WHAT HAS BEEN HAPPENING IN DİYARBAKIR’S SUR DISTRICT SINCE FEBRUARY 4, 2016? When are we going to raise our voices, if not now?
15. Apr. 2016
February, 3rd, 2016. After the ban which lasted for several weeks in 9 neighborhoods of Sur was lifted for a few hours, some families used the opportunity to return to their homes while others packed for leave.. Urheber: Aylin Kızıl / NarPhotos. All rights reserved.
A participant and moderator at the Kurdish Conference held in European Parliament during January 26-27, 2016, Nurcan Baysal is a first-hand witness to what has been happening regarding the relentless violation of rights following the curfew that was declared in Diyarbakır’s Sur district. We would like to bring Baysal’s testimony to your attention.
Many lives have been lost during the ongoing curfew that has been going on for so long in Diyarbakır’s Sur district. However, it is quite difficult to get reliable information from inside the district. From January 4th on, what has been the situation in Diyarbakır, and what is happening in Sur?
Nurcan Baysal: The latest curfew imposed on Diyarbakır’s Sur has been continuing since December 2nd, 2015. The 17-hour break on January 11th did not amount to a lifting of the curfew; rather, it was only a temporary suspension of it. At that time scores of people left the Suriçi neighborhoods. Perhaps it is not correct to name it just a curfew. With the curfew, you also suffer from hunger and thirst, and you must take refuge in basements and ground floors because upper floors are more frequent targets of bombs and bullets. Those who live in the Suriçi neighborhood are struggling against hunger and thirst under heavy artillery fire. Those of us who remain outside Sur can not enter the inner neighborhoods. There is no possibility of getting food or any other sustenance to those in the inner neighborhoods of Sur under the curfew. The curfews declared in September and October were shorter, so the neighborhood muhtars were able to distribute bread with a permission they obtained from the district governorate (kaymakamlık). However, in a meeting we had with the muhtars two months ago, they said although they had obtained permission from the district governorate, the special team members (özel tim) did not allow them to distribute bread. The state’s opinion might be this: these people are not going to leave as long as there is food and sustenance. That is, the YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement) members in this case will also be able to get food in one way or the other. Most YDG-H members are from the neighborhood youth. There are people coming from outside, too, but they are very few. This is probably the reason behind stopping the distribution of food. The general situation is as the following: taking the Gazi Avenue as the center, the streets on the left—that is, the Hasırlı, Fatihpaşa and Savaş neighborhoods—are the locations where the curfew is imposed without any pauses. Yet, in the streets on the right—like İskenderpaşa and the adjacent neighborhoods—the curfew was declared for a while but later it was lifted. The fact remains that there is a de facto curfew even in the locations where it has not been declared. As a result people do not go out of the houses. In one of the neighborhoods where there was no curfew declared, a woman was hit on the head and beheaded by artillery while she was having dinner. Can you imagine that a woman can be beheaded while having dinner with her children?
Is it possible to communicate by telephone?
Yes, during some curfews it was not possible to communicate by telephone but during the last curfew I was able to do so. Some people asked for wheat grains (bulgur) and pasta. I, in turn, asked them how we could deliver the wheat grains and pasta to them. I told them, “I will bring the food to anywhere if you can direct me a location not currently under curfew.” The inner Sur has a structure composed of labyrinth-like alleyways, and only those who know the surroundings by heart can find their way around.
The Hevsel Gardens are located right under Sur. Is it possible to get food, i.e., vegetables, from there?
Those gardens are under blockade, too. In any case, the curfew will be lifted one day and the first question to be asked to the ones stuck in there is going to be how they made it through the blockade. There must, of course, have been a certain stock of food but probably no one had stocked up for two and a half months. What is worse, there are no bakeries open. In the previous short term curfews, a few of them were allowed to remain open. At that time a 10-year child, Hêlîn, were shot dead as she walked to the bakery to buy bread. But none of the bakeries are open now. While the life in Sur is under such conditions, the life outside Sur needs to be continued in spite of the great sadness and anguish on every face. Yes, children strive and keep on going to school just as adults keep on going to work although they are all like frozen people. You can see the same deadness on all faces. You hear bombings and gunshots anytime you walk on the street, and at any minute, you know that people are being killed while you try to go on with your life. My office is very close to the city walls in Sur. We can hear bombings. Three weeks ago when I was buying tomatoes from the marketplace, suddenly I heard a bombing so earsplitting that it made me to think it was targeting us. The thought struck me that I could still buy tomatoes under such conditions. I felt ashamed of myself, just like anyone would feel, and I decided I could not eat those tomatoes, so I kept my hands off them. A house might have been ruined by that booming sound. Around 15-20 bullets hit the eighth floor in the building where my office is. Moreover, a woman was hurt in her house, on the seventh floor in the building right next to ours, by a bullet hitting her on the neck. It is clear from these instances that the bullets are fired quite carelessly to higher places. As a result, the bullets can also reach the streets in which the curfew has not been imposed.
