Category Archives: Turkey

Turkey’s divisions run deep as referendum result shows

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The result of Turkey’s referendum was a cliff-hanger, which I witnessed at the main opposition party’s HQ where accusations of fraud were flying. At the polls I saw the deep divisions in the country, No supporters’ disdain for government supporters, Yes supporters’ fury at European “crusaders” and adulation of President Erdogan.

Polling officials await voters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 14 April 2017, Ankara

On arrival in Ankara, where I will report on the voting and the result, I meet the young man who is going to be my fixer, Cagdas Ersoy (without the diacritical marks and the knowledge of what Turkish ones mean you’ll never guess how to pronounce that first name).

It turns out he’s a story in himself.

He used to be a left-wing activist and was arrested, along with several of his comrades, on a protest at the death of a well-known teacher and activist, Metin Lokumcu, on another demonstration.

Prosecutors decided to charge them with membership of a terrorist organisation but they couldn’t decide which one.

So they left them in jail for six months while they made their minds up, eventually admitting defeat and releasing them.

The compensation was quite generous, at least, Cagdas says.

He has a nice line in prison anecdotes, especially since several of the common law prisoners were members of the Grey Wolves, the far-right militia associated with the nationalist MHP.

“If you’re a hired killer what do you when the work runs out?” Cagdas asks.

One explained his racist ideology by assuring him that the Turks are the world’s top race because they can shoot a bow and arrow on horseback better than anybody else, although the skill seems to be widely practised in modern Turkey than it was on the central Asian planes several centuries ago.

On another occasion a group of Grey Wolves were expressing their certainty that homosexuality is a sin that will be punished severely in the afterlife.

“That’s true,” one said. “But, let’s face it, who here hasn’t had sex with a tranny at least once ?”

The others were obliged to concede the point.

Saturday 15 April, Ankara

A No banner hangs on the front of the CHP’s national headquarters in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

 

The search for politicians ready to be interviewed on the referendum resumes.

It has proved especially difficult to find Yes campaigners to speak to us, the MHP being split on the question and AKP cadres apparently being reluctant for fear that they unthinkingly contradict the party line and bring their careers to an unplanned end.

But officials at the party’s Ankara headquarters are helpful when we turn up in their lobby and we end up speaking to the man in charge of the No campaign in the city, Nedim Yamali, in his spacious and well-furnished office.

Nedem Yamali Photo: Tony Cross

The claim that the constitutional reforms are a product of Erdogan’s megalomania is “a big lie”, he says, pointing out that they will allow for the president’s removal and prevent him standing again after 2029, although laying less emphasis on his proposed right to appoint the cabinet, issue decrees, declare a state of emergency and so on.

He also shares the Yes campaign’s distaste for coalition government, blaming previous ones for the country’s hard times before the AKP came to power and claiming that the reform would mean such a state of affairs would never be repeated.

We then meet a former AKP MP, Emin Dindar, in a more congenial setting, a charming café with art deco touches where he appears to hold court.

Dindar is a Kurd and a former mayor of Cizre-Sirak. Cagdas tells me his brother was killed by the PKK.

He takes an original line on the referendum, arguing that it will Erdogan a free hand to reopen the peace process and resume the improvement in Kurdish rights that the AKP started in the early years of its time in government.

He’s also not keen on coalitions.

As we leave, a man jumps up to greet Dindar, kissing his hand and engaging him in an intense conversation at a table on the sunny terrace.

CHP vice-president Telim Bingol Photo: Tony Cross

In another imposing party office, the opposition CHP’s national headquarters this time, party vice-president Telin Bingol says coalitions are getting an unjustly hard rap from the Yes campaign.

“Today we have unemployment, low-level economic crisis, lots of problems in our foreign policy and they have been ruling the country for 15 years by themselves,” he says. “There’s no coalition today and there’s no stability, either.”

On a precinct in central Ankara, sacked university lecturers Nuriye Gülman and Semih Özakca are staging a sit-in protest over their dismissal.

They have been here for about 100 days and have been on hunger strikes for 38.

To read my report for RFI Yes and No camps explain their cases click here 

Sunday 16 April, Ankara

Market traders start work on referendum day in Ankara Photo: Tony Cross

Market traders are setting out their stalls as polling opens at Necla Kizilbag high school.

As the sun brings out the red in the rows of tomatoes, the green in a mountain of chillis, one of them explains the superiority of street markets to supermarkets – fresh, local produce, friendly service – to us.

This is a middle-class CHP-supporting area and the No voters are getting their disappointment in early, assuring us that fraud will deliver a Yes vote.

While the muhtar (mayor) Aydin Yasap, expects this area to vote No “because people are educated here”, journalist Nalan Aygun says she is pessimistic about the outcome because “we have a lot of uneducated people in Turkey” whom Erdogan knows how to manipulate.

This disdain for the “uneducated” is widespread among middle-class secularists and must surely impede the No campaign’s ability to win over the AKP’s working-class support base.

Opinion is more divided at another polling station, in Mamak district.

Here I am taken to task by Osman, a flashily dressed businessman playing with prayer beads, who takes my presence as an imperialist aggression.

“Do you think if I go to France and stand in front of a school, as you are doing, do you think I could do as you are doing freely?” he asks me.

He seems unconvinced by my assurance that he could, nor does my insistence that I am not personally responsible for the French or any other European government’s decisions cut much ice.

Like many AKP supporters, including Ankara party chief Yamali, Osman is enraged by the refusal of the Netherlands government and some German cities to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies on their soil.

The move worked for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, so far as domestic politics were concerned, but it appears to have strengthened the resolve of many Turks to vote No and Erdogan has made the most of its potential.

Yasar Akalin and Zamazan Acar Photo: Tony Cross

At another polling station nearby, one AKP supporter refers to “crusaders” as muhtar Yasar Akalin predicts a 60-65% victory for Yes.

Having resorted to that venerable journalistic technique of talking to taxi drivers, we are surprised to find unanimous opposition to the reform.

Of course, it may be that some are telling us what they think we want to hear but the man who drives us back to my hotel has an interesting explanation, which may indicate that the AKP is losing its magic touch.

Taxi drivers and shopkeepers are feeling the pinch of a downturn in the economy, he explains, adding that he and his colleagues are also angry at hikes in petrol taxes and the government’s refusal to negotiate with their representatives.

The AKP “helps the poor”, Zamazan Acar told us at Mutlu polling station, citing free health care and other improvements in his life during the party’s time in power.

But some of the AKP’s support may evaporate if the economy continues its turn for the worse.

To read my report of polling in Ankara for RFI click here 

CHP spokesperson Bülent Tezcan claims there has been fraud at the party’s headquarters Photo: Tony Cross

And now the result!

At the CHP HQ journalists and party members gather around a TV screen.

As results come in from the east, where the polls opened and closed earlier, the Yes has a substantial lead.

But it declines as the hours tick by.

It’s an agonising process, the activists are on edge, cheering good results even when they’re partial but far from confident in their campaign’s success.

The impression that the CHP thinks it has lost is reinforced when party apparatchiks sweep into the lobby and denounce alleged vote fraud.

Another CHP vice-president Erdal Aksünger claims that the party’s own returns show a No victory and accuses the state-run Anadolu news agency of issuing false results to demoralise their supporters.

The activists explode in chants of “Mustafa we are your soldiers” and other rousing Kemalist songs of a martial tone.

But the Yes lead is still falling as Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara seem to be going for No.

Izmir is a CHP bastion but losing in the other two would be a big blow to Erdogan, who started his national career as mayor of Istanbul.

