DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY // Walking through the main streets of Diyarbakir’s Sur district – one of the world’s great walled cities – there is a facade of normality. A line of shoeshiners wait for customers, men in winter coats drink dark tea at outdoor cafes, shoppers gaze into the windows of jewellery shops.
But things are far from normal here. Government forces only declared an end to months of intense combat operations targeting Kurdish militants in Sur on March 9. A curfew put in place in December – lifted only for brief periods for civilians to flee the fighting – has been eased in recent weeks, though much of the district remains locked down.
Checkpoints manned by heavily armed police officers are positioned at the gates of the Old City and throughout Sur’s main thoroughfares. Sandbagged positions guard intersections. Access to the eastern side of the oval-shaped Old City is cut off by barricades as it remains under a 24-hour curfew, with no civilians allowed to go in or out. Dump trucks haul rubble away from the quarter.
Turning down the Old City’s twisting alleyways reveals homes shattered by improvised explosive devices planted by Kurdish rebels ambushing Turkish security forces, evidence of fierce gun battles, and doors kicked open in house-to-house fighting. Climbing on to rooftops to peer into neighbourhoods that have not been cleared yet, one can see buildings broken by artillery fire.
“The Turkish government used big weapons – the kinds of weapons that can only be used between two countries fighting each other,” said Ihsan Seviktek, 45, a shopkeeper from an area of Sur still under curfew. “It was a massacre. We were forced to leave. We had to leave, otherwise we would have been killed as well.”
Sur is just a small glimpse of the wider war in Kurdish-majority south-east Turkey, where Kurdish militants affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, have been battling government forces since July when the group broke a two-and-a-half year ceasefire.
The PKK and its allies say they are fighting for autonomy or independence in Kurdish-majority parts of Turkey – areas where many people feel they have long been mistreated and oppressed by the government because of their ethnicity and cultural identity. The militants have only been emboldened by the massive gains toward autonomy made by the PKK’s sister organisation in Syria, the YPG.
The Turkish government maintains that Kurdish citizens are granted equal rights and that the war is merely a terrorism problem, frequently equating the PKK with ISIL. In January, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan reasserted that there is no Kurdish issue in Turkey, only a terrorism problem.
As the war gets older, it is hardening positions on both sides, with the government increasingly lumping the most popular pro-Kurdish political party in with “terrorists” and leaving Kurds in the country’s south-east even more distrustful of the state and increasingly radicalised in their beliefs.
With combat operations recently declared over in Diyarbakir and the town of Cizre, on the border with Syria, the government is now turning its attention to forcing militants out of other areas of Turkey’s south-east such as Nusaybin, Sirnak and Yuksekova. As some of the displaced in Diyarbakir begin returning to their homes, new refugees from the latest front lines are arriving in the city.
According to a tally by the International Crisis Group, 350 members of Turkey’s security services have been killed in eight months of fighting – with 140 dying this year alone. At least 250 civilians have been killed. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced. And according to the Turkish government, “thousands” of PKK militants have been killed since the conflict began in Turkey and northern Iraq – where the PKK maintains bases in the Qandil mountains.
One of those thousands killed was Mr Seviktek’s brother, Mesud, a bespectacled 24-year-old fighter with the PKK-affiliated YDG-H militia in Diyarbakir’s Sur district.
Mr Seviktek decided to flee Sur along with other family members during a short lifting of the curfew on December 17, but his brother Mesud stayed behind to fight. He was killed six days later.
Mr Seviktek said Mesud’s body was left lying in the streets for more than a month as the family was denied permission to recover it. When the body was finally delivered to a morgue, Mr Seviktek said there were so many bullet holes in it that he believes Turkish security forces took pot shots at it as it lay in the street.
He did not challenge his brother’s decision to join the militia early last year.
“Because there are no human rights, I could not refuse him, I could not stop him, I could not tell him not to do it,” he said. “On the contrary, I was even kind of proud of him because there is a pressure that is unjust in Turkey ... If he didn’t join the PKK he would have been in prison.”
In poorer areas of the south-eastern Turkey, many know somebody who is a fighter or has been in jail. Like Mr Seviktek, his brother Mesud spent several years in jail for activism, an incarceration that he viewed as unjust and pushed him to join the rebellion.
War and displacement are common themes in Mr Seviktek’s life. When he was 22 years old and living with his family in a village outside the town of Lice, north-east of Diyarbakir, Turkish troops one day rounded up the village residents and burnt the settlement to the ground. Mr Seviktek spent more than three years in prison because of his political activism with a Kurdish political party, he says, but denies ever being a militant. However, he has a son and another brother who have both joined Kurdish forces fighting in Syria.
“We’re not going to stop struggling until the end, until our last drop of blood,” he said.
The militias like the one Mesud belonged to did not stand much of a chance against Turkey’s well armed police force and military. They fought tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopter gunships with assault rifles, improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades.
With celebrations for the Nowruz spring festival banned elsewhere by Turkish authorities this year, Diyarbakir hosted the country’s only authorised festivities on Monday in a field on the city’s south-western edge. To get in, thousands upon thousands of revellers waited at tense, corralled checkpoints as police – some with hand grenades stuffed in their pockets – barked orders and searched them one by one.
