on the road

Witnessing the War of Symbols in Eastern Turkey

8 MINS READDec 26, 2018 | 11:00 GMT
People hold pictures depicting victims of the Dersim operation in the 1930s, behind a placard marking the 79th anniversary of the genocide during a demonstration on May 4, 2016 in Istanbul.

People hold pictures depicting victims of the Dersim operation in the 1930s, behind a placard marking the 79th anniversary of the genocide during a demonstration on May 4, 2016 in Istanbul. Turkey has cracked down on places like Dersim, now known officially as Tunceli, since the country's peace process broke down in 2015.

(OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Turkish authorities have clamped down hard on municipalities run by the country's largest pro-Kurdish party, assuming direct control and arresting dozens of mayors.
  • Some residents hope municipal elections in March 2019 will offer a return to democracy, although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will not tolerate victories by the main Kurdish party.
  • Because the Kurdish issue has spread beyond Turkey's borders, events throughout the Middle East will ultimately have a bearing on the relationship between the Turks and the Kurds in Anatolia.
 

I'm not the world's best driver, but I've always managed to pay due care to avoid running red lights. I lost that distinction, however, during a recent trip to Turkey's east: The thing was, driving down the main thoroughfare in the province of Tunceli was no longer a straightforward exercise. Where standard lampposts had once lit the way come night, hundreds of red-light tulips, adorned with the Turkish flag, now lined the avenue. With the street awash in red, differentiating between the red lights of the traffic system and the red lights of the Turkish state was a tall order — one that I failed, albeit without any further ramifications.

A Different Walk in the Park

In politics, symbolism matters. The tulips — that most Ottoman and Turkish of symbols — are just a small aspect of the changes occurring in Turkey's east and southeast since a peace process between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) collapsed in summer 2015. The return to arms has killed thousands, resulted in the detention of thousands more and erased whole neighborhoods off the map as the Turkish state has sought to clamp down on Kurdish ambitions, whether within its own borders or beyond in Syria and Iraq as part of what it terms an anti-terrorist fight.

The crackdown has engendered a climate of fear and suspicion in places like Tunceli, a small town nestled in the mountains of eastern Turkey. (The town was officially known by the Kurdish name of Dersim until Ankara gave it the Turkish name of Tunceli in 1935, three years before beginning an operation to subdue a rebellion in the area, resulting in the deaths of at least 10,000 people. Mindful of this history, many residents continue to call the town Dersim.) Foreigners rarely venture to the town, and on all my previous visits, I was greeted with warmth and curiosity. Not so this time, as most locals mistook my foreign appearance as a sign that I was an undercover police officer from elsewhere in Turkey.

Photograph of the Munzur River in the village of Ziyaret, in Tunceli's Ovacik district.

The village of Ziyaret in Tunceli's Ovacik district. The Munzur River (pictured) starts in the village and runs around 70 kilometers (44 miles) to Tunceli.

(Stratfor)

In places like Tunceli, the Turkish government has removed — and frequently arrested — mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), replacing them with hand-picked trustees who answer solely to Ankara. Indeed, after the peace process collapsed between Ankara and the PKK, Turkish authorities also moved to restrict the space for legal Kurdish politics as part of its anti-terrorism fight. According to a Dec. 11 report from the HDP, authorities have incarcerated 15 of the party's current or former lawmakers, removed HDP mayors from 94 municipalities, jailed 50 mayors and arrested or detained a further 2,000 party members or supporters — the last all in 2018 alone. Tunceli's trustee, Tuncay Sonel — who also doubles as the province's unelected governor — has embarked on a number of projects to transform the city since his appointment in January 2017. But while some initiatives pleased everyone, the symbolism behind the changes has left many locals uneasy.

The Munzur River runs past the town of Ovacik in Turkey's eastern province of Tunceli.

The Munzur River runs past the town of Ovacik in Turkey's eastern province of Tunceli.

(Stratfor)

Venturing back into the city for the first time in eight months, my Tunceli-born wife and I were certainly not prepared for the symbolic changes. In addition to the tulip lights, the trustee had opened a new park in the neighborhood: the July 15 Martyrs' Park. As we passed an armored personnel carrier (APC) standing guard at the entrance, we first encountered a small mosque (an anomaly in this town of 30,000 in which the majority of residents are Alevis, a religious community that does not attend the mosque) before entering a green space featuring a newly planted rose for each person killed in the July 15, 2016, coup attempt.

While the memorial might be fitting elsewhere in Turkey, the park's name and its roses are provocative in a place like Tunceli, most of whose residents see little difference between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and members of the Gulenist movement, the alleged perpetrators of the coup attempt. As the AKP has subsequently used the failed putsch as a symbol to buttress its power, the opening of a park glorifying the victims of the coup attempt feels like an imposition of Erdogan's vision for Turkey, Tunceli residents told me.

