As Turkey prepares to vote, municipalities in the predominantly Kurdish southeast have become the battlefields of a low-intensity war between soldiers and guerrillas. Locals say the region is sliding further into chaos.
Inside the blackened city walls of Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey's Kurdish southeast, burning barricades, Molotov cocktail-throwing youth and the shattering sound of gunfire after sundown have become the reality. And the low-intensity warfare continues to escalate, with security forces cordoning off city streets as clashes between youth factions and the police have become an almost daily occurrence.
"You can see now that the peace process has ended - that the democratic atmosphere is gone," Abdullah Demirbas, the former mayor of the Sur district, said from his hospital bed in Diyarbakir.
Demirbas is now under intensive care for serious blood clots in his legs after being released from prison following his arrest this summer for financing the outlawed Kurdish Communities Union and other charges that he denies.
He is one of scores of elected leaders arrested and even jailed by the Interior Ministry for allegedly supporting banned Kurdish organizations. But he says this crackdown is sidelining elected interlocutors and radicalizing the local population.
"Everything the state is doing is burning bridges," Demirbas said.
Anger rising in city's historic districts
Curfews have been imposed in the central district of Baglar, where street fighting has damaged houses and businesses and left people without electricity for days. In this atmosphere, day-to-day control of residential streets flips between the increasingly brazen youth militia and the police.
Politicians walk a fine line as endorsing militancy can mean prosecution. The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) has criticized the state's used of force but is careful not to endorse illegal activity by bands of armed youth operating in the streets.
"We don't support their tactics, but we can understand their frustration," said Ziya Pir, an HDP parliamentarian in Diyarbakir whose late uncle was one of the founders of the now-outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). "Police are detaining people in their communities, and it's natural that they would want to resist."
There are inevitable civilian causalities. On October 11, 12-year-old Helin Sen was shot and killed - allegedly by security forces - during a curfew. The governor's office confirmed the girl's death but did not say who was responsible.
Her friends and neighbors say they're sure she died at the hands of police. They show the exact spot where she was shot.
"Her house is just over there, and she was going to buy bread," said 14-year-old Veyser, who looks younger than his years but talks with the bearing of an adult. "She went down in the gunfire, but nobody could come to take her away."
The surrounding walls are covered with graffiti by the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), a youth militia tied to the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Asked what he thought of the YDG-H, the previously cocksure Veyser suddenly went quiet, mindful that friends and neighbors were listening for his answer. He muttered that he didn't have an opinion.
"But," Veyser hastened to add, "I prefer them to the police because they're not killing any of us."
Opposite a 16th-century mosque, graffiti - presumably by departing security forces - proclaims that "the state is here" and "you will see the Turks' power."
There can be few neutrals in a community caught in the crossfire. Many loudly proclaim their sympathy for the PKK and YDG-H fighters, while others say they are sick of the violence from both sides.
"Enough is enough - we don't want violence in our community anymore," 34-year-old Lela said as she supervised her son painting over pro-PKK graffiti left on her house. "We want to live normal lives."
Clashes continue in Cizre
The street fighting in Diyarbakir has become increasingly common in the region. Along the border with Syria lies Cizre, a town thatmade international headlines last month when it was under a nine-day curfew,
with many of its residents trapped in their homes as soldiers battled the YDG-H.
Government officials claim that more than 30 fighters were killed; local residents say at least 23 of those were unarmed civilians.
The clashes were sparked after local councils declared "self-determination" and the YDG-H militia began digging defensive trenches and erecting barricades.
Officials say that the barricades were a provocation and that they are duty-bound to deploy security forces to restore order.
But Cizre's elected mayor, Leyla Imret - who was removed from office last month for allegedly endorsing militancy - said past attempts to find common ground with state authorities were fruitless.
"We made some kind of negotiations with the governor, removed the barricades, but the police came and killed three civilians," Imret said. "I went to talk to the district's governor and asked him why they did this. It was then that I lost all my trust in the state."
Militancy disrupts normal life
The perpetual fighting is making ordinary life impossible. Naziye Menekse, an 18-year-old who wants to train as a physical education teacher, says many of his classmates have disappeared into the mountains and joined the PKK.
He's not interested in fighting. An armored vehicle ran over and killed his 12-year-old brother, Yahya, during a demonstration in 2008, and their mother keeps a large framed picture with an inscription that pays tribute to the older boy's martyrdom.
"Life is very bad for young people here," Menekse said. "Too many don't want to go to school anymore because everything is a problem for us."
Though some speculate that the rise of the YDG-H youth militia is a symptom of growing radicalization, others believe that it functions as a proxy force for the PKK. The Kurdish guerrilla movement has a storied history of quashing rival groups on its turf, and it is hard to imagine that the YDG-H could operate without its sanction.
Whatever the case, senior HDP figures like the lawmaker Osman Baydemir insist that young people are increasingly radicalized and it will only get worse until the government restarts the peace process.
"This new generation is getting angry, and that's why they are taking initiative in their own hands," Baydemir said. "These self-determining groups - nobody controls them. If we don't put an end to this struggle and fight, we are going to lose our last chance."
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