Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government came to power in 2002, it has deployed a Janus-faced political strategy to keep the conflict with the Kurdish freedom movement at bay. Behind closed doors, government officers negotiated intermittently with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish freedom movement Abdullah Öcalan, who proposed a decentralized model of governance in which the Kurds would entertain autonomy. In the meantime, the AKP’s then-main ally, Gülen Jamaat, exercised repressive force in the Kurdish region through the positions it held in the police department and judiciary. When the secret negotiations evolved into peace talks in March 2013, the Kurds remained suspicious that the AKP government was using the peace process to obtain their support for the exceptional executive powers of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidency without any intention of granting the Kurds autonomy. What had been considered a conspiracy in March 2013 became reality in June 2015 when, upon the AKP’s loss of majority power at the parliamentary elections, Erdoğan declared the peace talks null. In preparation for early elections in November 2015, the AKP formed a coalition with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to entice Turkish far-right voters who had stood against the peace process from the very beginning. After regaining a majority in parliament, Erdoğan determined that war was the only means of “solving” the Kurdish Question.
One of the centers of this emergent war was Diyarbakır. With a population of 1.7 million, the city houses not only the headquarters of all Kurdish political parties and civil society organizations, but also hundreds of thousands of displaced whose mobilization carries the potential to spark uprisings across the region. The government thus considers Diyarbakır a “gateway to democracy” as well as a “fortress” that needs to be seized. Although these metaphors are mobilized symbolically, the “fortress” took a material form in 2015 as Turkish security forces fought Kurdish armed groups to seize Sur, Diyarbakır’s walled old city.
Operation Sur cannot be reduced to the destruction of an old walled city. Beyond the deaths, destroyed buildings and compensation payments, what has been lost are the potentialities—the wish-images—that Kurds imbued in Sur and with which they defended it. Prior to the operation, Sur was charged with revolutionary and bourgeois imaginaries folded into the autonomy project of the Kurdish freedom movement. The Kurdish middle class imagined Sur, bearing the traces of various civilizations, as an ideal space to foster multiculturalism. To the armed youth, however, Sur symbolized a mytho-historical fortress from which they would oust Turkish security forces and proclaim autonomy. The operation not only destroyed Sur but also repressed these two political imaginations: Sur as the city of multiculturalism and Sur as the fortress of liberation.
The City of Multiculturalism
The Turkish Army launched Operation Sur in full force on December 2, 2015. On November 28, a few days before the operation, the first bullets of the coming war killed human-rights defender and president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association Tahir Elçi at a press conference at the Four-Legged Minaret. Elçi had chosen the Minaret, situated at the center of Sur, for its symbolic location: The site was surrounded by Roman walls and bastions, Byzantine churches, Islamic mosques and Ottoman bazaars and basalt stone houses. Like many other well-known public figures of Diyarbakır, Elçi envisioned Sur as a site to commemorate the genocidal violence that had decimated Diyarbakır’s Armenian and other non–Muslim populations at the turn of the twentieth century. Upon the ruins of this violent past, the state had inscribed its Turkish signature through monuments and murals of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Opposing these state policies, upper-middle class residents of Diyarbakır thought of Sur as a space where peaceful coexistence between non–Muslim and non–Turkish populations could be built, even if the survivors of genocide were no longer living in Diyarbakır.
In tandem with de-escalation of the armed conflict in the 2000s, Kurdish mayors and civil society representatives developed numerous urban projects to renovate the historical sites that had been left to decay by the central government. In an interview with the New York Times in 2008, the former Sur mayor Abdullah Demirbaş called these municipal plans “The Streets of Culture Project.” As he stressed, “So many civilizations lived in the Sur district over millennia: Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Nestorians, Jews, Turks, Hanafi, Shafiʿi, Alevi, Yezidi, traces of Sabians […] The more we lose this multicultural side of ourselves, the more we become one another’s enemies.” In 2012, at the Diyarbakır municipality’s request, the central government declared Sur a “risk area” based on the Law on the Regeneration of Areas under Disaster Risk, commonly known as the Urban Regeneration Law. That law prescribed procedures for the improvement, evacuation and renewal of areas under risk of earthquake, flood and landslide, among other potential threats. The law permitted the municipality to demolish decaying tall apartment buildings to protect Sur’s authentic historical buildings from ruination. Internationally, the municipality succeeded in having the walled city and its gardens declared a UNESCO cultural heritage site in 2015.
