Geographies of Resilience (07/2016)
It was 1 am when we took off from Diyarbakir. One could easily make a bad decision in the face of extreme situations. These were the roads where the hot conflict had been taking place for months. Fear mixed with adrenaline and endless curiosity about life in the aftermath of a war zone. I remember refreshing the news site a couple of times to read again and again: “The governate of Sirnak has announced the temporary and limited removal of the curfew in Yuksekova with effect from tomorrow morning”. After 78 days with no news from inside of the town, we were eager to get there as soon as the military check-point opened.
This region is complicated even for a compass; it is referred to as the East of Turkey by non-Kurds and those against the Kurdish cause and as Bakur (north in Kurdish) by the locals and those who recognise de facto Kurdistan. The region is amassed with legends of resistance, stories of forced displacement, testimonials of unimaginable tragedies… All come together rushing into my head as the sun rose up over the misty Van Lake. Spectacular scenery along the way is utterly confusing; it was the last thing I’d expected as we embarked on this journey to be gaping in astonishment at the picturesque contrast between snow-capped, crimson-emerald mountains, the playful journey of Great Zab river through sheer hills, waterfalls, flocks of animals… It is a journey right to the core of life, I felt it then and there. I begin to ponder upon the common criticism/analysis about the Kurdish sentimentality; I get a hint about one of its sources.
It’s around 8 am when we reached to the end of a few kilometers-long traffic queue at the military check-point. People were surprisingly smiley; they were going back to their homes for the first time in 78 days. Although this was not the first time they had been displaced, imprisoned, lost their relatives and houses. There are dozens of villages in the area that have been denied access since the early 90s. Those ones never make the news.
Daily life conditions seemed to be improving for Kurds since the declaration of a ceasefire between Turkey and Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2013. The historical letter of the leader Abdullah Ocalan who remains in solitary confinement since 1999 brought a glimmer of hope across the region. Around two million people gathered in Diyarbakir for traditional Newroz, had cheered in response to his words; “Now is the time for politics, not for guns”. In the course of the next ensuing two years, fewer were imprisoned for merely wearing a traditional scarf, kuffiyeh, or giving out leaflets. Kurds were more relaxed speaking their language in public. Proper roads were built in the region, as well as hospitals, schools... Some were even given the ‘chance’ to visit their burned down village for the first time in 23 years. But it all went down the drain after the general elections in June 2015.
We begun filming the waiting process, mindful of the soldiers ahead. After a good two hours without any progress in line, suddenly we were interrupted by angry soldiers shouting at us; “You’re under arrest, you’ll pay for filming in a military zone.” Within seconds we were at the centre of a big crowd, soldiers got louder and more aggressive as the number of people increased. I knew then, we were part of a theatrical play. “Don’t think it’s over, Yuksekova” I would name it. At the second stage, we were brought into the presence of commanders, the first one immediately pulled his machine gun on us in a threatening manner and said, “This is Yuksekova! I took out corpses of many teachers from those trenches.” We’re still among the crowd then.
I give them my ID as requested, he looks at it puzzled and says “What is this? Give me your real ID.” I want to tell him “Yes, you’re right, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not a real country” but of course I say “This is my real ID, I’m not a citizen of the Republic of Turkey” instead, in a flat voice. This ironic non-recognition happens at each GBT (General Information Scan) after that.
They search all of our bags and send us into the camp. We will be interrogated and sent to custody. A commander in pijamas welcomes us down there with a gentle attitude. He jokes around, speaks the language of law and comforts us that nothing is going to happen. After going through our footage, they let us go into the town, we don’t even have to wait in the line anymore. “Don’t think it’s over, Yuksekova”. Curtain.
Zab river continues to accompany our mood swings for 10 kilometers more into the town. I had the chance to visit Rojava autonomous region in Northern Syria in 2015 and since then I have been a curious follower of the 40-year old cause. It is impossible to deny the exciting potential of the premise and power of the movement, for the whole Middle East, and indeed for the world. Following Ocalan’s imprisonment, there had been a drastic change in the ideological structure of the Party.
Leaving behind the Marxist-Lenininst approach to the concept of state with the turn of 2000s, the movement evolved towards democratic confederalism, a political theory emerged from Ocalan writings at his cell which carries a lot of paralels with Murray Bookchin's idea of 'libertarian municipalism'. It roughly defends decentralisation of power in an ecological, pluralistic and gender-neutral structure as opposed to the centralised hegemony of the patriarchal nation-state. With the declaration of automous Rojava this ideal found a ground to be actualid. The rise of Kurdish-led HDP (People’s Democratic Party) in the last general elections in Turkey hinted at the expansion of the democratic confederalism into Bakur too.
