Low flying military aircraft kept interrupting my conversation with Hatice Kamer, a journalist and documentary film producer. When I asked her about the reason for these military flights, she shrugged. “We are used to it; maybe they are patrolling the Syrian and Iraqi borders.” In Diyarbakir, the major urban centre of southeastern Turkey and the unofficial Kurdish capital, the army is omnipresent and military planes and helicopters regularly hover overhead. Just outside the old city, huge areas are considered “security zones”, contained behind barbed wire and guarded by army barracks and housing blocks for military families. Travelling from Diyarbakir to nearby towns, you often pass military convoys and see large military fortifications overlooking strategic roads.
We are in rebel lands, and the military is there to keep control.
Yet there has been change since January, when the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) announced a ceasefire and the start of yet another peace process, known in Turkey as the “solution process”. Since then, military pressure has eased. Checkpoints and roadblocks have gone, although you can see their remains on major roads. Most important, armed clashes, which peaked in 2012, have stopped: no soldier or guerrilla has been killed this year (although unarmed civilians have been killed in clashes, as in Lice last June). And inhabitants of Diyarbakir say the police presence on the streets (and associated pressure) has eased.
Even so, many wonder whether the peace process will deliver. Baris Alen, a member of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP, the Kurdish political party) and a foreign relations advisor at the municipality of Diyarbakir, said: “We do not think the current process will lead to peace, but we hope it will change the logic of the struggle from a military to a political one.”
The BDP wants to be active in legal political struggle, but the Turkish authorities are hindering it. Though it has been in control of the Diyarbakir municipality since the 2009 elections, the BDP’s possibilities are limited: while the municipal council and the mayor are elected, the government appoints the provincial governor, and he has the final say, signing every paper to give it legal power — a curious situation from a democratic perspective, since the people’s elected representatives ought to supervise the executive, not the other way around. As a result, the municipality’s projects are regularly dismissed. (For example, the municipality had a recycling plan, to be financed by a German bank; when the authorities accused the bank of “financing terrorism”, the project was shelved.)
Following the BDP’s electoral success in 2009 — it increased the municipalities under its control from 56 to 98 — there was a wave of repression: some 100 Kurdish elected representatives were arrested, accused of collaboration with “terrorists”]. One independent MP, Hatib Dicle, was thrown out of parliament in 2011 because of a former conviction under the terrorism law, and replaced by an AKP member. Dicle had been imprisoned for 10 years (1994-2004) for saying “the colour of the tear of a mother of a dead soldier or a dead guerrilla is the same”, putting the Turkish military and outlawed PKK fighters on the same footing.
Abdullah Demirbas, mayor of the Sur region of Diyarbakir (the historic centre inside the city walls), said: “The central government does not have a positive view of us; this is reflected in the relationship between municipal councils and the valis (governors) it appoints. If valis establish good relations with local authorities they can be dismissed, and there are several examples of that.” He added that the new vali was elected only a couple of months ago and the first impression was positive, while the previous one refused to have any dealings with the municipality. Could this be a sign of shifting policies in Ankara?
One of the major areas of struggle between the Diyarbakir municipal authorities and the Turkish state is that of language rights. When Demirbas was elected in 2004, he promised to use local languages in the administration — meaning Kurdish, and also Arabic, Armenian and Assyrian. He published maps of the historic part of the city and tourist guides in those languages. For this, he was suspended from office in 2007-09, then imprisoned for five months. He said: “It is very positive that negotiations started between the central government and Abdullah Ocalan (the imprisoned PKK leader). Based on this, the PKK withdrew its forces from the Turkish borders. This proves that from now on, democratic and political instruments will be used for the struggle — as Ocalan has demanded.” But, he added, “the government is not giving the people a chance to use these political instruments.”
Kurdish politicians in Diyarbakir complain that in spite of the PKK’s engagement in a political solution and the withdrawal of its guerrillas from inside Turkey, the government has not fulfilled its own promises.
A major problem is the hundreds of Kurdish — and other — political prisoners in Turkish jails. According to the agreement between the government and Ocalan, there should have been progressive releases, but they did not happen. Meanwhile the Kurds have been demanding Ocalan’s re-trial. They want other important reforms: the recognition of Kurdish national identity, equality between men and women, a lower threshold to enter parliament (currently it is 10%), and new laws permitting the use of Kurdish in education and public spaces.
Demirbas rejects the idea that the Kurdish political movement wants to divide Turkey: “We have made up our mind: we wish for democratic autonomy in a democratic Turkey, in a democratic Middle East. We want all the people of the region to live in peace without changing the current borders. (The government) did not create the needed environment … for political struggle. This worries us. We are worried that the Turkish government is trying to gain time until the next elections.”
A recent statement by the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives substance to Kurdish fears. On a visit to Turkmenistan, he declared on August 16 that the PKK had not withdrawn its fighters from Turkey. “The promises given concerning withdrawal from Turkey have not been kept. Around 20%, most of whom are women, children and the elderly, have left the country. Except for them, withdrawal is not in question,” he said. He also warned PKK guerrillas not to start militant activities inside Turkey again: “To those who threaten to attack, the security forces of this country will surely not say ‘Welcome’. They will take the necessary action.”
Erdogan rejected major Kurdish reform plans. The much reported “democratization package” did not, he said, permit the use of Kurdish: “Education in mother tongue will not be possible at private schools either. That issue is not one that we can deal with now … As the AK Party, we won’t take any steps on issues that will divide our country,” he said, adding that his government has already granted students the opportunity to learn their mother tongue at school. He also refused to reduce the 10% threshold to enter parliament.
Is this a major setback to the latest Turkish-Kurdish peace process? Or, is Erdogan simply manoeuvring for internal politics, to appease the large nationalist electorate? In Diyarbakir, Demirbas is concerned that continuous manoeuvring will alienate the guerrillas once again. He is worried a new war could erupt “if we do not succeed in bringing the people from the mountains to the political process. In the last two months alone, some 3,000 young people went to the mountains. I personally know of 230 such cases; parents come and complain about the situation to me. I also have a son in the mountains.”