Report

Mothers of Diyarbakir
A journey in the war-torn heartland of Turkish Kurdistan. TEXT AND PHOTO By Shirvan Nuray Sarikaya Translated by Elisabeth Olin

W

e are now in Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey – AnnMargarethe Livh, Swedish politician; Naile Aras, also a Swedish politican; and I, Shirvan Nuray Sarikaya, a Kurdish-Swedish journalist and photographer. Ann-Margarethe and Naile have been here many times before, working with Kurdish women in the region, on political assignments. But, this time the trip has a more private agenda. They are here to research for a book they are writing on political awareness among Kurdish women. I am here to take photos to go in that book. ***

We wake up seven in the morning, with the frightening roar of fighter jets flying over us. Our hostess tells us that this is simply a demonstration of who is in power in Diyarbakir. At least that is the version popular among the people here. The official version is that the planes are used to monitor the borders. Military jets have had an important role during the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish guerillas. A war, like so many others, in which there is no winner – only losers. The Turkish state still refuses to call the conflict a war. For the state, it is a fight against separatism. Everyone else thinks a war is very much going on. War, insurgency or fight against separatism. Some figures illustrate the conflict. During the past thirty years, about three thousand Kurdish villages have been deserted by their population, who have been forced to escape to the cities to survive, thus, causing a swelling population in Diyarbakir where poverty is rapidly on the rise. In 1982, Diyarbakir had a population of 200,000 and now it has more than one million. An estimated total of three million men, women and children have been forced out of their homes, and

of course, great social misery followed. These days, just to survive, poor Kurdish families are even selling their daughters. A phenomenon, unheard of, even in the recent past. In one out of three Kurdish families, at least one member has died or been wounded in the war. The Kurdish population in Turkey today is twelve million according to the official records, and twenty million according to the unofficial estimates. Two-third of this is young people, and 98% is Muslim. The areas where the Kurds mainly live are mostly poor and underdeveloped. Apart from eastern and south-eastern Turkey – their historical homeland – Kurds live in big cities. For example, it is estimated that there are three million Kurds living in Istanbul, the biggest city in Turkey. Kurds have been denied their rights ever since the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923. The word Kurdish was

taboo for eighty years and the use of the Kurdish language had been prohibited in government offices and media. Recently, the use of the Kurdish language has been allowed, still Kurdish writers and politicians face persecution, on a regular basis. Kurds in Turkey faced one of the most brutal of oppressions, after the military coup of 1980. Hundreds of Kurdish people, among them a large number of intellectuals, were tortured in Diyarbakir – recognised as the capital of the Kurds – prison. Afterwards, many of them organised in the PKK, the proscribed Kurdistan Worker’s Party. In 1985, the PKK started an armed struggle against the Turkish republic. According to official estimate, 30,000 people died. Many, if not most, of them were civilians. The Kurdish people started their political struggle in the beginning of the 1990s and established political parties. But, these parties were closed down, one by one, for being separatists. *** We have our breakfast and then set out to visit the mothers of peace. This movement was started by mothers of Kurdish guerillas who had lost their sons or daughters in the war. A middle-aged woman opens the door to us when we arrive to interview the five women, who have agreed to tell us their stories. We sit down on the couch, and the eldest of the women starts to tell her story. She has lost three sons during the war, “One day my eldest son disappeared. When we asked for him, we were told that he had joined the guerilla. I was terrified, and even more so, when his two younger siblings followed his lead. None of them returned home.” The other women have similar stories. They tell us that they have started this movement, with an aim to stop the armed

Mothers of peace at the demonstration against police abuses.

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Mothers of peace - mothers of Diyarbakir.

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Mothers of peace at the demonstration against police abuses.

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Plain-clothes policemen at the demonstration.

conflict, “We must find a democratic way to solve this conflict – a way that allows us to be Kurds with pride, honour, with our democratic rights. We tried to reach out a hand to Turkish mothers as they are also losing their sons. But, they were submitted to heavy pressure from Turkish nationalists, not to join hands with us. So that initiative had to be abandoned, and now we have to go on, alone.” When we leave them, they give each of us, a white scarf – a symbol of peace. Next day, several women’s groups organise a demonstration in central Diyarbakir, against sexual harassment. Kurdish women, who go to visit their husband and sons in prisons and police lockups, are often sexually abused by soldiers and police officers. The most recent incident that triggered this protest is the case of a member of Demokratik Toplum Partisi (Democratic Society Party, DTP) – a young Kurdish woman who was sexually abused in her own home by two policemen. She did not even dare to tell her family what happened, but became so distraught that, at one stage she had to visit a doctor. When the doctor understood what had happened, he reported the case to IHD – a human rights advocacy organisation. IHD, in turn, reported this to the police. At the same time, her party comrades from DTP urged women’s groups to organise the demonstration. Thousands of women, with their husbands and sons, join the rally. I take

photos of the demonstrators, and notice a number of policemen dressed in plain clothes. When they discover that I am taking their photos, they try to stop me, coming towards me looking hostile. But some of the women surround me, and push the policemen back. When the demonstration is over and we go home, we discover that we are being followed, watched. They continue following us during the rest of our stay. The third day, we meet Yurdusev Özsökmenler, former mayor of the Baglar municipality. Now she works with Gabb, the association for municipalities in eastern Turkey. She has been a human rights activist from a very young age, spending some years in prison. She does not have much time to talk to us, but, we are very much happy to meet her. She is among those, who were arrested and taken into prison on December 24, 2009. After the visit, we meet the people at the IHD office. IHD chairman, Muharrem Ebey, shows us their new library. The library holds the archive of twenty-one years of IHD documentation on human rights abuses. Thus, this library houses an unique story of the Kurdish destiny, consisting among other things, many photos and testimonies of abuses never shared with anyone else. Muharrem Erbey is also among those imprisoned on December 24, 2009. The police has also taken away all the documentation and seized the only

computer of the library. Muharrem Erbey is accused of forbidden contacts with the PKK. He might be imprisoned for six years. During this trip, we meet many members of the DTP. Some of them belong to the younger generation of Kurdish politicians – Firat Anli, Yuksel Baran, Leyla Guven and others. We ask them for their opinion on the situation of Kurdish women today. It is obvious that they want to see the end of armed conflict between the Kurdish guerillas and the Turkish army. It is also obvious that they want to increase democratic movement in this part of Turkey, with the help of the European community. And they want to see Turkey as a member of the European Union. All of them are now held in Diyarbarik prison. I have spoken to their lawyers for the updates – they are five inmates in a cell for three, in the harsh Anatolian winter, without any heating. What does the Turkish government want – the killing to go on, and both Turkish and Kurdish young men and women be killed? Democratic means of political struggle has lost validity as democratically elected politicians are being arrested and put into prisons. The largest Kurdish party – DTP – has just been declared illegal by the Turkish constitutional court. �
Shirvan Nuray Sarikaya is a Stockholmbased journalist and photographer.

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