They had come from France to celebrate the New Year in Istanbul at the exclusive Reina nightclub overlooking the Bosphorus. But just over an hour into 2017, Yunus Turk and Yusuf Kodat were forced to hide from a gunman intent on killing as many people as possible. “We heard two or three gunshots, there was a fight that broke out in front of us, we didn’t give it much thought at the time,” Turk said. “Then after 10 or 15 seconds, he entered, he started firing and that’s when we thought, ‘it was an attack, it was a shooting’,” he told AFP. The two cousins, who live in Alsace, northeastern France, decided to celebrate the coming of 2017 at Reina on the European side of Istanbul.
At 1.15 am on Sunday (2215 GMT), an armed assailant sprayed the entrance of the club with gunfire, killing two people before entering the venue and causing carnage. The seven-minute rampage left 39 dead, the majority of whom were foreigners on holiday, and was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group. “I think back to those moments, I can’t erase them from my memory. The people panicking, the blood, the noise of the gunshots, the explosions. That’s what I keep on thinking about,” Kodat told AFP. Turk said he knew the club well because he came there often. “I dragged my cousin, I told him, ‘we go out, we go to the terrace’.” The club has several restaurants and dance floors in addition to its central bar. Its terrace offers its elite visitors a spectacular view of the Bosphorus and one of the bridges that spans it, which was renamed to honour the victims of the July failed coup.
‘Passport saved my life’
The two cousins then split up, Turk said, and hid from the gunman. He added he saw people jumping into the water to escape.
Turk described the ensuing panic in the club: “There were people beside me who were hit by bullets when they were running, who maybe are dead or injured. I don’t know.”
“In the panic we were running all over, we weren’t really watching who was around us. But people who were running with me were hit.”
Survivor Albert Farhat told Lebanese channel LBCI how people began to “throw themselves on the ground” and how the shots were fired across the club.
Farhat emerged unscathed after he went through a door overlooking the Bosphorus and waited an hour until the police intervened.
Kodat told AFP they remained where they were for 10 or 15 minutes as they waited for the police. “At that moment, my cousin was in a different place. I sent him a message and when he replied I was much calmer.”
One Lebanese survivor, Francois al-Asmar, told LBCI from his hospital bed that it was his passport that saved his life.
“It saved my life because I was carrying it near my heart” despite the bullet touching the document.
Because the gunman was not caught, the process of evacuating the club was slow while police checked people one-by-one asking them to hold their hands up, Kodat said.
Turk said they were taken out through the basement to avoid seeing the main room.
“But there were already a few corpses on the terrace and there was blood everywhere and broken glass. The windows from inside going onto the terrace were broken as well.”
The attack evoked memories of the November 2015 carnage in Paris when IS jihadists unleashed a gun and bombing rampage on nightspots in the French capital, killing 130 people including 90 at the Bataclan concert hall.
Turk also told Europe 1 the attack made him think of the Bataclan as well.
“It was the same. (The attacker) came to (kill) as many victims as possible.”
The gunman fired between 120 to 180 bullets during his onslaught, then changed his clothes before escaping.
The attacker, who has yet to be identified, remains on the run despite intense efforts by Turkish police.