Reading children books in Diyarbakir

Mayor Abdullah Demirbas has 17 accusations against him raised by the Turkish state. The case has reached the High Court, where he is facing charges against both criminal law and administrative law. If found guilty, he can be sentenced to prison, and both he and the entire local parliament can be forced to resign.

So what are your crimes, Mr Demirbas, I ask him. We are sitting in his office, over looking the old stone wall in Diyarbakir. The Sur municipality is the most central and historic one in the city. The mayor’s table is solid dark wood, and occupies a great deal of space; he is tall and well-built, behind him on the wall there is a tiny tiny picture of Atatürk. According to Turkish law all municipal mayors’ offices have to have one, but the mayor can at least decide the size. Before he answers my question he brings us bags with books. “I published fairy tales in both Kurdish and Turkish. There are five books containing 365 tales, for parents to have one for every night of the year. That is one crime.”

The Turkish nation state is based on the Atatürk idea that neither ethnic minorities nor languages other than Turkish exist. Momentarily they did, when Turkey signed the European Union Treaty for Minority Rights during the EU-membership negotiations. The Kurds seemed to have thought that Turkish membership would take a path over the Kurdish issue. In the Kurdish region, in the eastern part of the country there were rallies organised in favour of the EU and Turkey becoming member state. At the same time as the Left in Europe organised in campaign groups to vote against the euro and the constitution, mobilising enormous protests at EU summits against what was primarily seen as a neo-liberal project, the left in Kurdistan saw the EU as a possible liberator.

Abdullah Demirbas is a shiny happy mayor. Whatever story he tells he smiles. He shows us the municipal activity report he also published both in Kurdish and in Turkish, another reason for criminal charges. I find a cd in the bag that says Linux and I ask him what it is. “It is the Linux translation program for Kurdish.” Another crime. He is upset about the Turkish government double standards, charging him but at the same time telling the EU that they have changed the law. But foremost he is happy, because his citizens are very happy about the children books and about the Linux program.

Kurdistan is the region in the eastern part of Turkey inhabited by 10-12 million Kurds. In 1984, PKK and a national liberation front started the struggle for Kurdish rights, a state or a region with a high level of autonomy and socialism. The guerrilla was both left and nationalist. Struggle was intensified in the 90s. During a large part of the 1990s, there was a constant war. On one side there was the liberation front, on the other the Turkish army and Kurds their forced in as allies. As in Viet Nam the Turkish army applied a system of village guards, giving arms to Kurds to fight other Kurds. During the war the Turkish state burnt down 4 000 villages and thousands of trees and fields. People fled to the cities.

In a few years Diyarbakir grew from 300 000 thousand to the current nearly one million inhabitants. Neither infrastructure nor services were prepared for that influx of people. Most of the present-day elected mayors were in prison then. When they finally got out most of the Kurdish municipalities were in the hands of Kurdish Muslim, fundamentalist and corrupt administrations. The mayor of Yenisehir, Firat Anli, had to face both a bad economy from the time of corruption and hundreds of major and minor restrictions which the Turkish government puts on local governance. Before the left was elected as mayors, in the Kurdish region the municipalities owned land; directly after elections 1999 the state reclaimed it. They cannot plan, cannot build. “We even pay rent for the house I sit in”, says the mayor in despair. A map of the city inevitably makes associations to Belfast or Gaza; where services could be given to the people land is occupied by the military.

In post war Diyarbakir the level of illiteracy is high, among women it is above 50 percent. Lack of services and infrastructure makes people’s lives complicated. That is why festivals for children, initiatives for women and conferences for political activists are highly appreciated. And the line between what you can and cannot do is thin. The women’s centres can have English courses but if they organise a Kurdish class they would have to shut down. At a festival, mayor Demirbas made a banner that stated: Every human being has rights. It hung proudly in two languages: Turkish and Kurdish. That was another crime.

The mayor claims that he did not do all the bilingual activities to test the law. He is surprised, he declares, by the hard reactions. Most of the left mayors in the Kurdish region are facing criminal charges. Demirbas had to resign as head of the teachers’ union in the region because of a booklet in Kurdish.

Turkey is in political turmoil. The Islamists won the last elections in Turkey but the military are still running the country. They did not accept them as winners. New elections will be held on July 22. For a political party to get into parliament you have to pass a 10 per cent limit, which guarantees that minority voices are unheard.

Children in the Sur municipality are far from those realities. Mayor Demirbas has introduced a children’s parliament where they debate things they want for their neighbourhood. Among them, the books are appreciated. Children would never be able to afford to read children books in Diyarbakir as frequently as they do without the municipal initiative.

Within one month the court will have their say in the Demirbas case. Petitions from members of the European Parliament are coming in. The EU-commissionaire responsible for Turkish membership negotiations has stated that the outcome can have affects for the future of Turkey in the EU. It will also affect the mayor and his children books.

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