A bomb, a baby, a hunger strike – the Kurds and Turkey’s referendum

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With Turkish nationalists split over the 16 April constitutional referendum and even some dissidence in President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s AKP, the country’s largest ethnic minority, the Kurds, found themselves courted by all. I visited Diyarbakir to see how the conflict in the south-east and the influence of the left-wing HDP were affecting the campaign.

The former caravanserai in Diyarbakir awaits a politiian’s visit during the referendum campaign Photo: Tony Cross

Tuesday 11 April 2107, Diyarbakir province

We’re on our way to see a little girl who is going to be called Yes for the rest of her life.

But more of that later.

As we drive across the flat countryside of the south-eastern province of Diyarbakir, a report comes through of an explosion at the main police station in Diyarbakir city, which we left about an hour ago.

Should we turn back? Has our search for the latest in nutty names meant we’ve missed a major news story?

At these times you weigh up sordid calculations like the numbers of dead and injured and the likely news impact of the event. We conclude that by the time we get back to the city the area will be well and truly sealed off and then an official statement that the blast, although big, was an accident in the police station’s garage, so we press on.

Mustafa Celik with Evet Photo: Tony Cross

We arrive in Gecitli, an alleged village that appears to consist of about three farms, and meet Mustafa Celik, a Kurdish farmer who is so enthusiastic about the referendum that he has decided to call his newborn daughter Evet, which even I know by now means Yes.

Celik has two wives and seven other kids, so maybe he was running out of ideas for names but one can’t help wondering whether he has weighed up the longterm consequences of his choice of name for his daughter.

Not that he isn’t an affectionate parent. He cradles Evet fondly in his arms as we stand in the sun outside his rectangular one-storey dwelling, chickens and ducklings pecking at the ground around us.

This stocky 43-year-old, who raises animals on several hectares of stony land, is one of the minority of Kurds who support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP.

Adem Karakoc Photo: Tony Cross

He expresses the usual admiration for the leader but, above all, points out that no other bothered to provide his village with electricity and water or guarantee health care for the poor, important considerations when you live in a bare concrete block with no doors inside, even for the toilet, in the back of beyond.

It’s the reason Adem Karakoc and several of Celik’s relatives give for backing the AKP, when, at his request, we drop the proud father in their equally tiny village of Taveran.

I was anxious to speak to other people in the neighbourhood and suggested we go to see the local muhtar, a sort of mayor, but Celik told is he didn’t talk to the press, an assertion that doesn’t entirely convince me, since they apparently had a disagreement over the phone during a previous media visit.

To read my report on a girl named Yes click here http://en.rfi.fr/europe/20170411-turkey-referendum-girl-named-yes

Wednesday 12 April, Diyarbakir

HDP MP Feleknas Uca with hunger-striking prisoners’ families at her party’s headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir is rife with rumours about that explosion, a favourite being that the police were preparing a bomb to plant at Saturday’s rally by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) so as to revive the security concerns that won the AKP the second election in 2015.

We drive past the site and see the blast has done very substantial damage. On one side of the compound is another empty space – the site of a previous bombing, claimed by the Islamic State armed group.

The government has changed its mind and declared that yesterday’s explosion, which killed a police officer and two civilian personnel, was a terror attack.

A PKK unit dug a tunnel from the basement of a block of flats next door, they say, and they have issued photos to back up the claim. They show a wall daubed with “PKK” and other slogans, the tunnel itself and there’s even a bed for the industrious attacker to take a pause in.

Later the PKK claims responsibility, saying that it was a gesture against Erdogan’s “fascist” plan.

A security roundup has seen 177 people detained.

Pro-Kurd party under pressure on security

Behiye, on hunger strike for prisoners who include her son, Murat Photo: Tony Cross

“Just today dozens of our comrades involved in the campaign were arrested,” HDP MP Feleknas Uca tells us, after detailing the measures taken against her party since the 2016 failed coup.

She is sitting among a group of families of Kurds found guilty of membership of or association with the banned PKK – who are on hunger strike for improved conditions of detention.

One of them, Behiye, 56, tells us that her son, whom she first calls a “guerrilla” before correcting her terminology to “political prisoner”, is in the 21st year of a 26-year sentence and complains of overcrowded cells and other alleged mistreatment.

The HDP became a rallying point for a resurgent left after the protests against the closure of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, campaigning not only on Kurdish rights but also gender equality – all its posts are shared by a man and a woman despite the traditional conservatism of the south-east – LGBT rights and anti-capitalism.

But, having won 13.12 % of the vote in the June 2015 election, it saw its support decline to 10.75% in November.

In between the two polls the government had broken off the peace process with the PKK and launched a massive security operation to which the guerrillas responded in kind.

With his declarations that a No vote is a vote for the “terrorists”, Erdogan hasn’t held back from playing the security card again this year.

So one has to ask whether the HDP’s association with the PKK – pictures of its leader Abdullah Öcalan are hanging in the party headquarters where we meet Uca and she, like he hunger strikers, is wearing a garment bearing his portrait – has damaged the HDP among Turks who are not Kurds and conservative Kurds.

Uca is unrepentant.

“Today who is fighting Islamic State? It’s PKK. Today who are giving their lives for the people? It’s PKK,” she argues. “We can’t find a solution while we’re sending the PKK away from the table. We have to all get around the table to find a solution.”