Since its establishment in 2012, HDP partially managed to clear the “terrorist” stigma hanging over the Kurdish struggle through its newfound pluralistic, unifying, discourse, which in fact carried a lot of references to the principles of democratic confederalism. For the first time in the history of the Republic of Turkey, the Kurdish movement was attracting non-Kurds en masse into their political arena. HDP had been established with a mission beyond engaging with the traditional democratic process. Quite in line with the premises of democratic confederalism, the majority of the party members share the view that democracy as a just governance system is a myth and the hegemony of the centralised-power in the form of nation-state has to come to an end. Today nearly all the MPs of HDP are facing the threat of imprisonment through the recent removal of their parliamentary immunity, but they express no surprise or fear. “HDP was a project and we knew it had an expiration date” an MP tells me over breakfast at the communal house they occasionally share in Yüksekova. “There is a need for a new system, in terms of governance, in terms of economy, ecology and the role of women, and we have to prepare the ground for it.” She had already been imprisoned twice, and had given 8 years of her life to the cause.
After the great success at the June elections with 13% representation at the parliament, the ruling Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the threat to his ideal of becoming the neoliberal Khalif of the Middle East. That marked the end of so-called the peace process. With the triumphs of Rojava’s gender-neutral revolutionary guerrilla against ISIS, Kurds gained strong legitimacy as a political actor in the region. Peace process was a means for Erdogan’s road to the presidential system but now it became the only threat against it, hence it had to be stopped. Attacks on cultural values (both of the Western and Kurdish) and propaganda on nationalistic vein constituted one side of the “war on terror”. The other side set out to generate fear by attacking the life itself; suicide attacks at major cities of Turkey carried out by fundamentalists, followed by military operations at multiple Kurdish town where AKP had maximum 10% vote rate and where PKK is well-organised.
Yuksekova is one of the most strategic locations for PKK and it is currently the most damaged one. Nusaybin and Sirnak are still under siege. A valley surrounded by mountains that is home to the guerrilla prevented the armed forces to even get near the town for years. The proximity to Iraq boosted the economy through border trade to the extent that the locals call it the Paris of Bakur. It seemed nothing like that after the military onslaught. The smell of blooming mountain flowers has been replaced with the laden smell of chemicals all over the town. We could see the end of the Cumhuriyet Avenue through the bomb holes on each building. Almost nothing survived in the area. Coloumns were strategically targeted, majority of the buildings are now marked to be demolished and the plans to nationalise the town is underway. The operation lasted 12 days and resistance did not last , not in numbers, not in supplies either. For the remaining 66 days of no conflict, a massive and seemingly arbitrary damage was inflicted with heavy artillery. I immediately thought of the computer game “Counter Strike” from the look of the town which later on was confirmed through one of the many provocative messages left on the walls of the town: “Counter Win”.
PKK did not send in experienced guerrilla into the town and left the fight mostly in the hands of teenage YPS (Civil Protection Units) possibly to get the young generation trained in urban fight, reveal the weakness of the Turkish army on this particular ground, and also begin the process of detachment from the centralised government according to the principles of democratic confederalism. On the other side, the hegemonic power-on the side of physical violence- worked to sever the newly established ties between the Kurds and non-Kurds, and to diminish the resilience of Kurds through publication in the media of dishonouring images, and through provocative messages left all over the towns.
After days confronted by destruction and the absence of residents, people slowly begun to reappear among the ruins of their houses. Not only were their houses bombed, everything they had was burned down to ashes. They found their family albums riddled with bullet holes, burned Qurans. For some this was the third time they had suffered such events. With the sudden shock of having nothing, a few expressed anger to the party alongside the state. “They keep going on about self-governance, what self-governance? Municipalities are ours already, what more did they want?” a man said in resentment in the middle of his war-torn street. “I was against those trenches and look now I have to pay for it”.
“Bedel” is a very commonly used word among Kurds. It roughly means “a price to pay” but far from the economical sense. Kurdish people are accustomed to pay a price for living. Destruction and devastation is deeply embedded in the collective memory of many generations and it continues to be reproduced. In light of ‘the vision’, the movement in Bakur had to get prepared to rinse away the sentimentality rooted in systematic oppression and raise to the consciousness of self-governance. In order to achieve that, first they have to sever the ties with the State and be prepared to pay the price on the way. Taking advantage of the pride gained in Rojava and increasing confidence in diplomacy, PKK seems determined to advance their moves in Bakur.
“It will be a hot summer” the MP says. She was very modest in her manner of speaking, even when responding to criticism that people were suffering. “We all pay bedel on this path but we should have explained the conditions more clearly and get people prepared” aware that she might be in prison once again in the coming months. “Some are angry now and they tell us off, like a father tells off their children but once the shock is over we know we only have each other and we will continue relying on each other”.
I ponder upon the price of bedel as the sunset turns the sky into violet. I think about teacher Suleyman who was killed at the suicide attack in Suruc nearly a year ago, I think about his mother in Yuksekova lamenting in Suleyman’s completely burned down room, holding the remaining little piece of his tie in her hands. I think about the impressive determination of the youth to change the system, the kid who fearlessly threw a stone at the armed vehicle. The confidence of people that Yuksekova will be liberated again soon enough and doubtful expressions about their personal future… The Great Zab reappears behind the hills. I grab the wide-angle camera to capture their union with the Van Lake…