Dreaming of Sur
Nurcan Baysal has a dangerous dream. She wants to create a ‘school of peace’ in Sur, the devasted ancient centre of the city of Diyarbakir, eastern Turkey.
She has already got the house: a 19th-century stone building, complete with mulberry tree, she bought in 2011.
The Kurdish writer, journalist and human rights activist grew up in Sur, a World Heritage Site, and was determined that the peace centre should belong to its people and support its mainly working-class community. It would be a place where children learned about peace, which could eventually become a school.
Locals liked the idea; together they decided to launch a café in the garden which would be run by the youth of the neighbourhood, creating employment opportunities, as well as a safe place for them to socialize. Meetings were held to make plans and to secure funds for the house’s restoration.
But then it all came to a sudden halt. In July 2015 peace talks between the government and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) collapsed. In the following months, pitched battles broke out between Turkish security forces and PKK militants in city districts such as Sur. The state clampdown was fierce – military curfews were declared and for 100 days Sur came under bombardment. Within 6 months half of the 7,000-year old city centre was in ruins, 30,000 people had fled their homes, 220 civilians and many more fighters on both sides had lost their lives.
Recalling the time, in a recent piece for online news site Ahval, Nurcan writes: ‘My dreams completely died. The places where I grew up were demolished, some of the young people I had met with my idea of the school of peace died.’
The next two years were ‘very challenging’, as she puts it. Nearly all Kurdish NGOs were closed down. Thousands of people were arrested. Mayors, activists, journalists and academics were imprisoned or fled the country. Several investigations were started against Nurcan herself and in 2018 she was detained ‘in a brutal manner’.
After her release, she visited the house for the first time since the bombardment ended. ‘It was in ruins; full of trash and dead animals… That day, I decided to try again, to do my best for the house and for all the young people we had lost. I looked up to the sky and said to myself: “I need to leave despair and hopelessness behind”.’
She began to clean up and posted a tweet, along with a photo of herself in the ruined building, which read: ‘We have started working on fixing our torn-down house in Sur. Come on, shake yourselves up. Leave despair and hopelessness behind. Send a postcard to prisoners and show solidarity with the families that they had to leave behind. Sur, Cizre, Şırnak... stand with the people whose houses were torn down! Look up to the sky, the stars are still there…’
That was two years ago. But earlier this year, she received a call from Diyarbakır police headquarters, asking her to go in and give a statement for an investigation. It was, she found out, related to the tweet. ‘Look up to the sky, the stars are still there’ was deemed to be ‘inciting hatred and enmity among the public’.
Like others who dare to speak out in Turkey today, Nurcan is frequently detained and has had numerous ‘investigations’ started against her.
She is not the only one speaking out for the inhabitants of Sur, which in the 1990s became a refuge for displaced Kurdish villagers forced from their homes as the state burned their villages.
When fighting ended in late 2015, Ankara seized the vast majority of properties. Today, Kurdish residents are still not allowed to return to six of Sur’s neighbourhoods. In May this year they staged a protest, calling for housing justice. The government says it is redeveloping the destroyed area. Locals say the redevelopment excludes the poorer, mostly Kurdish residents in favour of rich buyers.
Police quickly broke up the demonstration, but not before the Sur Victims Platform – an organization made up of people displaced from their homes, attracted media attention. Among the protesters was Kocero Topdemir, mayor of Sur’s Cemal Yilmaz neighbourhood and a victim of the expropriations. ‘My house was partially damaged, but not ruined,’ he told Kurdish media network Rûdaw. ‘My house is both historic and registered. They have neither renovated the house, nor do they allow us to do it.’
Turkish officials say that homes have been built for the displaced elsewhere in Diyarbakir. But observers point out that the objectives of Ankara’s military aggression were manifold: to root out PKK militants in predominantly Kurdish cities, crush attempts at Kurdish autonomy and make the districts more profitable and obedient to the Turkish state.
Nurcan Baysal, meanwhile, has been trying to understand why her tweet about the stars and the sky so rattled the state. ‘I realized that the tweet calls for solidarity, unity and hope! Dictators and oppressors are afraid of hope. They are afraid of the people who spread hope. They are afraid of our smiles. They are afraid of us!’