In another dramatic announcement, party spokesperson Bülent Tezcan slams the high electoral authority decision during the day to allow unstamped ballot papers to be counted on the AKP’s request.

After an agonising wait the official result is revealed.

CHP activists chant as the result come through Photo: Tony Cross

Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara have indeed voted No but the country, according to the television, has voted Yes by a wafer-thin margin of 51.3 to 48.7.

As it comes through, Aksünger is making another announcement, claiming that 1.5 million unstamped ballots have been counted, denouncing the official results as fraudulent and vowing to fight them.

Neither the electoral authority or the courts, run by a purged magistrature, are likely to back the CHP’s appeal but it keeps the indignation-fuelled adrenalin pumping and the activists chant their defiance again.

To read my report of the result and the CHP’s reaction click here

Monday 17 April, Ankara

Bearing in mind that the two parties who campaigned for the Yes vote won 60% in the last general election and the odds stacked against the No campaign, the result is actually remarkable.

It shows a decline in Erdogan’s support, possibly the result of the economic turbulence that has hit the country.

But it still reveals a country “sliced in two like a water melon”, as Cumhuriyet columnist Cigdem Toker tells me.

The narrowness of the margin is unlikely to restrain Erdogan, who has already said he’s ready to have another referendum, this time on restoring the death penalty, giving the political finger to his European critics and finally slamming the door on the admittedly unlikely prospect of Turkey ever joining the EU.

But this bitterly divided country has plenty of other challenges.

To read What now for Turkey after Erdogan’s narrow referendum victory? click here

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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

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

Tuesday 11 April 2107, Diyarbakir province

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

But more of that later.

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

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

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

Mustafa Celik with Evet Photo: Tony Cross

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

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

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

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

Adem Karakoc Photo: Tony Cross

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 12 April, Diyarbakir

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

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

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

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

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

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

A security roundup has seen 177 people detained.

Pro-Kurd party under pressure on security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uca is unrepentant.

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

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

To read my interview with Feleknas Uca on RFI click here

Victimisation leads to solidarity

Mehtap Yörük serves a client Photo: Tony Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serap Kilic and Selma Atabey are two more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 13 April, Diyarbakir

Nurcan Baysal in her office Photo: Tony Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adil in his cheese shop Photo: Tony Crpss

But there are Kurds who will vote Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Erdogan tries to win Kurds and nationalists

Erdogan, too, has to reconcile some contradictions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

Turkey turns to Russia amid allegations of US coup complicity

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Turkey is executing a dramatic change in foreign policy, aligning itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in part because of the US’s and the EU’s reaction to the purge that followed the 15 July coup attempt. Ruling party leaders say the state of emergency will not last more than three months and that the Kurdish-based HDP will not be left out of national unity efforts. We’ll see about that!

mayor, lawyer, mausoleum 020
Atatürk’s mausoleum behind minarets and Ankara rooftops Photo: Tony Cross

Ankara 27-28 July 2016

Accompanying the mayor I meet on Wednesday evening is someone who’s introduced as an advisor to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim – another one who doesn’t want to give his name, but for different reasons to the others I’ve spoken to – along with a couple of gentlemen who apparently have something to do with intelligence and defence.

They say that a key Gülenist, whom they name as Adil Öksüz, was captured at the nearby Akinci airbase during the coup attempt.

Other Gülenists have apparently come forward to confess, including another prime ministerial adviser, known as Fuat Avni, and are spilling a certain amount of beans on the movement.

Avni’s statements led to the arrest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military aide de camp Colonel Ali Yazici, they say, and that has led to other top aides, past and present.

However highly placed they are, the organisation’s cell structure means that defectors can’t name a lot of names, if the information I’m given is correct.

Cells are led by a “big brother”, who reports to a bigger brother, and they all use code names.

Given that the AKP worked with the Gülenists for many years, there must surely be many members in the party, I point out.

They agree and say that an “in-depth investigation” is taking place and that some have already come forward.

The party seems ready to forgive individuals who were attracted by the movement’s ideals but were not aware of the coup plot.

Gülenists ready to explain themselves to the media having always been in short supply – even more so at the moment – I am not in a position to say what those ideals really are.

AKP people say that Gülen claims to be the new Mahdi, who will redeem Islam, and that the movement is a threat wherever it has schools and other interests, ie a number of countries in central Asia, Africa and, as it happens, the United States.

Relations with US under threat

The government found that the US was slow to condemn the coup and this, combined with its criticism of the post-coup purge and its apparent reluctance to extradite Gülen from his Pennsylvania compound, has given rise to accusations that it was aware of and supported the coup attempt.

If Washington refuses extradition it will be taken as proof of involvement, the adviser says, and that will mean a complete change in relations between Turkey, a key member of Nato, and the US.

There were already accusations that Gülen is a CIA agent and my informants seem to believe them, one of them throwing in a claim of German involvement for good measure.

EU criticism of the Turkish government’s reaction to the purge have also been poorly received and there is already evidence of a major realignment of Turkish foreign policy, which would mean Turkey joining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to establish a bloc to rival the West on the world stage.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek on Tuesday announced that Erdogan would visit Russia on 9 August, while he himself was on a visit to Moscow along with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci.

Russia is, of course, strictly non-judgemental about the reaction to the coup and has lifted a damaging embargo imposed when the Turks shot down one of its jets over Syria last year.

Even before the coup attempt there were indications that Ankara may normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad, a prospect that stunned Syrian rebel groups.

Is military weakened? Will national unity last? The AKP line

Mehdi Eker 002
Ak party vice-president Mehdi Eker Photo: Tony Cross

AKP vice-president Mehdi Eker refuses to “speculate” on what will happen if Gülen is not extradited when we meet him at the party’s huge headquarters in Ankara.

“We know, and are very sure – we have a lot of evidence – that Fetullah Gülen is the leader of this organisation, as it has been confessed by many members who were involved in the military coup,” he says. “We have conveyed these files to the US. President Erdoğan called [US President Barack] Obama and asked for the extradition of Gülen, and PM Yıldırım also had a phone conversation with [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and asked him officially.”

So “an ally and friendly country” is bound to “act according to international law and according to bilateral relations on this issue”, he declares.

Eker is defensive on defence.

The 8,000-plus personnel dishonourably discharged is a small percentage of the huge Turkish armed forces, he points out, but has to concede that then over 40 per cent of generals and admirals fired could be damaging.

“The Turkish army is traditionally very strong and powerful,” he says with masterly understatement. “Of course, as far as they get the support from the people and administration, they will recover. I have no doubt whatsoever about it. In previous coup attempts, for example in 1971 there was again a coup attempt, it recovered. It will again recover. No problem!”

He confirms reports that responsibility for the gendarmerie and the coastguard will be transferred from the defence to the interior ministry and that the polie may be given heavy weapons.

The Kurds – the elephant not in the national unity room

HDP itv 018
HDP co-vice-president Saruhan Öluc Photo: Tony Cross

Like the CHP’s Tezcan, he is enthusiastic about the post-coup spirit of national unity.

“The people are all together, hand in hand,” Eker declares. “All the people from different statuses, different backgrounds, different parties all stay together.”

But one party was absent from Erdogan’s meeting with opposition leaders on Monday – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

When I met HDP vice-president Saruhan Öluc in Istanbul on Tuesday, he was worried that this meant the formation of a nationalist bloc against Kurdish rights.

To read my interview with Saruhan Öluc click here

But Eker, who is himself a Kurd and represents a constituency in Diyarbakir where the conflict with armed Kurdish groups rages on, insists that the HDP will be involved in future talks.

