I got a message the other day asking for advice. A friend is heading to Turkey in May and has admitted to being nervous about visiting Istanbul. Is it safe?
Her concerns are understandable. On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, a suicide bomber approached a tour group in the square at Sultanahmet near the Blue Mosque and detonated a device, killing 10 and wounding 17.
I was in Istanbul when the bomb exploded. The room shook and I froze, questioning what I thought I’d heard. I waited for another blast to confirm my suspicions; one that (thankfully) didn’t come. There was a lot of construction in the neighbourhood; the sound must have come from one of the work sites. It was only hours later that I discovered my first instinct had been correct.
I didn’t tell my family, already concerned for my well-being, that it was the second bombing in Istanbul during my time in Turkey. A prior explosion on a plane at the Sabiha Gokcen airport occurred December 23, killing one. I had flown out of that airport the day before.
I knew that the odds of something happening while I was in the country were higher than if I was in Canada. The history was there. I also knew the chance of being in that particular place at that particular moment was still extremely low. I made a choice.
It wasn’t a choice everyone agreed with, particularly after the events in Paris and the downing of the Russian plane.
One conversation with an old friend stands out. “You’ve heard of ISIS,” he said, as if I’ve been locked in a tower for the last few years. Yes, I’ve heard of ISIL. Not planning to become a bride. Too old. He rolled his eyes. “I don’t get why you want to go to Turkey, but . . . okay.” That is “okay” in the “I don’t agree with you and I think you’re crazy but you’re going to do what you want no matter what anyone says so I give up” tone of voice.
The irony of that conversation is he lives in the States. There were almost twice the number of deaths from gun violence in the U.S. in 2014 than from terrorism worldwide (excluding Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and Pakistan). If you include those countries, the numbers are still less than motor-vehicle-related deaths in the States.
I spent years assessing risk as part of my job and, looking solely at the numbers, they don’t justify the fear that grips people when you say the word “terrorism”.
I recognize that’s no consolation to the families of those killed that day or to the thousands of refugees who’d fled such horror only to find it follow them to their new home. My heart goes out to them; their lives have been forever altered.
Fear has been used as a weapon for centuries to control and intimidate. The whole point of these kinds of attacks is to instil fear in the minds of people and alter behaviours. Immediately afterwards, some visitors to the city changed flights to leave as quickly as possible. Others who’d booked future holidays to the country cancelled their plans. The tourism industry began to worry about their future after an already slow winter season. Fear prevailed.
Fear isn’t always rational and spewing numbers won’t change that. The risk itself matters less than how we perceive it and to what degree we think we can control it.
All travel comes with risk, much of which we can mitigate. Vaccinations against disease. Insurance in case of theft, illness or injury. We can drink bottled water, avoid raw food, and use bug spray. We read the blogs to recognize the scams, stay away from unlit, empty places and wear a money belt. That we can do these things makes us feel safer. We’ve taken action to protect ourselves. We’re in control.
There are things we can’t control. Extreme weather, natural disasters, political unrest, and terrorism. Terrorism is particularly frightening for the simple fact that it’s unpredictable. We don’t know where or when it might happen.
So, is Turkey safe? That’s something you have to decide for yourself.
What I can tell you is I loved the time I spent in Turkey. I travelled solo in the country for six weeks without incident. Istanbul became my second home. I saw amazing landscapes, beautiful sunsets and inspiring architecture. I wandered through ruins going back millennia. I met kind and wonderful people. I plan to go back because there is still much more to see.
Despite the bombings, I didn’t feel any less safe in Istanbul than I had the day before. I wasn’t afraid. Not before. Not after.
I spoke to some locals after and asked what they thought. They all said the same thing. “We just live our lives because that’s all we can do.”
And that’s really what it comes down to.
My advice to my friend is this – if you want to go to Istanbul, go to Istanbul. Pay attention to your surroundings, like you would in any large city. Stay away from large groups and protests, like you would in any large city. Visit the sites, take the photos, eat the food, try the raki and enjoy every moment! Live your life!
For me, there is no other option.