Omedya was three months old when I met her and had already spent over half her life in prison. She was gripping onto her mother Eylem, next to her father İsmail, at their lawyer’s office in Diyarbakır in south-eastern Turkey. As we sat down together, the family apologised for being late. There had been another “operation” that morning.
They lived, Eylem explained, an hour’s drive north. “A beautiful village . . . where everything grows: tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers, everything!” But there is violence as well: operations by Turkish security and clashes with militants from the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and searches of villagers’ homes. “They say we support them,” İsmail says, “that we give them bread.”
One day in spring when Eylem, heavily pregnant, was visiting her mother, there was a skirmish in the village. The police raided her mother’s home. “They looked everywhere, turned everything upside down,” she said. “They just found a memory card for a phone in my bag.”
It wasn’t hers, she insisted, she had simply found it on the ground and picked it up, to try and find its owner. That’s not unusual, her lawyer interjects, in a poor village where everyone knows everyone else. Unable toexplain who owned the SIM card, Eylem’s mother, sister and brother were all arrested, accused of “assisting a terror organisation”. A couple of months later, Eylem was taken into custody too, with her now ten-day-old baby on one side, and her two-year-old daughter on the other. As a pandemic measure, they spent the first 18 days in a room alone. Omedya hadn’t yet been named. It was worse for her older sister. “It was difficult to explain,” says Eylem. “She cried constantly, ‘Get me out!’, pulling out her own hair.”
After two months, Eylem’s lawyer secured her temporary release, arguing it was illegal to imprison such young mothers. The case, however, remains open. If found guilty, she could face four to five years in jail.
The family’s experience, their lawyer Yusuf Çakas explains, is both unique and typical, as he lists the litany of terror charges his defendants have faced: an imam arrested for performing the prayers at a PKK member’s funeral; a women’s activist detained on the sole testimony of the husband she was divorcing. As he wryly says of his own career, beginning in 2016, “I started at the worst time.” The previous year, Turkey’s Kurdish peace process had collapsed. Then came the war.
A rough-and-ready city of 1.5 million people, 1,000km from Turkey’s capital, Diyarbakır tells many stories. Its old town – enclosed by thick Roman walls – is filled with beautiful mosques, churches and courtyards built from basalt, hauled from a nearby volcano. The striking black colour speaks of its grand past as a cosmopolitan Ottoman city along the Silk Road.
Outside the old walls, in the New Town, are the governor’s office and the barracks: the new institutions of the Turkey that emerged, a century ago, in the Ottomans’ stead. It’s a neighbourhood of straight roads and clean lines, the kind that is beloved of a modernising state trying to impose itself on an ancient city.
There is another story too: of the Kurdish position within that modern nation-state. For Diyarbakır is also Turkey’s biggest Kurdish city. And while this story is more complex than some allow – millions of Kurds, both in the south-east and beyond, live comfortably assimilated into modern Turkey – it is a painful one too: at times one of neglect, at times of violence, and at times of the very denial of Kurdishness itself. A book published by the Turkish army claimed, after the 1980 coup, that “kurd” was merely the sound made when people in the mountains “walked on the snow”.
For decades, both formally and informally, the Kurdish language has been banned and restricted. As the author Mehmed Uzun wrote, when he spoke his mother tongue on his first day of school, “I was instructed by a slap in the face, ineradicably engraved in my memory, that my universe was meaningless, useless, primitive and taboo, and that I had to leave it.”
It is the less subtle violence, of course, that has dominated that story in the late 20th century. The terrorist-designated PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, though it no longer proposes Kurdish independence, as it once did. In the 1980s, it was able to recruit thousands of disaffected Kurds from Turkey’s impoverished south-east. In the conflict over the next two decades, 40,000 people were killed, half a million displaced, and thousands of villages burnt to the ground. Diyarbakır’s population rose above one million for the first time, as it swelled with refugees. As one long-time Kurdish activist said to me, “At that time, we lived through a crime.”
When the peace process started in 2013, and the ceasefire began, things began to feel different. “People were hopeful,” says Dr Vahap Çoskun of Dicle University. A professor of law, Çoskun was part of the process himself – a member of the government-appointed Wise Men committees. The atmosphere had eased already in the 2000s, he explained, particularly after the ban on the Kurdish language had been lifted. Kurdish appeared on road signs, in books, in plays, and was heard more on the streets.
