Distortions and Divisions
In 1927, Diyarbakir was Turkey’s third-wealthiest city, but years of conflict have damaged trade and investment; now it is among the poorest. Although the Turkish economy has been booming, about 20 percent of the population in Diyarbakir is unemployed, twice the national figure, and what wealth there is serves only to accentuate the severity of the poverty. The literacy rate is 18 percent lower than the national average, and worse for women.
Diyarbakir was also once a tourist destination—visitors could scale the ancient walls, tour churches and mosques, and stroll along the Tigris—but these days, the city’s violent reputation precedes it. On the website TripAdvisor, two discussion threads are “Is Diyarbakir safe at this moment?” and “PKK frees kidnapped Briton.”
In Istanbul, a guide will point out the vast dome of the Hagia Sophia, the spindly minarets of the Blue Mosque, or lead you across the red-lit walkways of a dank underground cistern. In modern Diyarbakir, the itinerary takes a tactical path. While driving from the airport, a friend might wave at a pair of traffic lights, saying, “That’s where the Turkish policemen were shot.” The traffic lights are the second site on a tour that explores Diyarbakir’s bad reputation—the first is the airport itself, where bombers used to roar off toward the Qandil Mountains to fight the PKK.
Ask a local to identify the military barracks: many are indistinguishable from other buildings save for barbed wire. Some barracks (there are many) are more easily noticed, set off from the main roads by high, guarded gates and ornamented with statues of larger-than-life soldiers. Don’t miss the park where a bomb once tore through a crowd; today, locals sip pistachio coffee—a regional treat—beside a monument to those killed. Nearby, a car bomb aimed at a military vehicle was detonated; the blast was so loud, some say, that it could be heard for miles. At another wide square, hundreds gathered angrily when prison officials made Ocalan cut his hair—an act seen as unnecessary humiliation. Take a walk through Baglar, the poorest neighborhood in the city, where the walls are a riot of PKK graffiti.
Here is where four Kurdish rebels were hanged, and there is Dicle University, where students are always on strike. The BDP headquarters fly a black flag in memory of the Kurds languishing in prison. That’s where protesters clashed with police while demonstrating for an end to last year’s hunger strike. There are the mass graves you may have read about in the newspaper. And that’s the Diyarbakir soccer stadium, a run-down concrete structure painted a shade of green not to be found in They Burn the Thistles. It is widely believed by local fans that the team was demoted out of the big leagues because it seemed to bring trouble; at away games, your guide will inform you, rival fans would shout “Terrorist!” and throw plastic chairs onto the pitch, even though some of the players weren’t from the city and others weren’t even Kurdish. It’s a demotion the guide has little desire to investigate. What other reason besides being wrongly maligned for being Kurdish would cause the team to lose?
In the center of town, surrounded by tea houses and apartment buildings, is Diyarbakir prison. In the 1980s, the wails of tortured inmates echoed from the prison through the city streets. Even those Diyarbakir residents too young to remember the state’s military incursions against the Kurds say that they remember the wailing. Today systematic torture is illegal, but Diyarbakir prison remains full. Turkey has severe anti-terror laws, which prosecute members of a terrorist organization as well as those found to be “spreading propaganda,” evidence for which has been known to consist of a single recorded conversation, or the use of Kurdish in a political speech, or the byline of an article about the PKK. These laws weigh on every citizen in Diyarbakir. Since 2009, several thousand Kurdish politicians, journalists, activists, and other Kurdish or pro-Kurdish workers have been arrested under an umbrella court case against the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which the government considers the “urban arm” of the PKK. Until 2010, minors charged with terrorism could be tried as adults, and the trauma of prison time haunts the young generation. Turkey has learned the hard way that when you put a child in prison for terrorism, he could leave it a terrorist. The cells are full at Diyarbakir prison, and if, when standing outside it, you can see a pair of brown shoes airing on a windowsill, as I did one afternoon, imagine what the inmate sees when he looks out the same window. That, your guide will remind you, is the point of having a prison in the center of a city.
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