Diyarbakır is Burning

Bullets in the skyline. Diyarbakır, 2011.

An image remains in my mind that encapsulates Turkey’s second election day this year. Especially within the pro-government AK Parti (AKP) strongholds of Istanbul, such as Beykoz. As we sat in the café of the regional elections centre, watching television, and waiting for the vote count to slowly arrive, every time a Turkish or Kurdish member of the left-wing HDP (People’s Democratic Party) delegation rose from their seat, the police in the room would laugh.

The police laughter was dark, colouring the room the sort of dingy grey you find behind a picture hanging on a wall for years. It was sinister-sounding. The oppressive politics of the AKP work in the same way: they’ve slowly worked their way through Turkey, discolouring and depressing almost every section of society.

Later, once we’d decided that the votes would not change – that, in fact, the HDP vote was not rising or even staying at the level of June, but decreasing – we put on our warmest clothes and decided to leave. From Beykoz, we only had one way back to Taksim, and it was a Sunday night, so we knew we’d be waiting a little while for the bus.

The beeping that approached us as we walked towards the main road built into a tremor of car horns, music and shouts as AKP, supporters came in their throngs, or rather their cars, to celebrate their victory at the polls. The road was quickly blocked with tens of vehicles, the music varying from traditional Turkish songs, to electronic riffs on Erdoğan’s speeches.

I’d seen photos of a similar victory parade that happened in Diyarbakır in June. Ecstatic that a Kurdish party had finally passed the threshold, people all over the city got in their cars, blasted music and streamed Kurdish and HDP flags from the windows. Others stopped at central spots, in Istanbul and the Kurdish-majority cities, to dance halay.

What I witnessed felt completely different. Stuck at a bus stop surrounded by AKP supporters with their various AKP flags and banners of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, most of us were silent. The dream of June had ended, exposed as a fantasy. Hundreds of AKP supporters were flashing R4BIA signs, joy-riding through the streets, with a blatant disregard for exactly what AKP rule means for Turkey. Some used the hand gesture of the ultra-nationalist, racist Grey Wolves.

The AKP’s Turkey is a society where the state’s response to declining public support is to besiege the towns and neighbourhoods that have voted against them. The AKP’s Turkey is a society where the police and army have become a body through which an historically corrupt state exercises its political will against its opponents, and voters.

What is free and equal voting in this society? The HDP submitted an official complaint to the Supreme Electoral Board to this effect, with Adana MP Meral Danış Beştaş saying on November 16 that “the election took place against the principle of integrity and the president and the interim government thus put their signature to a major election fraud.” This major election fraud was not one of numbers, but one of a major party being put in “a situation where it could not hold rallies or campaign”: a situation of war where voters were intimidated into voting for their oppressor.

I write, without a doubt, that the AKP’s increased vote tally came not through legitimate campaigning or any improved governance, but through a deliberate campaign against the Kurdish population and HDP voters, which has brought Turkey back to the brink of armed conflict.

The police and military, co-opted as political tools time and time again by the AKP, have shown since June the price that Kurds can pay for subverting political norms in southeastern Turkey. A Kurdish party pushing past the baraj means going to war,  shelling, shooting and laying siege to cities and towns across Northern Kurdistan.

Kurdish political actors and voters in Turkey are now stuck: they may have finally won their place in parliament as a ‘legitimate’ political party, but they are on the verge of paying a great price for this insolence.

As we started to discuss our memories of the election the next day, in the HDP’s Tarlabaşı office, the co-chairs of the Istanbul branch of the HDP arrived and thanked us for observing.  Busy, they couldn’t stay for long, but made some brief statements: geçmiş olsun (“get well soon”).

In June, the HDP began wishing for a büyük insanlık (big humanity) in Turkey. By November, the party was demanding peace (inadına barış). After writing the first draft of this article, the journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül were arrested. Two days later, the head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, Tahir Elçi, was shot and killed.

The state claimed that his death was the result of clashes with the PKK, with Elçi, a supporter of the group who had been criticised for claiming “the PKK is not a terrorist organisation,” being shot by the very people he supported. Videos showing Elçi’s death, filmed as he was in the process of a press conference, showing Turkish police failing to shoot down the assassins at close range. Social media speculation on his death is now rife in Turkey, with many claiming that this was yet another incident of state-supported violence used to intimidate Kurds.

On November 22, Selahattin Demirtaş, co-president of the HDP, survived an assassination attempt in Diyarbakır. With Elçi’s death increasingly looking like a state-organised assassination, committed in broad daylight in front of television cameras, I am frightened to imagine who will be the next victim in this developing civil war.

In the weeks that have passed since Elçi’s assassination, Kurdish-majority cities have yet again returned to curfew. With Cizre, Silopi and the Sur neighbourhood of Diyarbakır under siege, tens of civilians – including children and a pregnant woman – have been killed by government forces determined to extinguish support for the HDP, PKK and other Kurdish movements. In the last few days, protests against the shelling of homes put under curfew have grown beyond the Kurdish regions into Western cities, such as Istanbul.

Geçmiş olsun Turkey.

Photograph courtesy of William John Gauthier. Published under a Creative Commons License.