Like Sinn Fein and other nationalists in Northern Ireland in the past, the HDP would be accused of treason if it distanced itself too far from armed struggle, whether its leaders wish to or not.

To read my interview with Feleknas Uca on RFI click here

Victimisation leads to solidarity

Mehtap Yörük serves a client Photo: Tony Cross

We meet Mehtap Yörük on the corner of a street in front of a café.

She is serving rice and chicken to customers, although she is a qualified teacher.

She is one of the thousands of state employees who were fired after the 2016 coup attempt.

She, like the others, has never been personally informed why, although the explanation for the purge is that those dismissed were members of the Fehtullah Gülen organisation that is believed to have plotted the putsch.

Which strikes Yörük as odd since, far from being a follower of the US-based imam, she is a left-wing social issues activist.

Of the 130,000 people purged since last July, at least 3,150 were trade unionists or other activists presumably fingered by employers or colleagues who wanted to see the back of them, according to left-wingers.

Serap Kilic behind the counter of her mezze shop Photo: Tony Cross

Serap Kilic and Selma Atabey are two more.

They have also gone into catering, opening a small mezze restaurant, where customers can eat cucumber in yoghurt, walnuts and dried tomatoes and other delicacies to background music that ranges from Kurdish music to Johnny Cash.

One striking thing about their story is that, while Atabey is a Kurd and a long-term Diyarbakir resident, Kilic is an ethnic Turk, sent to the south-east as a condition of her civil-service employment as a statistician.

The purge has at least revealed reserves of solidarity. Many of their customers are fellow victims and Kilic says that Kurdish people, who have plenty of experience of discrimination themselves, are sympathetic to her plight.

Despite some pressure from friends and family in Istanbul, she is happy to stay here, she says.

Atabey was a nurse and believes that her work with fellow trade unionists to provide medical care to people trapped under military-imposed curfews in Cizre and the central Diyarbakir district of Sur is the real reason for her dismissal.

A small girl is hanging around the restaurant as we speak.

She is the daughter of the cleaner, a mother of five whom the pair employed after finding her family had been forced out of their home in Sur, Kilic explains.

To read my report on Turkey’s purge victims and the referendum click here

Thursday 13 April, Diyarbakir

Nurcan Baysal in her office Photo: Tony Cross

Nurcan Baysal remembers the bullets that hit the block of flats she lives and works in during a military operation in Diyarbakir.

And she remembers visiting the site of the killing of the city’s bar association, Tahir Elci, and the bodies in the street where she was born, some of them with their eyes gouged out.

Baysal, a writer, newspaper columnist and activist, is certainly voting No, she tells us and she goes on to vent her rage against the Turkish state’s destruction of much of Sur.

“Can you imagine? For 5,000 years there has been life in this area and all this life has been demolished in the 21st century.”

A concrete barrier blocks access to part of Sur Photo: Tony Cross

Parts of Sur are still sealed off by concrete barriers installed by the military and armed police officers and vehicles are an ever-visible presence in the city centre.

In a No campaign base run by the HDP a young man called Isa wins applause when he says he’ll vote No because “I’m against all this fascist system and oppression”.

“Everybody is talking about economic problems but so many young people have lost their lives, mothers are crying and I don’t want mothers to cry,” he goes on.

Adil in his cheese shop Photo: Tony Crpss

But there are Kurds who will vote Yes.

One of them is Adil, the burly owner of a cheese shop in Sur.

He has no time for the PKK, accusing the guerrillas of bad faith during the peace process, and caring more about Yezidi refugees from Iraq than local people.

It’s difficult to stop Adil once he gets going, accusing both the army and the insurgents of being infiltrated by the Gülenists – as it happens many of the senior military arrested after the coup had been based in the south-east, although I know of no evidence of a Gülen-PKK overlap – and, for good measure, accusing the AKP of caring more about Syrians that the people of Sur.

Mehmet Kaya, the headmaster of a private school in a suburb of the city that is still under construction who works with local NGOs and is also an analyst, believes the PKK made a mistake in declaring autonomous zones in areas where the HDP had massive support.

It may have been a response to provocation by the state, he says, but the ensuing destruction drove enough Kurds away from the party to drastically reduce its vote in the November 2015 election and could still influence the referendum result.

Erdogan tries to win Kurds and nationalists

Erdogan, too, has to reconcile some contradictions.

He needs to win the support of conservative Kurds, who could even hold the balance of power in the referendum due to splits in the nationalist camp.

But his tone at a rally here at the beginning of the months was strongly nationalist, repeating the “One nation, one flag, one state” stance he has adopted since breaking off the peace process.

That’s because he must also rally the support of voters from the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and that is far from guaranteed.

The party, which is strongly secular, is split over its leader’s support for the constitutional changes with several high-profile MPs campaigning against and a substantial number of voters opposed, according to opinion polls.

With its support for previous military dictatorships and its history of opposition to such basic demands as the right to speak the Kurdish language in public, the MHP is profoundly repellent to most Kurds.

Winning substantial Kurdish backing while keeping that of the nationalists is a tall order even for such a supreme political manoeuvrer as the Turkish president.

To read my report for RFI on the Kurds and the referendum click here

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