Category Archives: Journalism

Moderate, extremist and other words that skew the news


2016 having turned out to be the year of the unpredictable, there’s been a brief spasm of soulsearching in the news media. Maybe one question we might like to address is the often unconscious bias in the words we use.

TV crews film Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip in 2009. Photo: Tony Cross

Are journalists really an out-of-touch metropolitan elite?

Well, to some extent, yes. Even if most journalists are not the well-paid celebrities that Brexiteers or Trump voters love to hate, we are educated, middle-class people who share the outlook of a certain social grouping and we can mistake that outlook for “objectivity”.

We’ve all heard those reports where the journalist, often in response to a question that invites them to be the spokesperson for a whole population, tells us “People think …”

Who are those people? Usually they’re the people we work with, the people we had dinner with last night, perhaps the politicians and pundits we’ve been interviewing, a very specific milieu whose opinions and prejudices are generally similar to those of the reporter.

For the reporter all reasonable people think this way – even if the equivalent milieu thought very differently on the same questions 50 or 100 years ago – and this outlook tends to be mistaken for the natural order of things.

This internalised bias is reflected in our coverage of events, our choice of subject matter and the terminology used in media that pride themselves on their objectivity.

Here are some terms I feel are widely abused:

Moderate/extremist: Do you consider any of your own opinions extreme? No, and nobody else thinks theirs are, either. Dubbing someone “extreme”, and even more so an “extremist”, puts them beyond the pale, situating them in relation to a consensus that you have not bothered to define and in general reflects your own prejudices. Was the Iraq War moderate in its aims, conduct or achievement? Did it enjoy majority support, either in the countries who waged it or in the Middle East? But how often have you seen Tony Blair or George Bush described as extreme? The consensus in the average newsroom has been confounded on several occasions in 2016. I’m not going to argue that Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or George Osborne are leading us to a brighter dawn. But are they extreme? Or are just the first three extreme and BJ and George moderates fallen into bad company? A more specific description of a political, religious or philosophical stance is more accurate and less value-loaded. Of course, we need a short-hand description of movements to the left or the right of the mainstream – far left, hard left, far right and hard right don’t carry so much implicit judgement.

Centre-right: Here, as I remember it, is how this term slipped into the political lexicon. Once upon a time the British Conservatives, Republicans, Gaullists etc were just plain right-wing and nobody thought any more about it. In the 1980s, led by Thatcher and Reagan, the mainstream right moved right. The mainstream left moved right as well, leading commentators to describe the Clintons, Blairs etc more or less accurately as centre-left. Then people without much political culture started saying “If there’s a centre-left there must be a centre-right” and relabelling the mainstream right parties “centre-right”. “Centre” had become one of those approval words, like “moderate”. But those parties hadn’t moved to the centre at all. There’s nothing particularly centre about today’s Republicans or Tories. François Fillon, the mainstream right’s candidate in next year’s presidential election in France, wants to scrap 500,000 public-sector jobs and thinks French colonialism was a sort of prototype for the Alliance française. What’s centrist about that?

International community: What is this entity? Who’s in and who’s out? Do you qualify by GDP, colonial history, skill in English? Is it established by UN votes? Or is it a way to make the opinions and interests of the world’s richest and most powerful countries sound like just plan common sense?

Reporters at Paris’s Bataclan concert hall, the scene of one the November 2015 Paris attacks Photo: Tony Cross

Terrorist: OK, this is an old chestnut. Terrorism is a bit like populism, we know it exists but we can’t really define it. Some people use it to describe non-state political violence but the origin of the term lies in its use by the French state after the revolution and virtually every politician has at some time or another labelled some government or other “terrorist”. We tend not to us the word to describe anyone whose actions we condone. Not many people nowadays use it for World War II resistance movements, although the German army certainly did. And we all know about “freedom fighters”, although we may not agree as to whether they operated in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba or, in any case, in what historical period they did so. I see that the BBC styleguide advises “its use can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding”, preferring “words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as bomber, attacker, gunman, kidnapper, insurgent and militant”, advice that is more honoured in the breach than in the observance, as far as I can see.

Militant: Which brings me to “militant”. I blame the south Asians for this. In the 70s and 80s, as I remember it, we had “trade union militants”, who may not have had a very good press but were rarely accused of shooting managers or bombing factories. Then there were quite a few armed groups active in south Asia and the media there tended to refer to them as “militants”. That seeped into BBC and other British coverage, later spreading to other English-language media. It’s true, so far as I can make out, that the roots of “militant” are the same as those of “military” but the former term has meant “combative” in a non-military sense for some time. The church militant is not exclusively that involved in the crusades, the militancy of the British miners was not armed resistance. And what is an “anti-abortion militant”? A “pro-life” activist or a marksman who shoots doctors at family planning clinics? In France we have the added complication that the French word militant just means activist, leading to all sorts of confusion in translation (I’m looking at you, AFP!). Ambiguous and best avoided, in my opinion.


Turkey’s post-coup purge brings fear of media witch-hunt


Turkey’s government has launched a purge of all institutions since the failed 15 July coup, including the media. But how do we know if it is pursuing genuine plotters or  witch-hunting government critics?

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Leman director Zafer Aknar with the offending issue of the paper Photo; Tony Cross

Istanbul 25 July 2016

The 15 July coup attempt came as a shock to everybody – including foreign journalists in Istanbul.

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan, who’s lived in the US for some time. She promised her family she wouldn’t be going back to Afghanistan or any other war zone, so they went to Istanbul, only to find themselves in the middle of a coup.

Kiran Nazish is of Pakistani origin and has also lived in the US. Having reported from a few hairy places, she went to Istanbul to write in peace on the banks of the Bosphorus. Thar didn’t work out.

Forty-two journalists and 31 academics had a surprise of a different sort this morning when they found themselves on a prosecutors’ list of people to be detained in connection with the coup attempt.

The best-known appears to be Nazlı Ilıca, a 72-year-old reporter and former MP who lost her job in 2014.

I have no idea if she has anything to do with US-based Fehtullah Gülen, who the government says was behind the power grab, but the evidence against her, so far as internet trolls are concerned, seems to be that she reported corruption allegations against members of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Those accusations arose during the earlier stages of the AKP’s feud with the Gülenists, now referred to by the AKP as the “2013 coup”, and led to a purge of prosecutors and police.

It also led to a crackdown on the media with papers having offending issues seized and some being taken over by the government, notably the Gülen-linked Zaman, whose English-language editor Abdülhamit Bilici was full of praise for Erdogan and the AKP when I interviewed him during the 2007 general election. How times change!

Media under attack since 2007

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Journalists’ union president Ugur Guc Photo: Tony Cross

In his office in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, journalists’ union president Ugur Güc is getting ready to defend any journalist who come to his organisation for help.

“Since 2007 many journalists have been arrested,” he says, although the union has lately had its hands full defending Kurdish journalists in the south-east, the scene of conflict between the military and Kurdish armed groups.

So the government’s record does not inspire confidence that the purge will be restricted to people truly implicated in the failed putsch.

“We will defend anybody who is a media worker,” he says. “We have many members who previously worked for Zaman newspaper and other newspapers and now are unemployed. For sure we will defend them!

“What they were doing was journalism. We are not interested in their connections.”

But he admits it won’t be easy to defend anyone who really supported the coup.

The problem is that the Gülen organisation really is a conspiracy, whose members keep their membership secret and aim to achieve positions of influence in the state and civil society.

The AKP knows this because it used its network to achieve power and fight the secularists, going along with prosecutions of alleged coup plots that are now being denounced as Gülenist set-ups.

Fear of a witch-hunt

The young man we meet in a café next to one of Istanbul’s many noisy major roads prefers not to give his name.

He is one of “six or seven” journalists who have resigned from Nokta magazine for fear of being caught up in a witch-hunt.

Nokta, which opposed the coup, has been fingered as a Gülenist publication and its chief editor, Cevheri Güven, is on the list of people to be picked up.

“Bringing journalists into line by forming such lists, not letting them sayl things we do not want is not a solution,” he says. “Because in a democratic regime everybody has the right of freedom of expression.

“We do not know what these lists are. They are taking some people, arresting them, then releasing some of them after a few days, and continuing to imprison some others. In my opinion this is not correct.”

Güven and a colleague were detained for two months last year because of a cover, showing Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffins of soldiers killed in the south-east.

Nokta has had to go 100 per cent digital because printing houses refuse to touch it.

Although Güven admitted sympathy for some of Gülen’s ideas, the journalist says he did not let it affect editorial policy and that the magazine took a different line to the Gülenists on questions such as Kurdish rights and democracy..

“I have not seen any connection to them. As far as editorial policy is concerned, our chief editor and coordinator said, we will try to make BBC-style journalism. I don’t think that a Gülen newspaper will try to do BBC-style journalism.”

Police seize satirical paper’s post-coup print run

“So you’re sort of Turkey’s Charlie Hebdo,” I say to Leman’s director Zafer Aknar as we sit down in the magazine’s cluttered office in central Istanbul.

And, indeed, there are photos of a visit by cartoonists and writers from the French satirical paper on the wall.

After the coup attempt Leman published a front page cartoon showing soldiers confronting anti-coup demonstrators, both groups pushed forward by huge hands, depicting the conflict as a “struggle for power between two groups”, as Aknar puts it.

“We prepared the magazine and sent it to printers,” he recalls. “Then we shared the front page on Facebook and Twitter as we have been doing every week. After this post, so-called journalists from the pro-government media launched a campaign against us and then Ak-trolls joined in. They shared the location of our office on internet and called people who were already on the street to go to the office.”

A mob gathered outside the office, although they missed the staff, who had already gone home.

When the police turned up they told the protesters to go home because they had everything in hand.

Which they did, in a way. In a scene that could have been satire itself, they went to the printers and seized the print run, even though they had not warrant to do so, then, when the warrant arrived, went into town to seize papers that had already been distributed.

That didn’t satisfy the trolls, who posted “thousands of messages” threatening the paper, “Didn’t you learn your lesson from Charlie Hebdo?” “Probably Isis was right,” “If you haven’t learnt your lesson, we will teach you,” “Sons of bitches, we will come, raid and burn,” ”‘Are you still alive?” were some examples.

Although none of Leman’s staff are on the present wanted list, Aknar, who is no stranger to the authorities’ attentions, drily comments “It’s not our turn … yet.”

To read my account of the media after the coup for RFI click here


War with PKK, assaults on media freedom and clampdown on dissent to continue after Erdogan’s win in Turkey’s election


Turkey’s election this month may have been pushed out of the spotlight by the attacks in Paris and Bamako but the surprise result will have a long-term effect, not just on the country itself as an increasingly authoritarian president gathers more power into his hands by legal and illegal means but also internationally, since Isis is on its doorstep and active on its soil. You can’t ignore Turkey and you can’t ignore the Kurds, including the PKK – officially terrorists to Washington and Brussels – and its sister organisation the KYD – among the few effective allies in the fight against the armed Islamists.

A woman votes in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir on 1 November 2015

Voxpops on polling day indicate a landslide for the HDP in Diyarbakir.

“And why? Because of the democracy of the HDP,” explains the first person we ask, a student called Suna, who is translating for international observers. “Because I find them serious about all of the problems of Turkey … Now I’m not happy to be in this country because of this government and I want them to go.”

‘’HDP, HDP, HDP, PKK, HDP, PKK!” chants Mehmetcik, a pensioner, at another polling station, going on to chide us for the duplicity of the great powers, who betrayed their promise of an independent Kurdistan after the breakup of the Ottoman empire.

