‘What about our human rights?’: Kurds feel force of Turkey’s crackdown

A resident of Sur district in Diyarbakır stands in the ruins of his house, which was destroyed in clashes between PKK militants and Turkish special forces. Photograph: STR/EPA

The Guardian

Ahmet stood on a roof in the district of Sur in Diyarbakır and watched as two bulldozers razed his family home. Dust clouds rose into the sky as another wall collapsed. “This is the second time that I watch them demolish my house,” the 33-year-old said softly.

A resident of Sur district in Diyarbakır stands in the ruins of his house, which was destroyed in clashes between PKK militants and Turkish special forces. Photograph: STR/EPA
A resident of Sur district in Diyarbakır stands in the ruins of his house, which was destroyed in clashes between PKK militants and Turkish special forces. Photograph: STR/EPA

The first time, Ahmet was nine years old. In the 1990s, when the conflict between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) was at a peak, soldiers burned down his village. Together with thousands of people displaced from the region, his family moved to Sur. “We had to leave everything behind. I did not even have shoes when we arrived in Diyarbakır,” he recalled.

He looked down at his feet. “This time I was at least able to save them.”

Violence in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south-east has surged after a ceasefire between the country’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and the PKK fell apart last July, leaving the three-year peace process in tatters and reviving a conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives since 1984.

In the summer of last year, Kurdish activists announced local administrative autonomy for several Kurdish cities and districts, including Sur. Ankara, unnerved by the possibility of Kurdish self-rule along the lines of that which exists on Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, responded with a ferocious crackdown. Blanket curfews were imposed for months.

In Sur alone more than 100 people were killed as Turkish security forces used tanks and heavy artillery against Kurdish militants who dug trenches and set up booby traps. The violent clashes across the region have laid waste to entire neighbourhoods, displacing more than half a million people in a country that already hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees.

After the failed coup in July, the conflict is deepening. On Monday, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, extended the country’s state of emergency, imposed after the coup attempt, into next year. Administrators were appointed to dozens of Kurdish-run municipalities, with Ankara accusing the elected mayors of supporting the PKK.

Displaced once more, Ahmet and his family rented a small apartment in another Diyarbakır district after the police ordered them to leave their home in Sur in November, just before the curfew. He now makes about 500 Turkish lira (£130) a month selling liquorice syrup, a local delicacy. He has no plan for the coming winter.

The Turkish government has announced urban renewal plans for Sur and is offering residents the chance to buy flats in high-rise blocks on the outskirts of Diyarbakır city. Homeowners have been told they will receive compensation for their ruined houses, but nobody knows how much. Ahmet is unimpressed.

“All I want is my house,” he said. “I don’t want the government to give me money, or sell me a house. I’d rather pitch a tent on the ruins of my old home in Sur.”

He is stunned by the worldwide silence in the face of the Kurds’ situation in Turkey. Pointing towards the ruined city centre, where bulldozers pushed the rubble of his house into a heap, he said: “It looks like Syria here. What about human rights? Do they not apply to us?” Like many Kurds in Turkey, Ahmet feels abandoned by the EU, which last year struck an agreement with Ankara to stem the numbers of refugees coming to Europe. “They have sold us for the refugee deal,” he said.

Although the attacks on the police and military strongholds in the region continue, the military operation in Sur was declared finished in March. Most shops along the main road have reopened, but half of the historic centre remains closed. Several streets are blocked by police fences and large plastic sheets. Blast walls blockade most of the gates of the old city walls. Turkish flags hang off buildings and minarets. Armed police vehicles patrol the streets.

“The Turkish state behaves like an occupier here,” said one owner of a teahouse. A few metres away, a cheese seller sat in his half-empty stall. He is now unable to afford the more than 20 different types of cheese he used to sell, as most of his customers have left the district. His house was demolished. A close family member is in pretrial detention on charges of PKK membership.

“Maybe I should be grateful,” he said. “So many young people have died here, what is jail compared to that?” He thinks building trenches and barricades was wrong. “We will not find a solution like that. And many Turkish governments have tried violence. They destroyed our villages, burned down our forests. Now our cities are in ruins as well. Dialogue is the only way. [President Erdoğan] could end this war with a single sentence.” He sighs. “We are really tired. We want Erdoğan to end this conflict.”

The government, however, does not show much enthusiasm for reopening peace talks, with the prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, repeatedly saying there will be “none of this solution nonsense”. And, after the bloody coup attempt, the crackdown on the Kurds has intensified.

“I am Kurd, but also a citizen of this country,” said the cheese seller, who did not want his name to be published. “In Diyarbakır people also went out into the streets on the night of July 15 to protest against the coup. I don’t like Erdoğan, but when I saw him on the screen of a mobile phone on TV, I prayed for him. When he called on people to protest the putschists, we did.

“We have lived through several military coups here and they have always been terrible for us Kurds. This time the plotters did not succeed and we are happy about that,” he said. “But it still feels as if the junta is in power now.”

The AKP has extended the post-coup purges of Turkish society to the Kurds, not limiting the scope to followers of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the government blames for the coup attempt. Erdoğan argues that Gülenists and the PKK are one and the same. “That’s absurd,” said one Diyarbakır-based journalist. “Gülen has repeatedly raged against the peace process.”

However, the government is exercising the full extent of the legal powers granted to it under the state of emergency. Based on an emergency decree passed in July, Ankara pulled the plug on 23 predominantly pro-Kurdish channels and radio stations last week, arguing that they “posed a threat to national security” and “supported terrorism”. Among the shut TV stations is a children’s channel that translated cartoons such as SpongeBob Squarepants and The Smurfs into Kurdish.

“This spells the end to critical and objective broadcasting in Turkey,” said Remzi Budancir, the editor of the Kurdish-language news channel Azadi TV in Diyarbakır. “And an end to proper reporting from this region. All journalists here are either looking for other jobs or hope to leave the country. Even if we would be able to work unhindered, there are no more outlets left in which to publish our work.”

The crackdown is not only against the media. Only days before the start of the new school year the education ministry suspended about 11,000 teachers in the Kurdish region on charges of supporting the PKK. More than 4,000 of them worked in Diyarbakır schools.

“Teachers were suspended because they attended union meetings and demonstrations,” said one teacher from a neighbouring province. “Tens of thousands of children are again deprived of an education, putting them at further disadvantage.”

Just before the Muslim festival Eid al-Adha, the Turkish government appointed administrators to 24 Kurdish-run municipalities, including Sur. Since then, more elected mayors in the region have been removed from their posts. Ankara accuses local politicians of supporting the PKK. Süleyman Soylu, the interior minister since September, said the government could not allow “terrorists” to hold municipal office. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP) spoke of a “coup”.

İdris Baluken, the HDP MP for the city of Bingöl, criticised the measure. “Many voters in the region will not accept this. Why do we even hold elections if a politician who gets up to 80% of votes can be removed at the government’s whim?”

At the beginning of September, Yıldırım announced that the government would invest £2.6bn in reconstructing the conflict-hit Kurdish south-east, with plans including 67,000 flats, hospitals, factories, sports stadiums and police stations.

But Ahmet was not convinced. “Investment is always good. But you know how often we have heard this? Many Turkish governments have promised us flats and factories, but nothing has changed.” He shook his head. “We are not beggars. It is wrong to treat the Kurdish issue as a question of money. We do not want their charity. We want our rights.”

Some names have been changed