Lies upon lies told about ancient Sur district in Turkey’s southeast

Every day there is more fake news about Sur, the historic centre of the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır that was battered in months of fighting from late 2015 as Turkish battled Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in the narrow, densely packed streets. When the fighting ended, bulldozers moved in and flattened much of what was left for redevelopment.

Slogans such as “Sur is rising from the ashes” and “history reborn in Sur” adorn billboards every few metres in the city and are splashed across pro-government media.

“Villas are being built for the terror victims of Sur,” said a headline in the Güneş newspaper.

I don’t know which lie or disgrace I should start with. Let’s start with the facts.

The ancient black basalt city walls surrounding Sur were built during the Roman era around 350 AD declared a UNESCO world heritage site alongside the nearby Hevsel gardens in July 2015. Though the houses that lined the narrow labyrinthine streets were mainly inhabited by poorer Kurdish families, some 1,500 buildings in Sur were listed by Turkish authorities as historic and protected by law, including one of the oldest churches in the world, dating back 1,700 years.

In August 2015, the youth wing of the PKK declared Sur, and other parts of Kurdish towns and cities across the southeast, autonomous zones and erected barricades to keep security forces out. After months of bitter street fighting, military operations officially ended in Sur on March 9, 2016.

Satellite images clearly show the extent of the damage. The Sur Municipality Damage Assessment Report , dated March 30, 2016, also shows that the destruction caused by the conflict was limited to parts of the six neighbourhoods that make up Sur.

But instead of restoring the damage, on March 21, 2016, the government enacted a law expropriating Sur. Then, the demolition of the six districts, where curfews are still in force, began. They were bulldozed and destroyed. Dozens of cultural places, thousands of years of history, were destroyed by the state.

In the summer of 2016, while the destruction was still underway, construction work started. In contrast to Sur’s historic texture, strange villa-type houses have begun to be built without consulting any architects, urban planners, or other organisations that know the authentic texture of Sur.

These strange villas will soon be sold out at 700,000 lira ($108,000) each. It is clear the poor people of Sur, who were displaced by the fighting, cannot afford to buy these houses despite promises from the state that those who lost their homes or were forced to leave by the fighting would be able to move back.

I don’t think anyone who has a conscience will buy these houses while there are families still looking for the remains of their children killed during military operations there. I am very curious to see who live in these strange villas.

For the last three years, the state has been destroying Sur and building new, wider roads, houses and police stations. Obviously, some people profit from this construction, but neither local people, nor the local business community knows who is carrying out the work.

The state aims to irrevocably destroy Sur’s identity and write a new history. In it, the neighbourhoods of Sur, the inheritance of Kurds, Armenians, Syriacs and many others has no place.

Meanwhile, the curfew, in force in Sur for two-and-a-half years, means the area remains closed to its former inhabitants. But looting is common. The Armenian church said its places of worship within the curfew zone had been plundered several times. But who is doing the looting if the people have not been able to enter Sur for almost three years?

The curfew is set to remain, but now it is be rebranded as a “ban on entry into the construction zones”. The facts are twisted yet again.

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