Published by Mo* Magazine on the 21st of March 2016

Since August last year, the violence in the Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey flared up again. Kurdish youth affiliated with the PKK engaged in battle with the state police and army. The fights struck Sur, the historic centre of Diyarbakir, under siege since December.

‘Erdogan and Davutoglu (prime minister of Turkey) claim to be Muslims, but they waste the lives of others. No one deserves to die, not our young people, nor the soldiers. (c) Toon Lambrechts

How much schizophrenia can a city cope with? In the modern district of Diyarbakir life seems to take its course. The shops are open, the streets full of people. The ubiquitous dark blue armoured police cars became part of the cityscape in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey already for years. Little points out – on a calm day at least – that some blocks further down Kurdish militants are waging a bitter war in the alleys of the old city. Until a column of tanks hurtles past on their way to the city walls of Sur.

Sur is the beating heart of Diyarbakir. Thousands of years of history crammed together inside the basalt ramparts. Today, the walls have become a prison. The army and security forces have sealed off Sur from the city gates since the start of operations. A curfew has been enforced in certain neighbourhoods since 11 December. Gunshots sound from behind the walls, only to be interrupted by an occasional explosion followed by a plume of smoke. Military equipment goes back and forth between Sur and the army base a little bit further.

Risk of melting snow

Diyarbakir is just one of the cities in the Kurdish region affected by the conflict. In Silope and Cizre, the operations of the police and army have been declared completed by government officials. The rebellious neighbourhoods in both cities are reduced to bullet-riddled ruins. Many hundreds civil deads were counted, though the Turkish government denies any civilian casualties.

Since February 16 there is a curfew in place in the town of Idil, the next place to be ‘swept clean’, in the words of the Turkish government. In Hakkari, Sirnak and other small towns it comes to clashes almost every day, while in Nusaybin Kurdish youths are busy setting up new barricades. The fear lingers that once the snow in the mountains will melt away within a month or so, a major offensive by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) can be expected.

Thirty-three people were killed, most of them students ready to help as volunteers by the rebuilding of Kobane.

On July 20, an ISIS-member blew himself up in the border town of Suruç, near Kobane. Thirty-three people were killed, most of them students ready to help as volunteers by the rebuilding of Kobane.

Two days later, the PKK shot two members of the anti-terrorism police. The already fragile truce between the Turkish government and the PKK lied in tatters. But things were going in the wrong direction for some time.

Already in 2013 Turkey learned about the YDG-H, an armed youth group affiliated with the PKK. The YDG-H arose from the growing frustration among the Kurdish youth about the lack of result in the peace talks and the repression of the Turkish government. At the same time, the Kurds saw how on the other side of the border, in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan, autonomy took shape.

The almost open support of Turkey to IS in their fight against the Syrian Kurds put even more bad blood. In the style of Rojava,YDG-H started to carve out “autonomous areas” in the urban centres of the southeast, fenced off with barricades. Erdogan vowed ‘to destroy them and bury them in their trenches’. Since then, the region has spiralled into all but a civil war.

Reprise of the Nineties

Residents are allowed to pass through the gates of Sur, only after a rigorous security check. Journalists aren’t, according to the order of the day.

To keep the gates at the old city walls, police in uniform and plainclothes stand guard. At the first two ports I get a grim reception and get send back, but at the third gate the security services are in doubt. An officer plays with my passport, makes a few phone calls, let us go in, calls us back, but finally lets us pass.

© Toon Lambrechts

Even within the walls of the embattled Sur, residents try to keep up a semblance of a normal life. © Toon Lambrechts​

Even within the walls of the embattled Sur, residents try to keep up a semblance of a normal life. Nevertheless, the fights are close and let their ugly rumble roar from time to time. In the main street near the city wall people are coming and going. Occasionally a van with furniture passes by. Some are leaving Sur, looking for a safe haven. Other return to the neighbourhoods where the curfew has been lifted.

Once in the narrow alleys of Sur, all orientation is lost at once. In this district, Ali Pasha, the fighting has stopped a few weeks ago. But the clashes can be heard heard nearby. Yet most people have remained or returned to their homes. A woman with a child in her arms tells how she fled from her home in the neighbourhood Savas to move in with her mother-in-law. There is no water and the electricity blacks out from time to time, but there is no fighting at least.

