now think things like 'will a bomb go off here?'" she said. "Will something happen to us? Will we be able to make it home? We are afraid when we go out. It has hurt our psychology."

In addition to the demoralising wave of terror attacks, the country is still hosting some three million migrants fleeing war in neighboring Syria and Iraq and the nation remains under a state of emergency and crackdown launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a failed coup in July. Turkey's once-strong economy is suffering, as the Lira currency plunged to an all-time-low against the US dollar on Tuesday.

Ferhat Kentel, a sociology professor at Istanbul's Sehir University, said that the multiple problems assailing Turkey are demoralising the country.

"Tragedies have been prevalent in this country from the past. The latest incidents indicate that we are in a new traumatic process," Kentel told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "The attempted coup, what happened after the coup attempt, measures taken by the government and the state, the declaration of a state of emergency. All of this I think, combined with economic problems, wear down and corrode the souls of social groups as well as the individuals."

Erdogan also has sought to reassure the country. In his first public statement after the New Year's attack he told his shocked nation: "No one's lifestyle is under systematic threat in Turkey."

But that's not how it feels for some. For Salli, the recent snow storm was welcome as it left Macka Democracy Park all deserted but for a few students tossing snowballs at one another.

"Of course. We try to be in less crowded places," he said. "Speaking for myself, my life has practically become going from work to home, from home to work, which isn't satisfying in a place like Istanbul. Because Istanbul is one of the greatest cities in the world."

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