Diyarbakir: A City Under Siege

Photo: Reuters

Within just a span of one week, Diyarbakir has gone through unprecedented hardships that another city on earth could go through in a much more long time frame. The city is under siege as life conditions have become unendurable for residents in the past week. The government crackdown took different forms — political, social, cultural and economic — as a set of measures seem to be intentionally imposed by authorities to paralyze the basic tenets of social life.

First of all, pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) co-mayors of Diyarbakir Gulten Kisanak and Firat Anli were detained, days later arrested. Then, on Saturday, 15 mostly pro-Kurdish media outlets have been shut down in an emergency decree, closing down the only Kurdish daily in the country. Istanbul-based Dicle News Agency (DIHA), Diyarbakir-based JINHA news agency, and Ozgur Gundem, a leading newspaper in Diyarbakir which is known for its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), were among 15 media outlets, dailies and magazines across the region that were shut down.

But the magnitude of pressure on the city and its residents is startlingly vivid on display as people were led to a conviction that a total war launched by the state against them, not just against Kurdish insurgents amid the escalation of the fight throughout the region.

Echoing the unheard voices of the people in the streets, Diyarbakir-based Nurcan Baysal penned a touching article for T24 news web portal, describing social mayhem and chaos that dogged the city and its despondent residents, accompanied by a sense of abandonment and despair.

In addition to the crackdown on politicians and media, a complete blackout of the Internet only added to the agony and suffering of people who were even unable to protest government action and were desperate to make sure their voices reached to the outside world, to the rest of the nation, only to no avail.

A permanent state of emergency and state of war virtually declared in the city and every major street, leading to the municipality, were blocked, Baysal noted in her article. In a city of one and half a million, only a few hundred protesters were able to gather for a protest to denounce the detention of city’s co-mayors last weekend.

On Tuesday, Diyarbakir Bar Association applied to Constitutional Court about constant internet blackouts in the city. The association believes that there was an intentional interference to derail internet service in the city to curb people’s right to information and the Internet during social crises and critical moments. Speaking to the press, its head dismissed official explanation about technical problems, saying that the duration and timing of blackouts lead people to doubt official remarks.

Baysal lamented about the lack of the Internet in her article and went on to portrait how life in the city turned to a miserable one in the past week by offering vivid details of collapse in basic public services.

The trash was not being collected for days, public transportation in many areas came to a screeching halt, pharmacies are unable to offer service after the prescription system is blocked, she wrote. Hospitals and health system are in a dismal state. To multiply and harden more such challenges for people, police block dozens of roads, therefore, contributing to unbearable traffic jams in many junctures and roads.

The city and its people are going through a massive collective punishment, and this gets no place in the national media. In Baysal’s desperate call to the rest of the country, it is this negligence and silence that most hit people in Diyarbakir, plunging them into a sense of abandonment, loneliness, and dejection.

Both Baysal’s portrayal and other accounts offer a very bleak picture about the dire conditions in the city. There are mountains of trash on the streets of the city. Chief cause of this is the rejection of governor’s office to allow buses and trash trucks on the ground that they could be used for blocking city streets in a protest.

Baysal wrote: “We are disconnected to the outside world. No Internet for six days, sometimes it is back, only briefly. Whenever it is back, we get only bad news. I learned shutdown of 10 newspapers, two news agencies and three magazines, including DIHA, Azadiya Welat, JINHA and Ozgur Gundem. Critical voices are silenced day by day.

“Pharmacies have not prescribed medicines for six days; the business life came to a grinding halt as credit card machines do not operate. There is a significant problem in transportation as public vehicles do not work.”

The government’s massive purge also took a toll on Diyarbakir. Dozens of doctors and hundreds of teachers were purged just recently. There is a doctor shortage at hospitals in many places. The education system is also hit hard because hundreds of teachers were dismissed and some schools were shut down due to security risks in certain neighborhoods. Within last year, when scores of schools were forced to close down due to intense clashes in and around Sur, tens of thousands of children do not get elementary and secondary education in the city.

Overwhelmed by the mass flow of migrants from other parts of the region and rural areas that had become a war zone in 1990s, Diyarbakir has become the heartland of Kurdish political movement and its aspirations for regional autonomy, a vibrant civil society and a politicized youth who later formed PKK’s urban branches to set the stage for last year’s bloody urban war. Sur, the historic old city near ancient walls in the provincial capital, suffered a devastation after a months-long bloody war between PKK militants and the Turkish security forces.

The euphoria and jubilance among people in Diyarbakir that followed the historic election victory on June 7 of last year that sprung HDP to Parliament as a Kurdish political party for the first time in the country’s modern history, soon replaced by violence, destruction and public anxiety in the following weeks. The fragile truce between 2013 and 2015 dramatically collapsed. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned the table and chose the path of war to the negotiation process that his party once launched for a peaceful settlement of the decades-old Kurdish conflict.

Since then Diyarbakir and its people have been paying a heavy price for choices made by others, not by them. A stubborn PKK which disregards concerns of locals, and a president who vowed to impose his will on the country in general, and region in particular, are major actors responsible for Diyarbakir’s current predicament. Erdogan is still punishing Diyarbakir for HDP’s election triumph that cost his AKP majority in the Parliament last year and delayed his dreams for an executive presidency.

Often seen as the face and embodiment of Kurdish political cause, the city’s symbolic and political relevance far-reaches its provincial borders. Even PKK leaders in Qandil mountain adopt Diyarbakir’s local time as their time in the PKK camps across northern Iraq, a practice, in the words of Kurdish poet and writer Bejan Matur, reflects guerillas’ emotional attachment to the city.

The city that gave birth to several Kurdish political parties, recently, to HDP, is also home to Democratic Regions Party (DBP), the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), an umbrella organization that brings together all Kurdish political and civilian organizations. Its meaning and significance for Kurds are not lost on Turkish authorities in Ankara. For the city, Mesut Yilmaz, former prime minister, once said in the early 2000s that Turkey’s road to EU membership passes through Diyarbakir, revealing the political awareness in Ankara that Turkey has to solve Kurdish conflict if it wants to take place among EU members.

That road seems to bound to be closed for a while as an entire city and its people see their politicians arrested, their media shut down, voices silenced and were barely able to meet their basic needs under conditions no different than from a full-scale siege.

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