A statue of a weary traveller heading for Diyarbakir and a showcase of musical instruments at the city’s arts school, a polling station for the day Photo: Tony Cross


Taner, an electrical engineer who has come back to vote from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he’s working, used to support the AKP. “Then we saw that they had a very exclusive way of governing. So we saw that the situation was very bad and we understood that this way of governing is very bad.”

True, a few people refuse to say how they are voting and some are reluctant to express their opinions because of police officers hovering near the entrance to polling station.

For my report on polling day in Diyarbakir for RFI click here 

The result is astonishing.

The AKP wins an absolute majority and, while the secular nationalist CHP’s vote has held up, the HDP’s has fallen, as has the right-wing national MHP. The AKP has gained a seat in Diyarbakir.

Police and special forces are everywhere as we make our way to the HDP’s Diyarbakir offices.

A roadblock looms ahead of us in the dark, forcing us to change our route. As we drive down a wide streets, a group of young men is lined up against a wall, special forces’ guns trained on them. Another special force members has his gun in the face of a driver, who is half in, half out of his car.

Youths light a fire on the road outside the HDP headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Groups of youths are hanging around the street, leading to HDP HQ. We park at a distance and, as we approach, they collect branches and rubbish and set it alight.

An excitable kid of no more than 16 berates journalists in Kurdish. He looks at my recording equipment and, although he seems unclear as to its function, says that I shouldn’t show it to the police.

Inside the offices no one wants to be interviewed. Young activists seem to be in shock at the result.

From a balcony we watch the youths outside drag rubbish and tyres onto the road and set them alight, creating a roadblock that doesn’t stop the traffic – the cars just drive around it – but does attract the police, which seems to be the purpose of the exercise.

A few rounds of gunfire echo through the surrounding tower blocks.

The police fire teargas, which floats into the building before people shut the windows, and a police water cannon arrives.

A police water cannon retreats after being attacked by youths in Diyarbakir Photo: Diyarbakir

The kids, very young but apparently well-practiced in tackling these lumbering monsters intifada-style, scatter and then regroup behind it, coming up close where the water can’t reach, and stoning it.

They do this persistently and with some effect. Eventually it leaves, to cheers from the HDP office, then a special forces armoured car turns up and the police water cannon returns. Someone fires several rounds into the air from a dark corner just off the road.

As the kids disperse, some of them surround a photographer and start shouting at him. They believe he has photographed them with their faces uncovered – most of the time they’ve had scarves and hoodies hiding their identities – and are extremely unhappy about the prospect of them being published or falling into the hands of the police. An HDP activist goes out and places himself between them and the photographer, calming the kids down and bringing him into the building.

As we leave an HDP MP, Ziya Pir, does comment on the result. The rise in violence pushed some voters into the arms of the AKP, he believes, and the HDP leadership lulled their supporters into a sense of false security by predicting a rise in the vote.

The rest of the town is calm, if gloomy. Customers in restaurants watch PM Davutoglu deliver a triumphant victory speech at AKP headquarters in Ankara.

For my report on Diyarbakir after the result became clear click here 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gamble has paid off. His AKP doesn’t even have to find a coalition partner, although it doesn’t have a sufficiently large number of seats to change the constitution, as Erdogan would like, in order to transfer power from the prime minister to the president and, incidentally, let a number of AKP MPs and hangers-one off the hook in several corruption investigations.

The violence that has flared up with the end of peace talks with the PKK and attacks by Isis seems to have driven a substantial number of voters into the arms of the AKP, attracted by Erdogan’s tough-guy image and his increasingly nationalist and Islamist rhetoric. That would account for the MHP’s decline, the AKP has stolen its USP, while adding a dose of assertive Islamic identity. Maybe some HDP voters were demoralised or frightened by the revival of violence, although nobody indicated that was the case at the polling stations or on the street.

Erdogan and his acolytes waste no time in making the most of their triumph. The day after the vote police raid the premises of the weekly magazine Nokta, seizing all copies of the latest issue as it rolls off the presses.

The cover, which read “Monday, November 2: The Beginning of Turkey’s Civil War”, was deemed an incitement to crime.

A previous issue of Nokta was seized for insulting the president and making propaganda for terrorists because it published a montage of Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a soldier killed fighting the PKK.

In the three months running up to the elections, according to media freedom campaigners, 21 journalists, three media houses and one printworks have been attacked by mobs, some of them including AKP activists, 61 people – 37 of them journalists – have been charged with insulting a public figure, 19 have been charged with insulting the president and 168 articles, 101 websites and 40 social media postings have been censored.

There can be little doubt that war and repression will continue in the south-east and that tolerance will not be the watchword when dealing with opposition throughout the country.

For all my reports for RFI on Turkey November 2015 election click here 


Corbyn’s election sends British right wing back to the 1980s, can his supporters resist?


Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has annoyed all the right people (pun intended). It’s back to the 1980s so far as abuse and distortion are concerned. So, how loony is the left? And can Corbyn’s supporters defend him against dirty tricks and hate campaigns?

How can you vote against Bolshevism?” A French anti-communist poster from 1919, probably not featuring a vegetarian
  • Better the 1980s than the 1890s: George Osborne – and the Little-Sir-Echos in the media and the Labour Party – are worried – or happy, the Tories can’t decide on the line on this one – that Jeremy Corbyn will drag Labour back to the 1980s. This is a bit rich, coming from someone who is dragging Britain back to the levels of inequality of the 19th century, George. And, as I remember it, the worst thing about the 1980s was that your lot were in charge.
  • Corbyn’s candidature dragged the media back to the 1980s. The people who don’t want Labour to go back to the 1980s are busy dusting off the terms of abuse that graced the headlines of that very decade, “loony left” for example. But what was so loony about the left? As I remember it, the tabloids’ main targets were feminism, gay rights, anti-racism and talking to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, most of which look pretty mainstream now. Another fine journalistic practise that is getting a lot of mileage at the moment – although, to be fair, it never exactly went out of fashion – is distorting what your subject says and stands for.
  • The people who said Corbyn could not be elected Labour leader now say he can’t win a general election. Have you no shame? You got it wrong. Time for a rethink, not another piece of pro-big business propaganda disguised as analysis. Hey, look! A Sky (!) poll shows he was the most popular of the candidates among the general public and “his left wing policies are also not necessarily as unpopular as many might believe” (they left out the “want to” there, for some reason).
  • Corbyn’s programme is not all that radical. Corbyn may be the most left-wing Labour leader ever, as Tariq Ali argues, but that’s mainly because of his foreign policy. On domestic policy it’s not exactly storming heaven. I was distracted from my work the other day by a lady from the Bloombergs agency explaining on one of those irritating BBC panel shows that advocating renationalisation of the railways would consign Labour to some circle or other of economists’ hell. But we did it before, Madam, and it wasn’t accompanied by red terror nor did it lead to economic collapse. How will it be paid for, she asked. Well, perhaps by savings on scrapping Trident – Oh sorry, it’s unrealistic not to spend billions on that – or by making Bloomberg subscribers and other top earners pay their fair whack in tax.  People’s quantitative easing seems consistent with what Thomas Piketty argues and everyone thinks he’s wonderful, except for the Financial Times on alternate days. Raising the minimum wage? The president of the United States wants that to happen in his country – but then he’s a Muslim socialist born in Kenya, so what does he know?
  • Corbyn owes much of his victory to social media but can social media defend him? Hoist by their own primaries petard, Labour’s right wing are already plotting to reverse the party’s left turn by any means necessary.  A key factor in mobilising for Corbyn was social media, whose echo-chamber effect allows us to consort with the like-minded, reinforcing our views/prejudices and giving us a feeling of power in the numbers, one of the functions of the revolutionary party, if I recall my Lenin. But the social media is also physically isolated, indulging his or her pleasure from home, the workplace or on public transport with headphones clamped to ears. Will the three-pounders or even many of the new party members be prepared to trudge along to monthly party branch meetings, be delegates to constituency parties, conferences etc so as to stop right-wing dirty tricks and ensure that the party’s policies align with those of its leader? Of course, I’m biased. I was expelled from Labour in the 80s. It was quite a relief, to be honest.
  • Corbynmania was in part a revolt against how democracy works but is there a viable alternative? Some 251,000 people, many of them never involved in politics before, rejected their betters’ advice and voted for Corbyn. Why? Many were young people feeling the effects of austerity and disillusioned with post-2008 capitalism. Many responded to a glimmer of integrity in the sewer of modern politics. And many were reacting against the cynical consumerist strategies that were the Blairites’ only principles but are to some extent inherent to parliamentary democracy, which is not government by the people, for the people but the people choosing who will govern them as a globalised capitalism decides the most important aspects of their lives.  Syriza had a mandate to change this but failed.  Admittedly, there are only 11 million Greeks but do 64 million Brits – or that proportion who want a change – have the power or the structures to impose it?

Turkey presidential election 2014 – Erdogan’s victory showed signs of troubles to come


Given the exciting outcome of Turkey’s parliamentary election, I’m taking my accounts of assignments out of sequence and publishing this from last year’s presidential election. Erdogan won with a satisfactory majority but Selahattin Demirtas’s HDP – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish party that has upset the parliamentary apple-cart in 2015 – was already doing well. And there were signs of trouble ahead for the AKP, as  RFI’s perspicacious French service correspondent Jérôme Bastion pointed out to me.

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One of Istanbul’s pasajes Photo: Tony Cross

I had forgotten how East-meets-West Istanbul is – the pasajes, the domed mosques, the shots bars, the mackerel sandwiches, the beautiful women, some wearing cover, others wearing very little, parading along Istiklal, the travel posters, reproduced Persian miniatures, bibelots and ageing furniture in my determinedly quaint hotel.

And sophisticated, basking in its history but modern in its own way. Istanbul is unlike anywhere else in the world that I know and totally different to the rest of Turkey.

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The former headquarters of a French ottoman-era company Photo: Tony Cross

In the August heat families stroll along the sides of the Bosphorus, the banks not much higher than the sea, as oil tankers head for the Black Sea. Men fish off the bridges joining historic and modern Istanbul. A boy scarcely in his teens plays a hand drum incredibly fast in a passage cutting through a modern office building.

And banners, posters and bunting urge Turks to vote for Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the presidential election, first round on Sunday.

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Leeches on sale near the bird market Photo: Tony Cross

Erdogan, prime minister for the past 11 years, leader of the Islamic, conservative, pro-business Justice and Development Party (AKP) started his rise to the top as mayor of Istanbul and hopes to be elected and reelected as president, staying in power until 2024, the year after the centenary of the modern Turkish republic.

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The Erdogan campaign office in Kasmipasa Photo: Tony Cross

He can’t bear the thought of taking a political back seat, which the presidency should be, being largely ceremonial according to the constitution, so he also hopes to make the position more powerful and remotely control the AKP, despite the constitution’s requirement that he resign from his party if he wins the election.

All of which gives rise to suspicions of megalomania, suspicions that are confirmed by his fondness for megaprojects, including the stadium recently built in Kasmipasa, the district in which he was born.

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The Recep Tayyip Erdogan stadium, Istanbul

The Recep Tayyip Erdogan Stadium. sits on the side of the hill heading down to the Golden Horn from Pera, the touristy, Istanbuli bourgeois heart of the modern city, on streets that become more like the rest of Turkey as you approach the sea.

