By John Hunt:
This article was first published by the Morning Star
“Be Smart, We’ll Be Back.” Neatly stencilled onto a wall in central Nusaybin, the warning is less crude than other graffiti scrawled by Turkish soldiers on walls and inside homes after they’ve besieged and pulverised Kurdish towns across south-east Turkey, but in context it’s equally chilling.
We go into the neighbourhoods and stop at some wasteland, until recently a children’s park, to stare across a narrow wet ditch at panoramic devastation.
Entry into the Abdulkadir Pasa district is forbidden and it seems that not one building there has been left intact.
Aerial photography shows that overall more than a third of Nusaybin, a border town abutting the Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishlo, has been flattened.
The ruination reminds me of Kobane, although while that place — where Isis suffered its first defeat — is a symbol of hope, Nusaybin is grim testament to the crushing of hope after the Turkish state last year abandoned a peace process and unleashed brutal warfare and repression on its substantial Kurdish population.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan wishfully predicted that Isis would capture Kobane in 2014.
Instead, the Syrian Kurds triumphed, strengthening their de facto autonomous administration of Rojava which inspired Turkey’s Kurds, prompting Erdogan to shut down the talks he’d sanctioned, on Imrali prison island, with the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
The June 2015 electoral breakthrough by the Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) was a moment of joy for many, not only Kurds, but Erdogan responded by creating a civil war climate in which to rerun the elections and rally Turkish nationalist and religious voters to his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
This set the scene for urban clashes between groups of PKK-aligned Kurdish youth and the special forces of Nato’s second-biggest army.
The young women and men who dug ditches, built barricades and declared self-rule were lightly armed compared with the state’s deployment of tanks, heavy artillery, helicopters and, it’s alleged, poison gas.
In nine towns the army surrounded residential areas, imposed round-the-clock curfews lasting weeks and treated anyone who hadn’t evacuated as a target.
When the fighting ended, the Turkish government refused to let the UN and human rights groups investigate reported abuses and war crimes, which include targeting civilians, executing people trying to surrender and burning to death around 130 people sheltering in three basements in Cizre.
In Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital, Mustafa Quker talks about his 16-year-old daughter Rozerine.
She was in a photography club. When the siege of several districts of Sur was briefly lifted last November, Rozerine went with her friends, wearing her school uniform, to have a look around and take photos.
But the curfew was reimposed that day and she couldn’t get home. She took shelter with a local family while her father vainly called the governor’s office, trying to arrange her safe passage.
Rozerine was trapped in the battleground for another five weeks until a state sniper’s bullet, fired from a height, entered the top of her head.
In February when a mortar bomb started a fire at Cahit Morgul’s home, he fled with his seven-year-old daughter while his 14-year-old son Cihat was out with friends.
They never saw the boy alive again. Both fathers learned of their children’s fate on a Kurdish TV channel (which has since been banned) and had to wait months until they could claim the bodies.
Cahit says he went to the police station with a group of parents in June to be handed a sheaf of photos and told: “You’re here to identify your carcasses.”
It was difficult, he says, because so many of the bodies had been mutilated.
“He couldn’t carry a loaf of bread, never mind a gun,” he replies when asked if Cihat was armed.
“Our children had nothing to do with the organisation,” says Mustafa, referring to the PKK. “The state is creating its own enemies.”
These grieving dads also lament the wrecking of 7,000-year-old Sur, their home town and Diyarbakir’s heart.
Several districts remain off limits, concealed behind barriers manned by plain-clothed police carrying pistols engraved with the Turkish crescent and star, emblems of the ubiquitous national flag that now hangs triumphantly from the old city walls.
Last year Unesco designated Sur a World Heritage Site, but 596 monuments have since been destroyed or badly damaged.
Some 1,500 buildings have also gone and 23,000 people are displaced, including many who came to Sur in the ’90s after the army burned their villages.
Diyarbakir’s HDP co-mayor Firat Anli shows us a series of aerial photographs, taken over the last year, as evidence that the destruction went beyond the districts where there were clashes and accelerated after the fighting officially ended in March.
Later that month, the government “nationalised” Sur and there followed extensive demolition, the widening of roads, creation of new squares and building of police stations, either new builds or by converting schools and clinics.
Anli says the government is pursuing the gentrification plan it previously had to drop and wants to smother Sur’s unique blend of cultural influences in Islamist Neo-Ottoman conformity.
He thinks the elected Diyarbakir municipality is best placed to rebuild Sur.
“We have experience from our work helping reconstruct our little sister of Kobane,” he says proudly.
However, four days later Firat Anli and Gulten Kisanak, Diyarbakir’s other co-mayor, were arrested.
They remain in jail today, along with countless Kurdish elected representatives, women’s organisers, political activists and journalists.
Last week the state detained 13 HDP MPs, including the party’s co-chairs and Gulser Yildirim, who accompanied us around the ruins of Nusaybin. More arrests are expected.
“The AKP does not like the HDP’s philosophy,” Anli told us, “because it fears our support for equality of gender, nationality and all groups.”
Erdogan greeted the July 15 failed coup — the product of divisions within the army hierarchy — as a “gift from God” which led to a state of emergency and sharply intensified repression across Turkey but especially in Kurdistan where anyone involved in civil society is at risk.
Thousands of Kurdish teachers have been sacked and several are detained on “terror” charges.
About 100 of them met us at the office of their trade union Egitem Sen.
They voiced deep anxieties about having no income to feed their families, distressed children and the fear of an early-morning raid by armed, masked police.
“They took my father”, says an 11-year-old girl. “I miss him so much. I see him in my dreams. My father is not guilty. He just supported an NGO. I want your help.”
As we leave the meeting, the police are waiting to film everyone.
In the streets of Nusaybin there is despair but also defiance. Tens of thousands are homeless, with many staying in shacks and dreading the harsh winter.
“No-one has helped us, we are completely alone,” cries a young mum pushing a pram. “When we applied for compensation we were told to sign a statement blaming terrorists for the damage but we won’t,” says a woman.
“Whatever happens,” says a man, “we’ll never leave this area.”
More than 90 per cent here voted for the HDP last year and some are incredulous that the West should designate the mountain-based PKK — which they see as their protector against a savage, colonial state — as a terrorist organisation.
As we leave, a group of children gather by our coach chanting: “Long Live Apo!”
That’s their nickname for Ocalan, the life prisoner who recently called for renewed negotiations, although the authorities are closing all doors to peaceful change. An armoured vehicle prowls nearby but the kids give us victory salutes.
John Hunt is a freelance journalist and editor who last month joined a human rights fact finding mission in south-east Turkey organised by the European Grassroots Anti-Racist Movement (EGAM) and Elie Wiesel Network.