Do you think the bullets are fired indiscriminately?
Sometimes I think they shoot up randomly. You can come under a random shot at any moment, at any turn. I think they are trying to give a message like “you better not live in this land, get out of here!” My son has been in Istanbul for a week now. “Look, mom, I don’t hear any gunshots or bombs here,” he said to me. Heavy artillery fire and gunshots accompany children while studying, at school, or at home. Since children are more vulnerable, they also discuss these matters at school all day.
How do you explain the situation to your own children?
Their grades in school got worse with everything getting worse. I talked to them, trying to explain: “Yes, there is a war, yet we have to get on our feet. I know it is not easy but we will do our best to stand strong. That’s because this city and all its citizens need people who are able to stay strong. Those who are in the inner part of Sur also need us.” After listening to what I said, my son asked “ Mom, would you make some cakes for us to take to Suriçi [the neighborhood under curfew]?” Any effort made in the city is for Suriçi now. Schools organize charity sales, citizens’ associations collect relief, you come across with banners in the bakery reading “Buy some for Suriçi, too!..” And when you go shopping, you buy an extra full grocery bag for Suriçi.
Is there any solidarity or support provided from outside Diyarbakır? Do the government agencies help in any way?
I heard that those who moved from Suriçi to other neighborhoods got rent allowance only once, which was 500 TL from the provincial governor’s office and 200 TL from the Sur district governorate. Even though they were poor and the houses were under poor conditions, people living in those neighborhoods had their own houses before they left. All have become tenants now. The total allowance they got from the provincial governor’s office and the district governorate can only pay one or two months’ rent. If you visit their homes, what you will see is just a rug and a stove, that’s all. These aids are falling short, considering it has been quite a hard winter and Diyarbakır has seen temperatures as low as minus seventeen centigrade. At one stage, we tried to send blankets through the Sur neighborhoods which are not under curfew. Families in the neighborhoods not subject to the curfew can come outside and you can go there, too. However, you have to be very careful when going in and out those neighborhoods. They perform an identity check on you. I was routinely carrying blankets there for some time, but always walking along the walls, of course. The bullets keep whizzing over your head. In going there you take a risk.
Where are the people now who have left their houses taking just a few suitcases and nylon bags with themselves during the temporary lifting of the curfew?
They are leaving quickly with very few household goods. Besides, it is hard for them to find houses to rent. They usually move from one side of Gazi Street to the neighborhoods on the other side. They stay around Suriçi. They do not have enough money to go further away. They are mostly poor families.
Do they have hope for return?
Some hope, some do not. There are those who moved a little further to the Bağlar area where there are big apartment buildings. I am guessing that a considerable number of them, at least half, will return.
Diyarbakır had received large masses of migrants in the nineties. This has been a second forced migration now. How do they cope with that?
The majority of the population living in Sur is the people who came in the nineties. I call it Kurdish destiny. On the one hand, their houses are destroyed before they can escape them and on the other hand, they rebuild them again and again. You see a determination here. I have worked in villages for many years. First they build a room, then they add another one. This has always been the case for the Kurds: their houses have been destroyed, yet they have managed to rebuild them again and again. I believe that people will return and rebuild their houses again, at least some will. I do not think they will go for all those Toledo issues1. The houses in Suriçi belong to those people and they have the right to come back to live there. Peace is the primary need for us, not Toledo. We loved Suriçi as it is. To us, our city of five thousand years was more precious than Toledo. I do not want an artificial Toledo here.
How has the life in the rest of Diyarbakır been affected? How about education, business, and the economy out there?
Life has come to a halt in Diyarbakır, and the economy has come to a standstill. Take my father, for example, who is a greengrocer in Suriçi. It is the only familiar place to him in this life. He was born and raised there. I was raised there, too. Everyday he wanders around Sur and comes back home. A 85-year-old man, and this is all that he knows as life. His friends are there. All their shops have been ruined now. The economy has collapsed altogether. As for the areas outside the Sur district, things are not different from those of martial law. There are battle tanks on every corner. The faces of the policemen are covered with balaclavas; you can only see their eyes. You see men in RoboCop uniforms all around with their kalashnikovs, and their faces are invisible except for two eyes. All of this creates psychological pressure and trauma for people. The influences on women and children are much more significant. There have been pregnant women who lost their babies. Some were shot dead with their unborn offspring. What is more, trying to keep your child safe from such an environment is extremely difficult. Imagine that you have taken refuge in the basement of a house, that you have stayed in the dark for 65-70 days, and perhaps you have only one candle which is almost finished. You must explain it to your child in some way. All this is too much to overcome. In some cases, moreover, the men are away. In Nusaybin, for instance, most men work as truck drivers. The curfew had been declared for months, so the women and the children were alone. There were children who had to live with dead bodies of their mothers for days. The dead bodies could not be buried. They remained on the streets for days. Likewise, we do not know how many bodies are lying dead on the streets of Sur at the moment. This is just heart-rending. Until six months ago they were the places we went to drink coffee. Now dead bodies are lying on those streets. Can you imagine how it feels for the rest of people in Sur?