The goal of these conservation projects was not only to create a lucrative cultural tourist industry but also to contest the state’s decades-long Turkification policies in the Kurdish region. Through the clearing of shanty towns around the city walls, the reconstruction of Surp Giragos Armenian Church and the renovation of a Jewish Synagogue, the Diyarbakır municipality attempted to carve out a space for the recognition of the city’s autochthonous communities whose existence had long been denied. This nostalgic picture of multiculturalism nonetheless excluded a significant portion of its present residents, namely the urban poor. As part of neither a golden past nor a promising future, most of these residents had come to the city after the evacuation of their villages by the Turkish Army during the “dirty war” of the 1990s. Without any urban infrastructure to support the mass wave of forced migration, they built a life in those decaying buildings that the municipality was planning to destroy in the name of preserving Sur’s cultural heritage. Prior to the military operation, Sur had an eclectic architecture in which a tall concrete apartment, a two-story basalt stone mansion and a spectacular church stood side by side. While the narrow streets of its inner neighborhoods prevented cars from entering, the ongoing gentrification erected an invisible border between the residents of decaying houses and the patrons of renovated Diyarbakır serving brunch during the day and holding concerts at night.
The Fortress of Liberation
The new war hit Diyarbakır after the breakdown of the peace process between the Kurdish freedom movement and the Turkish government. The Kurdish freedom movement, inspired by the success of Syrian Kurds in Rojava, shifted the locus of the armed conflict from the mountains to urban centers. The urban youth replaced well-trained guerrillas as the carriers of the struggle for Kurdish autonomy. Starting in August 2015, people’s assemblies denounced state institutions as illegitimate and declared that they would establish their own rule in the Kurdish region. In the meantime, young men and women organized themselves into self-defense units to erect barricades and dig trenches in the city centers most strategic for street battles with the police. In Diyarbakır, Sur was ideal for this purpose, given its labyrinthine streets, underground tunnels, basalt-stone city walls and connections between shanties on the other side of the Four-Legged Minaret.
The November 28 press conference of the Diyarbakır Bar Association was the last civilian initiative to stop irregular armed clashes from turning into a full-blown war. At midday, Elçi and 20 other lawyers stood in front of cameras with placards reading, “I am the heritage of humanity. Protect your heritage.” By anthropomorphizing the minaret, participants in the press conference extended an invitation to the armed youth to claim the renovated historical buildings of Sur as theirs. Their call, however, did not resonate with the way many armed youth imagined heritage. As Elçi gave his speech condemning the use of violence, two young men carrying light weapons ran into the street, chased by undercover police. As they passed the lawyers, the police sprayed the street with bullets. When the firing stopped, the young men had escaped but Elçi was found dead under the shadow of the minaret. The future of Sur was now in the hands of the armed youth born into a war and determined to defend the streets that they knew like the palm of their hand. What for the middle class was a symbol of cultural heritage was for the youth at this moment a fortress of liberation.
The youth’s sense of heritage drew on a radically different lineage that refused to attribute any intrinsic value to buildings. A diary written by a Kurdish fighter in Sur, widely circulated on social media, opens: “Let Sur be the Fortress Dimdim.” The epic story of Fortress Dimdim draws from the seventeenth-century Kurdish insurgency against the oppressive rule of Safavid Persians. Built atop Gozan Hill by a Kurdish bey, the fortress contained secret passages, high walls and an underground water system that protected the Kurds from external assaults. As the Safavid emperor advanced toward the fortress and cut off its water canals, the story goes, the Kurdish insurgents detonated explosives inside the fortress and died heroically.
In the eyes of the fighters, Sur was the modern Fortress Dimdim and they were prepared to die inside its walls. The diary explains that from August to November 2015, the armed youth erected barricades at the entrance to the main streets, laid mines in inner neighborhoods and stretched large tarpaulins across rooftops as camouflage from helicopter gunships. On December 2, the Diyarbakır governor declared round-the-clock curfews in six of 18 Sur neighborhoods, even refusing to allow local, national or international human rights organizations to conduct on-site investigations. Hospitals, schools and food markets were closed, and electricity and running water would soon be cut off as well. Sur residents were given two days to evacuate their homes. The Kurds already been displaced from their home villages were thus subjected to yet another eviction in the city where they had taken refuge in the 1990s. According to Amnesty International, 24,000 people moved out of Sur in a matter of 48 hours.
