How Kurdish rights continue to flounder under an authoritarian Turkey and an imploding Syria.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Marcel Oosterwijk.
By Ryan Richardson and Siddhattha Gurung
On a hot Friday afternoon in April, hundreds gather at the House of Mourning to pay their respects to the fallen youth of the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır. Among the crowd are families and friends, neighbors and colleagues, municipal officials and local politicians, as well as leaders of the Kurdish movement and many of its most committed supporters. At the invitation of our hosts, we are here to witness the funeral of Yusuf, 19, one of hundreds of young Kurds killed during recent clashes with Turkish forces in the ancient neighborhood of Sur.
We join a caravan to the martyr’s cemetery on the city’s periphery, riding in a packed van alongside women draped in black. A spirited crowd reassembles and marches through this famous field of graves, each decorated with the bright Kurdish trio of green, red, and yellow, while chanting in waves that rise and fall: şehid namırın! A phrase everyone here learns at an early age: “martyrs never die.” When we come to the newly dug grave, Yusuf’s friends—young men, all teenagers—circle around it and proudly display a banner emblazoned with his portrait. We watch as the family takes his body from the casket they carry and lower it, wrapped in a simple white sheet, into the upturned earth.
Alongside the family, the young men take turns shoveling dirt onto the grave as sweat drips into their eyes. Following a short speech by his father, the ceremony concludes with everyone raising the victory sign, two fingers outstretched in a V, high in the air. They sing, in honor of Kurdistan’s many martyrs, the call-and-response anthem of the guerillas. After the last voice fades into the still air, the crowd slowly disperses and people make their way back towards waiting cars. Just outside the cemetery gates, Turkish police in riot gear closely watch the dwindling procession.
We had come to the southeast of Turkey earlier that month as American activists in support of the Kurdish movement. Like many in the global left, we were inspired by the events unfolding in Rojava, just south of the border in Syria, where Kurds are leading a widespread embrace of grassroots democracy. This autonomous territory does not exist by chance or in isolation, of course, but as the outcome of a decades-old and highly-organized movement that has its roots in Turkey’s southeast. After months of research and making on-the-ground contacts, at the beginning of April we set off for Diyarbakır—or Amed, as inhabitants call the de facto capital of this region—to learn about this impressive history of struggle.
Flourishing behind the barricades of the current war is not only the familiar and well-deserved claim to Kurdish self-determination, but this vision of a truly democratic way of life.
Our month-long itinerary would take us to the area known as Bakur, an ancient land green and lush in the midst of spring, and bring us into conversation with dozens of individuals and organizations associated with the broader Kurdish movement. We found not only a profound and transformative political experiment but in fact a blossoming revolution now under siege. In a conflict shamefully under-reported in the western press, Turkey has launched an all-out war against the Kurds and is doing everything in its power to halt their liberating advance. When we asked how international activists like ourselves could support them at this critical time, the answer from all corners was unanimous: begin by telling what we had witnessed.
What led Yusuf and so many other young men and women to sacrifice their lives has its roots in a hundred-year struggle for Kurdish identity and rights. But more than just the reignition of a long-running conflict, what we see engulfing the southeast of Turkey comes as the Kurds occupy a new place on the world stage. They are garnering international praise for defeating ISIS village by village in Syria, at the same time advocating a federal system to ensure a peaceful, democratic future for the whole country. In Turkey, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—a predominantly Kurdish left party based especially on women’s and minority rights—made significant electoral gains last year in defiance of President Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. And at the heart of the Kurdish movement’s recent successes in Rojava and Bakur has been democratic confederalism—a political paradigm of participatory self-governance proposed by Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).
In a shift away from his earlier Marxist-Leninist beliefs, for over a decade Öcalan has advocated for a networked system of local assemblies and people’s councils that base societal decision-making at a direct and accessible level. Foregoing the nation-state, democratic confederalism names the practices of self-organization that ensure people the collective power to determine how they will live, linked together in egalitarian fashion and on a regional scale. The system mandates meaningful inclusion of minorities and equal participation of women, and indeed women have been leading the charge on many fronts. Since its formulation, the Kurdish movement has been patiently putting this concept to work and building a kind of stateless, horizontal democracy across their diverse territories. Flourishing behind the barricades of the current war is not only the familiar and well-deserved claim to Kurdish self-determination, but this vision of a truly democratic way of life.
Turkey’s response to the growing momentum of the Kurdish movement, both inside and outside of its borders, as well as its radically democratic vision of social life has been swift, brutal, and unmistakably clear. Soon after the HDP’s entry into parliament with the June 2015 general election, the state broke off the ongoing ceasefire and negotiations with the PKK. That summer, people’s councils in many Kurdish cities in the southeast declared “self-rule” in line with their vision of democratic confederalism. Militant youths barricaded political strongholds like Diyarbakır’s historic Sur district, to which Erdoğan responded by imposing strict 24-hour curfews and deploying troops to these areas. Within days, skirmishes broke out between Turkey’s occupying forces and the youth of the affected neighborhoods.
