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Turkey forgets Kurds as it tackles pandemic

On the night of April 10, after the Turkish Interior Ministry announced a 48-hour lockdown across 31 provinces, residents of the country’s major cities scrambled to the markets and bakeries to stock up on essentials. But in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, my hometown, few people were in a hurry to make last-minute purchases. This mostly likely stems from the fact that Turkey’s Kurds are used to curfews, and we have, more or less, figured out how to survive under such conditions.

As Kurds, we spent that night at home watching on television as people in the country’s west rushed to the shops.
The next morning, Turkish TV channels and newspapers reported on the provinces affected by the curfew, highlighting how such a widespread ban had not been implemented since the military coup of Sept. 12, 1980.

Well, they were wrong. It is obvious that it is not only the Turkish state, but Turkish media as well that does not consider us Kurds as citizens and part of this land.

My hometown of Diyarbakır has been under a continuous lockdown centred on the historic district of Sur since Dec. 2, 2015. This curfew, which has been in effect for four-and-a-half years in six large neighbourhoods of Sur that were once home to some 35,000 people, is the world’s longest-running lockdown.

While nobody at the moment inhabits these six neighbourhoods, which were destroyed during clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants between 2015-2016, the curfew continues.

All of Sur’s historic neighbourhoods have been demolished. The neighbourhoods’ surroundings have been encircled with high walls. The unsightly and impractical hew homes the government is building there are incongruent with Kurdish culture. The residents of these six neighbourhoods have been unable to set foot into their old streets and homes for four-and-a-half years after they were confiscated from them by force.

According to a report by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey in 2018, a total of 299 curfews were implemented in 11 provinces and at least 49 towns between Aug. 16, 2015 and March 1, 2018. A total of 169 of these curfews were in Diyarbakır, 48 in Mardin, 23 in Hakkari, six in Batman, two in Elazığ, and four in Siirt, all Kurdish-majority provinces.

As I pen this article, F-16 fighter jets continue to fly overhead. The war continues as warplanes bomb targets in the mountains and then return. Even the threat of the deadly COVID-19 virus does not stop the Turkish state’s war on Kurds.

This country’s social contract never included us. We could easily be shot dead by security forces on the border or under fire from a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). Just like the 14-year-old boy Vedat Ekinci, who was killed by border guards last August in the town of Derecik in Hakkari province on the Iraqi border, or like the four Kurdish villagers who were killed by a UAV in the same province’s village of Oğul while they barbecued in a picnic area three years ago.

The interior minister of the time initially said it was difficult to differentiate between terrorists and citizens, and eventually declared the four villagers to be terrorists. As for Vedat, he was called a smuggler, and the Turkish media never questioned why, if he was a smuggler, the boy had been forced to engage in that activity.

For some, Vedat had been killed on the border. But for Kurds, he had been killed at his next-door neighbours’ house. Vedat was a smuggler because his homeland had been ravaged by war, the construction of a thermal power station and curfews. Vedat had no other income and chose to head to the “neighbour’s” to bring back a couple of kilograms of tea and a few boxes of cigarettes.

Turkish media outlets that called Vedat a smuggler never asked the following questions:

Why would a 14-year-old child be forced into border trade? Did Vedat push away all of the opportunities before him to instead follow this line of work that cost him his life? Or was this the only chance he had?

Or was Vedat simply saving money when doing this dangerous job so he could eventually go to school, just like the teenagers killed by the Roboski airstrike near the Turkish–Iraqi border in 2011? What has happened to the people of the region’s sources of income, in the first place? Why is the state banning livestock farming, which was almost the only trade that locals engaged in?

Of course, it is easier to use the term “smuggler” instead of asking these questions. Not asking these questions also helps one to abstain from confronting the state. It provides comfort, but it is also cowardly.

Turkish media, opposition parties and some segments of society that are critical of the government have, up until today, turned a blind eye to, and even approved of, the state’s policy toward Kurds. Today, once again, Kurds are being ignored as the spectre of the coronavirus pandemic looms.

We do not know what the predominantly Kurdish towns of Cizre, Şırnak, Batman and Siirt are doing during these difficult days. We do not know how many doctors they have, if they are able to get COVID-19 testing kits, if their medical facilities contain sufficient numbers of beds.

The government’s pressure on the region is so immense that doctors I call in Cizre and Şırnak, where there are coincidentally a few military tanks for each neighbourhood, avoid giving any kind of statement. And I understand them. Because when they leave that hospital, they will be facing tanks, weapons and loneliness.

Nobody asks why Kurds continue to remain on the streets despite the threat of the pandemic and which conditions are forcing them to do so. Why are the necessary precautions to protect from the deadly virus not also being taken in Kurdish regions? Kurds such as myself who question these conditions and write about them, if we are lucky, get away with being detained. Those less fortunate are either behind bars or buried in graves.

We Kurds do not have the means to make our voices heard, even during a deadly pandemic like the one the world is currently facing. As such, beyond Turkey, the world is failing to hear us. The world is forgetting us as it ignores those whose voices have been suppressed.

Coronavirus has once again demonstrated that, as humans, we are not all in the same boat.