SHIMMERING in the late winter sunshine, Diyarbakir’s airport building is so new it hasn’t yet been commercialised. There isn’t even a coffee bar in departures. It is a military airport which is being adapted for commercial travel, but who wants to visit there? My own friend has fled as the Turkish crackdown on the Kurds and freedom of speech and expression continues unabated and suspicion of foreigners by the Turkish military is rife.
Diyarbakir is the major city in South Eastern Turkey. It has a population of about 1.6 million residents, many of whom fled there as the Turkish forces destroyed about 3,000 Kurdish villages during a period of protracted violence in the 1990s. It is, like many cities in the Middle East, suffering from an economic crash due to the violence in nearby Syria and at its own economic and geographical heart, the Unesco heritage area of Sur.
In the past three months during a military curfew and lockdown on six neighbourhoods in the ancient, walled district of Sur, 10,000 people have lost their jobs as 3,000 local businesses have been closed and 50,000 people have fled their homes, at least half of which have been destroyed. It is impossible to tell how many people have so far lost their lives. There is a ring of steel, sandbags, tanks and a rag-tag military armed with guns that marks the demarcation line.
Walk around the city, the markets and stalls bright with fresh vegetables and fish, and you could be forgiven for not realising that just streets away bombs, tanks and gunfire are the soundtrack to a bloody 90-day attack by the Turkish military on the district of Sur. As one local said to me, it has become so much a part of life there that the sounds blend in to the background, like traffic noises. It’s a necessary disassociation that allows people to carry on with their lives.
Turkish President Erdogan has justified the curfews on Sur and other towns, like Czire and Silopi, by saying that PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) terrorists are hiding within communities in the areas on lockdown, and any organisations I speak to freely admit there are perhaps 25 young guerrillas in Sur, amongst a civilian population of 200 trapped in basements.
Erdogan’s government, however, appear unconcerned about trials and capture, as demonstrated in Czire. Pleas to the governor to allow a civilian delegation to go in to Sur to bring the people out have been denied – including a denial of our request to meet them. By any standard, this is state-sponsored execution by starvation, fire or the denial of medical aid.
The people now fear a final end to the siege with a massacre like that in Czire, which killed dozens of desperate civilians – the youngest just nine months old – who had been unsuccessfully pleading for international help from hell-hole basements where they were starving and injured. In Diyarbakir too, there are many children amongst the 200 or so still trapped.
No-one would deny Turkey’s right to protect itself from terrorism, but proportionality and human rights have to be upheld, and there is absolutely no evidence of that in Diyarbakir.
Instead, Erdogan’s ideological and brutal suppression of the Kurds and restriction on civil liberties continues, fuelled perhaps by the success of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) in last year’s elections, his desire to move Turkey from a prime-ministerial state to a presidential one and the gains by Kurdish forces in Rojava in Northern Syria.
The peace process – which is supported by every organisation to which our delegation of civil society and trades union reps spoke – failed last summer; cynically timed for just before the elections in what some international observers have described as a deliberate move by Erdogan as he recklessly gambles with the stability of Turkey for personal ambition.
The return to violence has been swift, and the reaction to state violence has seen a call to arms by a disaffected youth.
There can be no pretence that Erdogan leads a secular state which stabilises the area. What happens now is vital to future peace in the Middle East. Erdogan’s actions in attacking the American and Russian-backed Kurdish forces, the YPG and YPJ, in Syria and his actions in South Eastern Turkey have the potential to engulf the country in a civil war; pulling in international forces.
The international community must now act. We must demand that the UK Government intervenes to stop a genocide, and prevent Erdogan from his current direction of travel. As Ibrahim Dogus of The Centre for Kurdish Progress observes: “The Turkish Government must reconsider its position on peace talks. Resuming peace talks or negotiations is vital. There is no solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey through military means or violence.”
At every meeting that our delegation attended, be it of political parties, trades unions or the families of political prisoners, the clear message was that the Kurdish community is ready for peace.
For me, in my hotel just 150 metres from the ancient walls of Sur, I couldn’t sleep as the sound of heavy bombardment escalated and punctured the night. During my brief detention – where I was dragged off the street, pushed around and questioned in a shack filled with sandbags and rifles behind the curfew line – I was terrified. But I am not Kurdish, I am Scottish and an MP, so my detention was short and my experience nothing to that of the many journalists imprisoned or deported for trying to document a humanitarian crisis.
The absence of footage of what is happening in the area makes it easy for the news agencies and the international community to look away and pretend it isn’t happening. That is why verifiable recordings are important to force the world to open its eyes.
One thing is clear: the Turkish Government do not want anyone to bear witness to their actions and that authoritarianism proves they are well aware their actions breach international law.
The Kurdish people feel abandoned by the international community. One trade unionist said to me: “It feels like we are all alone and no-one is listening. We want to sing songs and enjoy our lives.” That doesn’t seem a lot to ask.
The need for action is current, urgent and vital. Those of us on our delegation have a responsibility to shout about the brutality wherever we have a voice, and to that end, I’ll be trying to get an urgent question in the House of Commons.