The government has since pursued a counterinsurgency campaign to root out “terrorism” in the southeast, launching a series of fierce operations that have leveled not only Sur but large portions of other major cities such as Cizre, Nusaybin, and Şırnak. Against the special forces of Turkey, armed with the latest weaponry including tanks, artillery, and planes, young Kurds in the urban centers, mostly untrained and with scant resources, try to repel the assault, supported by more experienced PKK fighters conducting guerilla actions in the countryside. The number of militants killed over the last year is in serious dispute, ranging from 5,000 according to state sources to the more modest 500 according to the independent International Crisis Group. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey has confirmed that over 300 civilians have also been killed by the state since last August.
All told, a bloody year with no clear end in sight. HDP and many other Kurdish organizations have been repeatedly calling for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire and previous negotiations. Turkey’s response has been total refusal and an underhanded maneuver to oust HDP, the leading voice for peace, from parliament. Other politicians, academics, journalists, and activists who speak out against the state’s disproportionate campaign are routinely jailed. Western nations and global governance institutions have remained largely silent on these matters, hesitating to criticize Turkey’s security policies given the key position it occupies in managing both the refugee crisis and the spread of ISIS. A dark trade-off in the ledger of human rights, with an outcome yet to be grasped.
During Yusuf’s ceremony at the House of Mourning, our fixer introduces us to Omar, a middle-aged man whose story is typical of those displaced by the resurgent war. He and his family are among some 45,000 people who fled the Sur district during the clashes, according to a report from the municipality. Omar wears a gray suit, matching his hair and mustache, and he keeps his pale brown eyes trained on us while we talk. We learn that he and his family of six stayed in their home for over forty days of curfew before the fighting finally forced them out. “We saw,” he explains of their decision to leave, “that we would really die there.”
With cities under curfew and some neighborhoods flattened by shelling, former residents find themselves without homes, possessions, income, or any legal recourse for what befalls them.
Omar and his family left without any belongings and went to stay with relatives in a crowded apartment on the outskirts of Diyarbakır. With the help of the municipality, he recently rented another house where his family now lives. These days he is looking for a job in construction and trying to piece their life back together. The Turkish state offers no aid and will not divulge any information about their old home—whether or not, for example, it still stands—or what will happen to their beloved neighborhood in the coming months. “About the future, I don’t know anything,” Omar says simply. “They say, wait wait wait, and I’m still waiting. I’m staying like this, living without information and only waiting.”
Throughout our travels in the region, we again and again encounter people like Omar grappling with the conflict’s fallout. With cities under curfew and some neighborhoods flattened by shelling, former residents find themselves without homes, possessions, income, or any legal recourse for what befalls them. A recent estimate compiled by regional municipalities puts the total number of displaced people in the southeast at a staggering 400,000. As these internally displaced persons receive no aid from the central government nor from international organizations, Kurdish-run municipalities are under severe strain to provide even minimal assistance. One humanitarian group we interviewed, the Rojava Solidarity and Aid Association, was originally founded to offer relief in Syria but has now shifted its efforts to within Turkish borders.
All of this compounds a thoroughly complex situation with Turkey hosting some 2.7 million Syrian refugees, many of whom are also located in the southeast. Along the highways between towns, we could spot these refugee camps on hillsides only kilometers away from ongoing Turkish military operations. While the Kurds embrace the vision of a multicultural body politic, the long-term effects of the state’s campaign against them could very well lead to increased divisions among the region’s mosaic of identities and further destabilize an already precarious Middle East.
After the service for Yusuf ends, we ride back to the city center with a party official who has helped to coordinate our stay in the capital. Watching from the window of our car, there are constant reminders that Diyarbakır remains under occupation even as local clashes have subsided. Turkish police are stationed at key points throughout the city, barricades surround popular parks and plazas, armored jeeps cruise the main avenues, helicopters hover over unruly neighborhoods, and military jets roar overhead on their way to other Kurdish cities under assault. Large Turkish flags are displayed prominently from state buildings and pro-government complexes while the flag of Kurdistan is nowhere to be seen.
The prevailing mood on the streets is tense and uncertain, even with many residents slowly returning to their daily lives. Our translator, shuttling us from office to office on another afternoon, describes the anxious feeling that permeates the city: “You can tell by people’s faces,” he says of the atmosphere. “No one is smiling.” The economy, central to the whole region, has cratered, leaving shops and restaurants empty and many people out of work. There is a palpable sense that violence could break out again any day, whether another operation by state forces or a retaliatory attack by Kurdish militants. Like everyone else, we follow news coming from nearby provinces which sets the death toll higher every day.