‘Savas is still under a curfew. Near the place where I live is the Green Park Hotel, which now serves as a base for special forces of the army. I have five children, it was impossible to stay there. I heard rumours that my house has burned down, but I don’t know anything for sure.’ What the coming days will bring is a question mark to her. ‘Our youngsters will not surrender. I expected that there would be hard times, but that it would be so bad like today, no, no one had thought of that.’

© Toon Lambrechts

Around the corner, a couple of kids plays in front of their home. © Toon Lambrechts

Every alley in the maze of Sur brings new stories of violence and destruction. A group of people stands in front of a building to measure the damage. The facade is swept away by an explosion, the concrete frame is snapped. ‘We do not know who blew up our home,’ the mother of the Adebedli tells. ‘There was a barricade here raised, so it could have been anyone.’ The woman suspects a conspiracy, because she had already received an offer to sell her house, which she declined. ‘They want us out of Sur,’ she concludes.

Scenes from Syria

© Toon Lambrechts

The deeper we enter Sur, the more the narrow alleyways resemble a war zone.   © Toon Lambrechts​

Some streets would not be out of place in Syria. In front of a blackened store a man tells about his plastics furniture shop, set on fire two weeks ago by, according to him, the police. ‘When I came back to see what had happened, some soldiers threatened to shoot me. I think it was because they know that I work for the BDP (pro-Kurdish party).’

A little further on, an old woman sits down at her front door, which has been kicked in by the police during an operation. She recalls her memories of the nineties, when her village was cleared and she took refuge in Sur. When asked whether she still can cope with the constant threat of violence she answers in dismay. ‘I’m so old, it does not matter any more who kills me.’

‘Let there be no doubt, despite all the rhetoric in the Turkish media, the military operations aren’t going all too well.’

A little further on, a group of municipal workers tries to repair a damaged water pipe. An explosion has stuck a crater and broke the pipe, depriving the neighbourhood of water. But once past the workers things go wrong, very wrong. A harsh voice commands us to stop. Two men hurry toward us, wearing civilian clothes, but with a bulletproof vest with ‘polis’ written on it and a machine gun in hand. The two are members of the feared special police forces who fight alongside the army.

Without much ado, we get searched. The hands of the agent tremble when he takes my passport. Clearly, the man is nervous. For let there be no doubt, despite all the rhetoric in the Turkish media, the military operations aren’t going all too well. The two might have us in their power right now they themselves are a target to a danger that could come from all sides. Waging war in the maze of narrow streets of Sur’s inner city can be a very claustrophobic experience for those who are not covered by knowledge of the terrain.

Helpless anger

Meanwhile, the two muddle on with our passports, not knowing what to do with someone who shouldn’t be there. Again, calls are made back and forward, but finally we get our documents back. It’s better not to try our luck a second time, so we return to the gate. On the way my guide translates some of the revolutionary slogans that are to be read everywhere and talks about the ‘Esedullah Team’, the ‘Lions of Allah’, an obscure armed group which has surfaced the last months.

Europe angles desperately for Turkish support to stem the influx of refugees.

‘Rumour has it that it concerns a paramilitary, radical Islamic group recruited from IS-sympathisers which are fighting alongside the Turkish army. Their slogans appeared in the neighbourhoods which saw the most intense clashes.’ It are just rumour, but they do what rumours have to do: incite fear. It brings back ugly memories of the violence of the nineties, when JITEM, another paramilitary organisation linked tot the military carried out numerous human rights violations.

The silence of the international community, especially the EU, can count on little understanding. Europe has been accused of turning a blind eye on what is happening in Turkey’s southeast, because it desperately angles for Turkish support to stem the influx of refugees. ‘The state visit by Merkel to Erdogan, just a week before the November elections, was simply disgusting,’ concludes my guide.

The next morning, the fighting intensifies. Every five minutes, the sound of heavy explosions can be heard. At the bus stop, a group of men watches the smoke plumes rising from behind the walls of Sur. Nobody talks, but their restrained anger is almost tangible, together with a feeling of powerlessness, because every protest in Diyarbakir against the violence gets a hard beating instantly.

Experiment in plurality

A few days later, more than 1000 km of Diyarbakir, in a coffee house in Sisli, Istanbul. Abdullah Demirbas smiles benignly as he talks about his city, but concern shimmers through his words. For a decade, from 2004 to 2014, Demirbas held office as the mayor of Sur. During his first term, he was sacked by the Turkish authorities because he had dared to print children’s books and tourist brochures in Kurdish. Later on, Demirbas got re-elected, but got convicted to two years prison, accused, among other of ‘language crimes’.

