Published March 10, 2012
Just before the midday clouds broke with snow on the first day of March, a large crowd, including nearly eighty mayors with the pro-Kurdish B.D.P. (Peace and Democracy Party), gathered in the backyard of the B.D.P. offices in the Kayapinar neighborhood of Diyarbakir, the second-largest city in southeastern Turkey. The office, a two-story house painted red, yellow, and green, the colors of the Kurdish flag, is set back from Diyabakir’s new wide highways by white metal fences whose barbed wire and spindly tree branches seemed to be the day’s only security. Along the path to the yard, someone had built a wood fire inside of a metal drum, and men huddled around it, smoking cigarettes and rubbing their hands together for warmth.
They were there to protest the ongoing arrests of B.D.P. officials detained because of their link to the Union of Kurdish Communities (K.C.K.). The Turkish government considers the K.C.K to be the urban arm of the outlawed P.K.K., which is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the E.U., and for over thirty years has been in an armed conflict with the Turkish state. But protesters all over the country have felt that the K.C.K. arrests go too far, imprisoning dissenting voices, not terrorists, and exposing a broken, clogged, and biased justice system. Since April, 2009, over six thousand people have been arrested, including politicians, lawyers, activists, journalists, students, and professors.
Street protests are common in Diyarbakir, giving the city a reputation as a center of political unrest. They almost always turn into a violent clash between protesters and police, which leads to more arrests. They also seem to increasingly be the domain of the younger generation—those willing to charge a line of riot police and withstand tear gas, those fueled both by rage at the common story of a parent’s imprisonment and by feelings of invincibility at having not yet experienced prison themselves. These “nineties children,” as they are often described, see little hope in politics.
Compared to street protests, hunger strikes are boring; replacing the loud cracks of tear-gas cannisters and chants is the barely audible whine of an empty stomach. But the mood in the B.D.P. office that Thursday was intense. There was the feeling that if the mayors wanted to give the younger generation the option of political negotiation, not violence, they would have to do something quickly; the K.C.K. arrests were tightening the deadline. Osman Baydemir, the hugely popular mayor of Greater Diyarbakir and the day’s host, said, “My generation is the last generation to want a dialogue. The youth today are the villagers’ kids, the kids of political prisoners. They are very radical. They are very nationalistic. We want to leave a peaceful world for them, but first we need a justice system of peace.” Then there was the more immediate matter of the approaching spring. Typically, with first thaw comes the first battle; the mayors worried the P.K.K. was planning something big. “It gets scarier and scarier with spring coming,” a mayor said.
Over their winter coats, the mayors wore white smocks with the words “BECAUSE THERE IS NO FREEDOM, WE ARE ON A HUNGER STRIKE” stencilled in red and black capital letters. Baydemir began to speak, evoking Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the P.K.K., and women ululated at the name. “The B.D.P. believes in democracy and peace,” Baydemir said. “We also believe in civil action. I believe strongly that the Kurdish question can be solved with a dialogue. We’re starting this hunger strike to get the attention of the A.K.P.” Outside, a band played, but most of the crowd followed Baydemir into the small house, kicking off their shoes until a large pile of damp boots and mens’ dress shoes—and the occasional pair of high heels—blocked the front door.
The gathering was about solidarity, but it also illustrated how diverse and fractured the issues of Turkey’s Kurdish region are, even while politicians from that region are lumped together and even though all the problems seem to lead back to the Kurdish issue. For a local mayor, the K.C.K. arrests are as much a distraction from work as they are a threat. Baydemir in particular complained about the lack of authority in local government. Every decision, he said, has to go through Ankara, and there is a bias against southeastern politicians. “Right now Turkey is being governed by nationalists. We can’t even name a street or a park in Diyarbakir without asking the A.K.P. first. Most of the mayors in this room have court cases against them for expressing opinions,” he said. All the mayors together, in a sweltering living room with posters of Öcalan and Kurdish flags decorating the walls, was a reminder of issues long forgotten by the Turkish and international media. A mayor from Van, which last October was devastated by a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, was still protesting the dismal emergency response from the Turkish government. “There are small earthquakes every day,” she said. “People have learned to live with it, or they have left.”
Edibe Sahin, from Dersim, was also struggling with an old issue. Last November, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (whom Dexter Filkins writes about in the magazine this week) apologized on behalf of the Turkish government for the 1937 Dersim massacre in which thousands of Alevi and Kurds were killed. Some applauded the apology, others criticized Erdogan for blaming the C.H.P., the main opposition party. It’s been a while since anyone brought it up, but it was only the previous Saturday, Sahin told me, that a local committee in Dersim decided they would accept the apology, with one caveat: “They have to define it as a genocide,” Sahin said. “Of course, the Turkish government has problems using that word.”
Across the room, Mayor Fadil Bedirhanoglu described life in Hakkari, a province of Turkey jammed awkwardly between Iran and Iraq. “We are in the mountains, and the mountains are in Hakkari,” he said. “The mountains are covered with soldiers. It is an open-air prison.” Many of the residents, the mayor told me, live in crippling poverty. They beg or smuggle, and last December, when thirty-five Kurdish smugglers—many under the age of eighteen—were killed by the Turkish Army in Uludere, his constituents suffered. “There will always be smuggling. But the message of Uludere is that if the government wants a Kurd to live, they will live. If the government wants a Kurd to die, they will die.” The mayor of Uludere was not at the strike; he is in prison. So are mayors from nearby Sirnak, Cizre, and Silopi.
Mehmet Fasil Turk, the mayor of Mersin, was discussing his district’s latest headline-grabbing issue: sexual abuse of young prisoners in the nearby Adana prison, a scandal which the Mersin Human Rights Association had brought to light. The young political prisoners, they said, had been purposefully bunked with adults who were there for violent or drug-related crimes. The mayor of Mersin thought it went even deeper. “If those had been Turkish children,” he said, “the whole country would be in an uproar. Because they were Kurdish children, it becomes political. And the media goes deaf.”
Upstairs, Serhet Temel, a representative of the mayor of Batman (who is in prison), could recall with precision the details of a murder that took place last September. A family was gunned down while they drove through town, and a pregnant woman was among those killed. It added to Batman’s reputation as a battleground—the population is ninety per cent Kurdish and home to constant demonstrations—and also the distance between the city and the rest of Turkey. That the P.K.K. carried out the attack was reported as fact in the media, but Temel clings vehemently to another story. “It’s a manipulation. The inside story is completely different,” he said. It was the police, he thinks.
Baydemir had moved to this room, which was cooler and less crowded. While I spoke to Temel, Baydemir read the news on an iPad. Someone circulated with tea. It was quiet in the room and outside while the snow picked up. Occasionally a minibus honked its horn. No one walked by. The tangles of sticks and barbed wire shifted a little in the wind. With the winter cold clearing the streets, spring seemed far away. The mayors in their white smocks seemed tired, leaning against the wall reading newspapers, isolated in the full house while the unseasonable snowfall whited out the Diyarbakir suburbs and the ancient and recent problems of their chosen districts waited stubbornly for them at home.
And who was taking care of all of those districts with all the mayors gathered here? “N.G.O.s , deputies, and administrators,” Baydemir said. Then he laughed. “We’ll all be in prison soon, so they need the practice.”