Nowruz marks the Iranian new year, but for Kurds, it is also steeped in a mythology of the Kurdish people winning freedom from an evil Assyrian king thousands of years ago. Banned in Turkey until 2005, Nowruz has been seized by Kurdish nationalists as an opportunity to express Kurdish identity.
In the days leading up to the festival rumours swirled in Diyarbakir that ISIL suicide bombers were set to attack the celebrations. Others feared a resumption of battles in the city or that the government would send riot police to disperse the event. Attendees said the celebrations were much smaller than in previous years.
“They [the Turkish government] scared people about suicide bombers so they wouldn’t come, but the brave and those who wanted peace came,” said a woman in her 50s named Fatima, who had been forced from Diyarbakir’s Baglar district by the fighting.
“For us, Nowruz is a struggle, it is freedom. It is a tradition that has gone on for 2,500 years,” said a 28-year-old architect named Metin.
Inside the Nowruz site, a sea of people waved flags of the PKK and of the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia and banners bearing the face of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan beneath an enormous burning ceremonial torch that towered into the sky.
On the main stage, giant video screens broadcast footage of Kurdish militants carrying rocket-propelled grenades and rifles through the war-ravaged streets of south-eastern Turkish cities as well as images of Ocalan. Every so often, Turkish fighter jets would roar overhead, flying out from Diyarbakir’s air base to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq and Turkey’s border areas.
Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) took to the stage and called for peace talks.
“If they [the Turkish government] want to achieve a result by crushing with war and violence, bringing people to their knees, this will only bring chaos to our country,” he said, according to Reuters.
The Turkish government’s ruling AK Party has increasingly attacked the HDP, saying it has links to the PKK. After deadly suicide bombings carried out by an extremist Kurdish faction in Ankara, Mr Erdogan has pushed for parliament to widen the definition of terrorism and lift immunity for parliamentarians to allow them to face terrorism charges.
Requests by The National for interviews with AK Party officials in Diyarbakir were unsuccessful.
The HDP officially denies links to the PKK and has continually called for peace. But the party cannot entirely escape the weight and importance of militancy to the Kurdish movement in the south-east of Turkey. In HDP offices, portraits of Ocalan hang on the walls. And the HDP organised this year’s Nowruz festivities in Diyarbakir, which featured imagery of militancy broadcast to the crowd.
“The people, the mothers and fathers whose children were killed, massacred and died in the struggles, these are the voters of HDP,” said Nesih Guldekin, vice president of the HDP in Dyarbakir. “HDP cannot ignore this.”
Despite the HDP’s calls for peace and even calls by Ocalan for the PKK to lay down arms last year, many in south-east Turkey continue to see armed struggle as the only way forward.
The months of sieges, battles and killing have only fomented militant ideology among many here.
In February and March, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK – a group that is said to have splintered from the PKK – claimed two large suicide car bombings in Ankara that killed 66 people. The attack on February 17 targeted military buses, while the March 13 attack carried out by a female suicide bomber targeted civilians.
The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey and a number of countries in the world, including the United States. And the group has been known for periods of ruthlessness in its history: killing its own members, turning its guns on dissenters in Kurdish areas and assassinating traffic police. But in the most recent bout of fighting, the group has prided itself on only attacking military and police forces and avoiding civilian casualties.
But TAK is different. The group is extremist, unapologetically ruthless, and effective in its killing. It has adopted the kind of car bombings against civilian populations made familiar in the region by ISIL and Al Qaeda, absorbing them into its secular, nationalistic cause.
And despite TAK’s willingness to target civilians, the group is popular here.
“We support TAK,” said Jehat, a 24-year-old man attending the Nowruz festivities in Diyarbakir. He had recently fled fighting in his hometown of Yuksekova on Turkey’s border with Iran. “What TAK does is giving a voice to the massacres in the Kurdish areas” and giving a taste of violence to Turkey’s usually calm areas, he argued.
“The state is not following the rules of ethical war. They are not fighting. They are massacring.”
Ahmed, a man in Sur who works near the zone of the district still closed off by the military, smiled when asked what he thought about TAK.
“They say they are taking revenge, so I do not blame them,” said Ahmed. “The majority of people here support them. There are people who will sacrifice themselves easily for them.”
The pro-Kurdish HDP has condemned TAK’s attacks, but has faced criticism from the government after one of its deputies offered condolences to the family of a TAK suicide bomber and the party failed to back a parliamentary condemnation of the bombings.
Mr Guldeken, the HDP official in Diyarbakir, said TAK was following the wrong path, but that given the circumstances in south-eastern Turkey, its message and tactics are likely appealing to many here.
“After all these massacres, how can you control the youth? These youth are in such a mental state after these massacres that anything is possible. As you can see, they want to die,” he said. “We are against this message ... [but] it’s not us who can stop this war, it’s the government.”
Though the violence of the past eight months has already cost Turkey’s Kurds so much, many still feel the violence will continue and could even bring political change.
“During the curfews, thousands and thousands of teenagers ... went to the mountain for their education,” said Ahmed, referring to PKK training camps.
“And I’m sure they will come back someday.”