(This post originally appeared at The Tuqay, a new site offering in-depth, offbeat essays on Turkey, Iran and the countries of the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central and South Asia.)
A Kurdish teenager hides his face after throwing stones at police during clashes in Diyarbakır, March 2011.
I first met him when he was a lanky 17-year-old with a shaven head, wide-set features, and a quiet voice that carried a hint of menace. He went by the name “Amed”, a pseudonym he chose as it was the Kurdish name for the city of Diyarbakır.
It was 2010 and for the first time in my life I was in Diyarbakır, writing a story about the imprisonment of children under anti-terrorism laws. After pressure from a public campaign, the government was preparing to change the law so that children in Turkey could no longer be tried as adults.
I arranged to meet Amed and two of his friends in the lobby of my hotel. All three were “stone-throwing kids”, youths whose violent clashes with police had become a headline-grabbing feature of Turkey’s Kurdish issue.
It was generally agreed that they represented the new, ominous face of Kurdish activism; an angry, uncompromising generation born into the PKK’s 30-year-long conflict and raised in the impoverished ghettoes to which many Kurds had fled when their villages were burned down by the Turkish army in the early 1990s.
Amed and his two friends all had court cases against them and had met each other in prison.
He was 16 when he was arrested, and since then had spent a year in Diyarbakır’s E-Type Prison . His charges carried a maximum sentence of 44-and-a-half years, and he had eventually been released on parole while his trial was continuing.
He denied the five charges against him, the most serious of which was throwing a Molotov cocktail during a demonstration that marked the anniversary of the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK founder. He was quick to add, however, that he’d thrown stones on other occasions, and was proud to do so.
He particularly wanted to talk about his time in police custody, where he said he was beaten continuously for six hours, with one officer taking over when another grew tired. “When I saw my face in the mirror I couldn’t recognize myself,” he said.
His friend Piremerd was clearly the intellectual leader of the group: the most vocal, the most articulate, and the most angry.
“When they took us to the psychologist in the prison, she told us we were terrorists,” Piremerd said. “We said we weren’t terrorists, we just throw stones, but she said ‘no, you’re terrorists’… My political ideas developed in a very radical way. The problem isn’t us but the system, which sees us as an enemy.”
Piremerd was now working at Diyarbakır’s pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency. We leafed through some Turkish papers, and asked him what he thought of Taraf, a liberal newspaper that covered the Kurdish issue in a balanced way. He hated it, he said. The only paper he liked was Azadiya Welat, the Kurdish language paper.
After the interview we took the three boys out to a restaurant for dinner. They seemed to find the exaggerated politeness of the staff novel and amusing, and clowned around, making rude demands of the waiters. I realized then what I had not noticed earlier. Back in the hotel they had been behaving like adults, drilled in the political rhetoric of Kurdish nationalism. Now they were kids again.
Masked Kurdish youths rally in Diyarbakır, March 2011.
The second time I met Amed was a year later when I was back in Diyarbakır. I was writing a story about this angry generation, and the urgency that their radicalism lent to the need for a solution to the Kurdish issue. “It’s not easy to make peace with people who have only known war,” said one analyst.
The Peace and Democracy Party (Barış ve Demokrası Partısı – BDP; the main Kurdish party) had just launched a campaign of civil disobedience focused around what it called ‘democratic autonomy’. It was seeking to forge institutions of self-government without the approval of Ankara.
I met Amed at a café in the old city, where he came with a couple of friends, different than the last time we met. We talked particularly about peaceful protest, and I asked them whether they thought it would work, and whether dialogue with the Turkish state was possible.
Anyone who has spent much time with Kurdish activists quickly realizes that they often speak in eerily similar terms, hewing closely to the line of ‘the party’, and they did so at the café.
“It’s easy to pick up weapons, and if they want it to get worse, we can make it worse,” said Rohat, one of Amed’s friends. “But there’s no solution that way. Civil disobedience is the only chance we have.” It was the same message I heard again and again from Kurdish politicians and activists.
His other friend, a girl whose name I’ve forgotten, had grown up in Istanbul and said her family had experienced racism from Turks there. She did not believe Turks and Kurds could live together.
In the year since I had last seen him Amed had become more considered and articulate. He seemed a kind of leader in the making; his friends deferred to him on most questions.
I asked him where Piremerd was. He said that while he had been working at the Dicle News Agency he had been harassed and arrested by the police. Eventually he got sick of it and had ‘gone to the mountains’ – the well-known euphemism for joining the PKK.
Nowruz in Diyarbakır, March 2013.
The third time I met Amed I was in Diyarbakır for the recent Nowruz celebrations and Öcalan’s peace statement.
Again we met in a café in the old town, where he came with two new friends. This time they were older than him, but again they seemed to show a kind of deference towards him. One was a sociologist, and both said they had court cases against them relating to Kurdish activism but were nervous about discussing the details.
He and his friends spoke only in Kurdish, and looked expectantly at my translator if I spoke to them in Turkish. I asked them about this, and they said they only conversed in Turkish if they absolutely had to. “Our main goal is serving our nation and protecting our culture and language,” Amed explained.