“As long as they take a firm stance against coups and any other anti-democratic affairs, we are together. They are elected by people so they are legitimate.”

The gendarmerie being deployed in rural areas, their transfer to the interior minister may mean more involvement in security operations in the south-east.

Torture hasn’t happened but, if it has, it will be punished

mayor, lawyer, mausoleum 017
Human rights lawyer Sercan Aran Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier today lawyer Sercan Aran told us that soldiers detained since the coup claims to have been abused, tortured and even raped.

Some had been deprived of food for three days, others housed in stables or kept in stress positions for the same length of time.

A general said he had been sodomised by a police truncheon – one suspects an element of resentment from the lower ranks – but refused to file a complaint because of the shame he would feel if his family knew.

There was evidence of other similar cases, Aran said, and lawyers had faced obstruction and physical assault while trying to represent detained soldiers.

To read my report for RFI on torture allegations click here

“Everything is done under the rule of law,” Eker insists, describing Amnesty International’s report on the torture allegations as biased.

But the charges will be investigated, he says, and if any cases come to light “of course they will be punished”.

Prosecutors have been given exceptional powers, including the right to search premises, including lawyers’ offices, without a judge’s warrant and the right to seize documents from lawyers.

Plotters, including officers who tried to assassinate Erdogan, are still on the loose, Eker says, so exceptional measures are justified.

But, he adds in reference to France’s eight-month state of emergency, Turkey’s will probably not last more than three months.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

How far will Turkey’s post-coup purge go?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious at foreign criticism of the crackdown that has followed the 15 July coup attempt. What does anyone expect after a military power grab? he wants to know. So has the West been holier-than-thou its reaction? And have innocent people been swept up in the purge?

Ankara day 1 003
The road between the Turkish parliament and armed forces headquarters where civilians confronted soldiers during the coup atttempt Photo: Tony Cross

 

Ankara 27 July 2016

Her husband said he’d divorce her when she was suspended from her job teaching in Ankara school.

“I never knew I was living with a Gülenist,” he said.

He was joking. In fact, they both thought it was pretty funny.

“I laughed,” she told us in a local office of education union Eğitim Sen. “I thought it was a joke because it seemed like a joke and funny for a leftist and democratic person such as myself to be a part of such a frame.”

But the next day the seriousness of her situation was beginning to sink in. She could lose her job. She could be labelled a coup supporter for life. Even if she is reinstated, the suspicion could remain.

This teacher, who didn’t want her name given, was one of about 21,000 teachers in public and private schools to be suspended.

Only 88 of them are members of Egitim Sen, which does not recruit in the private sector, but Ankara organiser Kamuran Karaca was amazed to find any.

The union is resolutely secular, campaigning against religion in schools, and its activists tend to be left-wing, while Fehtullah Gülen, the man the government accuses of being behind the failed putsch, is a right-wing Islamist who, according to his opponents, works within Turkey’s secular democracy in order to subvert it.

Ankara day 1 008
Karuman Karaca of Egitim Sen Photo: Tony Cross

The union is no stranger to legal action, however.

Six of its members are currently awaiting trial, because of their role in strikes and their support for Kurdish rights, according to the union – one of them having been charged since the coup attempt.

The evidence against the suspended members appears to be mainly that they have taken loans from an allegedly Gülenist-run bank, Bank Asya, or have bought books or office supplies from shops believed to be run by the movement.

Karaca points out that, since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a long time worked with the Gülen movement, many of its members must have done the same.

“We are concerned that there is a tendency to regard the oppositional segments of society as putschist as well,” he remarks.

Lazmi Özgen’s shares that fear.

He’s an organiser for the Kesk public-sector trade union, 32 of whose members have been in prison since January for offences he says are linked to their union activism.

Over 50,000 public-sector workers were suspended within two days of the coup attempt. So how did the authorities know who to pick?

It is common knowledge that the lists already existed, Özgen claims. Tens of thousands of public employees had been illegally profiled “Gülenist, separationist, Alevi, Atheist, secular” and so on.

The teacher we met mentioned that she was an Alevi, a religious minority that was often persecuted in the Ottoman era and whose followers tends to have anti-establishment opinions.

To read my report for RFI Turkey’s purge becoming witch-hunt, activists click here

Erdogan angered by purge criticisms

Ankara day 1 013
Taxi driver Ahmet, who confronted troops and tool the wounded to hospital on 15 July Photto: Tony Cross

The scale of the purge, in the public sector, the armed forces, the media and industry, has given rise to expressions of concern in Europe and the US, which in turn has infuriated Erdogan.

AKP supporters point out that France has had a state of emergency for eight months because of a series of terror attacks, which for all their gravity were not an attempt to seize power by arms by people involved in a longstanding conspiratorial network.

Of course, France hasn’t suspended more than 50,000 people from their jobs, detained thousands of soldiers and given prosecutors the right to search lawyers’ offices and seize documents.

And Erdogan was already well down the road to authoritarianism before the failed putsch, building a megalomaniacal presidential palace, effectively taking political power into his own hands, pushing out prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu for being a potential rival, purging the magistrature and the police following an allegedly Gülen-inspired investigation into AKP corruption,  prosecuting hundreds, including two opposition party leaders, for a republican version of lèse majesté – he has magnanimously declared that those charges will be dropped since the coup – and harrying critical media.

His desire to be a new sultan is widely mocked. But he is not the only ambitious politician on the planet.

Sure, abuses of France’s state of emergency have been relatively limited – alleged troublemakers banned from ecology and anti-labour reform protests and some apparently arbitrary house arrests, for example.

But I hate to think what powers French Prime Minister Manuel Valls or, for that matter, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, would give themselves if there was a serious attempt at a military coup in France.

The Turkish coup attempt was a serious threat to a democracy that has been overturned on four occasions, apparently launched by a network that has infiltrated the state, the media and private industry.

Since it was defeated, it has strengthened Erdogan and allowed his government to purge that state machine, a purge which, the evidence already shows, is unlikely to be confined to people who really did plot to seize power.

Who defeated the coup and why?

Ankara day 1 016
CHP vice-president Bülent Tezcan Photo: Tony Cross

“If they had let us, we would have got into those tanks. We would! It was our duty to kill those two soldiers inside,” Ahmet, a taxi driver who’d confronted the troops in front of parliament on 15 July, told us.

Little doubt that he is an AKP supporter. Little doubt that most of those who faced down the tanks were, judging by the divide between AKP and secular supporters I witnessed on the rallies in Istanbul.

So, although the popular mobilisation was certainly to defend a democratically elected government, can we really describe it as a mobilisation to defend the principle of democracy, as the Turkish government claims.

Like the rest of us, Turks tend to be most enthusiastic about democracy when it produces the results they desire.

Of course, opposition MPs courageously went to parliament on the night of the coup, as the vice-president of the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP), Bülent Tezcan, reminds me at the party’s huge Ankara headquarters.

As jets flew overhead, they held a special session, even discarding the jacket-and-tie dress code given the circumstances, although they took to the bunkers when the bombs started falling.

“We call the Turkish parliament a veteran parliament,” Tezcan declares in poetic-historic mode. “Because this parliament managed the independence war and this parliament was built through that battle, that struggle. And that night the parliament showed that it is a veteran parliament.”

The following day all the parties, including the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose members had not been in the parliament building overnight, signed a declaration in support of democracy.

“The unity that emerged out of the struggle against the coup still continues, we are working for it to continue and we are working for it not to dissipated,” Tezcan says. “I hope it will continue.”

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has made a big play of national unity, in part, one suspects, for defensive reasons. The secular camp is afraid that a strengthened Erdogan could use the state’s beefed-up powers against them and is anxious to make it politically difficult to do so.