Every week there are raids on Kurdish organizations with headquarters here, from political parties and civil society associations to media outlets and humanitarian groups. Despite repressive circumstances, figures from the movement are generous with their time and eager to share their experiences with us. In offices adorned with portraits of martyrs, in restaurants and cafes, in the backs of taxis and along cobblestone streets, we learn in detail about Turkey’s ongoing siege from those who are living through it. Sometimes we have to pause our conversations as military planes crisscross the sky and drown out our interlocutor’s voice. We hear anecdotes of life under curfew, the difficulties faced by residents in acquiring food or medicine. There are stories of abuse by the police, reports of the military intentionally targeting civilians.
The municipality, alongside political parties and women’s organizations, is working to compile a dossier of human rights violations during the state’s operations and requesting international assistance to investigate such crimes. Turkey, for its part, refuses to provide access to affected areas or answer requests for crucial information. The dire situation affecting Diyarbakır, our hosts often remind us, is being repeated across the entire southeast. With state violence and mass displacement on this scale, one city official suggests that we are witnessing a traumatic repetition of the 1990s, the last period when the conflict was so intense. “Generations are growing up with disappointment,” she tells us flatly, “and a hopeless future.”
During our series of interviews in the capital, we continually ask about the fate of the old city of Sur. The devastation visited there is not unique in this conflict, but the situation is uniquely tragic. One of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Mesopotamia, a multicultural fabric woven together over millennia and across civilizations, the district is home to countless ancient sites and communities of Armenians, Assyrians, and Yezidis in addition to its Kurdish majority. Its stone walls and adjacent gardens along the banks of the Tigris are recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, a status which proved inconsequential in the military calculus. Sur, we hear from an HDP representative, is the heart of the capital, both the historical roots of the city and where a plural life still flourishes. “If you take the Sur district away from Diyarbakır,” she stresses, “there is nothing about Diyarbakır left.”
Sur suffered widespread destruction during 100 days of curfews and clashes which finally ended in March, leaving over 250 Kurdish militants dead according to the Turkish state. The diverse district again became a target weeks later as the central government seized the entire territory under an “urgent expropriation” order. Citing the vague need for “redevelopment,” the state has since refused the return of many residents, demolished large swaths of the neighborhood, and proposed turning the historic area into a safe, sparkling shopping center. With no concrete information available from the Turkish government, it remains unclear precisely who will be able to reside here after reconstruction. With their traditional home fully in the hands of the regime, city officials and displaced residents fear that soon the Sur they know—all of its history and all of its vibrancy—could be wiped away.
Politically the loss hits the Kurds the hardest, as the area is known to be a bastion of the movement. “Everything in Sur gives strength to the Kurdish identity, to the Kurdish struggle,” one municipal advisor tells us. We sit in his office, lined with bookshelves full of colorful volumes, only minutes away from the wounded neighborhood. “This is probably one of the reasons,” he adds plainly while lighting a cigarette, “why the Turkish government is so insistent on suppressing the people in Sur.” After leaving his office we walk down the broad avenue towards the district itself, still cordoned off behind checkpoints and armored vehicles.
Above the arched gates of the old city wall, Turkey’s bright-red flag hangs as an age-old sign of conquest. Ill-tempered police search pedestrians and vehicles waiting to enter. They eye us carefully but this time, at least, do not stop us. At a local inn we meet Alan, a friend who promised to guide us through the maze-like district. He tells us, as we head along the main road dotted with additional checkpoints, that this strip used to be so bustling that you could barely walk down it. Now many storefronts are closed and few people are to be seen.
More than once we hear of bodies being found, weeks later, in these macabre piles.
Dodging a police squad idling on the next corner, Alan takes us into the northwestern quarter, where the fighting was less severe and which is the only part of Sur accessible during our visit. Streets are narrow, twisting, and follow no pattern we can discover. We find down these dusty alleys a few people cleaning up debris or gathering supplies. Curious children follow us through the streets while elderly women watch from cracked windowpanes. All the while, a general silence holds.
Alan brings us deeper into the neighborhood and we see our first signs of the fighting. Along a broad wall, acronyms of the resistance are scrawled in black spray paint. Bullet holes are etched into nearby houses and a cobblestone barricade that once divided the street is now torn down and left in a haphazard pile. A few blocks away, we wade through the rubble of a two-story house whose backside has entirely collapsed.
After a long, somber walk, Alan leads us out of the quarter and back onto the main road. Normally talkative at all hours and defiant in his views, now he hangs his head low and says nothing. We follow behind him uneasily, our gaze drawn towards the eastern half of Sur, where the clashes were at their most ferocious and where Yusuf was killed; where Omar’s family once lived and where they can no longer enter. Large white tarps are draped between alleyways to prevent any glimpse inside.
Behind them, the Turkish state tears down remaining houses and sends trucks carting away the debris to a dumping ground across the valley. More than once we hear of bodies being found, weeks later, in these macabre piles. That afternoon, we watch from the hillside as truck after truck rattles along the potholed highway out of town. Following in their wake are plumes of dust, carrying bits of broken stone and extinguished life.
Ryan Richardson studied at The New School and lives in Ridgewood, Queens.
Siddattha Gurung studied economics at The New School. He currently lives and works in Ridgewood, Queens.