But Gezi showed us

This is a negotiation between Erdogan’s neoliberal and individualist Turkey, and a Kurdistan where communal threads, both radical and conservative, run deep. But Gezi and the Kurdish movement stand on the same side in AKP's divided nation and people keep coming to protest.

Rosa Wild
20 March 2014

The protest camp has been here for several weeks now.

As it gets dark and mist rises over the Tigris, campers and visitors gather in a circle around the fire. At first a few might get out dafs and lutes, or guitars, or simply sing quietly. As time passes they’ll get up and link their little fingers and dance in circles around the camp, singing Kurdish folk songs and guerrilla anthems or chanting slogans as the lights of the city blink on up on the hillside.

There’s usually a hundred or so people here, with new people coming and going every day. It’s a mixed group. Most are students from the nearby Dicle University, who sleep here in shifts according to their faculty: sometimes it’s the law students’ turn, sometimes the medics. Others are activists with political parties, many from the youth wing of the BDP, the Peace and Democracy Party. There’s sometimes a contingent of older women from the Peace Mothers group. But many are simply local residents, from the gecekondu slum settlements on the hillside, from the wealthier suburbs, or from towns and villages across the region. One small child stokes a fire where tea is constantly brewing, leads the dances and stands on the hilltop flashing peace signs. An elderly blind man tells us he came here from his village as soon as he heard the protest had begun.

The banners strung between tents and stripped trees blend Kurdish nationalism, ecology and constant references to the Gezi Park protests that swept the country last summer. “From Gezi to Diyarbakir, we build the resistance”, one declares; another calls for solidarity with Syrian Kurds. Stones on a hillock spell out PKK, the militant Kurdistan Workers Party who have fought a three-decade conflict against the Turkish state. “Nuclear Power No, Dams No” hangs next to “women resist: in Syria, in Gezi, in the factories, in the Hevsel, in our homes.” LGBT flags flutter on a hilltop alongside Kurdish flags in red, yellow and green. Hand-painted signs point to the library, the sleeping areas, and the communal kitchen.

The police are a constant presence a few hundred metres away, occasionally buzzing the camp with helicopters, but the protestors are unconcerned. The police haven’t intervened much, perhaps not wanting to cause a provocation so close to crucial elections. “They’re not going to bother us,” laughs one student. “They know our power. We know our power. Gezi showed us what we’re capable of.”

Malls and dams

The camp began as a protest in response to the cutting down of 7,000 trees in the Hevsel, the land alongside the Tigris River between the walled city of Diyarbakir, Turkey’s Kurdish capital, and the campus of Dicle University. The university assured protestors that it was merely a fire safety measure. But the Hevsel had recently been declared a reserve construction area, opening the door for the garden’s disappearance under concrete.

The foundation of Turkey’s “growth miracle” has undoubtedly been its construction boom: since 2002, investment in construction has tripled. According to recent research at least $102 billion of projects are still under way across the country. The AKP’s Turkey is one of rapid and reckless urban growth and transformation, a country characterised by construction cranes, megaprojects, wrecking balls and new shopping malls. The outskirts of most provincial cities are shadowed by half-built apartment buildings, diggers waiting by the side of the road, outlying villages increasingly swamped by the city sprawling and stretching outwards. Diyarbakir is no different.

Construction has brought huge economic growth, but at the cost of the destruction of history and the uprooting of communities. There is a reason why Gezi Park was the catalyst for last summer’s unrest: in some areas it’s impossible to escape the feeling that the streets are no longer your own, unless, of course, you’re a big fan of shopping centres and a regular guest at luxury hotels.

In the Kurdish southeast, this extends far beyond urban space, with tracts of countryside and historical sites disappearing under construction megaprojects – particularly dams. The GAP project for development across south-eastern Anatolia has already seen the construction of fifteen dams since 2002, providing sustainable energy and bringing new areas under irrigation but drowning homes and historical sites as they grow.

The poster child for the costs of dam construction is Hasankeyf, a town in nearby Batman province. Hasankeyf may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. It is home to over 300 medieval monuments, mosques, bridges, human-built caves, and several thousand people. It is set to be lost under the waters of the Tigris within two years following the construction of the Ilisu dam, which will displace tens of thousands of people.

Ilisu Dam near Hasankeyf

With a history that spans nine civilizations, the archaeological and religious significance of Hasankeyf is considerable. Some of the city's historical treasures will be inundated if construction of the Ilisu Dam is completed. Demotix/Benjamin Larderet. All rights reserved.

To build along the Tigris is to build on ground rich with history. It’s an obvious cliché to call Mesopotamia, the area bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, “the cradle of civilisation”. It sits at that heart of the Fertile Crescent where many aspects of civilisation – from agriculture to the earliest forms of writing – were first practised. Diyarbakir, known then as Amid, emerged here eight thousand years ago, growing out of the fertile Hevsel gardens in the Tigris valley. Its place in the history of early agriculture and at the centre of the city’s development has placed the Hevsel on a list of potential future UNESCO world heritage sites. But protestors fear that UNESCO protection could come too late.

In a region still sore from the destruction of over 3,000 villages during the conflict between the PKK and the state, the loss of more land and sites are felt keenly. “The government don’t want our heritage recognised.” One occupier, a languages student at Dicle University, tells me. “Everywhere, they destroy the historical sites and the nature of our land. They don’t want to protect Kurdish history.” The reckless development of the south-east may be driven simply by a hunger for development, but to many watching it feels like a deliberate attack on ten thousand years of history.

