We entered the best hotel in a sleepy, little Turkish town under the scorching sun one afternoon in May of 2016. But the first question the person at reception asked us was whether we could comfortably sleep in a room that was almost struck by a rocket not long before.
The rocket had been fired from the Syrian side of the nearby Turkish-Syrian border by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“I didn’t know about the rocket while booking the room,” my video journalist colleague, Emre Yunusoğlu, answered shyly. “I’d prefer staying in another room, perhaps on the opposite side of the hotel that does not directly face the border.”
However, all “safe-side” rooms in the town, Kilis, were occupied, and we were ultimately forced to stay on the “dangerous side” of the hotel, which was — understandably — mostly empty.
But why did we visit the border town anyway?
Days before we took the plane to this little town, our Facebook Live programmes produced in Istanbul had been bombarded by angry readers who insisted the mainstream media outlets had not been covering the scores of ISIL rocket attacks targeting Kilis. The social media campaign #KiliseSesVer (Become the Voice of Kilis) was trending on Twitter.
As the largest and one of the oldest media outlets in Turkey, daily Hürriyet has a long tradition of “listening to the people.” And so that’s why my colleague and I set off for Kilis on those days when rockets were still falling down.
That first night, neither of us got a wink of sleep. Luckily, our hotel was not hit by another rocket. But noise of the gunfights on the Syrian side of the border, just 10 kilometers away, as well as the sorties of the coalition aircraft and the salvoes of Turkish artilleries, were enough to give us a sleepless night.
I was finally about to fall asleep in the early morning, but my phone rang when the local reporter of Dogan News Agency (DHA), which is another media outlet of the corporation that also owns Hürriyet, called me.
“I promised to meet you at your hotel, but I can’t come because another rocket just hit the town, and we are trying to locate it now,” he said.
That’s how, with no sleep, we hit the road again in our rented car. “Rocket chasing,” my colleague calmly uttered as I was driving.
We found the rocket soon afterward in the garden of a house on the outskirts of the town.
“I came here before security forces arrived. I was one of the first people who found this,” the DHA reporter said, handling a large chunk of metal from the rocket, which had hit the ground near a tree, causing no damage other than shattered windows.
“It’s still hot. It’s a Katyusha,” the reporter said, referring to the type of the rocket.
We stood there with him and his old motorcycle, as soldiers and policemen arrived to collect the rocket parts.
A local security chief we interviewed shortly afterward confirmed that ISIL “intentionally targets” Kilis. “They are not stray rockets. Terrorists try to hit buildings in Kilis to terrorise people and damage property,” he said.
Then why was the issue underreported in the Turkish media? Why was the media – especially the pro-government media — downplaying these attacks? Locals were angry. And we saw why they were angry in our next destination, the most-damaged residential building in Kilis.
A larger rocket had hit this building owned by a local family and which also housed others, including a Syrian couple who took refuge there after escaping their homeland across the border.
The rocket had directly hit the children’s room of the local family, but the blast damaged almost all rooms on all floors. Fortunately, none of the almost dozen residents were in the building when the rocket hit. Due to the damage, the municipality declared the building uninhabitable and ordered its demolition.
We would be the only people who would be seeing the “terror house” from inside, thanks to the permission of the local family, one of whose members said, “Being alive while living here is pure luck.”
So we set up our 360-degree cameras, recorded more than three hours of footage, interviewed more than 30 locals and officials, visited the border, observed the ongoing fight in Syria, took exclusive photos, and prepared infographics.
This is how “360 Degrees in Kilis: A Town Where Being Alive Is Pure Luck,” the first-ever Turkish hard news story enhanced by Virtual Reality, was published on June 9, 2016, becoming a social media phenomenon and drawing more than 100,000 users to hurriyet.com.tr.
As an in-depth, multimedia-rich, immersive video story that puts all of our users into the shoes of Kilis locals, the piece was also a first for the next-generation of “hard news,” integrating the ads of multiple Virtual Reality kits with record-high conversion rates. Through hundreds of emails, the locals of Kilis thanked us for highlighting their torment and bringing it to the mainstream. “Our cries have finally been heard,” one message said.
In the coming weeks, the government increased the financial aid to locals and ultimately launched the Euphrates Shield military operation that created a safe zone on the border and put Kilis out of the range of ISIL rockets.
Since then, no other rocket has hit that hotel or any other building in Kilis on the border. If you want to visit this sleepy little Turkish town, feel safe while booking any room you wish.