While Kurdish identity has often been associated with the mountains, something else was happening in Diyarbakır: the development of a recognisably 21st-century Kurdish city.
For two years, between 2013 and 2015, the Turkish government and the PKK negotiated. “We couldn’t solve it through guns,” says Çoskun. “So let’s solve this in a democratic way.” But as time wore on, a lack of trust between the two sides was exacerbated by developments in the Syrian Civil War. Turkey became increasingly concerned by Kurdish control of swathes of northern Syria. Kurds were outraged by the Turkish army apparently allowing territories to fall to Islamic State rather than to Kurdish control.
As momentum stalled, both sides prepared for conflict again. The PKK, emboldened by the success of its sister organisation in Syria, declared autonomous zones in Turkey itself, setting up barricades on the city streets. The Turkish security forces’ response was brutal, using tanks, airstrikes and artillery. According to International Crisis Group, in the first 18 months after talks collapsed, over 2,500 people were killed as the Turkish state tried to wrest back control of the south-east.
Whereas for decades the violence had occurred out in the rural areas, now it had come to Diyarbakır itself. I meet Nurcan Baysal, a writer and rights activist, in Sur, the old town. “They were bombing here everywhere.” Nearby, six neighbourhoods are still cut off by concrete walls and barbed wire. Destroyed in fighting in 2016, entrance has been prohibited ever since. What’s more, Baysal says, many people were left “heartbroken” by the choices made by the Kurdish movement, for bringing the conflict into the cities. “They should say sorry,” she says. “Sorry, but we gave the wrong decisions. Sorry, but we used your children.”
“It was a politics the people didn’t accept,” agrees Çoskun. And ever since, he explains, the government has gone back to its previous strategy: trying to solve Turkey’s Kurdish issue “purely through military measures”.
On the south side of Diyarbakır, just beyond its city walls, the old town suddenly ends, and explodes into miles and miles of green. Down below, and stretching to the horizon, is Hevsel Gardens, an ancient fertile strip between the city and the river Tigris, and the home of Diyarbakır’s famous, enormous, watermelons. To look over it from the city, from its southernmost Mardin Gate, is to engage in an act of political imagination too. For in that direction lies Mardin, Nusaybin, and beyond them northern Syria and Iraq.
People in Diyarbakır use the phrase bu coğrafya, “this geography”. “This geography is very fertile”; “this geography has a different past”; “this geography is burning”. It’s almost as if the territory is a character in itself, encompassing all the Kurdish areas of the region.
Yet, in the last five years, it is a geography that has been radically altered. Numerous offensives in Syria and Iraq, and the construction of a 700km wall on the Turkey–Syria border, have sought to sever the ties between Kurdish people: political and military, of course, but also personal and family links as well.
Within Turkey, the militarisation of the Kurdish question has been deeply felt. Alongside the sharp increase in anti-terror operations, over 50,000 village guards have been recruited to combat the PKK in rural areas. As investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat identified, scores of checkpoints have been installed across the south-east. It’s an approach that has drastically reshaped Kurdish politics, with the government increasingly refusing to distinguish between the PKK and the region’s largest party, the pro-Kurdish HDP (the People’s Democratic Party).
When talking about the HDP last February, President Erdoğan put it particularly bluntly: “everything they do constitutes a crime.”
As Dr Çoskun acknowledges, the association between the PKK and the HDP is to a degree “inevitable”, drawn as they are from the same wider movement, “the same base”. Indeed, he’s voiced his own frustration that the party hasn’t condemned the PKK more wholeheartedly. Still, the HDP is a registered political party – one which insists it rejects violence – and received over five million votes in Turkey’s last general elections. And it is now under pressure like never before.
Over the last 18 months, the most visible symbol of that pressure has been the steady removal of HDP mayors across the region. In March 2019, voters elected 53 HDP candidates in cities and municipalities across the south-east. Only three of them are still standing. The rest – mostly removed on terror charges – have been replaced by kayyıms, government-appointed trustees. Last year, Human Rights Watch declared that “removing, detaining, and putting on trial local Kurdish politicians as armed militants with no compelling evidence of criminal activity seems to be the Turkish government’s preferred way to wipe out political opposition.” In August last year, Diyarbakır’s mayor was removed too. The following March – convicted of membership of a terrorist organiation – he was sentenced to over nine years in jail.