We left the July 15 Martyrs' Park behind and proceed further up the main road — renamed the July 15 Martyrs' Avenue — toward the town center. There, along the river bank, other changes were afoot. Gone were the treed areas that provided shade during the long hot summers; in their place were two bridges festooned with Turkish flags, alongside a construction site for an Ottoman-themed restaurant, a mosque and other public facilities geared toward the thousands of police officers and soldiers that have been deployed to the area in recent years.

The burnt-out remains of vehicles that were torched at a Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) checkpoint between Tunceli and Ovacik in 2015.

The burnt-out remains of vehicles that were torched at a Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) checkpoint between Tunceli and Ovacik in 2015. As the peace process collapsed, the PKK would frequently destroy the vehicles of those it viewed as collaborators with the Turkish state.

(Stratfor)

"It's as if this is another country and they won a war," one woman told me, referring to the bridges lined with flags. Weaving our way past APCs on patrol along the river bank, my wife and I stopped for a beer at a local cafe. Motioning toward the bridges, our waiter said, "No one here likes what's happening, but no one can do anything about it." It was a sentiment shared by many in the town: With the space to protest in Turkey severely limited, locals feel helpless in the face of what has been happening in the city. Some hope for changes when Turkish citizens elect new mayors on March 31, 2019, but the prospect of new elections might prove to be a mirage for people in Kurdish areas like Tunceli. After all, Erdogan has already promised to appoint trustees once more if "people who have engaged in terrorism win at the ballot box" — suggesting that authorities will not allow the HDP to assume the municipality if it wins the area in three months' time.

A banner in Ovacik belonging to the now-closed Democratic Rights Federation reads "Fighting against the massacre of nature and policies of assimilation is not a crime."

(Stratfor)

For some, the only hope of salvation is a complete economic meltdown in Turkey, as it would presumably deprive Erdogan of funds to wage his campaign in the east. I spoke with one civil servant, a local urban planner, who felt Ankara would only halt its policies of assimilation and its military operations in the mountains around Tunceli if the lira's value fell so sharply that Ankara simply couldn't afford to foot the bill anymore.

A Journey to the "Capital"

In Tunceli, military helicopters may buzz constantly overhead as they head to battle militants in the mountains, but fighting has not occurred in the city since the peace process ended. It's a different story 224 kilometers south in Diyarbakir, a city of around 2 million people that is only half-jokingly called "the capital," as it's the largest Kurdish-majority metropolis in Turkey. I met a friend there, a teacher, and after the obligatory tea we went to the city's UNESCO-recognized walls — some of the longest such fortifications in the world.

A street scene from Diyarbakir's Sur neighborhood in 2007.

A street scene from Diyarbakir's Sur neighborhood in 2007.

(Stratfor)

"Do you want to see what it looks like now?" he asked, referring to the neighborhood of Sur, which lies — or better yet, lay — behind Diyarbakir's impressive basalt walls. I did, even though I was worried about what I would see from the top of the walls. We duly scrambled over a fence police had erected to prevent the curious from climbing the walls to survey Sur.

The pictures I'd viewed before hadn't prepared for me for the sight below. Where once there had been a lively warren of narrow streets, there was now a barren wasteland. In the distance, construction workers were building new housing developments that would bear little resemblance to the houses that once stood there.

Sur, a multicultural area that features the largest Armenian church in the Middle East, was destroyed in intense fighting between the Turkish state and local youth affiliated with the PKK starting in 2015. In the end, the Turkish state's superior firepower won the day, allowing Ankara to conquer the area. Aside from the military aspect, Ankara also appointed trustees to the local municipalities who quickly got down to work, removing the city's Kurdish name, Amed, from the city hall, taking down Kurdish street signs and bulldozing public artwork infused with Kurdish symbolism.

 Authorities are now constructing new developments on the barren territory of Sur.

Fighting between Turkish forces and locals linked to the PKK has resulted in the near-total destruction of Sur. Authorities are now constructing new developments on the barren territory.

(Stratfor)

So where do the Kurds go from here? Through military strength, the Turkish state has captured areas of the east that rose up in revolt in 2015. At least on its own soil, Turkish forces have beaten back the PKK (around Tunceli, many people attributed the militants' lack of activity to government drones rather than full-scale military assaults) and imposed heavy-handed rule. For Kurds — and indeed any opponent to the current Turkish government — protest is difficult. Even so, it hardly seems like now is the end of the story. Far more draconian Turkish policies suppressed, but did not eliminate, the Kurdish movement in the 1990s.

More than that, however, the Kurdish struggle is no longer a phenomenon confined to Turkey; Kurdish ambitions are now an indelible aspect of the Syrian civil war, while the Kurdistan Regional Government has gained a measure of international recognition as an autonomous actor in Iraq — its ill-fated bid for independence notwithstanding. Given that, it's not just Ankara that will determine what happens in places like Tunceli or Diyarbakir, but the larger forces reshaping the Middle East.

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