Over the course of our talk, I asked Amed what he thought about the peace negotiations. He was as well-versed as ever in the positions and policies of the BDP. He believed in Öcalan, and listed the things he hoped would come from the process: mother tongue education, constitutional recognition for Kurds, a release of KCK defendants, freedom for Öcalan.
I asked him if he trusted the Turkish government, and like most people I spoke to, he did not. I asked him if he had seen any changes on the ground in the way the police were operating, and he answered by listing three recent incidents:
Firstly, on February 10, 19-year-old Şahin Öner was run over by a police vehicle during a demonstration in Diyarbakir, later dying of his injuries. Secondly, on March 5, a friend of Amed’s in the Melikahmet neighbourhood had his jaw broken while being beaten by police. Lastly, the following week in Istanbul another friend was arrested and almost beaten to death by police.
Asked what needs to change for the peace process to succeed, he said, “Justice must be for protecting the people, but in Turkey it works the opposite way. The laws are working against the people. The mentality of the state must change.”
Again I asked about Piremerd. He told us that he had died fighting Turkish forces about a year earlier. “He was wounded and killed himself with a grenade to avoid capture,” Amed said. He would have been 19 years old. Rohat, his friend who I had met last time, was now also in the mountains.
Gülistan Akbaş, 29, a teacher at a kindergarten in Diyarbakır, displays a Kurdish language children’s book.
The experience of Amed and his friends may not be typical of Turkey’s Kurds, but nor is it radically unusual either. In Diyarbakir, everyone has friends, neighbours, and family members with stories like these.
They reinforce the impression that as things currently stand, Turkey’s Kurdish minority is moving ever further from reconciliation with the Turkish state. This is not because oppression has increased – on the contrary, it is has decreased under the Erdoğan government.
I saw an example of this on my last trip to Diyarbakir when I visited one of the Kurdish-language kindergartens now being run, illegally, by the municipality. A Kurdish NGO has manufactured children’s books in Kurdish featuring anthropomorphized ants dressed in traditional Kurdish outfits. I asked one of the teachers if she believed it was important to learn Turkish as well. She sidestepped the question. “We don’t say any language is good or bad, but one’s mother tongue is the most important thing.”
The authorities tolerate the schools. “It can be considered illegal by the state, but we consider it our right,” said Abdullah Demirbaş, the mayor of Sur Municipality, who started one of the kindergartens. “This is another method of struggle, like civil disobedience.”
Kurdish civil society has grown. There is more open expression and more organization outside of political parties. Community leaders are able to voice political demands more openly, catalyzing the formation of a sense of identity and of separateness. Stone-throwing kids like Amed may be angry, but they are also politically articulate and have avenues of employment – in BDP-controlled municipalities, Kurdish media organizations, and charities – that were not open to their parents.
A peace settlement, no matter how limited or unsatisfactory, will hopefully further enhance Kurds’ ability for self-representation and cultural expression in some way. The concern is whether this settlement will resolve Kurdish grievances to a degree where they are content to remain in Turkey. A settlement that offers only limited concessions could in fact strengthen calls for independence if Kurds use their newly-won freedoms to further distance themselves from Turks.
In an interview with Diyarbakir’s mayor, Osman Baydemir, I asked about the issue of police brutality that seems to be driving so much of the anger in the younger generation. What needs to change in Diyarbakir for young people to reconcile themselves with the state?
He mentioned his time living in San Francisco in 2003. “I witnessed an administrative model there: a chief of police in all cities belongs to the mayors, and I believe if this happens in Turkey – if the chief of police is controlled by the mayor – it would be very easy to achieve integration”.
Integration and brotherhood are the buzzwords of the current process. In his address, Öcalan continually spoke of the long partnership of Turks and Kurds, of how they fought and fell together at Gallipoli, of the shared heritage of Islam. Not everyone was convinced. Turkish nationalists often invoke the same kind of language when arguing against any form of Kurdish autonomy.
“People from the Black Sea are always talking about brotherhood, but what are we going to gain for this peace?” asked Ayfer Melik, who had travelled from Urfa to listen to Öcalan’s speech. “My brother was ‘disappeared’, one of those unsolved murders by the state… He paid for his life with this struggle, so what are we gaining now?”
“What I want is to be living in my own country,” said Hasan, who had come to Nowruz from Diyarbakır’s Silvan province, “because we’re being oppressed so much and they’re so racist towards us. We have no value in the west of Turkey. Some day we will have our own independence.”
Will these kind of voices disappear if there is a partial resolution of the Kurdish issue, or will they be emboldened? For Kurds to move onto a true trajectory of integration with Turkey, sweeping changes are necessary, of which reform of the police is just one example – highly controversial – and barely touched on in public discourse.
The peace process could easily be a success in the basic sense that there will be some kind of resolution to the PKK’s fight. Both Erdoğan and Öcalan have invested too much of themselves in it already. Erdoğan has said he will ‘drink hemlock’ if it means winning peace. Öcalan in turn, by engaging with the government, is ceasing to be a rebel leader or a prisoner, but something far more easily tarnished in the eyes of the Kurdish public: a politician, a maker of compromises. Some sort of result seems possible. Whether it will do enough to reconcile most Kurds, Kurds like Amed, to their ‘brotherhood’ with Turks remains far more uncertain.