For the moment Erdogan is playing along, inviting Kılıçdaroğlu and right-wing secular leader Devlet Bahçeli to a meeting, along with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

How far is the CHP prepared to go?

Erdogan said that there appeared to be consensus to “minor changes” to the constitution, a puzzling formulation when referring to a state’s fundamental law.

“What was discussed was a quick amendment in the provisions of the constitution concerning judicial processes,” Tezcan says. “Our position concerning judicial process has not changed. We have previously stated that we stand for the primacy of independence and impartiality of the judiciary. For all the amendments we will approve, our basic and essential condition will always be the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”

But Erdogan had already hinted that the secular parties might be ready to go along with his pet plan of establishing a presidential system.

Tezcan claims to believe that he won’t push that too far. “I don’t think he will damage conciliation with a discussion of the system of government. The president of the republic may argue for a presidential regime, we defend parliamentary democracy. To have differences of opinion should not prevent dialogue, conciliation and working together.”

To read my my report Will Turkey’s political unity last? click here

Lokman Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross
Kazan distct mayor Lokm Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross

That evening in a sprawling restaurant on the outskirts of Ankara I meet the mayor of the district that is home to the Akinci airbase, from which the planes that bombarded parliament took off.

He proudly describes how residents surrounded the base, set fire to their furniture and bales of hay to prevent the planes taking off and eventually forced the rebels to surrender, capturing key plotters.

Eighty-four people are still in hospital after having been wounded.

The mayor is given to professions of loyalty to democracy and the president.

Bosnian, Turkmen, Arab and Syrian immigrants live there, he says, people of all ages are “standing together, waiting, guarding”  in response to Erdogan’s appeal in case of a new attack on democracy.

“Until our president and our superiors tell us to go home and stay home, we are going to be guarding the streets.”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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?

media wrap 003
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

media wrap 001
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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

Who was behind Turkey’s military coup?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

An attempt by part of the Turkish military to stage yet another coup has failed – ignominiously, judging by reports of fighting between troops and police, masses of civilians stopping tanks and seizing bridges, pustschists rounded up and officers asking for asylum in Greece. But who dunnit?

The Turkish military has staged several coups in the past, all of them more successful than this.

Past coups have been motivated by anticommunism, opposition to peace with the Kurds and, above all, the military’s vision of itself as the defender of the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Who could have plotted this attempt to seize power?

  • Fethullah Gülen: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames the exiled leader of a movement that has pursued a strategy of accepting secular democracy while infiltrating state institutions that suited Erdogan fine when he was on his way to power but turned into a rival network once he was had won a couple of elections. The AKP leader has been in a power struggle with the Gülenists since a split over their plans to expand their schools network and it has got really nasty – exposures and allegations of corruption by Erdogan allies and relatives, leading to purges of the police, the magistrature and the media, with plenty of non-Gülenists being persecuted as well. So this comes under the heading of “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” Whether they were involved or not, Erdogan would have profited from the occasion to clamp down further on the movement. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t. They might have wished to preempt further purges and repression of their network. Gülen’s movement in the US has denied it, however. One has to ask whether, after several years of attrition, the Gülenists had enough support in the military to put substantion numbers of tanks and troops on the streets.
  • The Kemalists: It wouldn’t be the first time, although we were beginning to believe it was the last, that the military has stepped in to stop a trend towards Islamism. Officers raised on loyalty to a secular state have plenty to worry them in Erdogan’s Turkey. The old AKP, which argued that its relationship to Islam was the same as the German CDU’s relationship to Christianity, is no more and the desire to Islamise Turkish society has advanced in tandem with the president’s growing megalomania. The putshcists’ statement apparently used Kemalist phraseology, although it also promised freedom of citizens, regardless of religion, race or language, an apparent reference to the rights of the Kurds and other minorities that is not classical Kemalism. But they seem to have neglected to warn the secularist parties, the CHP and MHP, both of which condemned the coup with their MPs going to parliament to defend it. In the past the “social-democratic” CHP has proved more committed to secularism than democracy, although it is in the process of revising its position, and the MHP is an authoritarian right-wing party that has openly collaborated with the military. It’s unclear how high up the ranks the conspirators were and whether they planned a classic military dictatorship along the previous bloodstained lines, although it’s probably what they would have ended up with, like it or not.
  • Erdogan himself: This being the Middle East, there has to be a conspiracy theory and, sure enough, social media are full of claims that the whole thing is a put-up job to strengthen the president’s power. If we follow the logic of cui bono, it has to be admitted that is where we end up. Millions have turned out to support the elected government, an increasingly dictatorial leader can now pose as a defender of the people’s will, there can be a further purge of the army, the rest of the state apparatus and, if needs be, the media and civil society. But it would have been a hell of a gamble wouldn’t it? Turkey’s internal divisions and instability have once again been advertised to the world. The government will reap short-term benefits but the long-term effects may be less favourable. Plus, are there really military officers so devoted to their duty that they are ready to risk execution by implicating themselves in a pseudo-coup to benefit the president?

My guess is that the coup was the work of a combination of Gülenists and Kemalists. But it’s a guess, made in France with limited information. So you might like to draw your own conclusions.

All the political parties, including the secular nationalists, left-wing Kurd-based HDP, opposed the coup. Sadly, they are unlikely to receive much thanks. With IS active in Turkey, as well as Iraq and Syria, the war in the Kurdish region in full swing and continuing attacks on freedom of speech and other basic rights, the future looks grim for Turkey.

Read my reports from the second Turkish election in 2015 for RFI here

There’s more on this blog Turkey, to start click here

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

Charlie and me – Islamophobia, racism, freedom of expression and equality in France

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

It’s difficult to write frankly about Charlie Hebdo – it was difficult to do so in the aftermath of the massacre and it’s only a bit easier now. In France there was shock, of course, a kind of solidarity and, let’s be honest, a lot of self-righteousness. But the French don’t have the monopoly on self-righteousness, as the debate on Charlie abroad has shown. I think the experience has much to say about France – and the world – today.

Hommage_à_Ahmed_Merabet
Tributes to police officer Ahmed Merabet, killed protecting the Charlie Hebdo staff Photo: Azurfrog/public domain

Do I have to say I was horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket that followed? Maybe I do. It’s easy these days to find oneself accused of holding opinions one doesn’t hold and entertaining sympathies one has never entertained, of advocating when trying to analyse (for the record this piece doesn’t aspire to neutrality).

Last January Charlie Hebdo suddenly found millions of passionate defenders – many of whom had clearly never read it or, so far as the more famous among them were concerned, only done so in search of grounds for legal action. Of course, they had the right to be angry at the violence and to defend their perception of freedom of expression. But it was exasperating to be lectured on the nature of a paper one had once read regularly in formulations culled from press coverage rather than formulated from personal experience.

Then the debate took a different turn, in the English-speaking world at least, and I got exasperated with critics who had also clearly never read Charlie. No, anglophone friends, the paper is not entirely devoted to Islamophobic and racist bile. While there’s no defence for some of its cartoons – Riss’s latest on Aylan above all – others were satirising the attitudes many of you believed they were propagating. Like lots of things in life, it can be good and it can be crap.

Here’s my confession of a Charlie reader who gave up.

When I came to France 22 years ago I soon discovered Charlie Hebdo. And I loved it.

The schoolboy humour naturally struck a chord, me being a Brit. The politics was anarcho-leftist-Jacobin, which mostly suited me. And it is true that its contributors mocked everyone, although not equally, as some of the never-read-its claim. Not very much humour on the Holocaust, happily. And lots of scurrilous attacks on the Front National and its then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, also happily.

