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An Aleppo-like Landscape in a Kurdish Redoubt of Turkey

The Turkish Army and police won, but victory brought an Aleppo-like landscape. Two dozen acres of the old city have been cleared of the rubble so far, leaving a featureless circular gash on aerial maps. The damage is mostly invisible from street level though, because alleyways leading up to the most devastated areas have been walled up where they intersect with streets that have reopened for business. Three of Sur’s neighborhoods still remain under curfew.

The only apparent entry road to the leveled heart of Sur has a huge curtain strung from building to building across it, and a Scorpion armored police vehicle parked in front painted a menacing shade of black instead of the usual white.

Sur was one of the most pro-P.K.K. neighborhoods of the heavily pro-P.K.K. city of Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in the world and the unofficial capital of Turkey’s eastern Kurdish regions. Kurds make up an estimated sixth of Turkey’s population, and most of them either openly support the outlawed P.K.K., or vote for the legal party, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or H.D.P., which shares much of the guerrillas’ political platform.

The name “Sur” means “city wall,” and refers to the 16-foot-thick ancient Roman walls, longer than Jerusalem’s and better preserved than Rome’s, which loop around the municipality and embrace the older parts of Diyarbakir. Once a magnet for tourists, Sur is now festooned with numerous little police posts, parked Scorpions everywhere, and plainclothes officers sauntering around with assault rifles and holstered pistols.

About the only foreign visitors to Sur these days are occasional European leftists showing solidarity, and foreign journalists, who seem to get arrested on sight — two on a recent Saturday, just a day before my visit.

“You journalist?” asked the waiter, who preferred to be nameless than be jailed. “Don’t worry, you can trust us.”

He recommended an Assyrian red, a young wine from a combination of local grape varieties, okuzgozu and bogazkere, served slightly chilled in a large goblet. “Homemade, 100 percent organic.” He poured it from a bottle with no label.

This may sound corny, but on the video monitor “We Are the World” started playing (showing Cyndi Lauper recording her segment). Possibly that was the waiter’s idea. He got right to the point without being asked a question. “Every day my friends are going to the mountain, teachers, lawyers, doctors, so many,” he said. “There is no one who believes in talking anymore.”

Photo

Police officers stood guard last December in Diyarbakir during a demonstration after a curfew was lifted.

Credit
Ilyas Akengin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The fighting in Sur was mirrored in half a dozen other Kurdish towns and districts, the first time the 40-year-old Kurdish conflict in Turkey had erupted on such a scale in urbanized areas. While the fighting mostly ended last spring, arrests of people accused of supporting the P.K.K. have gone on ever since, punctuated by terrorist bombings blamed on the P.K.K.

After a failed coup in July — which had nothing to do with Kurds — the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and used those powers to greatly increase arrests of mainstream politicians, especially here in Diyarbakir.

The Kurdish journalist Sedat Yilmaz pulled up a chair and the waiter also poured him a glass of the Assyrian red. Mr. Yilmaz’s online news agency — like nearly all Kurdish publications — has been shut down under the emergency powers.

Eman Dilo,” a folk tune by the Kurdish folk singer, Mihemed Sexo, was up on the screen. Like most Kurdish music, it sounds mournful to polyphonic ears. Often, as in “Gulazer” by Bremen Mizikacilari, it also involves an array of instruments hardly anyone knows the names of. (There were things that looked like cymbals, but they were operated by feet.)

Mr. Yilmaz had tears in his eyes, not from the music. “This is my first time back to Sur since it all happened,” he said.

The tavern was half full. Ten other customers were at several tables but the waiter said there was nothing to worry about in talking to any of them. The only pro-government people in Sur, he said, were the police.

And there were no plainclothes officers in the tavern with no name.

Anyway, said Mr. Yilmaz, “Nowadays we don’t even worry about arrest. We worry about death.”

Four Kurdish men in their late 20s, all old friends, were at one table sipping from curved tea glasses, and at first wanted to give their full names, but then thought better of it. They had all recently lost their jobs in the purges of more than 100,000 state employees that followed the failed coup.

Two were teachers who had participated in a one-day protest strike here, and all strikers were fired. One was an auditor for a government office who was forced out of his job because, he said, he subscribed to a now-banned Kurdish newspaper. Mahmut, who gave his first name only, was a manager in a government office, purged just three days earlier without any clear reason. He was told his continued employment would be “inconvenient,” he said.

“They cannot discipline us by taking our bread from our hands,” Mahmut said. “We want our collective rights. They don’t want any democratic space for anyone, they destroyed every peaceful means and our young people, they have no other solution, they’re going to the mountain, there is no other way.”

“Going to the mountain” is what people say here about joining the P.K.K., whose redoubts are in the rugged mountains of northern Iraq. Nearly every family in Kurdistan has someone up there, or knows someone, or has had someone come back down, to be buried.

One of the other men, the Kurdish newspaper reader (who has a master’s degree in Kurdish literature), reminded everyone of the bulldozers. “Just near us, all of Sur is demolished, almost a year and they’re still clearing it up,” he said. “They’re still finding pieces of human bodies in the rubble.”

Everyone lapsed into silence, staring at the dregs in their glasses. Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” played.

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