On narrow streets men sit drinking tea or Turkish coffee, playing board games and chatting, following the occasional woman who passes by with their eyes, regardless of how well covere she is.

The men all say they support the native son.

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Men sip tea as women walk by in Kasmipasa Photo: Tony Cross

“I will vote for Erdogan because we are from the same place and he’s made good jobs and he has brought Turkey growth,” explains Tolga, a new technology worker.

He points to the infrastructure projects – roads, metros, tramways and airports that have been realised under AKP rule.

Erdogan’s opponents accuse him of an Islamist agenda of undermining Turkey’s secular constitution, of authoritarianism and of corruption.

But Turkey has experienced over five per cent growth every year since 2002, so jobs have been created for working-class people, social services have improved and the middle class has seen its living standards rise.

At the AKP’s local campaign office, housewife Rukiye, her hair tightly wrapped in a dark scarf, speaks up for her candidate.

“He is with the poor people and he keeps his word,” she declares.

The party doesn’t have to do much campaigning around here, she says, “Five-year-olds show love for Recep Tayyep Erdogan.”

The AKP organised a massive rally for Erdogan in Istanbul at the weekend and claims, perhaps a little boldly, that over a million people attended it.

Rukiye dismisses alleged proof of corruption on leaked tapes that appear to show Erdogan, his family and allies trying to cover up dodgy dealings.

“It’s all lies,” she exclaims with some vigour. “They say it is a montage – they cut them and edited them. All I can say is it’s all rubbish.”

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An Erdogan supporter in the Kasmipasa campaign HQ Photo: Tony Cross

Most Turks are patriotic to the point of paranoia and Erdogan’s backers claim that, as prime minister, he has put the country on the world’s diplomatic map, declaring support for the Palestinians – although continuing to trade with Israel – backing revolt against Bashar al-Assad in Syria and proposing a model of democratic Islamism for the Muslim world.

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“For our country a powerful leader means a powerful country,” Erdogan-voter Hakan Photo: Tony Cross


“He is leading Turkey very well and in the last 12 years the international view of Turkey has changed and we’re so grateful to our prime minister,” says Hakan, an self-employed man sipping tea by the Golden Horn. “For our country a powerful leader means a powerful country.”

Turkey is a politically polarised country and Erdogan supporters are as fervent as his opponents.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, they’re likely to win him the presidential election.

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Mustapha Kuleili Photo: Tony Cross


“It’s a weird situation to be in Taksim right now,” says Mustafa Kuleli, as he looks at the square from the terrace of Starbucks. “You walk into the park or you walk into Taksim Square and you remember. That was a turning point for journalists, and also all citizens, everybody agrees that was a historical moment to be here, to feel that solidarity facing the police, water-cannon, teargas … everything.”

Kuleli is the general secretary of one of Turkey’s journalists’ trade union, elected after he took part in last year’s Gezi Park protests.

They started as a campaign to stop the construction of a mosque and a shopping mall, disguised as an Ottoman-era barracks, on one of central Istanbul’s few green spaces and blossomed into massive anti-Erdogan protests and clashes with the police.

Those heady days are over now and politics is being played out in the electoral arena with Istanbul festooned with banners for the three candidates – Erdogan, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and Selahattin Demirtas, but mostly for Erdogan.

Despite the millions who opposed him on the streets last year, opinion polls show the outgoing prime minister has widespread support and could even win the election on the first round.

So were the protests a waste of time?

“Personally I didn’t tie Gezi Park and daily politics,” says Kuleli. “I think it’s more than that. I think it’s like May ‘68 movement in France. After ’68 a right-wing party gained more votes. But that movement affected 40 years everywhere … all over Europe.”

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Ender Imrek Photo: Tony Cross

Sitting in a neat office up several flights of stairs, Ender Imrek, a socialist activist who is being prosecuted for his leading role in the protests, explains how the force of the law descended on him an his fellow miscreants.

“The police entered our homes by force,” he recalls. “We were kept at the police station for four days and they mistreated us. They took our hard disks and our notes and our writings.”

He and four codefendants are accused of masterminding the protests across the whole country.

“I said that I would be very proud to have organised them but millions were on the street and it would be discourteous to them to say something like that,” is Imrek’s reply. “The court wanted to jail us but there was a huge public protest so they didn’t do that. But on 21 November our case will go to trial.”

His Labour Party is supporting Selhettin Demirtas of the left-wing Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for president – in a “democratic bloc” against what they see as Erdogan’s growing authoritarian tendencies.

“Erdogan wants to declare his dictatorship in this election and he wants everything to continue as it was in the past,” he says. “We don’t want that, we want democracy and we don’t want things to go as they have in the past.”

Erdogan’s supporters don’t seem too worried about his tough reaction to the protests.

Cernil is a driver working in Austria who is back in Turkey during the election.

Sitting with his wife on Gezi Park, only partially paved over thanks to the protests, he says it was right to break up the protests. 

“Yes, it was a little harsh but who cares?” he asks. “They had gone on for too long so they needed to be punished and, if you look at Europe, if there are any protests the police will intervene.”

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Istanbul residents in Gezi Park on a sunny morning Photo: Tony Cross

There is a mixed crowd on Gezi Park on a sunny weekday morning.

A Kurdish labourer brandishing a beer can says he saw police stop campaigners put up posters for Demirtas, who is a Yazidi Kurd himself, and another Kurd also declares his support for the left-winger, explaining that he has encountered discrimination during his 30 years living in Istanbul.

There’s also concern about sectarian divisions in Turkey – both between Kurds and Turks and between majority Sunni Muslims and the Alevi minority, many of whom joined anti-Erdogan rallies.

Whose fault that is changes according to your political and religious affiliation.

“I was not on the side of Erdogan, I used to vote for left-wing parties,” says Ismir, a Sunni textile worker. “But it turned into something sectarian. Alevis started to make a lot of noise and they started to insult us, the Sunnis. That’s why I didn’t like the protests.”

But Feda, just back from studying in the Netherlands, supports the secularist Ihsenoglu and blames Erdogan.

“Rather than supporting the population in Turkey, he is trying to divide them in terms of their religion, their nationality,” she says.

If elected president, Erdogan will “get all the power and do whatever he wants according to his beliefs”, she thinks.

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The caravanserail in Diyarbkakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir is a very different city.

The temperature is higher – “38° today, we start to complain when it gets into the 40s,” says my fixer Hasan, passed on to me by the amiably roguish-looking Samet, who was in turn recommended by local journalist Yimlaz Akinci – but the heat is a dry heat, so you’re not drenched in sweat all the time as you are in Istanbul.

The historic town walls are in ark stone and extremely solid, evidence of centuries of conflict, and the street-life is unmitigatedly Middle Eastern, unless you count a superabundance of mobile phone shops as agencies of Western influence.

A tea seller in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Tea sellers, some in traditional baggy trousers and colourful waistcoats, patrol the pavement, as do fruit sellers, bread sellers and shoeshine men, there’s a caravanserail and a bazaar, complete with courtyard for meeting, chatting and sipping çai.

Diyarbakir is the biggest town in the majority-Kurdish south-east and a bastion of Demritas’s HDP, which was the Peace an Democracy Party (BDP) when I was last here in 2007.

The BDP was a lot keener to cooperate with journalists back then, it seems – or maybe we prepared our visit better – and a first visit to their headquarters in a modern building in a residential district out of the centre of town leas only to a vague promise to fin us someone to interview tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I struggle unsuccessfully to use the wifi in my hotel, we visit the Human Rights Association, where Demirtas started his career and discuss the Kurdish question with a local lawyer.

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A jeweller in the Diyarbakir bazaar Photo: Tony Cross

Slightly perturbed by our unannounced arrival, Abdusselam Incebren, the assistant secretary of the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association, reproaches us gently but agrees to talk about the organisation’s work.

Formed in the 1980s, following the establishment of a human rights association in Ankara, the organisation has had its work cut out ever since, especially during the state’s attempts to destroy the Kurdish Worker’ Party (PKK) guerrilla movement, which led to the abuses and atrocities associated with such dirty wars.

“The worst time was in the early 1990s,” he recalls. “Why? Because many people were killed, many people were tortured, many people they left home and just didn’t come back. So we are still investigating what happened to these people.”

That was under a secularist government, committed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s vision of a monolithic Turkish nation, a project that the Kurds have always disrupted.

“If you compare today to the past you cannot say that we have those problems,” Incebren points out.

That’s because of one of the many ironies of Turkish politics – the right-wing, Islamic AKP has proved more open to making concessions to Kurdish national sentiment than the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the social-democratic party that is the largest group in the secularist camp.

Not that there isn’t still a heavy and sometimes heavy-handed police and military presence in the south-east.

“It’s not like it was in ‘95-‘96 or up to 2000, people are not lost, tortured,” Incebren goes on. “But one thing we do see is on the streets and in meetings the police abuse their power and that’s a kind of torture.

“With the peace process, if you compare AKP with before there is an improvement in human rights. But if they don’t kill, they don’t torture, they’re still putting people in jail today. The techniques have changed.”

Incebren and his fellow rights workers have fond memories of Demirtas.

“People will never forget him. He was really very good. In the Human Rights Assocation he showed how to be human, how to develop the organisation. We want to take that further. He did a great job, really.”

Edip Yigit Photo: Tony Cross

Edip Yigit is defending several Kurdish activists arrested in 2009 and the ensuing years.

They are being released now because of parliament has finally got around to passing a law banning detention without charge for more than five years.

Although they were members of the PKK’s political wing, he says they posed no threat to security.

Öcalan has declared a truce and, as disciplined cadres, they toe the party line.

“These people had clean records,” he says, sipping çai in a café in the caravanserail. “In court they could find no crime to charge with them.”

The cases are a late example of the dirty war against the PKK even as the PKK government is negotiating with Öcalan.

“Today there is a peace process between the Turkish state and Kurds and, so, to me, this was a big mistake,” comments Yigit.

He blames the arrests on “parallel structures” in the Turkish state, a phrase often used to describe followers of Erdogan’s former ally Fehtullah Gülen, whom he is now purging after a breach that led, among other things, to the corruption scandal.

Kurds welcome the peace process but remain suspicious of the Turkish state’s intentions, notably because of the heavy military presence throughout the country, especially in the south-east, leading them to suspect that the army remains ready to start a new anti-PKK offensive.

The AKP’s openness to negotiations is usually attributed to several factors – pressure on human rights from the European Union, which the government was trying to join, a less firm commitment to Kemalist nationalism and Öcalan’s capture putting the government in a strong bargaining position.

But the narrative in the south-east, which Yigit appears to agree with, is that Öcalan took the initiative.

Kurds who intend to vote for Demirtas sum up their aspirations in a call for “democracy”, by which they tend to mean equal treatment by the state and an end to discrimination.

They are deeply suspicious of Ankara-based parties.

“In the past even the Kurdish language was forbidden, because of one word you could be put in jail for 20 years.” recalls Kasri, a labourer hanging around in Dyarbakir’s bazaar. “Not only this, they killed people, they tortured people for many years, so how can I believe these parties are democratic?”

He’s happy about the peace process but wants it to bring change.

“For about one year nobody is dying. It means a lot that people can sleep, people can be happy, people can work. But one thing, we want democracy – for everyone, not only for Kurds or Turks, for everyone who lives in Turkey.”

The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, now practically independent as local peshmerga and Syrian Kurd fighters fight the Islamic State (ex-Isis) armed fundamentalists and the Iraqi state loses ground to the south, might be expected to strengthen Turkey’s Kurds.