‘Sur is my child, now it is dying in my arms, and I can’t do anything.’

‘Sur is my child, now it is dying in my arms, and I can’t do anything,’ Demibas expresses his concern for his beloved city. ‘It is the beating heart of Diyarbakir, and that heart is destroyed as we speak. Sur spans 7,000 years of history, it is a city of many languages, religions, identities and cultures. Precisely this diversity will be erased by destroying of Sur and its history. Because this multiplicity of identities that Sur embodies defies the official ideology of the Turkish Republic which stands for one nation, one language, one faith and one flag.’

Under Abdullah Demibas terms in office, Sur started a fascinating experiment. Not only Kurdish was introduced as a language of administration, but also other minority languages as Aramaic and Armenian got a place. The reopening of the Armenian Church Surp Giragos revived the tiny Armenian community of Sur, one hundred years after the genocide. The sanctuaries of the Yezedi’s Chaldeans and Alevis were restored.

‘We wanted to reunite Sur with its own roots and show that different religions and identities can live together peacefully. Sur was dying, but we revived the city. Today, all our efforts are being destroyed.’

‘It seemed like both parties wanted peace, but were preparing for war a the same time. This has led to the deplorable situation in which we are trapped today.’

The reason behind the current escalation is clear to Demirbas. ‘A lack of transparency and mutual distrust. The negotiations between the Turkish state and Ocalan gave us hope. In March, it seemed that peace was closer than ever after the Dolmabahce statement (agreement between AKP-officials and the HDP, later annulled by Erdogan). But because of the secretive nature of the talks, we cannot say which errors have been made by who. Also, mutual distrust was rife. It seemed like both parties wanted peace, but were preparing for war a the same time. This has led to the deplorable situation in which we are trapped today.’

Generation of the last hope

Demirbas refuses to abandon the hope of a peaceful coexistence, but time is running out. The radicalisation grows day by day, due to the continuing violence and the absence of any prospect of equality. ‘In the nineties, the military has cleared the Kurdish villages in the countryside to root out the guerilla. Today they fight against the children of the people they expelled back then, young people who have seen their fathers, uncles or older brothers been killed or captured. Every generation accumulates more anger and vengeance. I believe in dialogue, and there is still a chance for peace. But my generation is the last in which a peaceful solution might be possible. Children who grow up in the war of today will only carry more anger in themselves and will opt for violence.’

‘My own son went into the mountains when he was sixteen to join the PKK. He saw how I could not execute my democratic right to do politics and was thrown into the prison. He told me I was wasting my time with dialogue. I am sure that after recent events hundreds, perhaps thousands of young people will make the same choice.’

© Toon Lambrechts

The government plans serve to achieve a demographic change and to instal a more docile population in the heart of Kurdistan. © Toon Lambrechts​

The now infamous statement by Prime Minister Davutoğlu that Turkey will let flourish a rose garden in Kurdistan only provokes a wry laugh. ‘We were growing a rosary in Sur, not a garden with only a single kind of flower, but with a wide array of colours. Even if you rebuild Sur with gold and diamonds, it will not bring back the dead. The government plans serve to achieve a demographic change and to instal a more docile population in the heart of Kurdistan. That would be an enormous tragedy, as history teaches us. Sur’s heart will stop beating, because the wealth of Sur are the people who have been living there.’

‘The official ideology of the Turkish state is stuck in the obsession that all Turks by definition speak Turkish and are Sunni Muslims.’

Abdullah Demirbas was one of the initiators of the Council of Forty, a group that seeks to promote interfaith dialogue. With the Council, he now tries to urge for calm, albeit without success. “We tried to talk to the politicians to end the violence. The curfew has to be lifted, the soldiers pulled back and the barricades forsaken. Only so, both sides can take a step back without losing face and resume dialogue.”

‘The official ideology of the Turkish state is stuck in the obsession that all Turks by definition speak Turkish and are Sunni Muslims. Other identities have no place in this synthesis between Islam and nationalism. The people of Turkey have never accepted this mentality, the history of the Turkish Republic is one of rebellion and repression. That must change, if this country wants to have a future. Accepting all these different identities would enrich Turkey and pose a model for the Middle East. Now, the country is slipping into a spiral of violence that damages us more and more every day.’