Destruction in Kurdish capital of south-east Turkey is dark mirror to Syria

Hundreds of houses are peppered with bullet holes in Diyarbakir, where the Kurdish PKK, or Workers' Party, are fighting the Turkish government

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All day and all night, the big white trucks roar along the muddy road inside the black, volcanic walls of Diyarbakir. They enter the old city empty and leave piled high with rubble. When I walk down the same narrow road after dusk, two massive bright searchlights switch themselves on. Despite the glare, I can see a crumpled house, a smashed roof. And then a policeman in a flak jacket holding an AK-47 steps into the light. “You can go no further,” he says to me in Turkish, bored, tired. He’s given this order a thousand times to the Kurds.

In the narrow laneways behind me, where a tiny 16th century palace tea-house and an ancient Islamic madrasa school have survived, there are hundreds of houses peppered with bullet holes, their glass broken, scorch marks above the windows. When I walk into the broken entrance of one, I find the internal lower walls have been smashed through as fighters sought to move between buildings to avoid government snipers. There are the remains of tunnels through which the same men climbed to avoid capture.

Sound familiar? But no. This is not Aleppo. Nor Homs. Nor the crushed suburbs of Damascus. This is the Kurdish capital of south-eastern Turkey today, the dark mirror to the tragedy of Syria; a largely unreported catastrophe which has joined all the other forgotten suffering of this region – occupied “Palestine” comes to mind – now that Washington and Moscow are fighting over the right to decide the future of the Middle East. Only today, of course, it is the Kurdish PKK “workers’ party” – more gruesomely-obedient party than workers, I’ve always thought – which is fighting the Turkish government’s soldiers and policemen. 

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The damaged columns of a 16th-century minaret in the Sur district of Diyarbakir (Reuters)

Walking around both the brashly, almost repulsively new, and staggeringly old versions of Diyarbakir, you cannot fail to understand its uniqueness. No Islamist fighters would ever join this battle. Indeed, they might choose to take the side of the Erdogan government, which effectively restarted this old war when it abandoned a genuinely optimistic peace process with the Kurds and whose AKP – and here’s the rub for lovers of independence wars – has more adherents in “Kurdistan” than any Kurdish party. Until the truce fell apart amid Erdogan’s arrogant assumption that nationalism was more important than peace, many Kurdish people in this land believed there might be rapprochement at last with their Turkish neighbours.

But amid the daily attacks in the city and in the countryside – on PKK fighters, police stations, army patrols – all that was gained when Kurds briefly entered the national parliament is now being squandered. Kurdish newspapers have been closed, along with their television stations. Even the Tigris University is still constrained to call its Kurdish department “the Department of Living Dialogue”, although at least it still exists. Take the battles that consumed this city towards the end of last November and then in the first months of this year. Not only did they destroy part of the centre of Diyarbakir, a small- scale version of the soukh-destruction of Aleppo, but they turned war once more into something normal.

After a recent gun battle amid the orchards alongside the miserable sewer that still passes for the Tigris river, the authorities were only just prevented from cutting down this city’s biological lung – as American troops often did in Iraq and Israeli troops do in the occupied West Bank and Syrian soldiers do north of Lattakia – by the threat of mass protests. Thus the pageant of trees remains, courtesy of potential demonstrations, as both cover for the PKK and ambush points for the army. Truce saves arboretum.

Everyone can recall the most recent drama – Kurds and Turks tell remarkably similar stories – which was the culmination of street battles between the PKK and the army. On 28 November last year, the head of the local Bar Association, Tahir Elci, was holding a press conference in front of the “minaret of the four legs” – a sobriquet earned by the rather Big Ben-style minaret which is supported by four stone piles — in the very centre of Diyarbakir. He wished to protest about the continuation of the fighting. Two PKK fighters apparently set out to assassinate him.

Both were apparently being trailed by the cops. A battle broke out and the two PKK members hijacked a taxi which – as in every movie – happened to be driven by an off-duty police officer. He managed to contact his headquarters whose uniformed police then stopped the taxi. The gunmen then killed both the police and the off-duty driver and fled towards the scene of Elci’s press conference. More police then opened fire on the PKK and the two men shot back and Elci was hit by a bullet in the head – “right between the eyes”, as one witness told me, as if to emphasise the deliberateness of the act. A stray round? And if so, who fired it? Thus began, even before Elci’s funeral, the inevitable question: was the man “assassinated” by the police or by the PKK?

In the aftermath, the battles resumed in the city centre, and the authorities managed to destroy so much of the place in their scramble to destroy the PKK fighters there – the PKK, of course, being the “terrorist” force infinitely more important to Erdogan’s “anti-terror” war than Isis — that national shame has taken the place of victory. The police have draped a huge curtain of heavy plastic across the street where Elci died beside the minaret – so that you can no longer see the destruction of the ancient buildings behind. The plastic sheet has taken the place of words.

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The covered columns of the minaret (Nelofer Pazira)

I walked up to the wretched thing and tried to look through holes in the curtain. But there were other curtains behind it. “You cannot look any further,” a plain-clothes policeman shouted at us. Then through the curtain came a woman carrying a baby, the wife and child of a policeman behind the screen; family visits, it seems, are essential to keep up the morale of the policemen patrolling amid the rubble. This was more than surreal.

Outside on the main street, the ancient “khan” buildings of the Kahvaltici Kadri serve the best breakfasts in Diyarbakir – the courtyard is packed with families drinking tea, selling ground Kurdish coffee beans in packets, or carpets bearing the faces of leading Kurds; there is Mustafa Barzani, and Riza Sayed Talabani, and a Kurdish commander who committed suicide in prison in the 1990s, and Deniz Gezmis from Erzurum, hanged by the government in 1972 after the Turkish coup of 1970. There’s even a portrait of Imam Ali who was definitely not a Kurd and whose presence among the carpets even the seller could not explain to me.

Just outside the gate lurked two big police armoured vehicles – painted white and blue with POLIS on the side – and a store of children’s toys which included plastic AK-47s and, yes, a perfect set of miniature police armoured vehicles painted white and blue with POLIS on the side. Young men in shades and flak jackets – real ones, with rifles in their hands – watched the crowds with something approaching insouciance. This war, I suppose, has gone on so long that the drama of change has somehow been sucked out of it.

Down another of the smashed alleyways, a middle-aged woman and her family beckon to us from a coffee shop. She is a school teacher. “Sooner or later the police will leave,” she says with bleak eloquence, smiling all the while. “But this is our place, and when the police go, we will still be here.” I was left to reflect upon this self-evident truth when I passed a street placard, advertising a local Kurdish performance of a Shakespeare play, on all week. “To Be or Not To Be” it was called – you know the real name – so I guess that the Prince of Denmark must now be Diyarbakir’s hero. He killed the king, of course. But he ended up dead. And the best line is: “Words, words, words.”

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