Published March 9, 2012
In downtown Diyarbakir's Sumer Park, the city's largest cultural center targets the most disenfranchised—the elderly, the disabled, and the young. Its long hallways are full of handmade art and the slightly institutional smells from a large cafeteria, where workers learn how to fry fish and portion vegetables. Men play pool near the snack bar, and in a beauty parlor female students highlight and tease hair into elaborate wedding-ready styles. Kids kick off their winter boots before running into a classroom to play and old men color in the outline of tropical fish with thick, bright paint. The delicate strokes are part of a painful physical therapy.
In a large, sunny room in the renovated factory space, Handan Capanoglu sits beneath a standing space heater, huddled in a down vest and turtle neck. Capanoglu, an actress and filmmaker, teaches community theater at the center to kids between the ages of eight and 14. Frilly costumes, piled on top of a long bench by the back wall, and small stools await her students. The kids Capanoglu teaches are very poor, often the children of Diyarbakir's large population of rural immigrants. Their schooling is disrupted by the move and, often, by their low-level Turkish language skills. (Public schools in Turkey are taught in Turkish, a challenge for its large Kurdish-speaking population.)
Diyarbakir, too, is a political city, often glutted by the collective cries of protesters, lit up by the swirls of red, green and yellow, the colors of the Kurdish flag. Political life here is hard to avoid, and it ages people. The ban on the Kurdish language, seemingly endless poverty, arrests of popular local politicians, and the constant funneling of kids and teens to the mountains to join the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, strengthen the political stance of even the most recent Diyarbakir transplant. Then there is the common tale of involuntary, almost accidental conscription into political life. Protesters, people say, will rage past the gates of a school after last bell, picking up the exiting school kids like pebbles in a tsunami wave. They are suddenly part of Diyarbakir's political life, even more so if they are arrested or hurt.
But before that happens, they might get to act in one of Capanoglu's plays. She explains her latest production, "The Republic of Colors."
"It's about a king and his corrupted system. The people are pressuring the king to step down, and they choose from three candidates to rule: the king, a princess, or a street kid. I give the audience ballots, and they get to watch the fall of the system and then choose the leader. Last time they picked the princess. She talked about equal rights for women."
Considering the theme of the play—corrupted power toppled by the people—and the cast, it seems logical that the playwright meant for the street kid to win the election, not the royal. But don't feel too bad for the runner-up. Hussein, the 13-year-old actor who played the street kid, was chosen for something even better than public office: a role in an upcoming Turkish soap opera, the first to be filmed in Diyarbakir. It comes with 600 Turkish lira a month and steady work that might propel him into a decent life from which his poverty, made worse by his father's illness, would likely have kept him.
But in spite of its success stories and its feel-good mission statement to improve the city by engaging its residents in nonpolitical, nonviolent activities, the Sumer Park cultural center is the target of government suspicion. The center is funded by the local government, which is part of the legal pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Families who vote for other parties—the ruling AKP or the main opposition party—do not send their children to the center. Since April 2009, close to 7,000 people have been arrested in Turkey for their alleged links to the PKK. Among those arrested are human rights lawyers, politicians, activists, journalists and seven employees of the Diyarbakir cultural center, including its co-founder.
"They imagine that we force kids to learn Kurdish," Capanoglu says. "They think we are raising kids to be militants. You ask yourself everyday, will they take me?"
Upstairs Muazzez Onuk Ozder, the director of the community center, describes the impact of the arrests. "First and foremost they are trying to take away our motivation," she says. "It's been the same thing for 80 years, and for the past 30 years it's gotten worse. You see your husband commit a crime, the mayor commit a crime, the MP, your neighbor. Everyone is committing a crime. Everything is a crime."
Amid such arrests—predicated as they are on a conspiratorial web linking even the most unlikely actors—is a vast berth for collateral damage. What happens to the kids, not yet lost to politics, who watch as their drama teacher gets arrested along with their father, the mayor, the MP, and the neighbor? Ozder recounts the pressures the kids face. "After 1990 the city's population tripled. Villages were burned and people had to move to the city. Education was cut in half. The families were split up. There was no income and the men left for the west," she says. "These people were not ready to come to the city. They were forced."
Hussein, the budding soap star, proves that if the center catches Diyarbakir kids early enough it can offer them an alternative to the politicized and often violent lives of their peers. It can save them from arrest, offer them income, convince them to go to school. Employees at the center, like Capanoglu, become role models. The kids can even learn, or relearn, how to speak Kurdish. They make friends. But, whereas the center can stop the kids from getting into trouble, it cannot rehabilitate them. Capanoglu and Ozder, in spite of their efforts, have not been able to reach Diyarbakir's "stone-throwing kids"—the population of youth who were arrested as terrorists and then released from prison in July 2010 when Turkey revised its anti-terror laws.
"It's beyond what we expected," Ozder tells me. "Those kids are devastated. They are done, dead-alive." Capanoglu reiterates Ozder's dire pronouncements. "Their families keep them in the house," she said. "They are worried that if they let them out they will go to the mountains."
Among Capanoglu's students, however, are friends of the stone-throwing kids. It's through them that Capanoglu and Ozder hope to reach the hardest-hit youth. But it's unclear who has more influence over the students: their teacher or their friend. "They're all in politics," Capanoglu says. "They watch the news, not other TV shows. They think that throwing rocks is the right thing to do. They admire the action of the kid who has been in prison. They think their friend is a hero."
So while the community center swells with eager kids not yet fully caught up in the politics of Diyarbakir, the stone-throwing kids remain at the gates. In alarming numbers they return to prison or join the PKK. Rampant, systematic arrests cast a net over the city.
"Is what we do here enough?" Ozder asks. "No. The activities are not enough to bring them to a normal life. All of a sudden, the kids were called terrorists. But our mayor is in prison, too. Everyone is under threat. Do you think any of us are free? We are all in prison."