Outside the office of Zeyyat Ceylan, the co-chair of the HDP in Diyarbakır province, there are at least 50 police officers and several armoured vehicles with mounted guns. Ceylan himself was removed from office last year. Approved to enter the race for the mayoralty of Bağlar – a district of Diyarbakır – as an HDP candidate, he was then refused permission to take up his seat, despite winning 70 per cent of the vote. He was replaced by the election’s runner-up, from the governing party’s AKP.
It goes far beyond mayors, however, as Ceylan explains. “At this moment, at the very least, there are 5,000 HDP members in prison”, he says, from former party leaders to volunteer activists. A cheery figure and former teacher, he insists the party remains unbowed. “For example, if I’m arrested, someone else will come.” A member of his staff is more circumspect, nodding to the police outside. “People are afraid to even enter the building.” The party can’t venture outside either. Governors have the power to ban public events across the province for weeks at a time.
The kayyıms, the government-appointed trustees, have changed the city in other ways too. The old mayors may not have held much power, but their removal feels symbolic. In a café in a hipper part of town, I meet young Kurds who tell me they both “love Turkey” and feel deeply Kurdish. The kayyıms, one tells me, and the disregard for the city’s vote, felt “like a monarchy”. Since the change, Kurdish road signs and language courses have been removed. Along the main street in the old town, every shop now flies a Turkish flag, playing into deep memories. “It is like 40 years ago,” the writer Nurcan Baysal says, “it is again like there is no ‘Kurd’.”
It’s a dangerous climate, of course, for writers, journalists and wider civil society, who are always at risk of the accusation of “sharing terror propaganda”. Last October, as Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria again, Baysal tweeted about the “war” and shared a story on Turkey’s alleged use of white phosphorous. The following morning, though she was in London, around 30 police came to her home, “put my children on the ground, and put guns to their heads”. Though she has never received an official explanation for the raid, that week 186 people in Turkey were detained for social media activity about the offensive. In official Turkish discourse, its army was not involved in a “war”, but in “Operation Peace Spring”.
Of the over 150 journalists in prison in Turkey, PEN estimates that over 50 are Kurdish, or worked for pro-Kurdish outlets. I ask Baysal if there are some words she insists on. “I say war, sometimes it is dangerous but I say it. . . They are opening an investigation but I won’t give up. I still use Kurdistan, I still use Amed [the Kurdish name for Diyarbakır], because I don’t want to forget.” Baysal has, she estimates, had ten investigations opened against her in the last year. I ask another journalist, who requested anonymity, about the subjects he tried to avoid. “Politics,” he replied.
And the effect of all of this on the people of Diyarbakır? As one journalist told me, “People are tense, but inside.” Their city is still in ruins, and no one wants violence again. Most are keeping their heads down. It is true that politics has eased its hold on their lives to some degree. The police presence in the city is heavy, but rarely interferes. The checkpoints at its entrance were recently removed.
But for some, the politics – the Kurdish Question – won’t leave their lives alone. Mehdi, a street vendor in his 30s, is sitting in a café, bordered on one side by concrete and barbed wire. Beyond them, 500 metres away, is the district where he once lived, razed by the war. Along with his family of 13, Mehdi was forced to leave in 2015. Even now, in peacetime, it is forbidden to enter. “Refugees in our own country,” he explains with a smile. In the years since, the state has built hundreds of villas where the razed neighbourhoods once stood, but few of the old residents will likely be able to afford them once the area is opened back up. Besides, Mehdi explains, most of his neighbours have scattered across Turkey by now. A fighter jet flies overhead – as they do daily here – and after the noise passes, we soon hear the tea glasses clinking again. Mehdi and his friends are laughing and joking, when I ask him if he misses his old neighbourhood. Almost imperceptibly, his mood changes, and he catches a tear out of his eye. “Like you wouldn’t know.”
A month after his interview for this piece, Zeyyat Ceylan was arrested and charged with being “a member of a terrorist organisation”. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.