But that would be to discount the Kurds’ long history of internecine squabbles.

The regional government President Massoud Barzani, who is reported to have been acting as a facilitator in contacts between the PKK and the Turkish government, has proved an inconstant ally to the PKK and seems to regard Öcalan as a rival rather than a comrade.

Economic considerations may also undermine his status as an honest broker. Iraqi Kurdistan is now more than solvent thanks to exports of oil to Israel that must pass through Turkey.

Little wonder then that Barzani has promised Erdogan to “play a pacifying role in eastern Turkey and […] help the Turkish Kurds to take their place within the Turkish nation” and that Turkey has granted legal recognition to a new Turkish branch of Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP-T).

“Today the Turkish state understands that it cannot challenge the Iraqi state and so they had to accept these people any more,” comments Yigit. “On the other hand, it was very good for Turkey to have trade with these people and get a warm relationship with them. Why? Because of petrol.”

Even with Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government security forces reportedly trying to prevent fighters opposed to the peace process passing into Turkish territory, there have been sporadic clashes between the Turkish military and armed groups of unclear affiliation, undermining confidence in the peace process in the eyes of some Kurds and even elements in the Turkish general staff.

Erdogan has not hesitated to use divisive rhetoric during the election campaign, pointing out that Demirtas is from the Yazidi minority as well as lashing out at Alevis, Armenians and Jews, indicating that change of tack on the Kurdish question is possible if he is elected president.

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Inside HDP headquaters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

A Kurdish channel is broadcasting live interviews with Syrian Kurd fighters battling the Islamic State (ex-Isis) in northern Iraq as we wait to speak to an HDP official at the party’s Diyarbakir headquarters.

They think the peshmerga are a bunch of sissies, according to Hasan, who admires the fight they have put up against the Sunni fundamentalists, who are currently driving Yazidi and other minorities out of the area they control.

It is the election campaign that is on the mind of Meral Damis Bestas, a brisk, trouser-suited woman who, strangely, introduces herself as the wife of HDP president Mesut Danis Bestas.

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Meral Damis Bestas Photo: Tony Cross

It’s going well and not just in the south-east, she claims.

“Mr Demritas has already extended his support in Turkey,” she says, “In all of Turkey, wherever he goes, people are giving a lot of sympathy to him because he says new things. He is not saying what people said before. He is guaranteeing no discrimination between people.”

In the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests, Demirtas has garnered the support of the hard-left parties who mobilized against Erdogan, boosting his chances of winning votes outside the BDP/HDP’s traditional Kurdish base.

But, despite that and the HDP’s long-standing left-wing credentials, his campaign seems to have focused on fighting discrimination  – not just  against Kurds but against Alevis, Armenians, women and even, unprecedentedly for Turkey I believe, gays – rather than wider issues of social and economic justice.

“The HDP is left-wing but that does not mean that it rejects other ideas,” is Bestas’s answer when I raise this question. “It’s open to everyone, from any ideology, it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that there are a lot of laws in Turkey that hamper human rights. Beside this there is poverty, in some parts of Turkey people are living in poverty and others they are rich. This is not social justice. Other parties come from a nationalist perspective but Demritas is a man of the people.”

The party does not hide its sympathy for the PKK – posters calling for Öcalan’s release decorate their HQ’s the walls – rather presenting itself as an essential go-between in the pace process.

“I can tell you that we are the guarantors of this peace process,” says Bestas. “Because if there was no Mr Öcalan or HDP fighting for this peace process it wouldn’t work on its own.”

Erdogan is dragging out the process, she claims.

“He wants to make it longer all the time but we are struggling against him.”

She accuses the outgoing prime minister of abusing his position to help his election campaign, a charge that is echoed by OSCE observers.

“It is not an equal race. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lot of advantages,” Bestas says. “There is no fairness in this country. We can only work with our people because we can’t spend millions on our campaign. For Mr Tayyip Erdogan every state organisation, every mayor is working for him. Fifteen or 16 TV channels are supporting him and they are reporting his every word, every speech. So how can we be equal?”

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Javed, a fervent Demirtas supporter Photo: Tony Cross

Seated in his carpet shop in the Diyarbakir bazaar, Javed, is a fervent Demirtas supporter because he believes he stands for real democracy.

“Turkish people, Kurdish people, every people working together, working in one country. Before many people in Diyarbakir … Turkish people, Kurdish people, Arabic people also, working together. Democracy like this.”

But one thing Javed will never do is vote for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who are supporting Ihsanoglu. 

“Second round I’m giving to Erdogan.”


“I am not giving to CHP other parties with Ihsanoglu.”

Although some street traders and a civil servant tell us they will vote Erdogan in the first round, Demirtas’s campaign has plenty of support in Diyarbakir and he  hopes to pass the 10% bar, a performance that, if repeated in a general election, would mean the HDP could have an official group in parliament.

But that won’t put him in the second round, if there is one, and many Kurdish voters are likely to vote Erdogan, if faced with a choice between him and Ihsanoglu.

“This is not our policy,” the HDP’s Bestas, told me. “The AKP is not supporting our principles, so we are completely separate. We will not call on people to vote Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the second round.”

But that doesn’t deter many Kurds – Cengiz Aculca, whom I met in Istanbul, for example.

Aculca, a Kurdish building worker who has lived in Istanbul for 30 years, is going to vote for Selhettin Demirtas but, if there is a second round and Demirtas is eliminated, he will transfer his vote to Erdogan.

The CHP and its enemy-turned-ally, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are beyond the pale, so far as he is concerned.

“They dealt us a great blow during the ‘80s and the ‘90s, especially in the south-eastern part of Turkey,” he says. “Lots of things happened there, so I don’t support them.”

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“With my last drop of blood I will support Mr Demirtas,” Bayram, who says he was forced to leave Bersim because of his politics

On the city’s main street we run into Bayram.

“I will speak Kurdish,” he announces determinedly and launches into a paean for Demirtas

“With my last drop of blood I will support Mr Demirtas,” he declares. “And Kurds who do not vote for him, they are dishonest because, whether he wins or not, Demirtas is against discrimination, against any people living in Turkey – Armenians, Jewish, Christians and any ethnic group.”

Bayram’s views do not come as a huge surprise since Bayram, a balding but impressively moustached middle-aged man, sports a T-shirt decorated with several portraits – among them those of Öcalan and Che Geuvara – an arm band with the PKK’s symbol and what look like effigies of bullets and an Abdullah Ölan watch.

It appears he was just as open about his political affiliations when he lived in Mersin, a Turkish-majority town on the Mediterranean, where they did not go down to well in certain quarters.

First, he says, he was visited by CHP members who told him in no uncertain terms to get out of town.

Then he was visited by a group of toughs, who knocked him about about and smashed the Öcalan watches he had been selling on the streets, and delivered the same message.

Finally, a message to the same effect came from the mayor and he fled to Diyarbakir.

Lunch in the caravanserail in Diyarbakir

Hasan and I take lunch in the caravanserail at a stand bearing the name Kamer.

It is run by the women’s rights group that I visited last time in Diyarbakir and provides an income to women who cook at home and come here to sell it. Very good food it is, too.

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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and friends, commemorated on Taksim Square Photo: Tony Cross

The management of the Marmara Hotel were “very good” during the Gezi Park protests, Binnaz Toprak assures me as we make our way to the first floor lobby for our interview, I having vetoed the Kitchenette café, where we met, on the grounds of noise.

The hotel opened its groud floor to protesters who had been teargassed or manhandled by the police, she recalls, as the guests, presumably watched the show from their luxury suites.

It’s calm now, apart from the occasional raised voice of an excited client, and the guests loiter in the lobby – many of them Gulf Arab women in niqab or their husbands, some whom are wearing hairnets following hair transplant operations that are apparently not available at home.

Looking out onto Taksim Square and Gezi Park, Toprak, a former academic and CHP MP, is disarmingly frank about the chances of the candidate her party is backing in Turkey’s presidential election, Ekmeleddine Ihsanoglu.

“Unfortunately all polls show that he doesn’t have too much of a chance,” she admits.

It shouldn’t be that way, according to Toprak.

“Normally his chances should be high because the other major candidate, the Prime Minister Erdogan has been using hate speech against people with different identities, he has been screaming on the [TV] screen for the last I don’t know how many years, he scolds people, there is this tension in the country, whereas Ihsanoglu is this quiet man, who is a gentleman, who won’t even answer him.”

But being a gentleman doesn’t seem to be paying off.

The latest poll shows Ihsanoglu at 34%, with Erdogan 57% and left-wing Kurd Selhattin Demirtas 9.0%.

Toprak says Erdogan is primarily responsible for the intense political polarisation in the country today, although she admits that her own camp has contributed to the bitter tone of polemics that turn to vitriol on social media.

“We have been divided into two or even three groups of people – the Kurds, the secularists and the Islamists – and the more he polarises, the more he consolidates his own supporters,” she complains, adding the she fears that “it could come to a civil war between these groups”.

She is not alone in her fear of the future. There’s widespread fear of the secret services snooping on conversations, several cases of phone-tapping have been exposed their, journalists fear for their jobs after Erdogan has picked out colleagues for public criticism – indeed, some have already been fired, allegedly due to government pressure. Several people have mentioned to me or to colleagues that they are thinking of leaving the country of Erdogan wins.

The secular camp has supported military coups to prevent Islamist-led governments in the past but Toprak hopes those days are over, praising Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for forcing the military out of politics.

The CHP, often described as a social-democratic party, has formed an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) behind Isanoglu in this election, a pro-secular bloc that has come together over recent years despite the fact that the MHP is a hard-right party, whose members used to fight in the streets with left-wingers a few decades ago.

It’s just an electoral alliance, Toprak insists, saying that for her the CHP is still a left-wing party.

In 2007, when I accompanied CHP members campaigning for support in Istanbul, I was shocked by the Kemalist dogmatism of its members.

That seems to have changed, if Toprak is anything to go by, although it is difficult imagining this amiable woman ever having been anything other than polite and reasonable.

The secularists may have been too doctrinaire in their defence of Atatürk’s legacy, she admits, looking back on their insistence on banning women wearing head cover in education and public service and regarding religious conservatives as vulgar provincials.

“Maybe it was too radical, the understanding of the party in the past but I think that the party has come to an understanding where it’s willing to accept people who want to live and Islamic way of life, let them live that way of life. Nobody should interfere with the others’ choices.”

That doesn’t mean dropping the fight for women’s rights, however, particularly in the light of AKP leaders’ statements on the matter that lead feminists to fear the worst.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç aroused equal amounts of concern and derision recently when he said that women should not laugh in public, prompting a flood of selfies of immodestly happy females.

Erdogan has expressed shock at the state of dress at Istambuli women, said that women should have three or five children and threatened to criminalise caesarean sections and abortion.

Other party thinkers have said that pregnant women should no go out in public and that it is natural for men to have a number of wives.

“The women’s issue is an important issue,” comments Toprak. “Because I think it’s at the gist of the Islamist project anywhere in the world.

“What’s going to be different if the Islamist come to power? They adjust themselves to new technologies, modernity, buildings, roads, new phones and the modern economy. What would radically change is gender relations and the position of women.”

But don’t the polls show that the majority of the country agree with this conservative religious agenda?

“Yes, they do.”

So what will the CHP do about it?

Again that disarming frankness.

