Turkish police chase away students protesting against tree-razing

Students attempt to break down a police barricade (left); a poplar forest before it was cut down. (Photos: ODTÜ Savunulmalidir/Twitter)
Students attempt to break down a police barricade (left); a poplar forest before it was cut down. (Photos: ODTÜ Savunulmalidir/Twitter)

Students in Turkey's capital protestedagainst  their university's plan to cut down trees to make way for a state-run dormitory, clashing with police as the latter began using pepper spray and felling the trees.

Videos posted on social media on July 8 showed students at the Ankara campus of the prestigious Middle East Technical University, known locally as ODTU, pleading with police.

“Don’t cut, don’t do it. Resist!” a protester is heard shouting in a video that has been viewed more than 600,000 times.

A video of trees being cut down shared by the group "We must defend ODTU”.

Videos posted online using the hashtag #PolisODTUde, or "the police at ODTU," also showed protesters attempting to break through police barricades.

"I got kicked in the head"

Umut Hasanoglu, a fourth-year biology student and a member of the group “We must defend ODTÜ,” said protesters were sprayed with pepper spray.

We stood guard all night. At 6:30am on Monday, hundreds of police officers suddenly appeared. We couldn’t do anything because there were too many of them.

They told us to leave the forest. We tried to buy time by taking down our tents slowly, and then other people joined us, including journalists and some officials.

They hit us to get us to go away. They sprayed pepper spray just a few centimetres from our faces, it was aggressive. I was thrown on the ground and then kicked in the head.

They also set up barriers to keep others from joining us.

"Police are attacking ODTU," the student group "We must defend ODTU" wrote in a tweet.

As soon as they had chased us off, they started cutting down the poplar trees. It was horrible to watch, especially because our campus is the only forested area in Ankara.

"They're cutting down our trees," the student group "We must defend ODTU" wrote in a tweet.

The area is rich in biodiversity. There are nearly 3,000 trees from 29 different species and 27 bird species. We also found a native sage species. We’ve been demonstrating since May 15, as soon as we saw construction equipment appear on campus.

"We won’t let these trees be massacred"

Gamze Tascier, a representative from the opposition Republican People's Party, said university officials initially blocked access to city inspectors.

I drove the city inspectors over so that they could document the trees that had been cut down without authorisation. They said that construction would be suspended if the razing continued, and the university chancellor finally agreed to stop.

We stand firmly against massacring trees and paving over the environment. We want a country that respects every living thing.

Trees are closely tied to the university's history. The school's symbol is a "tree of science", and students plant trees on campus annually in honor of past faculty and students who "built the forest with their hands", Hasanoglu said.


Several online users shared old photos of trees being planted on the Ankara campus.

One Twitter user shared a photo from a tree-planting day in 1983.

A Twitter user shared a 1965 photo of the pioneer tree-planting team.

Protesters also criticised the state's involvement in the future dormitory. Hasanoglu said he feared those living in the dorm would be subject to political pressure.

We know that at other universities, students living in dorms run by government-funded institutions are sometimes punished for coming home late or participating in a demonstration.

The chancellor, who was named by President RecepTayyip during a state of emergency, wants to put pressure on students. Two months ago, he called the police in to shut down a pride celebration on campus. And he did the same thing to stop students who want to protect the trees. Previous chancellors would never have let the police enter campus.

After school officials suspended the razing of the trees, Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas said on Twitter that a new dormitory managed by the university would be built.

This story was written by Pierre Hamdi.