European Times Diyarbakir: Hope blooms in Kurds' scarred city of refugees

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The Independent Online
"SO THIS is Europe, is it?" asked Mehmet Demir, and laughed. The narrow alley was pitch black - it was the 21st consecutive day without electricity or water.

Young children loomed into view on their way home after a day's work in the cold. Porters, men who make pounds 1 a day, still waited, hoping for another job.

Discarded wheels, twisted rods and rotting food lay in the alleys. No, it didn't look much like Europe.

This is Diyarbakir, one of the major cities of Turkey, which was named as a candidate for European Union membership in Helsinki last week. It is also the city the rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan once dreamt of making the capital of an independent Kurdistan, a city with scars.

There was jubilation in EU circles when it seemed Turkey had been persuaded not to hang Mr Ocalan. But, as a man in Diyarbakir put it, "There are thousands of Ocalans". He is not the Kurdish problem; the destitute people of Diyarbakir are.

Ahmet Gul spends every day minding his family's orange stall. He claimed to be 14 but that is because he is breaking the law by not going to school. He cannot be older than 11. Near by, Murat Akdemir was behind the till of the tobacconist. He is 10. He said he goes to school in the mornings and minds the shop in the afternoons.

Huseyin Yilmaz spends his days waiting by his cart. It looks like something from the Middle Ages. He said he can pull 80kg and carry the load up eight flights of steps. He is 53 and cannot afford meat. The most he earns in a day is pounds 1.25. "We thank God if we make that much."

And these are the lucky ones - they have jobs. There are no official figures but unemployment is thought to 80 per cent. There is no social security. Turkey says the Kurds' problems are economic, not political. But nobody has been able to verify this: for years Turkey kept the international media out of the most troubled regions.

Diyarbakir is full of hope. It may show up the flaws of Turkey's European aspirations but it also stands to gain most from Turkish candidacy. Ankara has finally committed funds to plans to rebuild cleared villages, though many say they are too scared to go back. And the Kurds hope the EU can also deliver the rights they have been denied. This week Ismail Cem, Turkey's Foreign Minister, said the time had come to consider allowing Kurdish- language television.

Turkey's abuse of the Kurds kept it out of Europe for so long; now Europe is the Kurds' best hope of salvation. It is strange to think that in 10 years or so this city of refugees and child labour might be Europe's next city of culture. The shanty towns are refugee camps; the people came when their villages were evacuated by Turkish forces in the campaign against Mr Ocalan's rebels. The Kurds said the army burnt their villages; Turkey denies it. The refugees have doubled the population of the city, to more than a million.

Everybody has a tale of brutality to tell. Mustafa Celik remembered the day the army came to his village. "They put a plastic bag over my head and said they were going to suffocate me," he said. "My hands were shaking. I thought I was about to die." It is impossible to know if his and others' claims are true.

Yet Mr Celik said he did not bear a grudge. "We can't afford to think like that. The Turks and Kurds need to live together in peace. We need peace; all anyone wants is peace. The news about Europe is wonderful. This is our best opportunity."