You were in Brussels recently. Did you have the chance to meet people from European Parliament? Were you able to receive support there?
I was one of the participants, as well as a moderator, in the Kurdish Conference held in the European Parliament. I realized the participants from the European Parliament have closed their eyes to the Kurdish question because of the refugee policy they follow. It made me feel so sad. In the panel discussion that I was moderating, we established a live mobile connection to Cizre and the people in Cizre explained their situation, having found the opportunity to address the European conference. Nevertheless I was profoundly disappointed when I witnessed the cold-hearted stance there. If Europe keeps turning a blind eye to what is going on based upon its refugee policy, I think they are making a big mistake. That is because millions of people will flow to Europe, and the number of refugees will boom if the war continues this way. We are passing through a period where it is not allowed even to bury the dead bodies. Here I speak not only to those in Europe but also to those who live in the western parts of Turkey: if not now, when will you think about raising your voice? The corpses are still on the ground! What we primarily expect from the Western world is to put pressure on the Turkish state and government to immediately lift the curfews and end human rights violations. Although it is not as strong as it used to be, a significant part of people in Turkey still think about the European Union as a goal. And this is true for the majority of the Kurds. The European Union has the power to put pressure on Turkey. Remember how in this country the emergency rule (OHAL) in Kurdish cities was removed. Europe played a significant part. Perhaps people in Cizre would still be alive today if the European Union had raised a strong voice. The European Union has now become a party to the crime just as western regions of Turkey have. How will Europe turn to its people and talk about human rights, ethics and morality?
Coming from different provinces, women from the Women’s Initiative for Peace went to Diyarbakır, Cizre, Silopi and Silvan to show solidarity. Do these demonstrations have any impact?
I believe they do. People may think that “we will not be able to save the casualties even if we can enter Cizre.” But one feels all alone at times like these, so people want to know they are not alone. The feeling “we are not alone” is of great importance. There are different ways of struggling: some of us try to struggle by writing, some by sending a relief supply kit, and some by drawing a picture. These are all parts of the struggle. I subscribe to the view that one has to stand with the struggle instead of weakening just by criticizing it. We will be able to overcome this hard times if we join hands. That is why I really appreciate the people coming here.
Can women play a special role in building peace?
Sure they can. I do not know how it will take place but the peace table will definitely be set in the future. There is no way other than the table. The women must have their voice on that table for the socialization of peace, for extending it all the way to our neighborhoods. Women’s voice is important both in terms of reflecting the opinions of each household, and also of the possibility of entering the peace to be signed into those houses one day. I believe it is of the highest importance for peace agreements to be written and put into effect with a gender perspective. Therefore, women’s organizations and organized groups of women have too much to do with respect to socialization of peace. The war will definitely break out again one day for some reason despite signing a peace agreement unless we can dare to touch each other You need to go and touch that place, touch the woman and the child in that neighborhood .
Are you optimistic about the peace to be established in a near future?
I do not see any hope in the short term. I think some of the government authorities, too, think that it doesn’t work like that. However, the sole remedy will end up being the peace table although it is not likely be the negotiating table in the short term. I guess in the medium term there will be a return to the peace table. I receive lots of letters from outside the region in which people ask about what they can do. There is certainly something to be done on the part of each person. First of all, to raise your voice is important. Each voice is priceless. We must raise the voice against the war. Otherwise, we will not be in a situation to look each other’s face without feeling shame. Anyone can do something. If you are a teacher, you can dedicate a class to the topic of peace. If you are an actor or actress, you can dedicate a play to peace. If you are not able to do anything, you can send a relief supply kit to Sur and Cizre. You can write about it or draw pictures about it. You can call your friends living there and ask how they are. We are passing through such a time that people feel the need for any humane act, even being asked the question “how are you?”
1 Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu talked about Sur district in an interview with several journalists on his visit to Saudi Arabia on February 1: “We will rebuild Diyarbakır’s Sur district in just the same way as Toledo, then it will be a place of attraction for everyone with its unique architecture.”
*As published in Alternative, Sayı 3, Heinrich Boell, https://tr.boell.org/de/2016/04/15/what-has-been-happening-diyarbakirs-sur-district-february-4-2016-when-are-we-going-raise