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The English version of Loez’s excellent article about Diyarbakır, published by Ballast on April 1st 2021.
Diyarbakır, largest Kurdish-majority town inside the Turkish border, is sometimes described as the “Capital of Kurdistan” for its political and cultural dynamism. The heart of Kurdish resistance to the assimilation and colonialist policies of the Turkish state, a large part of its historical center was destroyed during the military repression in 2016 and 2017: one has heard this described as an “urbicide”. Since then, the urban transformations deployed by the Erdoğan regime are at the service of a pacification policy.
⬜ Reportage by Loez
Mid-February 2021. As the sun shines down on Diyarbakır, the end of winter takes on the look of spring. While the sanitary situation improves locally after an important number of deaths during the first months of the pandemic, a crowd out shopping before the weekend confinement flows through the Gazi main street – it runs through Sur, the old town’s historical core. The neighborhood is named after the massive ramparts of black basalt surrounding it, listed in UNESCO’S World Heritage, as are the Hevsel gardens that spread out at its feets all the way to the Tigris running along the pebbles of its shores below. Besides its numerous historical monuments bearing witness to a multi-ethnic past where Kurds, Armenians, Syriacs and Jews co-habitated, mutually enriching their cultures, Sur was also a militant bastion of the Kurdish movement: a notorious insurrectional center where “the police did not enter”, as says Berat, a child from the neighborhood. One in need of subduing, then, with every means available. During a visit to Diyarbakır on June 1st 2011, Erdoğan had already announced a coming reconstruction, based on the development of tourist activities: an agreement had even been signed with the HDP City Hall. 1
The times were still to the easing of political relations. But faced with the opposition of neighborhood inhabitants to leave their homes, the project remained in abeyance. At the end of 2015, Kurdish youth exasperated by the absence of openings and the renewal of State repression against the Kurdish movement took up arms against the Turkish State, declaring the neighborhood’s autonomy and setting up barricades to control access to it. While the revolt spread to other towns, the Turkish army and the special forces of the gendarmerie and of the police kept the neighborhood under siege for over three months, applying disproportionate means against the resistance. Land and air bombings transformed the neighborhoods of Fatihpaşa, Hasırlı, Savaş, Cemal Yılmaz – close to one third of Sur – into a huge field of ruins. Bulldozers completed the military work by pulling down the buildings still standing which could have been renovated since they were only partially damaged. In a meeting in 2017, the muhtar 2 from one neighborhood spoke to us about the feelings of a number of inhabitants and militants: “The State used the uprising of youth as an excuse to raze part of the neighborhood” – after failing to expel its residents through legal means. He does not wish to mention his name, for fear of reprisals.
Erasing memory, re-writing History
In fact, the reconstruction required after the bombings is not limited to the zones touched by the fighting: the ancient bazar has been standardized under the pretext of renovation. All the shops have the same appearance. Their names are written above them, on a brownish-yellowish background, all in the same typography: the frontage has been redone: it has been covered in a stone of a dirty grey, in a vague imitation of Diyarbakır’s historical stones. The intent is to create a touristic decor for a re-written History.
Serefxan Aydın co-presided Diyarbakır’s Chamber of Architects from 2016 to 2020, a mixed structure of profession syndicates and unions. He worked with the town’s City Hall before being fired during the wave of repression following the failed coup in 2016, which was used by the Turkish State as an excuse to muzzle the opposition – in particular that of the HDP, its elected members, militants and sympathizers in Kurdish regions. Sixty HDP mayors were fired, imprisoned and replaced by State administrators, the kayyum. The architect is now self-employed in a small agency in the Ofis neighborhood, an animated and commercial area, the true modern downtown of the city. In his office a piano rendition of “Plyushko Polye” covers the noise from the street. With his comrades he participated in the writing of an exhaustive report of some hundred pages on the destructions in Kurdish towns during the confrontations in 2015-2016: he shows, with the help of satellite images, the extent of the damage but also the impact of the reconstruction process. “They decided to destroy everything to erase the memory of this war,” he says. “The State could have preserved the historical treasures. Only some of the buildings required heavy restoration. Entire neighborhoods could have been renovated at a lesser cost. 48 classified historical buildings were completely destroyed, not a single stone was left standing. We made a survey last year: 247 historical monuments that had not been classified were demolished. In total, 4 900 buildings were destroyed.”