“I have no idea. Despite all that has happened his [Erdogan’s] supporters still support him.”

Polling day in Istanbul

Voting is brisk at polling stations in Sisli, a middle-class area that is a stronghold of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), shortly after polls open at 8.00am.

Most voters ready to speak to the media have cast their ballot for Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the independent supported by the CHP, citing his honesty and his academic qualifications as reasons for backing him.

But not many are enthusiastic.

Ihsanoglu was secretary general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation until he decided to stand and some secularists find him a strange choice for their party to support.

“His past is more Islamic thoughts and I am not the right for that thinking,” comments Canzu, a finance worker, adding that she doubts he would stand up for the secular values of  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In Eyüp, a more socially mixed and politically divided area, Ihsanoglou voter Sacettin, a jeweller, found Ihsanoglu’s campaign lacklustre but blames the CHP and MHP.

“I think that the parties that support him should have been campaigning and it seemed as if he was alone,” he comments.

But he has turned out to vote anyway, afraid that Erdogan’s election would mean “fascism and dictatorship”.

Protective of their right to a secret ballot or discouraged by the men hovering and listening to people talking to the media, many voters decline to comment.

But a number are far from shy of saying that they had voted for Erdogan.

“It’s obvious, we have a leader and we vote for him,” says public employee Erdal. “We love him and so I voted for him.”

“He is a world leader, he cares for Muslims,” declares Mustafa a recent graduate, who seems on very friendly terms with the hoverers.

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Okmeydani Photo: Tony Cross

The run-down Okmeydani neighbourhood is home to members of Turkey’s minorities – Kurds, members of the Alevi sect, recent immigrants from central Asia and Africa.

Here the police are more aggressive, chasing me and my companions, Ugur and Ilyas, off the premises of one school where voting is taking place.

Ihsanoglu has supporters among the Alevi, who feel that Erdogan has stirred up Sunni Muslims against them, while many Kurds back left-winger Selhettin Demirtas.

Some of the Alevi accuse Derirtas of being prejudiced against them, an accusation that Ugur says comes from the Ihsanoglu camp.

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HDP campaigners in Okmeydani, Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

His party, the HDP, has a stall manned by volunteers, mostly young although housewife Maryam must be twice the age of her coworkers.

“I am here for peacs the interview is taking place, demanding the identity papers of all the activists and telling them they must pack up their stall.

“The police said they were Kurdish too,” HDP member Aytan says afterwards. “They were talking the Kurdish language with us. They sell their honour in working for the state. We have advice for such people, ‘Police sell simit (cakes) and live honourably.’ ”

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Ekmeleddin Mehmet Ihsanoglu arrives at his Istanbul HQ after polls have closed Photo: Ugur Demir

On the outside chance that we might snatch an interview with the only candidate who speaks good English, we wait for the result outside the Ihsanoglu headquarters, where a gaggle of cameras point at a podium from which the candidate is expected to address the media.

It’s a long wait, during which I meet Koray Caliskan, a professor I enjoyed interviewing in 2007 and who I am surprised to learn is now moving in CHP circles, given how critical of the dogmatism of the Kemalists on questions such as the headscarf back then.

His clothes seem to have taken a step up the career ladder, too, but he’s still very friendly.

When Ihsanoglu finally arrives there’s a scrum in which I almost lose my mike but his only message, affably delivered, is that it’s too soon to comment.

Despite biscuits and sandwiches provided for the press, we eventually give up.

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Victor – a pro-Eedogan banner in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

 Erdogan has won. With 52% of the votes, compared to Isahnoglu’s 38.3% and Demirtas’s 9.7%.

After learning of his victory he went to pray in the Eyüp Sultan mosque, built after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, and the place where the Ottoman sultans were crowned.

He then flew to Ankara to meet his ecstatic fans,

“I will not be the president of only those who voted for me, I will be the president of 77 million,” he told them from the balcony of AKP headquarters.

But his idea of uniting the country seems to involve the opposition falling in line behind his agenda.

He called on them to “review their policies” to make them compatible with his “new Turkey” ideal.

“Those who accuse us of one-man rule … should please question themselves sincerely,” he said, an appeal that is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Erdogan can have two terms as president, meaning that he could remain at the head of the country until 2024, allowing him to preside over the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1913.

He hopes to strengthen the presidency and is likely to succeed in that task, having purged much of the state apparatus of opponents afer falling out with US-based cleric Fehtullah Gülen, whose supporters appear to have been behind the leaks of evidence of corruption in his family and entourage.

And soon, as president, he will appoint new members of the constitutional council, further consolidating his power.

That election is likely to be brought forward, meaning another no-holds-barred election campign.

The largest opposition parties, the CHP and the MHP have suffered a severe blow in failing to force Erdogan to go to a second round.

Their morale was low ahead of the election result but may have received a small boost from the fact that opinion poll predictions of an Erdogan win of 58% or more proved excessive.

Demirtas’s vote was higher than the HDP has ever won under any of its previous names.

Meanwhile, Turkey must find a new prime minister and the AKP a new leader, since the constitution stipulates that the president must not be a member of a political party.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davurtoglu is tipped as the most likely new premier, although Transport Minister Binali Yildriim’s hat is also in the ring.

Outgoing president Abdullah Gül can now return to party politics but there is speculation that economist Numan Kirtulmus, not currently an MP, may be brought in to head the party.

The AKP being a coalition of religious conservatives, business interests and political right-wingers and not immune to personal rivalries, divisions may appear in its ranks.

Its Islamist predecessors have always relied on a strong leader, which is also much of Erdogan’s appeal, and broken up when the leader exits the scene.

So, despite a conclusive presidential election result, a return to the turbulent normal for Turkish politics is on the cards.

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Sunset over Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Victory is no sooner announced than crisis comes knocking for the AKP.

Erdogan, who must resign from the party to become president, makes no secret of his wish to keep a deciding influence on it and, apparently impressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrangement with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, wants replacement who will be very much under his shadow.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davurtoglu seems to fit the bill, although Transport Minister Binali Yildirim’s name has also come up.

Erdogan also wants to keep tight control of the party.

But, as Erdogan’s supporters were recovering from the victory party, Gül, who cofounded the AKP with Erdogan, announced that he would be rejoining the party when he quits the president’s job and there is little doubt that he would seek the party leadership.

Later in the day the party’s executive then announced that the special conference to choose a new party chief will be held the 27 August, the day before Erdogan is sworn in, meaning that Gül will still be barred from party membership, unless he resigns early and that may well be his next move.

Not everyone in the AKP is happy with Erdogan’s plans to run the party by remote control and Gül may be able to muster significant support for a leadership bid, which could even become a stepping stone to the premiership if he returns to parliament after the next election.

The former comrades-in-arms are believed to have had their differences over recent years.

When the government tried to ban the use of Facebook and Twitter during anti-Erdogan protests last year, he declared that he would continue to tweet.

The brewing crisis is not a good sign for a party that will soon have to fight a general election.

Nor does it bode well for Erdogan’s plan to strengthen the president’s powers.

To do that he must change the constitution, which would require votes in parliament than the AKP can currently muster even if it remains united.

He may hope that an early general election will bring more MPs, although his own election win was less convincing than some polls had predicted, a result that weakened his standing in the party.

If there’s also a revolt in the AKP that could mean electoral victory leads to political crisis, undermining Erdogan’s enormous ambition and even giving new heart to his depressed and demoralised opponents.

Read my reports of the 2014 election on RFI’s English-language website


Eyewitness: Afghanistan 2001 after the fall of the Taliban

After waiting in the northern Pakistani town of Peshawar for a couple of weeks, I was part of a convoy of hundreds of journalists who crossed into Afghanistan as the Northern Alliance and the US toppled the Taliban.  We crossed countryside littered with the refuse of war and, on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul, were robbed at gunpoint in an isolated valley. Kabul itself was tense and under curfew as new masters took over under the watchful eye of the West. Here’s what I wrote on my return.
The royal palace outside Kabul, in ruins after decades of war. Photo; Tony Cross

Torkham frontier post, 16 November 2001

It’s six nights after the Taliban quit Kabul. Pakistani border officials have taken a break in the middle of stamping the passports of hundreds of journalists who arrived in convoy this afternoon.

It’s ramadan and they must pray … and break their fast.

Darkness has descended and we buy our first, but by no means last, meal of kebab from a scruffy restaurant in the village that surrounds the post.

Finally the formalities are over and the convoy lines up in front of the huge black metal gate that closes the frontier.

Just as we’re about to leave, camera flashes go off a few hundred yards away. The Taliban have released the last journalist they’ve been holding, a Japanese who’s received little publicity in the West.

Thanks to our driver, Assad, who is always keen to be ahead of all other cars, we’ve actually paid a guard to let us be first out of Pakistan. Now we find ourselves at the head of a convoy about to enter a country at war. And I’m in the front passenger seat.

A week ago, Radio France Internationale’s Johanne Sutton was killed, along with two other journalists, when they were caught in fighting in northern Afghanistan.

The gate slides open. In front of us is a mojahed on the back of a pick-up truck, aiming a rocket-launcher straight at our windscreen. Around him are 20 or 30 others, armed with Kalishnikovs.

“Boom!” he says and laughs.

Fortunately, they’re on our side. They’re our guard, supplied by Jalalabad’s new security chief, Haji Zaman, whose representative in Peshawar, Engineer Mohammad Alim, has organised the convoy.

As we drive gingerly across the line, more mojaheddin appear, mostly young and apparently stoned.

There’s a long wait, as a TV crew transfer equipment from a lorry to buses and cars. Photographers snap the mojaheddin, journalists interview them. I file a report. Then we’re off along a well-maintained road (“The Taliban built this,” says our interpreter Kamal) past newly-built petrol stations whose pumps glisten in the headlights. They’re the last modern ones we see in Afghanistan and must have been built to service the powerful smuggling operations whose bosses backed the Taliban in the hope that the ultra-fundamentalist militias would impose some degree of unity on the country.

Jalalabad under new rulers

After the fall of Kabul and a couple of days of tension, four rival Pashtun warlords have just reached agreement to share power in Jalalabad.

The new governor is Haji Abdul Qadeer, the man who in 1996 handed the city over to the Taliban, allegedly in exchange for a bribe of as much as ten million dollars cash plus a guarantee that his assets and bank accounts in Pakistan wouldn’t be frozen. The deal was reportedly brokered by Islamabad and Saudi intellligence boss, Prince Turki al Faisal, now retired from his post after failing to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden.

In the warm Jalalabad night, some journalists are welcomed into the Governor’s palace. Others, including ourselves, go on to the only known hotel, which is already overbooked, thanks to a convoy which arrived two days ago, and which is raising the prices of its grubby rooms by the minute. We get a room, thanks to a Danish TV journalist, who’s moved to a better one but has been unsuccessful in her attempts to hand back the keys to the one she has vacated.

Jalalabad is a city stuffed with guns. Truckloads of mojaheddin circle the space in front of the Governor’s palace, piles of rocket-launchers and ammunition resting on the tailgates. Others walk around in the morning sunshine, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

Inside the palace guards in Soviet-style uniforms and US-style trainers slouch at the doorways, making no effort to stop anyone enter.

A delegation of tribal elders have arrived to congratulate the new incumbent. Mohammed Dulah, from Chapathar village tells us that he used to be a commandant in Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. He’s calm but venomous when he pronounces the name of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who’s still officially recognised as President by most of the world and who has been making portentous declarations about the future of the country since the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul.

