Last week I spent three days traveling in Turkish Kurdistan, in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border. I spent time in four towns, Diyarbakir, Marden, Sanliurfa, and Harran.
Like everywhere in Turkey, huge signs in Turkish adorn the hillsides. From 1984-99, this was the epicenter of violence and fighting between the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Turkish government that claimed 37,000 lives, mostly Kurdish civilians. The fighting has mostly abated since then, with a ceasefire ordered by the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The Kurds were fighting for language and political rights. Kurdish was forbidden to be taught in schools, posted on signs or used on the airwaves. In the last year, a half hour of Kurdish-language programming started up on Turkish state radio. 90% of Kurds favor EU entry. The Turkish National News reported Apr. 5 that 62% of male Turkish University students favor ascension. Oddly, only half that many female students favor it. EU ascension will impel Turkey to guarantee minority rights, and recognize the Armenian genocide. As a result, there is a Turkish nationalist backlash to EU entry. Officially, Turkey considers Kurds to be "mountain Turks," but their language is Indo-European, and not Turco-Altaic. The Kurds migrated to the area from northern Iran in the last millenium. Now Kurds are allowed to take Kurdish language lessons, but only in private classes, which are not widely affordable. A Kurd I met in Diyarkabir notes it makes little sense that someone has to pay to learn one’s mother tongue. Kurdish is taught in the home, but in the public sphere, Turkish is widely used. One Kurdish boy I meet speaks only Turkish, his parents have not taught him Kurdish.
Diyarkabir is considered by Kurds to be their capital. It is a mix of ancient and modern like most cities in the southeast. The population is listed as around 500,000 on signs entering the town but I was told the population is more like a million or two. Approximately 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed in the Southeast during the conflict and as a result of flooding caused by the massive GAP damming project, which seeks to harness hydroelectric power and provide year-round agriculture through irrigation. The population of Diyarkarbir has thus swelled in the last decade. It’s also easier for the Turks to control the Kurds gathered in cities. Children as young as five can be seen collecting paper to sell on Diyarkabir’s hardscrabble streets in the town’s center. But there is also a modern mall, [interestingly, in an art gallery in the mall, there is a videotape of a yearly festival in Diyarkabir which includes a huge bonfire, suggesting a possible Zoroastrian connection] and a Burger King, and the area is picking up after years of conflict, during which the city was under constant military curfew. The military has bases in each city, but it’s most noticeable in Marden. An APC stands watch near the entrance of the town. Local merchants take advantage of the military presence selling postcards of soldiers.
Despite the relative quiet since Ocalan’s capture, and a cease-fire declared in 2,000, the PKK seems to be resurgent, and a member of the Kurdish Village Guard, a collaborationist force set up by the Turkish government, was killed in a clash with PKK forces on April 3 north of Diyarbakir.
The Turkish news organization Zaman reported April 6 that in the border region with Iraq in the Cudi and Gabar mountains, Turkish Armed Forces, along with 2,000 Kurdish "interim village guards" killed nine PKK guerrilas in the largest operation against the group in six years. The operation is an attempt to rout out 1,500 PKK fighters hiding in the mountains. Zaman says 31 "so-called human shields" came to the area "in order to hamper the military operation against PKK/Kongra-Gel by planning to go to Mount Cudi and Gabar." They were arrested and charged with "aiding and abetting terrorist organizations, encouraging people to undertake terrorist activities, and resisting the security forces." Zaman does not elaborate on who these "human shields" are. The area is used by the PKK to penetrate Turkey from bases in Iraq.
The UK Independent reported April 6 that a Kurdish boy who was riddled with gunfire by Turkish forces is proving a test case on whether Turkey can be part of the EU. Four policemen who pushed the 12-year old Kurdish boy Ahmet Kaymaz to the ground and killed him and his father last November and are currently on trial. The soldiers apparently placed a rifle in the boy’s hands after shooting him. Ordinarily that would have been the end of it, but a local teacher spoke up about it and pictures appeared in national Turkish newspapers, sparking national outrage. Abuse against Kurds is ordinarily overlooked in Turkey.
Ahmet’s brother Resat, said: "If you don’t make people here feel secure, what will these children do when they grow up? They go to the cities and become pickpockets. Or they join the PKK."
Diyarkabir is on the banks of the Tigris river. Here journalists massed on their way to Iraq before the current Gulf war, but the Turks did not open the border. One enterprising journalist chose to float his way down the Tigris on an inner tube. The Tigris is a pretty small river here.
The city is the watermelon capital of Turkey, and statues throughout the town have giant watermelons sculpted on top. They are said to grow as large as fifty kilos. Diyarkabir is proud of its annual watermelon festival.
This area was part of ancient Mesopotamia. According to the Lonely Planet guide, Diyakabir began in the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni about 1500 BCE. It was under control of Uratu in 900, Assyria from 1356-612, Persia from 600-330, then Alexander and the Seleucids. Rome took over in 115 CE, and the city changed hands several times before the Arabs took over in 639. Up till then it was called Amida, but it was settled by the Arab tribe of Beni Bakr, who renamed it Diyar Bakr, the "realm of Bakr." The city was occupied by Hamdanids, Buweyhids and Mawanids in the next few centuries. In 1085 the Cuheyrogullari Seljuk Turkish dynasty took over. They were eventually overthrown by Syrian Seljuks, Artukids, and Ayyubids. In 1259 Hulagu, the Mongol emperor, turned the city back to the Seljuks, who in turn lost it to the Mardin Artukids. Diyabakr ws conquered in 1394 by Tamerlane, who gave it to the Akkoyunlu [White Sheep Turkoman], who formed an alliance with the Venetians against the Ottomans, but were defeated by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1473. After 1497, the Safavid Dynasty, which was founded by Shah Ismail, took over Iran, and ended Turkoman rule in the area. The Ottomans conquered the city in 1515, but it was invaded by Persia and Syria. The population of Diyarbakr, like most of the southeast, consisted until this century of Christian Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Romaniote Jews–meaning Jews who migrated to the area after Rome destroyed the second temple–in addition to Kurds and Turks. In the 1890’s, and in 1915 and then again in the 20’s the Christian and Jewish population was mostly "cleansed." Some 35 Christian families remain today. There are Armenian churches which have been converted to mosques. A Syriac rite church is still in operation.
Mardin is a far more pleasant place than Diyabakr. Close to the Syrian border, Mardin is a beautiful ancient town built on a hillside. Outside Mardin is the Deyrul Zafaran monastery. The monastery was the seat of the Syrian orthodox Patriarchate (later moved to Damascus), and the liturgical tongue of the monks is Aramaic. Aramaic is inscribed over the entrance, alongside birds carved in stone. Pigeons are kept domestically in southeast Turkey indicating a continuity. The monastery was built in 465 CE above a temple devoted to sun worship dating from a 1370 BCE Hittite alliance in Urfa with Aket-Aten, also spelled Akhetaten, or Amenhotep IV, the iconoclastic Egyptian Pharaoh who practiced monotheism.
PART 2 – Ufra and Harran TK