For decades the Kurdish people have suffered under Turkish rule. Like many of the world’s problems, their woes can be traced back to the British Empire when their homeland was carved up by the colonialists and divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Over 20% of the population of Turkey is Kurdish but until recently speaking Kurdish was illegal and many of their basic human rights are violated by law. In the 1990s, with the war between the PKK and Turkish state escalating, 4000 Kurdish villages were cleared and tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians were killed by the Turkish army and paramilitaries. Despite the severe oppression, the fight for autonomy and basic rights continues to the present day. At the centre of the struggle for Kurdish freedom lies the city of Diyarbakır (Amed in Kurdish). I arrive in the city on the 62nd day of the hunger strike of hundreds of political prisoners (thousands more are on their 30th day), demanding the Turkish government enter genuine peace talks with the PKK. It’s an understatement to say it’s an interesting time to come to Diyarbakır.
Luckily my contact is also hosting another English speaker, Yusuf from north London. His parents are Zaza Alevis from Central Turkey who came to London when he was young. When he heard about the urgent need for Vitamen B1 from the hunger strikers (Vitamen B1 is essential for the body to prevent permanent damage after prolonged periods without food) due to the Turkish government preventing all imports and the pharmacies no longer stocking it, he decided to drop everything in London, fill his suitcase with all the Vitamen B1 he could get his hands on, and come to Diyarbakır. Like myself he’s interested in hearing the stories and opinions of the people who live here and with his Turkish and English he makes a good travel companion, interpreting for the many people we chat to. We explore the streets of the old city, said to be one of the oldest in the world, and visit the cultural centre where Kurdish MPs are hunger striking in solidarity with the prisoners.
The atmosphere of Diyarbakır is something like I imagine was the atmosphere in many parts of the north of Ireland in 1981 during the hunger strikes. Every evening there are protests as people bang lampposts, shutters and tin cans, while vehicles beep their horns and apartments in high-rise flats flicker their light switches on and off. Along with being politically engaged, the people of this city are unbelievably friendly – they really do the term Eastern hospitality justice. While having young kids shout “turist, turist” at me is a bit irritating, everyone is interested in hearing where I’m from and are keen to welcome me to Kurdistan.
I could live here for a while…the place has a great energy and a unique culture. The old city has real character and a rich history. Only a few decades ago, the population of the city was contained within the old city walls but due to the ethnic cleansing in the surrounding areas, the city rapidly expanded to over a million, with a large proportion of that figure being Turkish military personnel. It’s a city under occupation…there’s a huge army base near the centre and a military airport on the outskirts. Armed vehicles patrol the streets and the regular roar of fighter jets can be heard on their way to bomb guerilla bases in the mountains. I get the impression the place will erupt if/when the first hunger striker dies…I vow to come back after a few days of exploring the surrounding area to witness what unfolds should that happen.