Tentative peace

Just like in Gezi, then, the occupation is about far more than protection of space. On Kurdish New Year 2013, the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan officially announced an end to armed hostilities and the beginnings of peace negotiations. They would have peace on terms of cultural rights and autonomy, and greater democratisation across the country. A year on, the negotiation process is creaking dangerously.

There have been steps forward: the PKK have moved many of their troops out of Turkey and into Iraq, though the process was halted ; Erdogan made a visit to Diyarbakir along with the Iraqi Kurdish leader Barzani and several prominent Kurdish musicians, and dared to speak the forbidden word “Kurdistan”; a democratisation package brought in a raft of new laws, including many relating to the Kurdish language. But the process is dragging. All players are now awaiting the local elections at the end of March: the proportion of votes won by the BDP and AKP will determine each side’s negotiating power. The BDP, meanwhile, are speaking of taking unilateral steps towards autonomy if they win enough power in Kurdish regions.

There are countless reasons for the slow progress of negotiations – mutual distrust, concerns over the reactions of Kemalist nationalists, and the overshadowing of the process by corruption allegations against the AKP government. But there are also major flaws which may undermine the process in the coming months.

So far, the negotiation process has been overwhelmingly top-down, taking place behind closed doors and through public announcements. While the BDP does have strong grass-roots links, there has been little progress on any mechanisms which will allow ordinary people’s voices to be heard in the peace process. At times, the solution process looks less like a bargain between partners and more like an ego trip by Erdogan. Turkey’s Kurds can only watch and comment as the negotiations drag on, and wait for the chance to cast a single ballot on March 30 for their preferred negotiator.

Secondly, this is not simply a negotiation between Turks and Kurds: it is a negotiation between Erdogan’s neoliberal and individualist Turkey, and a Kurdistan where communal threads, both radical and conservative, run deep. And in the steps taken so far, the former has won out almost every time.

The democratisation package, which was greeted with guarded optimism from some and outright cynicism from others, took steps towards removing the gag on the Kurdish language. The letters X, Q and W were recognised and villages allowed to change their names, but most importantly, Kurdish-language education was legalised – in private schools only. The right to mother-tongue education has been a central demand of the Kurdish movement from the beginning, and the way in which it has been addressed is a perfect example of the peace which is being offered.

It is a peace offering for those Kurds who fit into, and buy into, the AKP vision of Turkey: it is multiculturalism for the middle classes. It seeks to break the links between Kurdish language and its heritage of resistance, and turn it instead into a commodity for wealthy urban Kurds. They can vote for Kurdish parties, speak to their children in their mother tongue, and listen to music once banned by the state, while enjoying shopping centres and the energy produced by the same dams that displace poorer rural Kurds, who are still educated in Turkish, into swelling slums. Erdogan’s vision of peace redraws the fault lines of society: instead of pitting Kurd against Turk, it pits rich against poor.

This idea of peace may be one which satisfies the majority of people. It is certainly a vast improvement on the state repression and guerrilla violence which characterised life in the southeast for the past thirty years. But as yet, the choice has not been put to them.

The future of the solution process may be decided by March 30. But it will be incomplete without the inclusion of voices on the streets, in both Kurdish and Turkish areas. The Hevsel does not paint itself as a reaction to the peace process, but the networks of solidarity being built there, between students and locals, activists and casual visitors, could be crucial in the coming months. It raises an alternative vision for what those months could bring.

Gezi on the Tigris

In some ways, the Hevsel occupation’s identification with Gezi is to be expected. Demands for ecological protection, for greater democracy, and for minority, women’s and LGBT rights characterise both. Both have drawn in a wide coalition of different groups, and set an alternative vision for Turkish democracy against the AKP’s free-market conservatism. During the Gezi uprising solidarity protests were held with protestors shot in Diyarbakir, and local forums even held Kurdish classes. The BDP were active within the protests, and Ocalan announced his support from his cell. A photograph of two Gezi occupiers holding hands, one holding a Turkish flag with an image of Ataturk and the other a BDP flag, was held up as a sign of new solidarities emerging between young Turks and Kurds.

In other ways, it is a complete surprise. There was a strong Turkish nationalist presence in the Gezi protests. They did not spread to Diyarbakir, where support for the AKP was high in the wake of the ceasefire announcements, and the danger of a destabilised country carried with it the danger of collapsed peace talks. Many others were frustrated to see Turks protesting against the same authoritarianism which had existed in Kurdish areas for decades. The question many asked of Gezi was where were they when we were the ones being beaten and arrested? Where were they when we were being tortured and killed? And why were they talking about one park when huge tracts of Kurdish countryside were disappearing under water and concrete?

A mosque flooded on the Euphrates river.

A flooded mosque in the Birecik dam on the Euphrates river. Demotix/Benjamin Larderet. All rights reserved.

But if the AKP’s Turkey is a divided nation, Gezi and the Kurdish movement stand on the same side of the divide. Both pit visions of radical democracy against a vision of an atomised, class-divided society in which democracy is just another function supporting the family and the market. Both call for the reclaiming of space for the public, whether it is the streets of Istanbul and Ankara or the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, against gentrification or ecological destruction. And it may be that the ideal peace deal would look much like what Gezi was demanding: an opening for inclusive, participatory democracy.

Late in the evening, dancers circle the fire chanting “the martyrs will never die” in Kurdish; the names of Kurds killed in the conflict or by police brutality appear around the camp. But with Gezi in mind, it’s not just Kurds who are remembered here. In the week following the death of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old boy hit by a tear gas canister in Istanbul, the camp gets a new banner. In the Kurdish colours of green, red and yellow, it welcomes visitors to the Berkin Elvan Ecological Camp.

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