But, after a while, it seemed to change.

There were more and more sneers at Islam. I didn’t analyse how many cartoons and articles were devoted to each religion or set of political beliefs – I just stopped reading it – but Islam seemed to me to be becoming an obsession and I found it a distasteful one.

After the Charlie attacks a TV journalist became a French YouTube hit by showing that Charlie Hebdo’s covers over a given period of time featured few cartoons attacking Islam. This quite literally superficial analysis has no pertinence whatever.

Firstly, there was plenty on Islam inside.

Secondly, as former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran pointed out in 2013, attacking a minority religion, associated with an immigrant-origin population that is disproportionately underprivileged,  is not the same as attacking the Catholic church, “which had – and still has – newspapers, MPs, lobbies, salons and enormous property holdings”.

Catholics, one might add, never have their very right to live in Europe challenged, nor is their religion declared foreign to European culture, despite its provenance.

I can’t put a date on when I gave up reading Charlie. Cyran says it took a radical turn for the worse after 9/11. And he tends to blame Philippe Val, an ardent supporter of Israel who was later appointed director of Radio by Nicolas Sarkozy (not so iconoclastic as all that, eh?), and Caroline Fourrest, a hypersecularist who is rarely absent from TV, radio and the written press these days, thanks to her support for gay marriage, her opposition to hijab and her penchant for sniffing out Salafist conspiracies.

On RFI, January 2015: How will the Charlie Hebdo attacks change France?

On RFI, January 2016: One year later, how have the Charlie Hebdo attacks changes France?

Sans-culotte
An idealised version of a sans-culotte during the French revolution, Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)

But this hypersecularism is not unique to Charlie. It is very widespread in France – in its arrogant rejection of religion and the religious it was a sort of New Atheism avant la lettre.

It turns out that secularism is one of those container words that you can fill up with any number of meanings, like Liberté, égalité, fraternité or democracy, for that matter.

And, when a term becomes a sort of dogma, no longer examined critically, it lays itself open for exploitation by all sorts of cynical demagogues and authoritarians manqués. We know that from the history of religion, don’t we?

You can see secularism as a truce between non-believers and believers – you keep religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion – or you can see it as a more aggressive measure to keep religion completely out of the public eye. That view tends to segue into an apparent desire to wipe religion off the face of the earth. In which case it’s not really secularism, is it? It’s state-sponsored atheism, which hasn’t worked very well.

France’s 1905 law on religion is in fact the first of these alternatives – a more aggressive anti-clerical faction lost the argument – but many French people interpret it as the second, with a tinge of the third, increasingly so these days.

When I first went to Turkey, to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections, some supporters of the secular parties used the French term laïcité to distinguish what Mustapha Kemal Atatürk had put into practice in Turkey from mere secularism.

Like the French version, Turkey’s secularism was born from a violent rupture with the past.

It was an attempt to break the hold of religion on the minds of the masses and end habits regarded as backward according to the Young Turks’ identification of modernity with Europe.

You can understand this zeal in the context of the French revolution. The revolutionaries needed to break the power of a Catholic church that was a powerful part of the ancien regime and, if we bear in mind today’s revelations of clerical child abuse in countries where the church went unchallenged, there must have been an awful lot of residual bitterness over priestly abuses of power, which may explain the violence of some anti-clerical exactions.

Post-Ottoman Turkey, too, had to replace a regime of which religion was an integral part  and create a state capable of standing up to the Islamic clergy, although, if we look at Turkey’s current political and social condition, we would have to conclude that it has been a mitigated success.  The largest secular party, the CHP,  seems to have recognisew this and is revising its hardline position.

But where is the relevance for France today?

When right-wing Catholics and assorted bigots turned out en masse to oppose the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage law – singularly failing to mobilise Muslims, by the way, despite some efforts to do so – there were few appeals to secularism. Indeed, right-wing politicians who have seen fit to call for pork-only menus to be served in school canteens were happy to play fast and loose with the god-botherers.

Because, excuse me for stating the obvious, it’s all about Islam. Nobody thought to ban “ostentatious signs of religion in schools, until a couple of Muslim girls turned up in hijab. (In that debate, which is now being recycled as a debate on cover in universities and workplaces, there is a strange confusion between those in authority and those over whom authority is exercised. Of course teachers should not proselytise, they represent the state, but why shouldn’t their pupils manifest religious convictions? Is it even realistic to expect them not to? In this respect the French are as prudish about religion as the British are about politics.)

On RFI i 2010 France’s burka bill, background to a bitter debate

That explains why many right-wing ideologues can one minute invoke Europe’s Christian or Judeo-Christian roots and the next pose as ferocious defenders of secularism, just as many of the political successors of the late 19th-century and early 20th-centur anti-Semites are now ardent defenders of Israel.

This form of secularism has become an assertion of the superiority of the Occident over the world it once colonised, tinged with class hatred, given that many of its exponents will happily mix with well-off, “integrated” persons of foreign origin, but like to whip up fear of a lawless mass in the banlieue.

Of course, Muslims are equal in France. Secularism applies to everybody just as “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, to quote Anatole France.

As Emmanuel Todd says in Qui est Charlie? – the book that earned him the singular privilege of a reply from the prime minister in the august pages of Le Monde – they face a pressure to conform from people of Catholic culture, who tell them “I have the right to blaspheme against my former religion, so you have to the duty to blaspheme against yours.”

The feeling of cultural superiority takes a distinctive form in France and has infected the left in a way it has not, in my experience, infected the British left.

To go back the two decades to my arrival in France I was struck by how in our globalised world – less globalised then, but still – national attributes continued to exist.

In my new home appreciating good food and drink was not considered elitist snobbery, it was not generally considered necessary to make room for other people when walking in the street, the arts were considered important enough to merit a slot on TV news bulletins, the customer was very definitely not always right, intellectuals felt under no obligation to pretend they were not intellectuals … and every French person was a bit of a patriot.

No matter how left-wing and in principle internationalist they were, they treasured in their hearts a certain conviction that French culture was superior to all others.

Of course, we all assume to some degree or other that what we’re used to is the natural order of things and I know that my new friends often found me quaintly British.

But I think France is the only country where former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement could found his own little party to propagate a bizarre leftish form of nationalism, where the hard-left candidate in the last presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could this year wax indignant about the Corsican regional council taking an oath “in a language I don’t understand” and where Prime Minister Manuel Valls … well I was talking about the left, so let’s leave Manuel Valls out of it.

It’s partly the fault of the French Communist Party, which at the time when it was France’s biggest party in terms of membership took the popular front accommodation with nationalism very seriously, played a heroic role in the resistance to German occupation, which inevitably led to a certain nationalist, even xenophobic, contagion, and after the war just couldn’t get out of the opportunist habit.

And, of course, there’s the revolution, without which the modern world would not exist.

The legacy of the revolution legitimises popular revolt. The slogans of the revolution represent a promise that is sufficiently vague to serve as justification for the established order and rallying cry for those who wish to overthrow it. The revolution has served as example, case study and inspiration for every generation of revolutionaries since.

And its centralist, nation-building aspects sometimes morph into the secular ultimatums, sneering and prejudice that find expression in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which, despite its affection for the slogan “No god, no masters”, seems to have found it easier to come to an accommodation with the latter than with the former.

Because, despite the naughty words, the routine impertinence, the tits, bums and dicks, Charlie Hebdo is a bit of a court jester these days.

Viewed from the banlieue, as academic and journalist Andrew Hussey points out, Charlie is part of the establishment.