When the Turkish Army besieged Sur, some civilians remained inside with the armed youth and guerrilla fighters. While accurate estimates are non-existent, the Kurdish freedom movement estimates that some 60 armed people remained, whereas the Turkish government puts that number at 500. Throughout the 100–day siege, human rights organizations demanded that the government establish a humanitarian corridor for civilians, to no avail. Tanks and helicopter gunships bombarded the inner neighborhoods; armored bulldozers demolished the destroyed buildings and widened the roads; and troops occupied the cleared paths to fight at close range. Riot police harshly repressed civilian protests against the bombing. A militarized city, Diyarbakır fell into silence with dark smoke rising from its center. By the end of the operation on March 10, 2016, the army had destroyed thousands of buildings and killed 157 people.
Sur under Occupation
The middle class and the armed youth associated Sur with completely different wish-images. The former subscribed to the same discourse of autonomy proposed by Abdullah Öcalan, but their image of autonomous struggle entailed different strategies from the latter’s position of self-defense. Sur had to be transformed through either the renovation of individual historical buildings or its liberation from the repressive state apparatus. In an effort to stifle both of these political imaginations, the government continued to destroy the city in 2016–2017 after the Turkish army withdrew from Sur.
In the place of the democratically elected Kurdish mayors who were sentenced to prison for aiding “terrorists,” the government appointed trustees to govern and enact a massive expropriation and reconstruction project. With reference to the Urban Regeneration Law, 82 percent of the buildings and land in Sur were swiftly expropriated on March 21, 2016. That law, which once had allowed the Diyarbakır municipality to strengthen the non–Turkish and non–Islamic character of the city, was used by the government to reconstruct Sur in accordance with what then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu referred to as Seljuk and Ottoman architecture. The Ministry of the Environment and Urbanization claimed that the reconstruction of expropriated areas would comply with the master plan developed by the municipality in 2012. When the Ministry revised that master plan in 2017, however, the focus shifted from the preservation of cultural heritage to state security.
The revised plan prescribes the construction of “security service zones” in all six neighborhoods of Sur where the armed youth had been located. These zones, with high-security police stations, would be connected through widened streets that would ensure smooth transportation of armored vehicles, ambulances and water cannons. The Ministry of the Environment and Urbanism recommended that the architecture of police stations mimic Diyarbakır houses to integrate the security infrastructure into Sur’s “authentic” street life. The Diyarbakır Chamber of Architects objected to the plan on the grounds that neither the buildings under construction nor the security zones fit Sur’s urban life. On the contrary, they argued, the security zones and their exterior walls were planned to be higher than the city walls to create another fortress within a fortress. The Ministry dismissed the Chamber’s objection.
By winter 2018, the high concrete walls of the construction sites prevented Diyarbakırites from seeing what the new Sur would look like. Among the completed sites, the Mosque of Prophet Solomon was the most spectacular, with its enormous courtyard intended for Quranic reading sessions. On the other side of Sur, the tower of Keçiburcu was turned into a makeshift police station next to a nightclub intended to serve the security forces. In the city center, the only building constructed on a flat area cleared of rubble was in a “security service zone” surrounded by eight-meter-high walls, wire fences, numerous surveillance cameras and high-voltage neon lights.
Justice and Return
The Turkish Army destroyed the city itself, but it also destroyed the potentialities of a place—one that had given birth to different class-based visions of autonomy. As a settler-colonial imaginary reconstructs Sur, everything familiar turns into strange. While walking along the commercial street of Sur past its renovated shops, a former resident who accompanied me commented with frustration: “They could have at least used Diyarbakır’s basalt for renovation instead of white paint and wooden frames. Are we in Diyarbakır or in Bodrum [a touristic Mediterranean coastal town]?” Sur may not become another Bodrum, but it no longer feels like Diyarbakır.
During my last visit to Diyarbakır, I was struck by an idiom written on the city walls across from a security service zone: Gün olur devran döner. The words translate as “Every cloud has a silver lining,” but the literal translation is more to the point: “One day the time returns.” In the aftermath of Operation Sur, the government has tried to ensure that the time of those who had the courage to inscribe this graffiti on the city walls will not return. New security zones, widened streets and inflated housing prices may sever any intimate ties between the street and the home, the urban poor and the city, politics and spatial imagination. Government-appointed trustees even deny those who died in Sur a proper burial site. Yet the call of the dead for divine justice may escape the spatial politics of state officers.
