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A walk through Sur, Turkey’s new urban wasteland

In the heart of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, lies the ancient district of Sur. The fortress encircling the district, and the gardens just beyond the walls, represent a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while over 1,500 buildings in Sur have been labeled historic and are protected by law. In late 2015, however, the Turkish military entered with tanks and troops to root out Kurdish militants, then followed that up with a vast construction plan. 

Entering Sur on a pleasant autumn day, a friend and I are quickly enveloped by the cloud of dust that has blanketed Diyarbakir’s ancient central district for three years. The reason for this dust-cloud is so-called “urban transformation.”

Storefronts, buildings, and businesses are being fitted with wooden awnings and painted in military-regulation white. In some areas, houses and old shops are demolished and monstrous buildings constructed in their place. The makeover began on Gazi Street, the main thoroughfare, and has now progressed to side streets. Even the historic mustard-colored building across from the Demir Hotel, my favorite in all of the city, is now white. When I see this, my heart sinks.

To avoid the construction, I take refuge in Sur’s narrow side streets. Yet even these are covered in more filth than ever, and barely passable due to the stench. It is obvious the municipal government has not collected garbage for some time.

My friend suggests the filth is intentional — all part of a government strategy to force locals out. It’s widely known that appointing trustees to replace local officials has been the government’s method of undermining local opposition for some time.

I stand near a barricade — ever-present in areas still under curfew — and look at the rubble, which is now all but indistinguishable from the ongoing construction. 

Some of the new homes are expected to be up for sale by the end of the year. Shopkeepers tell me that people whose houses were demolished in Sur will be able to buy new houses for 2,000 Turkish lira per square meter; the rate for non-locals will be 3,000 lira. This seems a reasonable policy, until one considers that low-income Sur residents who lost their homes will never be able to afford the new homes, even at the reduced rate.

On Sur’s roads, centuries old, handmade basalt cobblestones are being torn out and replaced with gray paving stones reminiscent of the Ottomans. The transformation is not limited to physical structures. It is obvious the government wants to build a new culture here as well.

The Sheikh Matar Mosque looks especially somber, surrounded by the emptiness left behind by demolition and the dull gray pavement. I hear Tahir Elçi’s voice echoing in my head: “I have seen many wars and disasters, but never treachery of this magnitude.”

Elçi, a lawyer and activist, was killed three years ago when he visited Sur to warn of the destruction to historical sites. I hear his voice as if it were just yesterday, as if he were beside me.

Towards the evening, I find myself in the neighborhood of Iskenderpaşa and notice the increased presence of the Free Cause Party (Hür Dava Partisi), which has ties to Kurdish Hizbullah, a Sunni Islamist militant group. Many Quran courses are offered, and hijabi-wearing girls play in the filthy streets.

I speak to a young disabled woman living with her mother, and learn that they get by only thanks to aid. A handful of children tell me they do not go to school anymore. They stopped going due to the military operations and haven’t returned.

The neighborhood clinic has been turned into a police station, making life more difficult for locals, especially the disabled, sick, and elderly.

“We went to the municipal government many times but they do nothing,” a local merchant tells me. “They do not collect the trash, so it’s gotten to the point that people can’t walk outside. They used to be our government, and would listen to us. Now, we are stonewalled.”

Last month, the shopkeepers of Melikahmet blockaded the street in protest. But it was not to protest the filth and construction, but rather the parking restrictions on their street.

I ask about the recent wave of arrests targeting members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the first party to represent Kurdish interests in Turkey’s parliament. No one wants to talk about it. I sense great anger against the state, and great disappointment in the Kurdish movement. The latest election results, and the fate of elected officials, seem to have heightened this disappointment.

Many Diyarbakır residents express serious discomfort with President Erdoğan’s statement on the upcoming local elections. “In these elections,” he said in October, “in the event that people who have been involved with terrorism win at the ballot boxes, we will take immediate action to appoint trustees and continue on our path.”

Some believe the HDP should boycott this vote, while others argue for campaigning even harder than before. Some folks question why the HDP remains in parliament, a body that has lost all usefulness following the transition to an executive-style presidency.

On Dec. 2, 2018, the curfew in Sur will have been in effect for three years. For three whole years, destruction and “transformation” have continued in this restricted area.

Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said, “We will turn Sur into Toledo,” referring to the UNESCO-listed medieval city in Spain. He was soon forced to step down, and Sur has not become Toledo. Rather, at the hand of a government trustee, it is fast becoming an urban wasteland.

I return home and go online to check out the government’s “Trustee News” page, which promotes trustee-run projects. One post contains an image of a trustee touring Sur, with this caption: “They claim locals are refusing to accept trustees. Who do they think they’re kidding?”

Just then, I receive a text message from the trustee appointed to Diyarbakır, celebrating two years at his position. Alongside images of municipal projects, the message declares: “Our Priority is Diyarbakır.”

Honestly, who do they think they’re kidding?