“What is seen in the centre of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society,” he wrote in the New York Times after the attacks.

Indeed, one of the main reasons that Islam is resurgent is that the left has lost the leadership of the anti-imperialist and antiracist struggles. Secular nationalist and left-wing anti-colonial movements degenerated into corrupt dictatorships or neo-liberal democratic plutocracies. Mass socialist parties voided themselves of their class content.

The spectre haunting the world today is the spectre of fundamentalist jihad, violent, divisive, frightening, supported by a tiny minority of Muslims but filling a demand created by the arrogance of the West and the inadequacy of the left.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

At the martyrs’ cemetery – death and destruction in a Turkish military security zone in Kurd country

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

On the day before Turkey’s 1 November election I and my colleagues visited a vast “security zone” where the Turkish army has been fighting PKK guerrillas since the end of recent peace talks … and for years before they started. We saw fields burnt by military operations, a cemetery whose mosque was destroyed by soldiers, met a young man who appeared to be a guerrilla and the mayor of a village accused of collaboration with the state.

Diarbakir elex 050
Faik Magar and his wife on their way to Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Dicle, 31 October 2015

I don’t really want to talk to the man on the donkey – I want to press on to the village where NGO activists in Diyarbakir are supposed to have arranged contacts for us – but it turns out he has plenty to say.

“Look around you!” he says, indicating a huge plane nestling between mountains. “You can see for yourselves. All the land you can see to your left and to your right has been burnt. That’s what they call a security zone! Everywhere you can see there were vines and all our vines have been burnt. Even the houses that were on this land.”

He’s called Faik and he’s on the way to Diyarbakir with his wife because she is ill. Although she’s the one who’s ill, he’s riding the donkey, we comment afterwards, although we ourselves neglected to ask her name.

Diarbakir elex 057
A house destroyed by firebombing at Arikli, Diyarbakir province Photo: Tony Cross

The fields around us are bare. A house nearby has been destroyed. This area several kilometres north of Diyrabakir city, has been declared a security zone by the Turkish army and in July helicopters firebombed the area, destroying crops and homes, as Faik points out.

Although he doesn’t volunteer the information straight away, the firebombing followed a battle with PKK fighters in the nearby mountains and, apparently, the guerrillas dig tunnels in which to shelter, as did the NLF during the Vietnam War.

As we talk a helicopter flies overhead. As experienced radio journalists, we point out microphones in the air to record the sound. Experienced as he is in life in a zone of interest to the Turkish military, Faik tells us not to, in case they think we’re pointing weapons at them.

We press on to our destination – Sise in Kurdish, Yolçati in Turkish – driving through fields and past the occasional building.

After a couple of wrong turns we find an isolated farmhouse. But where is Sise?

Ebru Ökmen, the French-language interpreter and fixeuse working with my colleague Nicolas Falez, phones our contacts. Turns out where there.

A man comes to greet us. He’s Zeynel, the farmer’s brother, and he’s on a visit from Izmit, where he has lived and worked since leaving the area many years ago. There was a lot more to Sise then, he tells us, but it emptied after the military launched air raids and military operations against the PKK in 1993.

So the area has long experience of combat. According to the rights activists who sent us here, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish state to pay damages for the effects of its operations in the 90s.

“Only people have no other way to survive still live here,” Zeynel says.

Last night there were two drone strikes on the mountains, he tells us. “We weren’t frightened, we’re used to it.”

Diarbakir elex 070
Mohammed (L), Zeynel (R) and a bag of watermelons (C) Photo: Tony Cross

Zeynel’s brother; Mohammed, arrives, pushing a wheelbarrow full of watermelons – the local speciality – ready to be kept in the cellar for the winter.

Ten days ago the military bombed the mountains six times. Local people found the bodies of eight PKK fighters afterwards and took them to the “martyrs’ cemetery”, where local guerrillas are buried.

“Twenty-four hours after the aerial bombardment the army arrived by road and placed mines around the cemetery and set them off,” he says.

“They claimed their were munitions hidden under the graves but it’s not possible that there would be munitions hidden in a cemetery,” he goes on. “They did it because they {the people buried there] were PKK. If there were weapons or munitions hidden it would be in the mountains, not in a cemetery.”

The army has taken advantage of the PKK ceasefire to attack the area, says Mohammed. He advises us to visit the cemetery, saying that there could be fighters there.

Diarbakir elex 076
Pestil sucuk dries in the sun on Mohammed’s farm Photo: Tony Cross

Before we leave he shows us around the farm. Rows of what look like sausages are drying in the sun. It’s not pork but walnuts wrapped in dried grape pulp. The Turks call it pestil sucuk (fruit pulp sausage). I first came across it in Georgia, where it is called churchkhela. My interpreter, Tayfik, tells me that Armenian women often sell it in Diyarbakir, where it is more widely available than in Istanbul, so this is apparently a Persian-influenced or Caucasian recipe.

One of Mohammed’s sons is in Kobané, the Syrian town seized by Kurdish fighters from Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you prefer to call it.

Diarbakir elex 089
The “martyrs’ cemetery” at Sise Photo: Tony Cross

The central part of the cemetery, where the graves are laid out in neat, white rows, is intact. But there is wreckage on three sides of it. A lorry has brought a portakabin that is being installed by a group of about 20 people.

They are relatives of the fighters buried here and the wreckage is where they were camped out to protect the site from the army, they tell us.

Diarbakir elex 087
The wreckage of shelters where relatives of the PKK fighters were staying at the cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

If we want to interview someone, we must wait for a “spokesman”.

He arrives a few minutes, later a short, quietly spoken but authoritative young man – he’s 22-years-old, he tells us later, adding that we can’t take his photograph and, at first, telling us not to record but relenting when we point out that this is for radio and that his voice will be dubbed by a translation.

He takes us through the graves to some more twisted masonry and metal – the ruins of the mosque, destroyed by the military who claimed it was an arms cache, he says.

A young woman joins us. She was present when the military arrived.

The relatives brandished the Koran and asked the troops how they could defile the cemetery if they were Muslims, the pair tell us. The soldiers responded by claiming that there were crosses on some of the graves and calling them Armenians, ie Christians.

“We were supposed to be offended but why should we be?” she asks.

Sensing that these two are more than just relatives of the deceased, I ask if the PKK ceasefire will continue after the election.

“That depends on the attitude of the AKP,” the young man replies. “If the AKP says it will continue to fight then obviously the PKK will defend itself. This is the policy of the presidential palace, not of the state. The people here are demanding peace. The mothers, whether they are the mothers of PKK fighters or soldiers, say that we must stop this war.”

Diarbakir elex 096
Place of death, Kobane – a grave in front of the ruins of the “martyrs’ cemetery” mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Some of the graves are freshly dug and awaiting headstones, presumably the fighters killed the other day are buried there. Others inform us that the place of death was Kobane.

To listen to my audio report from Sise for RFI click here.

Diarbakir elex 103
Men transport a solar panel at Tepebasi Photo: Tony Cross

A few kilometres away is Tepebasi, a village that overlooks a ravine whose rocky sides lead down to a reservoir made from a dam on the river Tigris.

A couple of men transport a solar panel on a donkey – what Lenin would have called  combined and uneven development – and a man with a rifle stands outside the mayor’s house. He’s Mehmet Bozkurt, and the mayor, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt, is his brother. The rifle appears to be for hunting, although the mayor, who soon arrives and invites us to sit in the sun outside his home, might need some protection.