After Operation Sur, the Diyarbakır governor has maintained the curfew in neighborhoods still under reconstruction. Only officially appointed security forces and construction workers can enter such places. To determine the compensation to be paid to local residents, however, government officers take residents to the curfew sites where their houses used to be located. Some residents have refused to accept what little money the government has offered as compensation for their lost homes. Others have not even been able to locate where their homes once stood due to the extent of destruction. According to one story, a former resident of Sur decided to claim compensation and accompanied a government officer to her relatively little-destroyed neighborhood. When she opened the door to her own home, a young girl stood still and alone in her living room. The girl’s hollow-cheeked face was emptied of life, her body as thin as a rail. When the woman saw the girl, she shut the door and told the government officer that she had changed her mind; she no longer wanted the government’s money.
The rumor about this young girl in the midst of a curfew zone made its listeners wonder whether anyone could possibly survive that long without food or water. Was the house haunted by the ghost of a girl killed in Sur? In saving the girl from the government officer, was the woman abandoning her to death? Perhaps the uncanny figure of a young girl stands for a loss for which the government could never compensate. What is at stake in the Kurds’ struggle for justice is life and death. The time of those who are neither dead nor alive may return despite, or because of, the government’s denial of any space for them in Sur.
1. Meline Toumani, “Minority Rules,” The New York Times Magazine, February 17, 2008.
2. UNESCO, “Sites in Denmark, France, and Turkey Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List,” July 4, 2015.
3. Zeynep Gambetti, “Decolonizing Diyarbakir: Culture, Identity and the Struggle to Appropriate Urban Space,” in Kamran Asdar Ali and Martina Rieker, eds., Comparing Cities: The Middle East and South Asia (Oxford University Press, 2009).
4. Ruken S. Şengül, “Broken (Hi)stories inside Restored Walls: Kurds, Armenians and the Cultural Politics of Reconstruction in Urban Diyarbakir, Turkey” PhD dissertation, University of Texas, 2014).
5. For a brief analysis of the breakdown of the latest peace process, see Serra Hakyemez, “Turkey’s Failed Peace Process with the Kurds: A Different Explanation,” Middle East Brief 111, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University (June 2017).
6. Haydar Darıcı, “Of Kurdish Youth and Ditches,” Theory & Event 19/1 (2016).
7. For the diary notes of this fighter that were published after his death, see Doğan Çetin, “#SûrDirenişGünlüğü – 1. Bölüm: Sûr Dimdim Kalesi olacak!” Yeni Özgür Politika, July 6, 2016.
8. The total population of Sur is approximately 122,000. The population of the besieged six neighborhoods was around 22,000. See Amnesty International, “Displaced and Dispossessed: Sur Residents’ Right to Return Home” (2016).
9. See Nurcan Baysal, “Can the Kurdish Question Be Settled by Killing People in Sur?”Open Democracy, February 27, 2016.
10. International Crisis Group, “Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Rising Toll,” May 2018.
11. See Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, Cultural Heritage Damage Assessment Report on Sur, Diyarbakır: Aftermath of the Armed Conflict (March 30, 2016).
12. See Ahmet Davutoğlu’s statement as reported in “Sur’a Osmanlı ve Seçuklu damgası,” Milliyet, April 4, 2016.
13. See “Observations of the Government of the Republic of Turkey on the Admissibility and Merits Concerning the Applications Nos. 5317/16 and 39419/16 Halil Yavuzel and Others v. Turkey and 2 Other Applications,” submitted on July 13, 2017 from the Turkish government to the European Court of Human Rights.
14. Diğer Haberler, “Diyarbakır ili, sur ilçesi koruma amaçlı uygulama imar planı değişkliği itiraz raporu,” Mimarlar Odası Diyarbarkır Şubesi, January 10, 2017.
15. Hişyar Özsoy, “The Missing Grave of Sheikh Said: Kurdish Formations of Memory, Place, and Sovereignty in Turkey,” in Kamala Visweswaran, ed., Everyday Occupations: Experiencing Militarism in South Asia and the Middle East (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).