While the razed zone was forbidden and kept under lockdown by the police, basalt stones used in the building of the most ancient structures were removed and sometimes resold on the black market. On March 30 2021, the Mezopotamya press agency revealed the illegal construction by a local AKP boss 3 of a three-story restaurant in the very heart of Sur’s classified zone, with stolen stones from the destroyed houses. As for the remaining rubble which could have been used to rebuild an identical neighborhood “a part was thrown into the the river, into the Tigris, the rest as rubbish.” In Serefxan Aydın’s view, this disposal of the original construction materials was deliberate: it was another way of having both the traces of the fighting and of Sur’s memory disappear. “Had this been in another country, everything would have been done to re-appropriate this heritage, to restore it. Here, the State did the opposite. This heritage is not his, is not part of the country, it is a part of Kurdistan: so, it is worthless. But it does not only belong to Kurdistan, it is a world heritage, and that is what UNESCO says, this is part of humanity’s common heritage.”
Within the reconstruction perimeter, long closed off, finished houses stand next to a few ruins from the past, historical monuments that are supposed to be renovated and other lodging still under construction. Huge cement blocks painted white, before being covered with slabs supposed to imitate the original stone, these houses look like a film set. Which is what it amounts to: a huge stage set for the “new Toledo” desired by the AKP in order to attract tourists and rich strangers. Around a folklorized heritage.
While the ruins in Sur still smoldered and, in other neighborhoods, the insurgents still resisted, the former Prime Minister Davutoǧlu visited Diyarbakır in early February 2016. Speaking of Kurdish towns he then declared: “These towns developed in the 90s in an uncontrolled and deformed way. Even if these events had not taken place, these locations were destined for urban transformation. (…) The homes, mosques, schools and listed inns will be restored without damaging Diyarbakır’s architectural texture. We will rebuild Sur in such a way that it will become a place everyone will wish to see, just like Toledo.”
From a space for living, Sur must thus be transformed into a showcase: the historical monuments there are nothing other than attractions among others. Diyarbakır’s multi-ethnic history does not enter in the national narrative the Turkish Republic wanted at its foundation. Even if it prefers claiming the Ottoman heritage rather than the Kemalist one4on matters of Turkish national identity, the Erdoğan regime has modified little relative to its predecessors, rejecting all identitarian claims from other peoples in Turkey. Folklorizing a few monuments is one way to better forget that the Armenians and the Syriacs were massacred, that the Jews were pushed into exile and that Kurds are denied the right to self-determination.
In order to live up to the State’s ambitions, the small Diyarbakır airport, located within the town, was replaced by a huge construction with oversized ambitions on the outskirts: it looks like an immense empty shell. The landing strips seem to be used mainly by combat aircraft. Their roar resonates regularly, sometimes several times a day: as if there was still need to remind the inhabitants of the fierce war the State is waging against the PKK in the country’s southeastern mountains. The airport provides an example of the way in which tourist and military infrastructures can go hand in hand.
Benefits for Western firms
The Turkish State claims to have invested 13 000 000 TL (Turkish lira) in Sur’s reconstruction. But according to Serefxan Aydın, this money does not much benefit local firms. “50 heavily damaged buildings are being restored by firms from Ankara. Everything comes from outside. There are only Turkish firms from Ankara. None of the local ones are involved. They sit in their offices in Ankara and make plans for Sur. Perhaps you have seen the new buildings? They are horrible, absurd. They give the impression of being in a 3D mock-up. They have built villas, houses that have nothing to do with the local identity. Restoration or construction in Diyarbakır must normally include basalt stones from the region: this is what provides the local identity. It is an obligation. To be in conformity with this law, they brought stone in from Kayseri. Basalt is usually worked by hand: they use stone cut by machines, straight-angled. It’s like a game. Nothing serious, no consideration for the historical heritage.”
