A quarter century after I was arrested by Turkish police, things have only got worse for Kurdistan

When I was hauled into the local police station 25 years ago, a lonely copper stood outside. Today the place is ringed by barbed wire, armed guards and iron anti-rocket screens

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The fine black stone Ottoman gateway of the Karavanserai Hotel was just the same: guarded by two antique stone lions, the reception desk tucked away to the left of the door, the 18th-century Diyabarkir courtyard shaded with trees, the cool ground-floor rooms lining the square with their mottled black and white-striped walls. A quarter century ago, the hotel owner had knocked on my bedroom door – the one directly across the square from the gate – and behind him stood two men in black leather jackets. “I am sorry to bother you, Mr Fisk,” he said. “But some policemen are here to talk to you.”

Today, this was a hotel gone to seed. Back in 1991, foreign correspondents and aid workers ate and drank amid twinkling lights under the trees. But there were no more candles on the tables, no more dinners served beneath the trees. In fact, no more dinners served at all.

The bedroom I was shown to was unwashed. Dirty sheets lay on the floor. No self-respecting Turkish policeman would dare accost a foreign journalist in this grubby place today. Nor dare, I suspect, linger in the street outside – although there was a police vehicle idling at the end of the street where the local constabulary could hide behind their armour.

Even the police station round the corner had changed. When I was hauled in here 25 years ago, a lonely copper stood outside. Today the place is ringed by barbed wire, armed guards and sheets of iron anti-rocket screens. The menacing Turkish police who interrogated me all night with rubber coshes in their hands (some of them now in retirement, no doubt, a few perhaps no longer alive) have turned into armed sheep. The PKK have seen to that. No cop would wander the streets of Diyabarkir on his own today.

But those 25 years contain some lessons. The journey between then and now passes through a familiar narrative of Turkish repression and Kurdish revolt, of Turkish military indiscipline and pride, to outright army mutiny. Refugees lay, as always, at the heart of the story: depopulation, flight, hunger, fear. 

It was an emergency American helicopter flight to a remote mountain region called Yashilova packed with refugees that brought about my own little drama all those years ago. Turkish troops had been stealing blankets and food from thousands of refugees fleeing the vengeful legions of Saddam Hussein’s army after the 1991 Gulf War, when we urged the Kurds and the Shiites to rise against the dictator and then left them to the gallows and Iraq’s execution squads. It was a disgraceful episode in which British Royal Marines objected to the looting and ended up pointing their rifles at their Nato allies. The Americans intervened just in time.

I wrote up this extraordinary story for The Independent’s front page. And the Turks were very, very angry. 

I have to say now – all those years later – that I have always had a soft spot for the Daily Mail. For, however much I may rage against its vile and racist pages, the Mail’s man in Diyabarkir ran to my door when he saw the cops, pushed them aside when they told him to clear off and jumped in his car to chase me to the police station when I was arrested. The Indy’s local man unheroically high-tailed it to Istanbul when he heard of my arrest. But the Mail man even stormed into the police station to demand my release. Which is how our mates should behave towards us.

But now to the interesting bit. A police inspector (no less) demanded to know why I had written such disgraceful things about the Turkish army (because they were true) and if I had taken any photographs of the event (no, but I didn’t tell him that). Unknown to me – this lasted until past four in the morning – the Turkish government had already decided to punish the Marines for their audacity by deporting the entire unit from Turkey. They were “redeployed” to the “safe zone” of northern Iraq. But what the cops wanted from me – an exhausted embassy second secretary from Ankara translating through the night while vainly pleading with me not to answer any questions – was an admission that I had defamed the Turkish army.

There would be a trial. Defaming the Turkish military was a crime. So I thought this should be a court hearing with a difference. I knew what my defence would be. “My father always told me that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was one of the titans of the 20th century,” I told the inspector. “I believe my father was right. Unfortunately, some of your soldiers at Yasilova did not obey the high standards and principles set by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish nation.” 

It was enough. No court would want to hear me defending Ataturk against the thieves of the Turkish army. The word “deport” began to be muttered inside the police station. And so it came to pass. I was put on a flight from Ankara to Frankfurt next day.

Syria’s Kurds stand at a crossroads in the region’s history

So when I returned to Diyabarkir a quarter century later, on 9 October 2016 to be precise, a few thoughts raced through my mind. The place was a closed military area, banned to journalists without a special pass – I followed the time-honoured tradition of seeking no such permission – and Diyabarkir air base was still roaring with Turkish fighter-bombers. Back then, they had patrolled the skies over Turkish Kurdistan while American jets patrolled the skies over Iraqi Kurdistan. Now the Turkish planes were taking off to bomb Turkish and Syrian Kurdistan. The great Iraqi tormentor, Saddam Hussein – the Butcher of Baghdad himself – was never Turkey’s enemy. Nor, today, is Isis. Nor, I think, is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Kurds are Turkey’s enemy, just as they always were. Back then, there was butchery between the PKK and the army in the remote villages of Kurdistan. Today, there is butchery between the same two groups in Diyabarkir and Cizre and Nusaybin, and the other Kurdish cities of south-eastern Turkey. 

But more important, back then, was the supposed dignity and equally supposed honour of the Turkish army. To call them thieves was apostasy. You could be put on trial for that – or, if you were lucky enough to be a foreigner, deported. But these same untouchable soldiers are today locked up, their generals beaten in prison, their officers about to stand trial for their lives after participating in the attempted July coup against the Turkish president.

It is Turkey that has changed. The Kurdish-Turkish conflict – briefly and brilliantly lit by the chance of peace two years ago – goes miserably on. But Turkey’s army is now a broken force, its country contaminated by its constant interference in Syria, its supplies to Islamist rebels, its dirty secret trade deals with Isis and its equally secret weapons smuggling for the CIA.

The largest army in Nato is now led by a man who is cosying up to Vladimir Putin (after shooting down one of his aircraft and paying the literal price), but this may be a wise idea since that same largest army in Nato could probably not withstand a single Russian division.

No wonder, as the world snarls and cries its crocodile tears for eastern Aleppo and accuses Russia of war crimes – I saw a BBC reporter on World Service television this week actually referring to Russian “crimes” in true Cold War mode – scarcely a word of criticism passes the lips of Turkey’s president. There are, of course, quite a lot of little Aleppos scattered around south-eastern Turkey right now. No tears for them, of course; no talk of “crimes” by the BBC. 

In the end, I abandoned the wretched old Karavanserai and checked into the spanking new Hilton Garden Inn Hotel over the Tigris river. Then I drove off across Kurdistan at dawn, past a great army barracks, its gates covered in armour, its soldiers hiding unseen behind their vast walls and razor-wire. And what, I wondered, would Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish nation, have thought of that?