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Resist Diyarbakır, resist

The deaf and mute man, standing with his hand raised in a clenched-fist salute, was silently protesting. The crowd was applauding him. Every day for the last two months, 100 to 150 people had been gathering on Lise Street in Diyarbakır, southeast Turkey to protest the central government’s takeover of locally elected municipalities.

Although those gathered were exhausted, together they sang:

Diren ha Diyarbekir diren (Resist Diyarbakır resist)

Direnmektir sana can veren (Resistance is your existence).

This has been an anthem for the past five years. Since August 2015, when the peace process collapsed between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which has led an armed insurgency against the Turkish government since the 1980s – there have been clashes in Kurdish cities.

But unlike conflicts over the past 35 years, these clashes moved into the city centres, and we were shocked to find them so close to our homes. The state declared military curfews in cities across southeastern Turkey. At first, the curfews lasted days. After a while, they became regular and drawn-out.

Let me tell you what a military curfew means in Turkey. When the governor’s office declared the curfew, bombardment began. Days passed by under bombs and gunfire. No one could enter areas under curfew.

People were trapped in their houses, trying to continue their lives with the limited food and water they had stockpiled in anticipation. People died inside their homes as shrapnel entered their houses.

The state did not allow families to bury their dead. In some cities, like Cizre, mothers put the dead bodies of their children in refrigerators to prevent them decomposing. In other areas, people carrying white flags, hoping to leave the area safely or bury the dead peacefully, were shot. In my hometown, Diyarbakır, dead bodies remained in the streets for months. We witnessed war crimes.

As clashes continued between the Civil Protection Units (YPS) – the youth wing of the PKK in Kurdish cities – and the Turkish state, Kurdish cities were demolished.

Between August 2015 and November 2016, we lost several ancient Mesopotamian cities: we lost nearly 70 percent of Şırnak; we lost half of the ancient Sur district of Diyarbakır, which is under the UNESCO protection; we lost half of Nusaybin and Yüksekova, ancient cities at the border of Iraq and Syria; and we lost large parts of Silopi, İdil and Cizre.

Hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people have lost their homes. We don’t know the exact number of people who have been killed. State reports and estimates by human rights organisations vary greatly. According to state reports, between July 2015 and December 2016 3,583 PKK members, 355 security force members, and 285 civilians lost their lives.

According to the United Nations, “some 2,000 people were killed, including local residents, amongst whom women and children, as well as close to 800 members of the security forces”.

In human rights estimates, more than 1,500 people were killed during this period, and almost 300 of them were civilians. There are reasons for the discrepancies. Firstly, because many bodies have not been recovered and many were left unrecognisable. But also because, in their perverse aim to demonstrate the force and reach of their crackdown against the PKK, the state has consciously inflated the death toll.

On July 15, 2016, there was a failed coup against the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. During the attempt, more than 300 people were killed and government buildings, including the Turkish parliament, were bombed. Days after, a state of emergency was declared. More than 50,000 people were subsequently imprisoned, and more than 107,000 were fired from their jobs. Opposition voices were hunted.

In the Kurdish region, conditions worsened with the declaration of the state of emergency. Almost all Kurdish media was shut down. Most Kurdish civil society organisations were closed, suspected of supporting terrorist groups. More than 4,300 Kurdish teachers and doctors lost their jobs, accused of having links with Kurdish militants. Hundreds of Kurdish politicians and activists were imprisoned, and many who weren’t left the country.

In September 2016, 94 of the 103 elected mayors representing the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) were removed and replaced by state administrators. A new era began in Kurdish cities. The administrators arrived with soldiers, police officers, tanks and armoured vehicles. While our elected mayors were taken away in handcuffs, our cities were painted with Turkish flags.

At the same time, a war was launched against Kurdish language and culture. The democratic gains of our decades-long struggle for multilingualism and multiculturalism were once again demolished. The Kurdish names of our parks and streets were removed. “Amed”, the Kurdish name for Diyarbakır, was taken off public billboards. Monuments documenting Kurdish history, Kurdish culture, and state-led massacres were demolished. A brick and mortar war was waged against Kurdish symbols and values.

Everything devoted to sustaining Kurdish culture was shut down. Kurdish theatres, kindergartens, libraries, and music schools were closed.

Our cities returned to one culture, one language, one nation, and one flag. Singing or whistling Kurdish songs became a crime. In 2018, twelve university students from Diyarbakır were arrested and accused of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation” and “committing crimes in the name of a terrorist organisation” because they whistled a Kurdish song. The prosecutor demanded a seven-year sentence. Kurdish singers were arrested for singing Kurdish songs. Being Kurdish has been banned.

Despite these conditions, Kurdish people went to the ballot boxes on March 31, 2019, to elect their mayors. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) regained the majority of the municipalities that had been seized by the state administrators in 2016.

Only five months later, on August 19, 2019, the mayors of Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van, the three largest Kurdish cities, were yet again replaced by state administrators, having been accused of financing a terror organisation.

Later in 2019 and 2020 state administrators have been appointed to 51 of 65 HDP municipalities. Yet again, our cities have been seized. Yet again, Kurdish people are told we do not exist.

I remember as a child asking my mom:

Mom, why can’t we use Kurdish?

It is forbidden.

Why?

They say, ‘There are no Kurds’.

But we are here, mom. We exist!

Thirty-five years later, we are still fighting for our existence. I stand alongside the deaf and mute man, Ferzende Maksut, with my hand raised in a clenched-fist salute, and I sang:

Diren ha Diyarbekir diren (Resist Diyarbakır resist)

Direnmektir sana can veren (Resistance is your existence).

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