Sur is a district in Turkey’s southeast, part of the Kurdish capital Diyarbakir, that has been exposed to a round-the-clock curfew since Dec. 2, 2015.
The first photos of Sur, or “Amed” as Kurds used to call the city by its historic name, that broke through the country’s news embargo revealed the extent of destruction: demolished buildings, houses riddled with bullet holes, raided shops, dead bodies on the streets, and destroyed churches and mosques in a district that is known as the historic heart of the city.
One thing became certain: the Turkish state had not imposed curfews, rather entire cities were put under military siege.
Sur is only one example of what has been happening in the entire Kurdish-populated region after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended the peace process with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party PKK, a guerilla organization that has been fighting for Kurdish self-determination in Turkey and the region for more than 40 years. Not only had Erdogan terminated the precarious, yet promising peace process with the PKK, but he also fueled a lynching campaign against Kurds, oppositional voices, critical media outlets and most of all against pro-Kurdish HDP, People’s Democratic Party.
All as a consequence of his party’s crucial setback in the June 7, 2015, general elections where the HDP’s soaring societal support and electoral success denied Erdogan’s AKP a needed absolute majority in order to introduce his longed for authoritarian presidential system.
The government, hand in hand with the military, launched so-called “cleansing operations” against supposed PKK members immediately after, but actually targeted Kurdish civilians in an act of collective punishment. Since then not only has the death toll risen every day but entire districts have been destroyed, which caused significant displacements of the population.
Like previously done in other cities, the people of Sur have been systematically displaced. They either fled or were forced to leave their homes when the siege was shortly lifted for a few hours - the last time on Dec. 11. Today, only around 1,000 of Sur’s 28,000 residents have stayed behind; many of them wounded and trapped in wrecked buildings, waiting for an end of the siege.
On Feb. 5 the government revealed a 10-step action plan aimed at “repairing” southeastern Turkey, which it has destroyed, and which has been, according to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, “traumatized by terrorists that have started a fire.” The plan involves compensation payments, government consultations with village guards that function as pro-government Kurdish militia, as well as the construction of bulletproof security towers in urban districts.
The government’s concept of war, which includes their post-operations master plan, is nothing less than an attempt to tear apart local residents from their historically inhabited spaces, enforce economic dependency and to create obedient people crushed into submission.
“We will unite the nation’s conscience and wisdom with the state’s reason. All differences between the nation and the state will be entirely eliminated and we will have an understanding of uniting and integrating the nation,” Davutoglu said presenting the action plan.
Interestingly it was about the same time that pro-government media outlets headlined “Terror needs to be responded by TOKI” or “Back to work TOKI.” TOKI (Mass Housing Administration) is the state housing body that has been operating directly under the prime minister since 2003. Despite being an active public enterprise officially, TOKI has become essentially a large privatization agency that administrates the sales of public properties and buildings to private commercial parties, hence public lands are being used as their main capital and mostly for luxury housing projects that are offered to selected contractors.
In 2011 TOKI had already begun with demolition work in Sur after President Erdogan declared “new projects” for Diyarbakir to be implemented to make it “attractive for international tourism.” However, in 2013 the construction works were stopped by local oppositional forces, mainly HDP run municipalities that prohibited arbitrary new construction projects.
The Erdogan regime is well known for neoliberal politics that are mainly based on two profit based pillars: construction and energy. Therefore, it seems less surprising when Prime Minister Davutoglu publicly announced “We’ll rebuild Sur so that it’s like Toledo! Everyone will want to come and appreciate its architectural texture,” without mentioning the possibilities of return for the displaced residents.
The government did not hesitate in declaring entire Kurdish districts to be a security-risk instead of assessing the damages for each building separately. Which means that TOKI is per law independent in its decision to start construction works in those declared ‘unsafe’ areas. Now, luxury housing projects and the construction of high-end buildings are put forward by state officials, as well as by pro-government newspapers in order to battle “crime and terror.”
The idea is to build new mass residencies in the outskirts of the city, to offer loans at a reduced rate to displaced residents, as well as to give new employment opportunities, hence to create a new relationship based on economic dependency between impoverished Kurdish citizens and the Turkish state. This way the state has set up all conditions to enter the stage as the main savior in this conflict.
The rentier mentality of the ruling AKP government has always been understood in terms of ‘economic growth,’ the Turkish state however has a long history of the same kind of social engineering practices carried out to achieve assimilationist political gains.
Until today, the Turkish state has always attempted to integrate and homogenize dissident regions in its territory into a common cultural stream by invading their traditional spaces, deconstructing them and creating new, controlled ones. After the Dersim massacre in 1938, which followed a Kurdish uprising against state repressions, the remaining Kurdish population was redistributed to various other cities by the Turkish state. The same happened in the 1990s, when the Turkish military burned down 4,000 Kurdish villages so that the entire rural population of the Southeast was displaced and forced to emigrate toward urban cities. In both cases it was the Turkish state that tried to domesticate those who were resisting against aggressive Turkification policies.
Selma Irmak, the co-leader of the Democratic Society Congress in Diyarbakir (DTK), pointed out in one of her speeches during her visit to Germany in January that the Turkish state is putting all its energy into “erasing all of what is left of a Kurdish feeling” in the region.
Landscapes are transformations of ideologies into a concrete form, where identities are created and reproduced through particular spaces. The cities that are exposed to a military siege today happen not only to be HDP’s electoral strongholds, but are also known for a long history of dissent and resistance. Public squares, monuments, streets, residential areas and historic buildings that were once lovingly restored by the HDP municipality for the sake of creating a peaceful place of interfaith and interethnic cultural existence are targeted – it almost seems intentionally – by Turkish special operation teams’ heavy shelling.
The Erdogan regime believes that the strategy of pacifying the population through promising high-end housing in newly constructed city-ghettos will be successful, yet history shows it never has, as the ones defending their lives behind barricades and trenches against the Turkish military in Sur and all other Kurdish cities under siege are the ones who were already displaced during the 1990s.
In an interview published by the Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem on Feb. 25, Fesla Ayaz, 87, nicely sums up the sentiment of the people in the Southeast: “Sur is my deary, my child, my wall, my existence, my non-existence. Think of a mother who can't leave her child. For the same reason I can't leave Sur."
Rosa Burç, 25, is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Department of Comparative Government, University of Bonn. Her research is on Nation-States and Theories of (Post-) Nationalism.