Frontline: DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY: Proud city of the Kurds is now in ruins

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The Independent Online
YILDIZ CELIK watched as two Turkish helicopter gunships passed low overhead, the fight against the Kurdish rebels that has made her a refugee in her own country in its last throes. But for Ms Celik and the people of Diyarbakir, the suffering is not over yet.

The ancient black walls of Diyarbakir tower over the squalid shanty town where she lives. Elegant minarets decorate the skyline. Diyarbakir is the main city of Turkey's Kurd-dominated south-east. Once, its inhabitants liked to call it the "Paris of the East". Now the city is surrounded by shanty towns like the one where Ms Celik lives - unofficial refugee camps that have grown permanent as their inhabitants have found no way of going home.

The 15-year rebellion seems to be over. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) says it has laid down its arms and is withdrawing from Turkey. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is in prison under sentence of death. But in Diyarbakir, life remains harsh for the casualties of the fighting. Ms Celik and her family of seven live in a tiny makeshift concrete house of two rooms. Though they live in a city, like everyone else in the shanty town they are piling up firewood for the winter. They are too poor to pay for electricity to heat the house. Ms Celik's 16-year-old son is the only one with a job. He makes pounds 5 a day working as a scrap metal trader.

The fighting came to Ms Celik's village six years ago. Kulp was one of thousands of Kurdish villages forcibly evacuated by Turkish security forces in an effort to stamp out the PKK. Ms Celik and her family lost all they had.Now, like everyone else in the shanty towns, they have nowhere else to go. "People compare the south-east to Kosovo and ask why the West doesn't intervene here," says Mehmet Tas. "But it's too late here. The real fighting's over. We're living with the consequences."

Mr Tas is the opposite of Ms Celik. He comes from the other side of town: the wealthy modern suburbs, whose smart apartment blocks end abruptly where the shanty towns begin. He is a sophisticated city dweller, from an old Diyarbakir family, and is dressed in jeans and wears designer sunglasses.

But he says Diyarbakir's rich cannot ignore the problem. The war has destroyed the Diyarbakir he grew up in. "The Diyarbakir I remember was a small town where people knew each other," he says. The population has doubled since 1990, and is now more than a million. The Diyarbakir of Mr Tas's youth was a cosmopolitan city, where the churches of the Armenian and Syrian communities stood side by side with the mosques. The city's main Armenian church is vast, but today it stands in ruins, the roof caved in. Most of the Christians fled when the fighting whipped up an Islamic fundamentalist backlash. Those who are left are too frightened to talk.

Modern Diyarbakir is a city of fear. No one I spoke to would give their real name. Diyarbakir is still a hotbed of support for the PKK. Even the mayor is on trial for alleged PKK links. "These people have no future," Mr Tas explains, pointing to the shanty towns. "Most of the PKK guerrillas come from here." But Ms Celik disagrees. "All I want from the government is a proper house," she says. "Our problem is money, not politics." These are the victims of the bitter struggle - the innocents who support neither side, simply caught in the middle.

Justin Huggler