Beneath a tree in the punishing summer heat, Ekin stretches his legs. In his late 20s, he is exhausted from a day of hiking through the Turkish countryside.
For about two weeks, Ekin has been on the road, covering roughly 20 kilometers per day in 34-degree heat – in the shade. He and thousands of others are wearing white caps bearing, in red letters, the word “adalet” – justice. They started out in the capital Ankara and are heading to Istanbul. The anti-government protest movement aims to reach the metropolis by the weekend.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the largest opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), initiated this Justice March on June 15, as a small, spontaneous project. Each day, more people have joined in, including members of other opposition movements, such as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
The march was triggered after CHP member of parliament Enis Berberoglu was sentenced to 25 years in jail, for allegedly violating state secrecy laws. However, the movement has blossomed, as the list of complaints against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown.
Among other concerns, marchers are angry over mass dismissals and arrests targeting more than 100,000 people since last year, including members of the opposition and prominent journalists. A state-of-emergency lets the government rule by decree.
“They have left nobody remaining from the opposition,” says Ekin, aged 28, as he rests in Duzce, about half way along the march. “This is our last cry. That’s why we’re marching,” he says.
Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have stepped up their rhetoric against the CHP, which plans to end the march near the prison where Berberoglu is being held. The president has increasingly tried to link the CHP march to terrorist groups after first saying that there was no need for a march and that justice could not be had through demonstrations. The pro-government media has also stepped into overdrive to delegitimize the demonstration.
The CHP has hit back with nationalist symbols, including a flag hundreds of meters long, and avoids anything controversial, sticking with the simple word “Justice,” as it aims for universality.
But the march still has its opponents. One night, unknown assailants poured liquid manure on the marchers’ rest area. Kilicdaroglu urged his backers not to let themselves be provoked.
“A climate of fear has spread throughout Turkey,” he said, calling Erdogan a “dictator.” The jailing of his party member Berberoglu was a final straw. “We are at the point where we cannot tolerate this any longer.”
People living in fear
The 69-year-old CHP leader – who has been dubbed by some as “Turkey’s Mahatma Gandhi” both for his physical demeanor and in reference to the Indian leader’s Salt March – has at times been accused of being too complacent in recent years as democratic norms eroded.
Deniz, a 28-year-old lawyer taking part in the march, blames the CHP for not standing up to the AKP in the past. Some members of the party in parliament even voted to revoke the immunities of deputies, a move that worked to partially neutralize pro-Kurdish legislators and ultimately Berberoglu himself.
“In the final analysis, it is sometimes better, amid many mistakes, to do something right instead of doing nothing at all,” said Deniz. His friend, Gulseren, who walks alongside Deniz, hopes people will “at least be encouraged” by the march.
People in Turkey are not ignorant of the problems the country is facing, she says; rather “they are afraid of even bringing it up.” The march can help break the national silence and even, some analysts say, strike at the hearts of AKP voters.
“We are up against a wall. Everyone knows this all too well. But we are marching all the same. We are telling the people, ‘Don’t worry. There are millions of us’”
The CHP leader wears his white shirt, black pants and dark trainers every day, a uniform of the march. His shirt is often sweat-soaked in the later afternoon, in the overbearing heat of the summer.
He spends time every day resting in a caravan, greeting supporters and talking with the media.
“We are up against a wall. Everyone knows this all too well,” Kilicdaroglu said in his usual calm tone. “But we are marching all the same. We are telling the people, ‘Don’t worry. There are millions of us.’”
Shortly afterwards, he is back on his feet, a white hat on his head, leading his followers in a peaceful line to Istanbul.