In the days and even hours before the bomb went off, the atmosphere among Turkey’s young leftists had been hopeful, even upbeat. The country’s Islamist government had just failed to win a parliamentary majority, and socialist feminists in Kurdistan were managing to simultaneously keep the Islamic State, or ISIS, at bay and experiment with a new kind of local direct democracy. While some had worried that a violent backlash by the conservative ruling party might be brewing, the usual repression and harassment had somewhat ebbed. For the country’s progressives, it felt as if the region might at last be ready for a politics of secularism, environmentalism, and women’s rights.
The hundreds of student activists arriving in the southern city of Suruc last month were therefore feeling jubilant and encouraged. Coming by the busload to the Syrian border, they intended to conduct a humanitarian mission to the city of Kobani, which was still struggling to rebuild after its destruction and attempted occupation by ISIS. Kurds in northern Syria have recently worked with the US military to beat back ISIS’s advance, and have formed the most formidable front against the Islamic State. American officials are careful to specify that they work with the Syrian Kurds of the YPG, but not the closely aligned Turkish Kurds of the PKK, whose organization is banned in Turkey. Kobani’s resistance has been a major source of inspiration for the Turkish left, with autonomous municipalities in the Rojava region embodying the dual ideals of anti-Islamism and anti-capitalism. For young Turks weary of their country’s religious and autocratic leadership, Kurdistan’s experiments in self-governance were a promising realization of left-wing values.
On the morning of the trip, July 20, the group gathered in the garden of a cultural center in Suruc, and prepared to cross the border into Syria. They brought piles of boxes, filled with toys and baby care supplies for Kobani’s children, plus materials to construct a kindergarten and plant a forest. They milled about happily, drinking tea, singing songs, and making sure all of the paperwork for the trip was in order. People were raising a banner and taking pictures. In conversation, they spoke to each other of a new phase, in which Turks and Kurds would finally unite in democratic peace. On that warm Monday morning, it almost felt possible.
The bomb, however, would change everything.
* * *
Oğuz Yüzgeç appears an unlikely candidate to help lead the movement of pro-Kurdish leftists in Turkey. He is a clean-shaven, bespectacled 23-year-old journalism student, warm and polite. He is not Kurdish himself, nor does he have any special personal connection to the cause. Oğuz says he became politicized at 14, when a government push to privatize schools caused him to think about youth issues and “made me feel as if the state was stealing our future.” At the same time, Oğuz says, as he gradually realized the extent of his government’s oppression of minorities, he committed himself to the struggle for democracy. Now, he co-chairs the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF), which organized the aid mission to Kobani.