What right has Rabbani to promise elections in two years time? Dulah wants to know.

If Rabbani remains in power, the Northern Alliance will make the same mistakes as it did in the early 1990s, he says, referring to the period when mojaheddin factions waged a bloody internecine struggle for power, at vast cost to the population in terms of lives and living conditions. Dulah wants a leader who is “a true Muslim who will work for Afghanistan” and who’s chosen by the whole country.

And, now that the rest of the world is again discussing Afghanistan and US President George W Bush has declared war on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, what should foreigners do for the country?

“We want them to reconstruct our country and then go back to their own country.”

Engineer Mohammed Alim also wants the Americans to help reconstruct Afghanistan, although, when asked if that means paying for the process, he says, “Not necessarily.”

Alim, who organised the convoy from Peshawar, is a handsome man, with the classic Afghan aquiline features and thick, black beard, laughlines around his eyes and a smart Western jacket worn over his shalwar kameez.

He speaks fluent English, which helps in the new role that he has assumed of spokesperson for Jalalabad’s new Security Chief, Haji Zaman.

Earlier a rickshaw driver had told us that Afghans are sick of seeing armed men on the street.

“The Taliban were bad but at least there was security under their rule,” is a refrain that we’ll hear again and again from Afghans who remember the chaotic early 90s and fear that they will return.

Engineer Mohammed Alim smiles charmingly and reassures us that security is already improving.

“It will be controlled in one or two days. Yesterday was good, today is better and by tomorrow will be best.”

Robbed at gunpoint

The road from Jalalabad to Kabul must be one of the worst in the world. We had arranged to travel this gritty, bumpy wreck of a route with another car containing a Polish TV crew but, on one of the rare stretches of tarmac, they left us behind.

Now we are bumping slowly along a surface ravaged by two decades of war, listening to our driver, Assad, tell us how he fought the Russians from the mountains alongside the road.

I’m in the front passenger seat. Jean Piel, who works for RFI’s French service and other French-language news-media too numerous to mention, Médard Chablaoui, our sound engineer, and Kamal Nassar, our interpreter, are in the back.

There’s plenty of evidence of the war: bomb craters, twisted wrecks of military vehicles and checkpoints.

Five young men run out of one of these, waving their arms for us to stop. We do so. They seem very agitated and four of them are carrying Kalashnikovs.

As I open the car door, I hear the sound of a gun’s safety catch being taken off.

They wrench open the other car doors and pull us out of the car. Then, encouraging us with shouts and blows from their gun-butts, they drive us across the road. All except Assad, that is. They keep him by the car with a gun to his head.

We are taken into a shallow ravine, across rocks, over a stream.

When faced with probable death, you think at 1,000 knots a minute. Is this the real and definitive end ? You can’t kill me, I’ve got a mother who loves me! How can I have put my family in such a situation? Or are they taking us hostage ? I don’t think I could survive many Afghan winter nights in the mountains.

You realise that they’ve known nothing but war all their lives and that to them your death would be as banal as the change in the seasons. But you remain strangely calm. You don’t panic.

I can’t move as fast as the others, thanks to the after-effects of being run over on a Paris street a year ago. At one point I stumble on a rock. At first I think that I’m going to suffer the fate of the weak and be shot for my physical shortcomings. But the boy beside me, he can’t be more than 18-years-old, stretches out his hand and helps me up. In doing so, he finds my wallet and takes it. I reach out to him, thinking that I could say “Take the money but leave my papers,” but realise that I don’t have the language skills and that he has a Kalashnikov.

They take us well away from the road, behind a huge rock which completely conceals us from view. At that point we’re all sure that we’re going to die. Jean Piel tells me later that he will always remember my face, pale and drawn.

Then they frisk us. A boy frisks me and, when he finds nothing, I think that I’m going to be killed because the little bastard who’s already taken my money wants to keep it all for himself. I point at him. The frisking ends. We find ourselves up against the rocks that lead up into the mountain, the robbers between us and the way back to the road. The one with no gun is doing a shuttle between us and the road.

Through Kamal they tell us to stay here, that if we move they’ll kill us, and turn to run away. As they go, the one who appears to be the leader, turns, rubs his thumb and forefinger together and says : “Paise, Paise.” Money, money. Is this to sneer at us or to reassure us that we won’t be killed if we do what we’re told.

There’s silence once they’re gone. Then we start to discuss how long we’ll stay there, if we should resist if they come back to kill us.

After ten minutes, we hear Assad shouting from the road.

We run towards the car, me the slowest again. This time I don’t regret my slight disability, since I still half-fear that we will shot as we approach the road.

Once in the car, we start telling each other what we’ve lost, money, cameras, Méd’s mobile phone. Jean has suffered worst, they’ve taken his bag and it had his contacts-book in it.

Then we realise that we’re still alive.

Assad didn’t tell them that we were journalists; he told them that we were with an NGO. With amazing courage, if not foolhardiness, he said that he didn’t have the keys to the boot and so saved our clothes, some of our money and all our working material. Although he had the worst experience, he seems the least shaken up.

Assad flags down a carload of Afghans and asks them to stay with us on the road, which they do. We stop at the next checkpoint and the armed men there tell us that they’ll go after the robbers if we pay them. We decline the offer.

Further along the road, on a large bend, a pick-up truck full of men is parked, with one man standing beside it, like a vulture perched on a branch.

Once we’re past them, our Afghan friends pull up beside us and tells us that those were robbers, too.

We pull into a village and are mobbed by kids, some of whom throw stones at the car.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive into Kabul passes in a state of shock mixed with paranoia. Méd thinks the Afghans who are with us want to rob us. I thought that we would be killed at the checkpoint. Every figure at the roadside seems menacing.

Kamal seems particularly shaken by the experience. Later he tells us that this is the second armed robbery he’s been through. The last time the robbers opened fire, killing his friend and putting him in hospital with two bullets in the leg. Kamal is 22, the same age as the fighting.

Night falls as we climb up into the mountains that mark the border of Kabul province. The descending sun picks out the pock-marked surface of the rocks, throws long shadows from high peaks, fails to reach all the way into deep valleys. It’s a  landscape created by an angry god; a suitable backdrop for trauma.

Bad news in Kabul

The next day at the huge but shabby Intercontinental Hotel, I overhear people saying that four journalists have been killed.

I ask one of them, who’s with the BBC, about it. He says that the killing took place today on the Jalalabad-Kabul road. I tell the others. They’ve heard the same from French journalists.

It sounds strangely like a distorted account of our own experience. I stick my mike into a crowd and record a man, speaking English with a slight but unplaceable accent, saying,  “… he came towards us saying, ‘Go back to Jalalabad, the Taliban are shooting journalists’ … we decided to go further, towards Kabul. On the way to Kabul, three youngsters, around 20-25-years-old, wearing camouflage jackets, carrying Kalashnikovs, they stopped us, they pointed guns to our heads, they taked all our stuff, our cameras, our passports, they dragged my driver outside, they pushed another journalist outside of the car, they checked all of our pockets and everything, then they were pushing us …. ”

The four who were killed were Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, who worked for Reuters, Maria Grazia Cutuli, of Corriere della Sera, and Julio Fuentes, of El Mundo. They were beaten, stoned and shot at close range. It was at Sorubay, where we were robbed.

The gloomy reception area of the Pearl Continental is the place to pick up the latest rumours and, sometimes, a bit of the truth. The first journalists to arrive are staying here and the UN holds twice-daily press conferences, in an unsuitably laid-out room, in front of whose entrance stand three plastic buckets collecting the water that  leaks from the ceiling. At the hotel door a man in uniform gives the revolving door an encouraging push when foreigners enter but is less welcoming when it comes to his compatriots.

Yesterday evening we were met in the crowded carpark by France Inter journalist Fabienne Sintes who had left Jalalabad ahead of us. Her interpreter, Abdul, had found a house for us to rent.

Our temporary residence belongs to a doctor who’s fled to Germany, leaving an old man in charge. Like the houses around it, it is modern, spacious, with marble floors, the home of a typical Kabul bourgeois, although a litle down-at-heel after being uninhabited for so long. On our first night many of the windows were missing, thanks to an American bomb which fell in the next street. They’re replaced the next day but that, and the primitive heating we buy, only does a little to make the cold Kabul night more tolerable.

The first filmshow for seven years

The day, on the other hand, is sunny and the sunlight shines on a big crowd outside the Cinema Bakhtar in the centre of town. The morning show is already underway. It’s the first for seven years, cinema having been one of the sinful practices repressed by the Taliban’s religious police under the guidance of the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The 700 places were quickly sold and the crowd is waiting for the next showing. Some will have to wait for the one after that.

Foreign journalists are allowed to queue-jump, although the theatre is so full that we can only catch a glimpse of the film, a tale of mojaheddin heroism in the struggle against the Russians. The term Commandan features prominently in the soundtrack.

Sound engineer Hasem Qarim explains, at length and in a roundabout Asian style, that he kept the spools hidden from the Taliban, that he managed to keep the studio open with a skeleton staff, that there had been censors before the Taliban and that he hopes there will be a democratic and broad-based government now so that there can be free media for people to explain their lives. He also wants to show foreign films “which will teach people how to live”.

Kamal seems puzzled when I ask him what the cinema’s name means.

“In the West cinemas’ names often mean something other just the name,” I explain.

“It’s just the cinema’s name,” he says … but later he adds, “It’s the old name for Afghanistan.”

There’s dust everywhere, lodging in your throat and making everyone cough. Kabul city centre is full of Soviet-style official buildings, a scruffy street-market, a corner whose railings are covered with traditional carpets for sale (a blur of maroon as you pass in a car), oily shops selling hardware, electrical goods or car and bike parts, the compounds of UN agencies. In one square  money-changers clutch huge wads of the nearly-valueless Afghani. A modest meal for three at the hotel costs over a million, waiters and shop-owners can count dozens of Afghani notes in seconds with a lightning counting technique which looks like a card-trick. All buildings of any importance have at least one armed guard. That includes the cinema.

As the fact that the Northern Alliance has won permanent control of the city sinks in to the Kabuli consciousness, pictures of Ahmed Shah Masood appear everywhere. A poster-sized one placed on an easel greets you as you enter Intercontinental’s dingy foyer, like a flash of colour pasted onto a black-and-white photo. Soon practically every vehicle in town has a picture of the commander praying tacked inside its windscreen or attached to its bonnet.

A fighter for women’s rights

Stay on the street for any length of time and you’re approached by a beggar, often a child in rags with skin darkened by dirt, malnutrition and the effect of living outdoors, or a woman, who is probably one of the thousands of widows left in charge of a family after her husband died in the fighting, or after stepping on a landmine, or just from hunger and poverty.

Under the Taliban she was forbidden to work. She was also ordered to wear the burqa which she still wears. It covers her whole body down to the calves which are covered by trousers; her face is covered by a lattice, a cloth version of  the screens over harem windows; all you can see of her is her hand, a claw protruding from a bundle of rags that says something in a language that you can’t understand. It’s relatively easy to refuse to give when you can’t see the beggar’s eyes.

Word gets round the press corps that there’s been a demonstration  of women to reject the burqa. Very few journalists knew it was taking place. Now everyone wants to find the woman who organised the rally.

Soralya Parlika is being interviewed by a televison crew when we arrive at her flat. We don’t have an appointment but we are ushered into a room to wait to see her. There’s a woman in attendance, who I believe is a servant, and an old man with a complicated turban, bright blue eyes and a white beard. He’s Soralya’s father, Mohammed Harif. He’s deaf and his face has the uncomprehending look of those who don’t hear the hubbub of everyday life.

