Keely Mills should make a fine reporter some day; her instincts are spot-on.
No. 1, she walked toward, not away from, the unrest in Istanbul's Taksim Square, in order to take photos that any veteran photojournalist would be proud of.
No. 2 (and perhaps more importantly), she made certain she didn't become part of the story, keeping an appropriate distance from the often-violent protest.
Having just turned 21, and still learning the basic tenets of journalism as she prepares for her senior year at Boise State University, the communications major will return home June 29 from Turkey with quite a story to tell. As the world watched three weeks of rebellion consume Taksim Square, Mills' daily commute to Bahcesehir University—where she recently wrapped her junior year as an international exchange student—included her being an eyewitness to history.
"I was at school one day and I heard someone shout, 'There's so much gas out in the street,'" Mills told Boise Weekly from Istanbul. "We immediately stepped outside."
That's when the tear gas first burned Mills' young lungs. It wouldn't be the last time.
"It smells like fireworks at first," she remembered. "You obviously tear up and it's hard to see. Then you start tasting it. To me, it tastes a bit like iron, or blood, and it burns."
Not exactly the news that Keely's parents, half a world away, were anxious to hear.
"As soon as we got word of the trouble in the square, we were pacing the floor of our Meridian home and we needed to have contact with her at least once every 12 hours," said her father, Rick Mills. "My comment to her was, 'This is a Turkish concern. International students should not be directly involved.'"
But Rick Mills told BW that he also knows his daughter's instincts.
"Her mother and I knew Keely wouldn't stay in her flat. She's that type of girl," he said. "I told her, 'Be an observer, but please be a distant observer.'"
His daughter observed plenty, often through a camera lens.
"Police were coming down the road, shooting tear gas, shooting water from giant cannons on tanks. The Turkish people were trying to build barriers with anything they could find: fences, automobiles, giant poles and sidewalk bricks, anything to stop the police."
The unrest began May 28 as a protest against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted government's plan to demolish Gezi Park--located in Taksim Square and one of Istanbul's rare green spaces--in order to rebuild an Ottoman-era barracks torn down in 1940 and construct a shopping center that could include a mosque. When Erdogan's riot police moved in to push protesters from the square, violence erupted not only in Istanbul but throughout Turkey, resulting in at least 5,000 protesters being injured and at least four deaths, according to the Turkish Human Rights Foundation.
"One night, I tried a different tactic by standing on the police side," said Mills. "But the police were very aggravated and exhausted. I was trying to take a photograph when a cop started yelling at me. Some cops even started throwing things at me and my friends. My friend, who speaks Turkish, said, 'Sorry, we're just passing through.' But one policeman ran up to him and kicked him in the side. Other police had to calm that officer down."
Meanwhile, tear gas continued to blanket the square.
"Our neighborhood really came together. These were innocent people trying to go about their lives, but they would open their doors in order to let people run inside and escape the gas. They even made a concoction of lemon and water to spray on your face, which helped," she said. "People started wearing swimming goggles to protect their eyes."
Mills said she never envisioned such drama a year ago when, back in Boise, she was contemplating studying abroad.
"I was looking through a study guide and liked the courses at Bahcesehir University," said Mills, who added that this past semester, she switched her major from anthropology to communications. "The program is called the United Studies Abroad Consortium and they have a partnership with Boise State. I arrived here in Istanbul in September 2012 and have been living with two other international students, one from Spain and another from Ukraine. The school here is taught in English."
Mills said during the height of the protests, when she would talk with her parents back in the Treasure Valley, "They were definitely worried, but I stayed in touch as much as I could."
"They understood that I couldn't just stay in my apartment. I had to witness this but yes, at a safe distance," she said.
Mills' parents arrived in Istanbul June 10, not to rescue her, but because the school year had concluded and they had long ago planned to travel the Balkan Peninsula and up to Belgium, before bringing their daughter back to Idaho later this month.
"I think I'm a bit conflicted," said Rick Mills. "Yes, I would like for things to calm down and for us to experience this without being tear-gassed. That said, I understand the zealousness of the protest against the Erdogan government and these new restrictions. The people who believe in a secular Turkey just don't think he's taking their country in the right direction."
But Keely Mills' parents were quick to add that they were "highly supportive" of their daughter's desire to study abroad.
"We're just glad she was safe throughout all of this," said her mother, Liz Mills. "Plus, Keely is such an amazing writer and photographer."
Mills said she'll be happy to see friends and family when she gets back to Idaho, but is already thinking about more travel and a career that will send her to more corners of the globe.
"I'm really thinking about some kind of journalism," she said.
Given her instincts and skill with a camera, she already has an impressive start for her portfolio.