I grew up in one of the poor districts of Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.
At the beginning of the 1980s, we began to hear that there was some kind of armed conflict in the mountains, between “terrorists” and the state. After a while, we heard these “terrorists” were called “Apocu”. They were Kurdish and fighting for the rights of Kurdish people. Many Kurdish people still had no idea about the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, as the Apocu were formally known.
In the 1980s, there were a lot of tears, a lot of sadness and a lot of funerals in my small neighbourhood. Children were leaving and their dead bodies were returning. Most of the suffering was in silence. People were afraid. After so many years, ordinary people did not have an understanding of what it meant to suffer for the Kurdish cause.
In the beginning of the 1990s, everyone was aware of the war in the mountains. We learned about the PKK. Every day the TV showed the PKK. Yet we knew the people they said were “terrorists” were none other than our brothers and sisters, our neighbours, and our uncles.
I remember older students at school collected history books and burnt them in the schoolyard. They told us these history books did not include us, the Kurdish people. “This is not our history, burn them!” they said.
After the local head of the Kurdish party HEP, Vedat Aydın, was murdered by the state on July 10, 1991, hundreds of thousands people gathered for his funeral in Diyarbakır. The security forces, with their Kalashnikovs in hand fired into the crowd. Dozens were killed. We still do not know exactly how many people died that day. But after that thousands of young Kurds went to the mountains to join the PKK.
During the 1990s the silence of the 1980s turned to protest. Thousands began to participate in the funerals of young people coming back from the mountains. Parents proudly declared their children had died for the rights of Kurdish people. Festivities to mark the Kurdish new year – Newroz – became a place where Kurdish people defied the state, showing themselves, their demands and their power.
During those years, there were bombings, killings and forced disappearances in city centres, but until 2015 active combat between the state and PKK was mainly confined to the mountains.
In 2015, the war came to our city centres. Heavy clashes between the youth wing of the PKK and the state began. Military curfews were declared in city centres. The historical centre of Diyarbakır, Sur, was under heavy bombardment by the state for 100 days. Thousands of people who lived in Sur were trapped in their houses.
During the bombardment, many people from outside the Kurdish region criticised the people of Diyarbakır for sitting in coffee houses.
Even democrats, journalists and writers who came to visit the city for only a few days reported that life continued outside of Sur, and that the people of Diyarbakır were indifferent to their suffering. “While Sur is under bombardment, they drink coffee. What kind of people are they?” the asked.
They have no idea what it is like to live in war. Life continues even in war. When a bomb drops, life stops for a minute, but then it continues. Children go to school, parents go to work, the sick are taken to hospitals, we drink coffee and sometimes we even make jokes under bombardment, through tear gas and during protests. War is a part of our life. We know that we are mortal, and this feeling accompanies you all the time.
I remember one of my friends took her little son to the cinema one day during the bombardment. She told me:
“The sound of the bombs never stops. We were inside the house for weeks. My son was getting worse. He thought that he would die. With each bomb, he jumped under the dinner table and screamed: “Mom, I died”. I thought it might be better to go outside; maybe this would help my children. I took them to the cinema. While we were watching the film, I thought how nice it was not to hear the sound of bombs for a few hours. Then I began to cry, I am such a bad person. Now, outside, bombs are dropping and people are dying and I am watching a film in the cinema! I was ashamed.”
Every day, outside Sur, a few people were killed at protests for those under bombardment. Tear gas hung over the city. And still life continued under the sounds of bombs, guns and armoured vehicles, together creating an inescapable sound; the sound of death.
Today, there are no bombs dropping on the city centres. But there is heavy state pressure, thousands of people are in prison, arrests continue and people live in fear. There is silence again. People outside the region are now criticising this silence.
There are many reasons for this silence: the pressure of the state, witnessing such extreme cruelty and young people being killed so easily. Although there is silence, people are struggling.
Many NGOs were closed. Some of them opened again in silence. People continue their work and support each other in silence. The struggle does not always have to be on the street. When you re-open an NGO, this is a struggle. When you continue to write, this is a struggle. The river of freedom flows. Maybe not wildly at the moment, but it flows.
Amidst all this cruelty, we are the people who refuse to leave this land, who are still here and still struggling. And yes, we still drink coffee!