As we wait, some American journalists arrive and join the queue.

The flat is not very spacious, in a building which is relatively modern but scruffy on a housing estate which resembles cheap municipal housing in Britain.

But this is, or at least was, housing for the privileged. Kamal tells us that the flats were built for civil servants and officers “under the Communists”.  As we approached, we had to drive round a huge hole in the road, the result of a US-British bombing raid. There’s a playground on the other side of the road.

Parlika eventually appears. She’s 57 but, unusually for Afghanistan, looks younger than her age. She wears a headscarf, but leaves her rather pale-complexioned face uncovered. Despite her welcoming smile, she gives the disconcerting impression of gazing anxiously at a spot just over her interlocutor’s shoulder. She’s the second or third Afghan woman I’ve seen who isn’t wearing the burqa.

Kabul’s new rulers had refused to allow the demonstrators to march through the streets, saying that they couldn’t guarantee their safety, an assertion which excites a certain amount of scepticism on Parlika’s part. Between 100 and 200 women turned up nevertheless and held a rally, where they lifted up their burqas, most of them baring their faces but keeping their hair covered.

Parlika insists that the rally was not about the burqa and that there was no obligation on participants to remove it. The real aim was to demand that women be allowed to play a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan: that they should be allowed to work and to be educated, and that they should be represented at meetings about the country’s future and in any new government.

Her own history goes back to the late 1970s, when, after studying economics at Kabul University, she started working for the women’s section of the Democratic Party of Afghanistan. That led to a one-and-a-half-year jail term under Hafizullah Amin (“a brutal man”), the second president from the Khalq Communist faction who was killed when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.

She went on to head the Afghan Red Crescent but gave that up in 1992 when the mojaheddin rolled into town. Liberation from Russian rule didn’t mean women’s liberation. During the ’70s women in Kabul, at least, had access to education, employment and, if they wanted, Western dress. But in 1992, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who at the time more or less controlled the capital, publicly recommended that Kabuli women wear the burqa. Parlika established an underground women’s movement.

I ask if women are rejecting an Afghan tradition when they reject the burqa. She concedes that some Afghan women have always worn it. “But women who were educated, women who were going to school, university and who were working, they didn’t wear burqas. It was only women whose husbands were fanatics or chose to do so voluntarily.”

So why do so many women continue to wear it now that they don’t have to?

She replies that many would feel unsafe without the burqa, that it’s warm and that, after years of being forbidden to work, they are poor and don’t want to expose their shabby clothes.

As yet, most of the women who are ready to work with Parlika are from what’s left of the educated middle class, the women who would fill the jobs that she’s demanding in education, healthcare and the administration of the country.

One of the Americans asks if she believes she could have accomplished as much as she has if she had been married.

Parlika talks generally about the condition of Afghan women.

The journalist insists and Parlika generalises again.

Someone suggests a different phrasing for the question and Parlika generalises again.

Try as they might, my colleagues can’t get a straight answer. Is the question too personal ? Is there something we’re not allowed to know? Or is it just easier to confront male prejudice in California than in Kabul ?

The Intercontinental’s antique television can now show the broadcasts of Kabul Television. The pre-Taliban presenters, a man and a woman, have been brought out of their forced retirement. The woman wears a headscarf but, fortunately from a televisual point of view, no burqa. The content is principally news – there’s plenty of that – and landscapes with accompanying music.

The Kabulis want more than the two hours a day that Kabul TV offers, however. Satellite dishes knocked together from old tin-cans appear outside shops, their repeated logos adding an Andy Warhol touch to street-life.

Other vices that Kabulis can once again indulge in after a five-year ban are getting a shave, listening to music, flying a kite and keeping pigeons.

And girls can now go to school again. The Taliban ban was never fully effective. Soralya Parlika was among those who ran secret schools where girls could pick up some education.

Gul Mohammad Ahamdi is the president of Sorbach, an NGO which runs 95 schools in Kabul. They teach over 7,000 children one of the local languages, maths and the Koran.

Kulhana Chadi school, in a battered area of Kabul mainly populated by the Hazara ethnic group, isn’t easy to spot. It’s a mud building like the houses around it. You open the door, which has been cannibalised from a goods-container, and you enter an empty store-room. Steps at the back of the store-room lead up to a landing with three dusty rooms off it.

They’re the classrooms, all packed with girls who stand up and sing out a greeting in unison as you enter. The nine teachers are all women – scarves not burqas, a bit of make-up, even – the teaching techniques seem to entail a lot of reciting by rote. The girls sit on the floor, some have cheap notebooks, others slates. They won’t be learning computer skills any day soon.

Outside a woman in a burqa draws water from a well. Inside a teacher explains that classes have been operating for about a year. The building is provided by a relative of one of the teachers. The immorality that it sheltered  had to be concealed from the most zealous Taliban but some local commanders knew about the schools and tolerated them, if the area that they controlled was far enough away fom the religious police headquarters.

Ahamdi himself was often taken in for questioning. He says that he received many threats to his life under the Taliban. “I gave my son the name of the person he should contact if  one day I didn’t come home.”

And to what use will this education be put ? When asked, virtually all the girls say that they want to be doctors.

If war has scarred Kabul, leaving whole swathes of the city as rubble, it’s also marked many Kabulis for life. 97 per cent of Afghan children have lived through violence. Unicef officials say that the majority of under-16s have been traumatised by the war. 65 per cent have experienced the death of a close relative.

In every street you come across men and boys on crutches, or, the lucky ones, with artificial limbs. Their agility is remarkable, though never remarked on in a country where such an accomplishment is commonplace. Whole hospitals are devoted to trying to repair the damage done by left-over ordinance, especially the landmines that have been planted all over the country. Demining experts say that 735 square miles of land is dangerous.

And then the US and Britain launched a bombing campaign. In the formerly wealthy area of Wasir Aqbar Khan, UN demining expert, Ross Chamberlain, stands in front of a wreck of concrete and twisted metal and tells the assembled journalists, “We brought you here to show you a good example.”

Chamberlain says that the building that stood here was the headquarters of  a Taliban police commander. It suffered a direct hit, although nobody knows if  the principal target was home. A building next door was partially destroyed. A number of pro-Taliban Arab volunteers are reported to have been inside. They all died.

In a wry Australian accent, Chamberlain tells us to look behind us. A line of trees partially conceals the Indira Ghandi hospital. “So they had to be spot-on, if they were wrong there was going to be a big problem.”

But, he adds, there were more bad examples than good ones.

It seems that death discriminates against the poor. There’s no rubble at the second site we visit, just piles of dirt and dust, leaving a perfect view of the mountains that overlook the city. A bomb has obliterated the home of a family of ten, who were in it at the time. Only the mother survived and she stands on the site weeping and recounting her story to the microphones.

“The bomb was probably aimed at the military post on the hill,” says Petere Lesueur, who’s technical adviser to Afghan Ordinance Consultants which is working with the UN. “A possible last-minute malfunction of the guidance unit and it’s probable that that ‘s what happened.”

Ross Chamberlain estimates that 30 civilians have been killed in Kabul by US bombs, a non-combattant death-toll which he considers to be fairly low compared to other military campaigns. He’s found no evidence of the use of  cluster-bombs in the city, although these packages of death and injury have been used elsewhere in the country.

“But there’ve been lots of 500-lb bombs,” many of which have yet to explode.

The mines and bombs left behind by successive campaigns kill ten to 12 people every day.

What fighting?

Kabul’s electricity is cut off, causing the price of generators to soar as journalists comb the city for the power they need to file their stories and keep warm at night.

The current remains off for over 24 hours and it’s soon reported that this is no ordinary power-cut. It appears that a key power-station has been hit during heavy fighting between the Northern Alliance and tribal fighters at Sorubay after the Alliance sent 200 troops from Kabul to secure the road to Jalalabad. Roadblocks at the outskirts of Kabul prevent reporters visiting the scene.

Pashtun chiefs, who have have each taken control of their small parcel of territory, are defending their right to make the law on their own patch, especially against the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.

The local chiefs’ power was curtailed under the Taliban to please the transport mafia, which objected to paying countless tolls as they travelled through the various fiefdoms along their way. Now, as we found out, robbers and other toll-collectors are reappearing. Ordinary Afghans fears of a return to lawlessness and faction fighting are being realised.

The following day, with power returned, I ask Northern Alliance spokesman Abdullah Abdullah whether the fighting has ended.

“What fighting?” he asks.

Check in your weapons at the door

One evening I go with Assad and Kamal to their favourite restaurant, which is a converted cinema. As we wash our hands by the entrance, a pick-up pulls up in the dark outside. About a dozen armed men in pakool hats and combat fatigues jump off it and lope past us into the restaurant.

Most of them leave their weapons at the door, as if they were checking in their hats and coats. The visitor can inspect a pretty array of arms, including a machine-gun with a bandolier of bullets ready to be fired. It looks strangely home-made, as if it had been cobbled together out of tin-cans like an African toy. Kamal says with distaste that this must be the party of “some commander”.

The evening meal starts early because it’s ramadan and the Afghans are desperate to break their fast. In any case, you can’t linger over your meal because curfew begins at 9 pm.

A television crew which has paid a security official to accompany them at night says that there are roadblocks, manned by nervous youths, at very regular intervals. The guide knows the password, which changes every night, and whispers it to whoever’s in charge of the road-block. There not always sure that the jumpy militiamen are ready to wait for this formality to be enacted.

Kamal and I walk down our street in the sunny Kabul afternoon. He stoops and picks up a small lump of blackened metal. “Mortars,” he says. Recognising ordnance is one of those handy skills that young Afghans have all managed to pick up.

We pass a group of men in khaki uniforms that look as if they’ve been left over from the Russian occupation. They’re police. We talk to the officer, a plump man squeezed into an undersized uniform decorated with colourful regalia.

He tells us to be careful at night; that there are still Taliban hidden in the city, or, to be precise, foreign volunteers whom the Taliban didn’t tell about the withdrawal. They woke up Tuesday morning to find themselves in a capital controlled by the enemy. The Northern Alliance reportedly shot some of them on the main street as soon as it arrived, but others have managed to find householders who hide them for money.

They try and sneak out of the city at night and there are sometimes shoot-outs with Northern Alliance fighters. Occasionally we hear a shot at night.

The next day, AFP reports that Kabul residents have spotted a group of American or British soldiers occupying a house in the city. They reportedly only go out at night, to hunt down Taliban or Al-Qaeda members.

When we unsuccessfully try and see Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunas Qanooni, we ask the advisers who receive us about this story.

There are no US or Bitish soldiers in Kabul, they say, but, when pressed, say that “American security experts from the Pentagon” are “collaborating with the Northern Alliance against terrorists here and throughout the country”. It would be “difficult to say whether they might be in Kabul”.

Are there any Taliban left in Kabul ? I ask.


So why is there a curfew ?

“For reasons of security. We haven’t collected in all the arms yet. Besides, we’ve had a curfew here for the last 22 years.”

Why break the habit of a lifetime ?

A Taliban defector

Mollah Alhaj M Khaksar glances nervously over his shoulder at a Northern Alliance minder as he responds to our questions. He wears a black and yellow turban, a western suit-jacket over a traditional shalwar kameez, and a gold watch which can’t have come cheap. His bushy beard only partially conceals a chubby, boyish face. Bearded men in turbans sit around the walls, watching the interview, which is videoed for posterity, or maybe so that Kabul’s new masters have a record of what the mollah is saying.