On the construction site, a few workers put the finishing touches to a house. They seem surprised at the sight of strollers entering the zone, opened by mistake apparently for a few days. They speak Kurdish. A few local firms close to the AKP have benefited from the trickle down of State financing. “The new houses are not built for local inhabitants. Everything in Sur belongs to the State, they bought back the houses for a fistful of money. To force the people out, they did everything they could to reduce the value of the houses. The poor people who lived there were forced to leave against their will. The State bought back the houses by force, the people moved into slums, the new houses are sold at auctions.” Expropriation policies also cover neighborhoods minimally damaged in the confrontations, such as Ali Paşa and Lalebey.
In June 2017, desperate at the thought of losing the apartment where she lived with her handicapped son, an inhabitant told us the State had forcefully deposited the money in her bank account. For one of her neighbors, the owner of the apartment she rented sold it without warning her. Despite court measures, between 3 000 and 5 000 families will finally have to abandon the site to construction equipment. Compensations to the inhabitants are between 30 000 and 100 000 TL (the monthly rent in a new family apartment is around 1 000 TL). A ridiculously puny amount considering the cost of the new houses, some of which are sold for around 1 000 000 TL. “The State really went into business,” continues Serefxan Aydın. “It is even likely that some houses were sold, or even given to people close to the party (AKP), to the State. Some real estate agencies bought these houses and re-sell them at an even higher price with ads such as this one: “House in Diyarbakır for resale with view on Sur”. The State also anticipates benefits from the indirect financial spin-offs from the arrival of a new wealthier population …and one on whose favours it can depend.
Besides the direct economic benefit of acquiring at low cost land with a high value potential, the low repayments had useful collateral consequences for the State’s pacification policy. Issa was among the first to leave the neighborhood in 2011 to occupy an apartment in a TOKI5 building set in a forest of other such buildings, all built on the same model. Every day, they spread their hold on the city a bit more. Issa bitterly regrets his choice: he feels he was tricked by those in power who had promised him a lovely apartment with a garden: he finds himself one hour away from his old neighborhood. In order to buy his apartment, he had to borrow at Bank Ziraat – controlled by the regime – because the compensation paid for his former home was not sufficient to cover the full amount. Given the interest rates, he is now in debt for 20 years. Sur occupants are often in precarious jobs: small businesses, daily workers or unemployed. Life in the other neighborhood is expensive, especially given the economic crisis – a situation increased since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Rents have skyrocketed: to which you must add a transportation budget because the relocations are often far away, which does not facilitate visits to old neighbors and increases constraint when looking for work.
Baxtiyar, born in the neighborhood and owner of a tea shop, vents his anger: “They sell people like vulgar merchandise. The aim of these projects is to break up Kurdish society. If we leave, we will be like fish out of water. Everything is done for their profit. They want to show their power and corrupt people with their money. It’s as if the State were conquering Sur. Once people are relocated, they are separated and mixed in with inhabitants in other neighborhoods. Social links are shattered, people are isolated.” Dispersal of the Sur population in other distant neighborhoods, the shattering of social links, debt: all matters that contribute to the muzzling of the will to protest, already strongly put down by the police and the judiciary system when it happens to express itself despite everything.
The urban transformations also aim to imprint the State domination and its ideology on lands hostile to it. “Six police stations were built in Sur”, details Serefxan Aydın. “They widened the roads and streets in order to link and connect them. In Bağlar, a politicized neighborhood with a solid militant base, they transformed the health center into a police station, and also the youth center, I think. Same thing for the kindergarden. And the same has happened in Cizre, Nusaybin. That covers the security aspect.”
And indeed, police stations and other military buildings like retrenched camps grow like mushrooms across the town, surrounded by high grey cement walls with surveillance cameras, above which float enormous Turkish flags, that cast their shadow on the surroundings. Rather sparse prior to 2016, the red national fabric now floats on the black basalt ramparts of Sur. On the main highways, small portraits of the Turkish president hang on the light posts. Through this nationalist iconography, the State makes loud claims of being in conquered territory. “The AKP is pro-Islam,” continues the architect, “there are mosques everywhere. Absurd concrete mosques, even if there were already some before, huge mosques. It makes no sense. But it’s only a question of gaining power. After reclaiming the kayyum, green spaces were transformed into mosques“. He concludes in a somber tone: “They fashion the towns according to their ideology.”
⬜ An independent photojournalist, Loez has concentrated for many years on the consequences of nation-states on the Kurdish people and to the resistance put forth by the latter.
Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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