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The destruction of Diyarbakir

Tom Stevenson, Diyarbakir, TurkeyJanuary 28, 2016

Parts of Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey's Kurdish regions, have been under a Turkish army imposed curfew for two months now. Tom Stevenson reports from a destroyed city under siege.

Image: Murat Bayram

Thousands left Sur, the historic walled center of Diyarbakir, on Wednesday clutching suitcases and the few possessions they could carry. On their way out residents filed past groups of Turkish soldiers and the armoured vehicles they will soon use to bulldoze their way through streets and homes alike in their fight against Kurdish militants holed up in the city.

The government says the operations, which it dubbed a "winter offensive" in November, are necessary to rout out militants linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is fighting for an autonomous Kurdish region within Turkey and has been battling state forces in multiple Turkish provinces.

But for those who haven't already fled, electricity and water services are cut off and city officials and rights groups say the bodies of those killed - civilians and fighters alike - have lain in the streets for days because families are unable to recover the corpses or send them for burial.

sandbags on a street Copyright: Murat Bayram
Trying to cope with what little protection there isImage: Murat Bayram

Earlier this week, Turkey announced the area under curfew would be expanded to both sides of Gazi street, the main thoroughfare that bisects historic Diyarbakir, taking in a further five of Sur's 16 districts.

"Sadly the government is pushing forward this conflict," said Raci Bilici, head of the Diyarbakir branch of Turkey's Human Rights Association (IHD).

"Especially in Sur, many Kurdish people want self-governance because they feel they can't trust the state at this point, and the government and army are paying no heed to international law," Bilici told DW in the organization's office in the city.

Harrowing figures

In a report IHD presented in Diyarbakir on January 27, the organization documented 198 civilians killed during the curfews, as a result of fighting and the conditions, across the south-east, including 43 women and 33 children. Of those civilians, 40 were killed in Diyarbakir's Sur district.

The central command of the Turkish army claims it has killed more than 500 "PKK terrorists" in Diyarbakır and Şırnak since December 15.

"The only solution is a ceasefire from both sides," Bilici said.

The Turkish state has been carrying out military operations across the country's predominantly Kurdish south-east since July last year, after the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a political party representing the Kurdish rights movement, won enough seats in a general election to pass the threshold needed to enter the Turkish parliament for the first time in history.

After the elections, the security services rounded up hundreds of HDP activists and party members, particularly in the south-east where the party won huge electoral majorities. Local residents in the most active Kurdish neighborhoods organized into armed groups known as the YDG-H, and responded by digging trenches and erecting barricades, declaring the areas off-limits to Turkish security forces and going on to announce "self rule" in the neighborhoods.

A city under fire

The Turkish army has been simultaneously fighting YDG-H militants in Kurdish cities and conducting airstikes on PKK bases in the Qandil mountains on the border between Turkey and Iraq. Hundreds of lives have been claimed.

According to information collected by the Diyarbakir Municipality, more than 20,000 people had already fled Sur in Diyarbakir by January 26, and the Mayor's office fears that the expansion of the curfews could more than double that number.

Harun Ercan, an official in the Diyarbakir Municipality's head office, showed DW a file meticulously listing the details of the Sur refugees: names, numbers, phone numbers, and addresses within Sur - many of which may have now been demolished in the fighting.

a woman standing amongst rubble Copyright: Murat Bayram
Diyarbakir almost resembles a ghost town as locals try to find refuge elsewhereImage: Murat Bayram

"Some have sought refuge with relatives, others have grouped together to rent temporary accommodation, but the army is giving families little time to prepare before ordering them to leave their homes, so many don't have much money with them," Ercan said.

Before December, Ercan said, the army would first establish coordinates for the use of its heavy artillery, but in the last month they have been shelling "almost at random" into civilian areas.

No respite

"The government perceives the Kurdish liberation movement as a whole to be too powerful, and they want to break it," Ercan said. "It's no coincidence that the places where the army is operating, the places under curfew, are the places where HDP's vote share was highest and where most people support the Kurdish rights struggle."

"The message is simple: ask for self-rule, get your house destroyed," Ercan said.

Speaking about the fighting in an interview with Turkish television station A Haber in December, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the target of the operations was not the Kurdish people as a whole, but "terrorism" which he said had been brought from the villages into major settlements.

In a statement on the expansion of the curfews given on January 27, the local governorate said the move was taken to "restore public order." It also added that it could not confirm any information about abuses in the areas under curfew until "the terrorists have been cleaned out and security forces can enter freely."

Infografik Kurdische Siedlungsgebiete ENG

But few in Diyarbakir's civil society seem to agree with the governor's assessment.

Neşet Girasun is a lawyer from the Diyarbakir Bar Association and former colleague of the late Tahir Elci, a human rights lawyer renowned for his support for Kurdish political and cultural rights who was murdered in Sur in November.

Girasun has spent the last two months preparing an application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on behalf of families under curfew to have the curfews in Sur and other south-eastern cities condemned as illegal. Having first sought to do the same in Turkish courts, and had the case dismissed within hours, he and his team filed at the ECHR in September.

Where is Europe?

But the attempt has thus far proved fruitless. The ECHR has condemned individual abuses committed by the Turkish state during the curfews but has rejected the cases to have the curfews themselves deemed illegal.

a wall riddled with bullet holes Copyright: Murat Bayram
Activists in Diyarbakir say the EU has shirked its responsibilitiesImage: Murat Bayram

"The curfews don't have a legal status under Turkey's constitution, so they're extra-legal technically," Girasun said in his office in Diyarbakir.

"We had hoped that in Europe there might be a chance to pursue this, but frankly it looks like a political decision - Europe is supporting Turkey's government politically and there's no interest in the rights of the people in the south-east," he told DW.

Everyone DW spoke to in Diyarbakir, regardless of their political associations, believed that the European Union has shirked its responsibilities by ignoring what is happening in south-eastern Turkey, or that it is actively supporting the Turkish government's position and overlooking human rights abuses because of its interest in Turkey stemming migrant flows to Europe.

Reha Ruhavioğlu, a member of the religiously based human rights group Mazlumder, said that there was plenty of blame to go around between the state and the militants in Turkey, but that Europe was showing great hypocrisy in the conflict.

"We have higher expectations from the EU, because we partly learned about human rights from Europe, but in this war it looks as though the EU cares more about its trade agreements and security deals with Turkey than any talk of values," he told DW in a cafe in Diyarbakir.

"Where is the pressure from the EU on Turkey over this? People are dying in great numbers and even the civil associations are staying quiet. Unfortunately it looks like the EU only cares about the rights of Europeans."