At ten o’clock last night Abdullah Abdullah presented Khaksar, who was the Taliban’s deputy interior minister, to the press and announced that he has defected to the Northern Alliance.

Khaksar himself claims to have been in contact with the Alliance for two to three years, although he is vague as to whether those contacts were in a ministerial capacity or, as I think he would like us to believe, because he was an agent of Ahmed Shah Masood.

Before seeing the mollah, we were ushered through a garden decorated with spent Russian mortar-shells into one of Wasir Akbar Khan’s spacious modern houses, where we waited in the company of men who claimed to have been prisoners in Kandahar, where the Taliban are still holding out.

For the interview we had to cross the road to another house. While two Northern Alliance leading lights haven’t bothered to turn up for appointments with us, Khaksar is, so to speak, on tap, since his primary function is to be publicised.

He has appealed to other Taliban to come over to the Alliance and says that, in the time-honoured Afghan tradition, defectors should be offered places in a new government or, at least, at the forthcoming conference in Bonn on the country’s future.

Khaksar says that he split with the Taliban over their conduct of the war and calls for an end to the influence of foreigners on the country’s politics.

He is referring are the Arab fundamentalists, like Osama bin Laden, whose influence over the Taliban leadership and alleged arrogance in their dealings with local people has created massive resentment.

It also meant dissent in Taliban ranks. Some journalists have tried to find differences among “moderate” and “extremist” Taliban but the movement showed no signs of disunity when it came to mistreating  the Afghan people.

One could perhaps distinguish between those who opportunistically went along with Taliban policies in order to keep administrative jobs or positions of influence and those who sincerely wanted to impose their own interpretation of Islam on the country. But who is more morally reprehensible, someone who imposes the burqa, illiteracy for women, amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, execution for homosxuality and so on because he thinks that it will lead humanity to paradise, or someone who collaborates with these practises in order to stay out of  trouble? Is it worth making the distinction?

There is another division in the Taliban ranks.

It’s between those who back the foreign fundamentalists’ project of imposing Taliban-style rule on the whole Muslim world and those who are only concerned with what happens within the borders of Afghanistan.

Naturally, the latter view would appeal to pragmatists and careerists, but also to commanders who are realistic enough to know that they can’t beat the US’s military might and to those who believed that the Taliban could bring unity and stability to Afghanistan, a view which was apparently shared by Islamabad and Washington at one time.

My guess is that Khaksar falls into the pragmatic category, especially if he’s been secretly backing both horses for a couple of years. Today he plays on the hatred that much of the population has for the foreigners who came to pursue jihad in Afghanistan. Although they have come from all over the world, they are now all referred to as “the Arabs” and are loathed to such a degree that our sound engineer Méd, who’s of Moroccan origin, doesn’t dare let on that he speaks Arabic.

“These foreigners were the main reason that our country has been destroyed,” says Khaksar.

Khaksar doesn’t refer to Pakistan, whose secret services set the Taliban up in business, or to the CIA, which backed this policy and encouraged the arrival of the first foreign jihadis during the war against the Russians. Nor does he mention Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states whose wealthy citizens provide the finance for the Islamic NGOs which became more influential as the Taliban became increasingly isolated internationally.

In the light of his distaste for foreign influence here, I ask him if US influence over the Northern Alliance worries him, especially since Washington is currently bombing Afghanistan.

The US says that it only wants to wipe out the “terrorists” in Afghanistan, Khaksar replies.

“When the terrorists are finished, we will see what we will do.”

Rebuilding a shattered capital

The mayor of Kabul, Bahawi Mohaiuddin, tells us that bombings by “our American friends” have added to the accumulated rubble that he needs to clear up in order to reconstruct the capital.

We meet Mohaiuddin, a slim, genial man in his 40s who speaks slightly eccentric English, on the morning that he takes over the post.

“I haven’t even had time to resign from my old job with the ICRC,” he tells us.

Mohaiuddin was Deputy Mayor in the early 90s and left the post when the Taliban took power. He inherits a city in ruins.

The city’s power comes from areas which are not fully controlled by Kabul, as we all learnt during the power cut. Many of the poorer areas don’t have power or water.

Some of the poor areas don’t even have buildings. In the early 90s rival factions of what’s now the Northern Alliance fought it out for control of the capital.

Stand among the ruins in the Hazara area in the west of the city and people will point to the mountains on either side and say, “Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s guns were on that side and Ahmed Shah Masood’s were on the other and the shells fell here.”

The figthing lasted from 1993 to 1995 when Hikmetyar allied himself with the Hazaras to try and seize control of the country. The revenge exacted by Masood’s men is said to have been brutal.

Warlords have also reduced an attempt at town-planning dating from the early 1990s to a distant memory.

The plan forecast a population of two million people. But over half the population has fled – the poor to refugee camps inside Afghanistan, or in Pakistan or Iran, the better-educated to Europe and the US. Meanwhile, they’ve been replaced by refugees from the fighting in the central Shomali plains. Mohaiuddin puts the present population at a million. Its transitory nature, added to the destruction of war, means overcrowding.

“In my own house only 35 per cent of the people who slept there last night actually lived there,” he says.

Kabul used to have a park. No more. Various commanders took a fancy to the area and built homes on it. The possession of guns ensured that there were no problems with planning permission, nor with the supply of water and elecrticity. Other people hired gunmen to be present during the city engineer’s visit.

“Now the muinicipality has the problem, how to destroy that. If we destroy it, that is a lot of money to waste. If we do not, we cannot do our plan.”

Despite the urgency of the tasks that he faces, Mohaiuddin has to run the city without money or trained personnel. The Taliban emptied the coffers when they left town. Many city employees hadn’t been paid for months before that.

Those that were left, that is. The madrassa graduates mistrusted anyone who had been through higher education. One by one, the city’s qualified personnel found themselves accused of being communists and driven out of the country because, like most of Afghanistan’s elite, they had received some of their training in Russia.

What do the Afghans expect of the future?

“The future depends on what the people do. But the point is now that there is a little bit of liberty for the people, before people couldn’t talk freely,” says Abdul Fatah, who has a stall in front of Kabul’s cinema. He writes official letters for the illiterate or semi-literate.

Although there’s guarded optimism, it’s difficult to find anyone who has much confidence in the Northern Alliance. Everyone looks back nervously at the infighting  and anarchy of the early 90s.

Sayjun, an unemployed Pashtun, says that he wants a multi-ethnic government. But would he have said that when the Pashtun-dominated Taliban were in power ?

Most people seem to hope that foreign pressure will keep their new leaders in order and that the Americans, when they’ve finished bombing them, will help reconstruct the country and then go away and leave them in peace.

It’s difficult to fthink of any occasion in Afghan or American history which justifies such optimism.

Hopes for peace, fears for the future

Mohammed Ahmed, a doctor whom we meet in the hotel car park in Jalalabad, seemed more independent-minded. He complained about the lack of equipment and medicines at the hospital where he works (“we don’t know how to help people”) and told us that he hasn’t been paid for four months.

“They [the country’s new rulers] came before and they did the same thing before. They will give us nothing … You will have a new king and he will do his thing and then you will have another.”

So who can bring peace for the people of Afghanistan ?

“I think that no-one can do that, just the people of Afghanistan … The British and the French and the Americans, they built their countries by themselves, no Afghan was there to work for them. The Afghans have to make their country by themselves. No-one will help you.”

A deserted prison

Kabul prison is several kilometres out of town, in country that is practically desert. You turn off the road to Jalalabad, pass through a mud village with shops housed in old goods-containers, the cast-offs of the transport mafia.

The car kicks up more and more dust and, as we cross a flat plain, Kamal shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

“This is the first time I’ve been here. This is where my father was killed,” he says.

He’s mentioned before that his father was executed “under the communists”, to be precise under the second Khalq President, Hafizullah Amin.

Now I venture to ask why he was killed.

“Because he had political ideas.”

What political ideas ?

“He was a Maoist.”

Kamal says that thousands of political prisoners have been buried in the ground over which we are driving. Sometimes so many were buried at the same time that bulldozers were used to dig the graves.

A bunch of armed men meet us at the prison. They’re the guards but they have no one to watch over now. The  gates are wide open. When the Taliban left town, they let all 12,000 prisoners go free.

“They were our own people. They lived where we live,” says the guard who shows us around, a man in his 30s with scruffy clothes and a friendly face.

Given the fact that many of the prisoners were political allies of Kabul’s new masters, the altruism may have been born of the instinct of self-preservation.

There are seven cell-blocks, all surrounded by a wall with gun-turrets looking out onto the dusty nothingness around the jail.

We go into one block. Rubbish is strewn all over the place, papers, broken desks and plastic gloves. There’s an exercise yard, with a small garden in the corner. Inside are the large cages into which the common law prisoners were packed.

Upstairs there’s a corridor with individual cells off it. Their occupants had decorated the cells with huge graffiti of sayings from the Koran or quotations from poets. On the pink-painted walls of one cell, there are idyllic tropical seascapes, an open Koran and a squadron of fighter-planes attacking a convoy of motor vehicles. This is the political prisoners’ wing.

Around the corner the bottom half of a leg is lying amid the rubbish. An artificial one. A landmine victim or wounded fighter was in such a hurry to leave that he left his artificial limb behind.

Through the windows we can see walls pocked with bullet-holes. They date from the factional fighting of the early 90s, when the rival militias came into the prison to fight. The guard says that this happened many times.

Two rooms are clean and painted white and bright, like a surgery.

“This was where they tortured people,” the guard explains. The tortures including beating people with metal-wighted cable and emasculating them by crushing their testicles.

Many thousands of people were executed here, says the guard, and many died under torture.

Was this just under the Taliban, or under all régimes ?

“It was the Taliban … We don’t see anything like this in the world before.”

Leaving via Bagram

Thanks to the US-British bombings, it’s not possible to leave via Kabul airport.

The UN agencies run flights from Bagram on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. They’re much in demand, despite the fact that insurance costs have put the price of a seat up to 2,000 dollars. God help the freelancers! Places are not available to Afghans, so Kamal and Assad have to drive back to Peshawar along the road on which we were robbed.

“Take the new road,” the ICRC officials told us. “The old one’s mined.”

There’s more dust, more desert along the route and walled homesteads without a sign of life. In the distance, there’s a larger town, whose mud buildings are difficult to distinguish from the countryside. The mountains brood at the side, dry and brown except for small patches of snow right at the top.

At one point the car veers off the road ahead of a bombed-out bridge going over a stream. We go down a twisted track to the side of the stream, where the shell of a tank lies half in the water as if it had been demobilised earlier this morning. The car goes under another broken-up bridge, across the stream and back onto the road.

There doesn’t seem to be much left of Bagram. An empty foxhole by the airport gate with an escape path leading back into what’s left of the village. We wait outside the locked airport gate and a  group of Western soldiers appears on the other side, a few metres away. They won’t answer when I ask who they are. A man from the BBC says that their Americans and that the Brits who were reportedly here have already left.

There are two small aircraft on the runway, waiting to take us out of Afghanistan. Our plane has to circle above the airport six times to gain the necessary height. It turns on its side and we see the wreckage of the airport itself, then the leathery sides of mountains lurch towards us, then away as we pull up and head for Islamabad.

For more on Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009, click here.