Tepebasi is the home of the candidate for the ruling AKP in this election. Since the 1990s it has had poor relations with some neighbouring villages, whose inhabitants accused its people of being “village guardians”, a militia funded by the government and viewed as collaborators by the PKK and its supporters.

In the 1990s the PKK attacked the village and kidnapped some villagers for ransom, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt tells us, as we eat figs and dried grape pulp from his garden and sip bitter Turkish tea.

Diarbakir elex 108
Tepebasi mayor Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt with one of his sons and his wife, whose name, again, I neglected to ask Photo: Tony Cross

The village receives government subsidies for the organic vines that produce the grape pulp but, despite the dam on its doorstep, sometimes suffers power cuts because the power goes to a nearby town first.

The mayor and his family are Zazas, a minority of a minority that speaks its own dialect of Kurdish. He has nine children – four boys and five girls – several but not all of them present as we speak, as is his wife, who hovers in the background as her husband speaks to us.

He won’t be voting AKP, he says. Not quite. It turns out that the AKP candidate’s uncle was squeezed out of the running and left the party to stand as an independent. He’ll be getting Mehmet Yasar’s vote, it appears.

Mehmet Yasar criticises both the government and the PKK for the breakdown of the ceasefire and presents a front of studied neutrality when discussing the conflict, citing a Kurdish proverb, “Keep your mouth shut in the day and the doors shut at night.”

To read my account for RFI of the visit to Sise and Tepbasi click here.

Diarbakir elex 118
The river Tigris in Dicle, Diyarbakir province, south-east Turkey Photo: Tony Cross

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

Before the Paris attacks – IS’s dangerous liaisons in Turkey

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

When I visited the devastated houses that were the scene of a Turkish police raid on hideouts of the Islamic State (IS) armed group it never crossed my mind that I would be visiting the scenes of IS attacks in Paris less than three weeks later. The Paris attacks cost at least 120 lives and have sparked a wave of sympathy across the world. IS has claimed more lives in Turkey – 135 in the Suruc and Ankara bombings, which appear to have been targeted because of their links to the Kurds, alone  – but, although those attacks received plenty of media coverage, there was not the same outpouring of grief worldwide. The story of the IS and the Turkish state is a complicated one, as I found on my visit to Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish-majority south east.

IMG_1663
The damage caused by a booby trap that killed two police officers and the police assault at the IS hideout in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir 29 October 2015

There’s a gaping hole where the house’s front door used to be. That’s where a booby trap went off, killing two police officers trying to enter and capture or kill the house’s occupants.

The windows are blown out, the interior is a charred shell, there are bullet holes in the walls and a hole in the garden where a jihadist detonated a suicide vest. The trunks of trees in front of the house are splintered and torn by shrapnel.

Seven IS fighters were killed and a significant haul of weapons and explosives seized in the this house and another nearby. They buildings in a residential area of the city served as an IS commando’s base in Diyarbakir.

IMG_1671
Police have done nothing to prevent access to the scene of the fighting Photo: Tony Cross

Although the raid was on Monday, the house still attracts the interest of a group of men and youths. There are no police present and the site had not been cordoned off, so kids and adults go in and clamber among the ruins, oblivious to the possibility that there might still be undiscovered explosives inside.

The police were not particularly diplomatic with Fatma, who live in the house next door, either. They told her and her family that they would fire on their house if they failed to leave the lights on before evacuating them and starting their assault.

Fatma didn’t have much to do with her young neighbours, their main contact being when they put up a tarpaulin in the garden and she asked them to take it down because it interfered with her family’s satellite TV reception.

“We didn’t expect Islamic State to be our neighbours!” she comments.

The pink house around the corner is in almost as bad a state of destruction and also excites the interest of neighbours, both adults and children.

Sinan, who is taking photos on his smartphone, lives in a block of flats over the road.

His family was woken be the fighting.

“Of course I was frightened,” he says. “My children woke up and they were frightened.”

Before the attack, the occupants, all young Kurdish men, gave lessons in religion to local people.

“I didn’t go and I didn’t send my children,” Sinan says.

To read my report of IS in Diyarbakir for RFI click here.

IMG_1681
Children explore the ruins of one of the houses raided by police in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

The government and the security forces insist they are taking the threat from IS seriously and are even issuing alarming reports of possible further attacks.

Police told the media today that a commando of 10 women, four of them foreign, is at large and planning suicide bombings. They are said to be part of the Dokumacilar group, to which those who were living in these also belonged.

Yesterday Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu slammed Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the left-wing, pro-Kurd HDP, for accusing him of legitimising IS.

His office says that 285 IS suspects have been arrested in the first nine months of 2015.

But he quickly changed the subject to the Syrian Kurdish YPG, an armed group allied to the Turkish PKK that has proved the most effective force in fighting IS, most famously by recapturing the town of Kobane.

The military have bombed the YPG recently and Davutoglu says that is justified because they represent a threat to Turkish territory.

An indication that he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are more worried about armed Kurds than armed Islamists came when Ankara agreed to join US-led air strikes on IS … and then proceeded to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq, having broken off peace talks with the guerrillas following the inconclusive 7 June election.

The government is believed to be worried that the autonomous area, known as Rojava to the Kurds and established by the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD), could serve as an example to Kurds in Turkey, as, indeed, it has. Autonomous zones have been declared in parts of Diyarbakir itself, as well as in towns like Silvan, since the peace talks were broken off.

The HDP and other opposition parties accuse the government of more than sitting on the fence, however.

They claim that it has helped the armed Islamists in Syria – firstly the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra front and then IS – party because a part of the electorate and membership of the ruling AKP sympathises with them ideologically and partly as a counter to the Kurds.

Evidence of the state’s complicity appears to have been brought to light in 2013 when a convoy heading for Syria was stopped and searched.

It was found to be carrying arms and agents of the secret services, the MIT.

The five prosecutors and one military commander responsible for stopping the convoy were rewarded for their vigilance by being charged with seeking to overthrow the government and revealing state security information.

A secrecy order has meant that their trial, which began earlier this month, is being held behind closed doors.

Kurdish activists believe that the state facilitated two bombings – one in Suruc in July that killed 33 young left-wingers and injured 104, the other at a peace rally in Ankara on 10 0ctober that killed 102 and injured 400 – for which IS has claimed responsibility.

“There are hundreds of cameras in Ankara. They knew there was going to be a demonstration. Why wasn’t there any protection?” asks HDP youth activist Cuneyt Cihan.

On the day of the Ankara bombing, after Erdogan called it an attack on Turkish unity and equated it to PKK attacks on Turkish police and soldiers, Demirtas came right out and accused the state of involvement.

“This attack is not targeting our state and national unity, it is perpetrated by the state against the people,” he said

Davutoglu is in town to officially open the airport – now we know why it’s operating although not exactly fully functional in all details – and hold an election rally.

“Turks and Kurds, brothers,” he has the crowd shout in a fine example of Erdogan’s conception of unity. “The separatists are traitors!”

When I came here in 2007, many Kurds found the AKP readier to listen to their discontents than the secular MHP and CHP, whose nationalist agenda had vigorously supported a dirty war in the south-east while in power.

The AKP had no Kemalist axe to grind and a certain amount of support among conservative Muslims in the region. And its supporters among the rising bourgeoisie of central Anatolia were keen to do trade with the European Union and eventually to join it and so ready to concede to concede to its criticisms of Turkey’s human rights record.

Two things appear to have changed.

Firstly, Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, casting himself as the heir to the Ottomans, whose legacy in the field of minority rights leaves a little to be desired.

Secondly, ending the peace process seems to have been a calculated attempt to heighten a feeling of insecurity and rally the nation around a strong ruler – himself, in this case.

