On September 28, 2009, a 14-year-old girl named Ceylan Onkol was killed in the Lice (pronounced Leejay) district of Diyarbakir, allegedly by a mortar shell fired from the gendarmerie battalion stationed in the region. An expert report, later cast into doubt, stated that it was Ceylan’s own misconduct, and not mortar fire that led to her death. Three months ago, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Lice dismissed the case.
Ceylan’s death took place far away from many of us. We did not hear the mourning mother. Having become accustomed to the disposability of Kurdish lives, many of us treated the news as part of a ‘normal’ flow of life in the rural southeast of Turkey. Grief was what defined that space - not ours.
Then, the very same misconduct spread to our urban neighbourhoods. Clouds of pepper spray filled our living rooms, followed by the shooting of rubber and live bullets. Sons and daughters previously accused of being apolitical took the stage, enduring the gas and the bullets. And then came the killings. The death of Mehmet (20), Abdullah (22) and Ethem (26) happened on the streets of Istanbul, Antakya and Ankara. We were shocked.
The situation might have been “all too familiar to Kurds.” Or as a Kurdish protestor in Istanbul put it: “the violence…here in the streets over the past few days is like the state violence that the Kurds have been facing for decades.” The state’s suspension of the rule of law in the name of security was all too common for the southeast. What appalled many in Istanbul was this everyday reality in Diyarbakir.
As the protests in different parts of Turkey start to resemble each other, could the same simile be extended to our experiencing of grief and mourning? Will the protestors brought together around the symbol of Gezi, regardless of their background, begin to grieve for those killed or “disappeared” in the southeast?
Breaking the frame
Over the past thirty years, the crowds most visible at Gezi Park, (so-called Generation Y), were moulded in the understanding that the common denominator was to be a Turk, or a Kurd, and not a human being.
Accordingly, one’s enemy was the other’s martyr. Death mattered only within a given frame -one which excluded many lives like that of Ceylan. Diyarbakir meanwhile was envisioned as a space in a perpetual state of exception where the Turkish state acted as the ultimate arbiter over human lives. The arbiter gained legitimacy as the blood shed at Diyarbakir enabled the protection of Istanbul, Bursa, Izmir or Ankara. Our comfort zone was a perfect bubble.
In order for us to step out of this comfort zone and reach out to Diyarbakir, we needed a counter-narrative. Gezi was that teaching experience. But what was learned at Gezi had to be put to the test.
The protests in Istanbul came as a response to claims over space. Gezi Park was not just a historical site; it was a site that entailed what Pierre Nora, in Les Lieux de Mémoire called the “will to remember.” Thus, owning the space meant owning the memory and obtaining the capacity to manipulate it. Since the 1977 incident known as the “Bloody May Day” when 34 protestors were killed (with the murderers yet to be found), every year, contestations between the government and workers unions have taken place to “reclaim” Taksim as the place for demonstrations. Building a shopping mall over scarred lands was perceived as a violent act.
Lice’s memory was also long scarred by atrocities. In addition to Ceylan’s death, in 1993, the town was razed by the Turkish military, killing 100 people according to locals’ accounts. Through outposts and police stations, the state attempted to claim Lice and its memory. And that, it did through repressive methods. The infamous Diyarbakir prison where hundreds were tortured and dozens killed (and many other disappeared) during the 1980 coup d’état were still fresh in people’s minds.
Hence, the construction of a new gendarmerie outpost in the region was not at all welcome. A month after the Gezi protests began, a group of 250 protestors at Lice’s Kayacik village gathered in response, leading to a clash between gendarmerie forces and locals, who allegedly used stones and Molotov cocktails, and burned down the construction site. The clash led to the killing of an 18-year-old protestor, Medeni Yildirim, as well as injuring nine others.
When the news reached Istanbul, thousands gathered on the streets. The demonstration gained momentum as the Gezi protests reached their apex with over 10,000 protestors occupying Taksim Square. The outcry that Yildirim’s death evoked not only traversed from the land of the exceptio to the land of the norm, but also shattered the rules defining who we are, how we act, and more importantly, how we are supposed to feel in this part of Turkey.
The publics at Lice and Taksim, having already been framed as terrorists, found in the new sense of precariousness something that made human life, and not merely Turkish or Kurdish life matter. Such commonality, as the Turkish journalist Rusen Cakir prophetically alluded to in his column a day before the incidents in Lice occurred, narrowed the distance between the two spaces.
Lice is not Taksim, nor Taksim, Lice? There are differences in terms of the historical trajectories the two spaces envelop, and the memories that they recall which continue to modify not only the spaces themselves but also who we are and how we perceive the world around us. However, the fact that Yildirim’s death now matters to us, to those who are filling streets in growing numbers, and mourning for a life that does not exist in the state’s rhetoric, cannot be underestimated. And perhaps here we can start to search for the beginnings of a much-needed comprehensive counter-narrative.