IMG_1730
AKP Diyarbakir regional councillor Nejla Uysan Photo: Tony Cross

That’s not an analysis that shared by AKP regional councillor Nejla Uysan when we meet her at the party’s regional office on Friday.

“The government and the state doesn’t support Daesh. Definitely not!” she declared. “This is a barbaric organisation and, as Muslims, how do you think we could support such an organisation.”

She accuses the PKK of breaking the ceasefire and claims that the “liberated zones” punished the local population.

But she surprises me by saying that she thinks her party should work with the HDP.

For my written and audio accounts of the AKP in Diyarbakir for RFI click here

“Why don’t you think (we) will not share?” she asks in response to my surprise. “We are living in the same city. We can share everything.”

Not the party line, so far as I know.

For an audio report on the AKP in the 2007 presidential election click here.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube

Liberated areas, military repression and Kurdish politics in Diyarbakir before Turkey’s 2015 election

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Diyarbakir is the largest city in Kurdish-majority south-east Turkey. The region has seen the PKK’s guerrilla war and successive governments’ harshly repressive responses. I first visited the city during the 2007 presidential election and talked to political and rights activists who still had vivid memories of the dirty war, as well as the era when the Kurdish language and culture suffered severe discrimination. I returned in 2014, when a peace process was under way and the city seemed to be becoming a better place to live. Some of the improvements have lasted but this year the city has seen military repression of liberated zones and shootouts between police and the Islamic State armed group.

Diarbakir elex 003
Hasan Pasa Hani, Diyarbakir, a former caravanserai that now houses restaurants and coffee shops Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir, 28 October 2015

My work in Diyarbakir gets off to a slow start. I get up at 4.30am to catch the flight from Istanbul, only to find that it has been put back an hour and the airline hadn’t bothered to tell me. My SMS to my fixer, Tayfun, fails to go through, so he has been waiting for an hour when I arrive … not a good start

We land at Diyarbakir’s spanking new airport, which isn’t actually quite ready yet. No problems on the runway but when we go to hire a car they can’t give me a receipt because there is no electricity to run their printer.

Diarbakir elex 005
The café in Diyarbakir’s market area where I met Abdullah Demirbas and Kevin Miller Photo: Tony Cross

Once we start work we wait for ages in a charming courtyard café for Tayfun’s contact in the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to turn up. He is supposed to introduce me to the former mayor of this part of Diyarbakir, the historic centre, and that means even more waiting.

The café is playing distinctly unturkish music, accordions feature in some tracks, meaning that if I record an interview here listeners are liable to suspect I conducted it in Paris and am only pretending to be in south-east Turkey.

After chatting for a while it finally occurs that our contact would actually make quite a good interviewee.

He is a Kurdish-American who has a Turkish name but prefers to be known as Kevin Miller. He has served in the US military and is to stand for Congress, the first Kurd to do so, but has come to Turkey for the election and its aftermath.

Diarbakir elex 006
Kevin Miller with collaborators at the former Armenian house he is restoring Photo: Tony Cross

Kevin takes us to see a former Armenian house in the old city that he is restoring in order to establish a research institute. Concrete has been chipped off Diyarbakir’s dark basalt and lighter stone with Armenian inscriptions and traditional wood interiors are being constructed, although recent rainfall has done some damage.

Then we take a walk through Sur, Diyarbakir’s old city.

Diarbakir elex 013
A street in Sur where Kurdish youths dug trenches and erected barricades Photo: Tony Cross

A streak of rubble scars a narrow street that joins another one that is similarly disfigured.

This is where young Kurds dug trenches and erected barricades to keep police and other representatives of the Turkish state out of a two-kilometre-square “liberated area”, arming themselves with what weapons they could lay their hands on.

A Kurdish assembly was organised and sat in a historic building nearby.

Graffitied on the walls are the initials “PKK” for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party guerrilla movement that has been fighting first for a Kurdish state and later for autonomy since 1978 but also “YDG-H”, for the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, which a PKK leader recently admitted has escaped PKK control.

The YDG-H seems to have taken seriously a change in the line of the PKK and its Syrian allies, the YKD, that has meant renouncing Maoist-influenced centralism and encouraging bottom-up “administrative autonomy” in defiance of the state, establishing self-administer areas as the Syrian Kurds have done in the region, known to the Kurds as Rojava, that they have liberated from the Islamic State armed group and Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Turkish government responded forcefully.

Ten days ago it sent 4,500 special forces into Sur, deploying snipers and heavy weapons in the narrow streets and declaring a 24-hour curfew.

In five days of fighting 15 people are reported to have been killed and one wounded and dozens arrested.

The building where the assembly met is now a charred ruin, despite its Unesco-protected status.

Diarbakir elex 014
The former seat of the Kurdish autonomous area’s assembly after the military offensive Photo: Tony Cross

To read my account of my visit to Sur for RFI click here.

The government has used similar tactics, including the use of snipers who are alleged to have targeted civilians to enforce curfews, in the towns of Cizre, where 22 were killed, 21 of them civilians, and Silvan, parts of which are now reported to be in ruins.

We do finally get to meet the former mayor.

Abdullah Demirbas has been arrested three times, twice this year and once in 2009, and is late for the interview because he had to report to the police station.

He was in jail for eight months in 2009 and was finally released on health grounds. He spent two months in prison pending trial for “financing the PKK” earlier this year and was released after he suffered a stroke and a campaign for his release won the support of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

But he doesn’t know the reason for the latest one because it was declared a state secret.

About 1,000 HDP members and 18 mayors belonging to its municipal wing, the BDP, have been arrested in the government crackdown that followed the end of the peace process with the PKK.

Diarbakir elex 020
Former mayor of central Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbas Photo: Tony Cross

“The 7 June election result was a disaster for the government,” he comments. “They didn’t get what they wanted. Of course, there was a price to pay and the people have paid the price. It was the breaking of the ceasefire and the restarting of the military operation.”

Demirbas accuses the government of cheating when it agreed to join US-led airstrikes on IS because it also launched air strikes on PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Anyway, Erdogan and his friends have aided and supported IS in the past, he says, and are terrified that the areas liberated by Kurdish fighters in Syria will inspire Turkey’s Kurds to emulate them.

“In Rojava the Syrian Kurdish people making democratic autonomy by themselves is not something that is wanted by this regime,” he says. “Because they don’t want this, everyone knows this regime is supporting [Al Qaeda affiliate] Al Nusra and IS. Many people are coming through Turkey from Europe and the rest of the world, everyone knows that they are joining this group. Despite the decision that they were going to bomb and make operations against IS with coalition forces, Turkey has attacked the PKK but not attacked IS.”

To read more of my interview with Abdullah Demirbas on RFI’s website, click here.

Diarbakir elex 019
Eyse Gokkan of the HDP-aligned women’s group KJA Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier we drove out of the city centre to meet two HDP activists, Cüneyt Aslam, a youth leader, and Eyse Gokkan, of the women’s group, KJA.

They, too, accused the government of complicity with IS, Gokkan stressing that the Islamists – from the AKP to Boko Haram in Nigeria – share an anti-women agenda.

“There are documents showing that the Daesh terror organisation is being supported by the Turkish government, that weapons are being sent to this organisation by the government,” saidAslan, referring to IS by the Arab acronym Daesh. “The government is making an environment for this group to expand and kill us.”

As we drive past one estate, I noticed Turkish flags draped on the sides of several blocks of flats, a bit of a surprise here.

These estates are occupied by police officers and their families, Miller explained.

More on my visit to Diyarbakir during Turkey’s October-November general election campaign to follow.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrssyoutube