Diyarbakir, the "Kurdish capital" of Turkey, is living in fear of the ISIS jihadists who have gained ground across the Syrian border in Kobani. But there is also the old enemy: Ankara.
DIYARBAKIR — Jet fighters were heard this week roaring in the sky above this city, considered the "Kurdish capital" of Turkey. It was early Tuesday morning, and then again in the afternoon.
The day before that, Turkish F-16s and F-4s had taken off from an important military airfield near the town, and from the Malatya airbase, to bomb a location of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Hakkâri Province, near the Iraqi border, according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
These airstrikes were the first since the ongoing peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government began in March 2013, after 30 years of an insurgent war that has killed some 40,000 people. It would have been hard to imagine a more flagrant breach of the ceasefire.
It was also about the worst moment for such action as, everywhere in Diyarbakir, the Turkish army is being accused of facilitating the ISIS attempt to overrun the Syrian town of Kobani, by closing the border to the Kurdish fighters who hope to defend it from the Islamist radical forces.
After the strikes were announced, the political branch of the PKK (the DBP, Democratic Regions Party) had no other choice than to summon a protest in the afternoon. Unauthorized, it seemed to have been organized reluctantly, while the government in Ankara announced severe anti-riot measures for the east of the country and Diyarbakir.
In the morning, police officers in plainclothes were seen going around the offices of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). They were warning those who planned on marching towards the town center that they would do better to keep it small and calm. In the end, they barely took up a sidewalk.
Gathered outside the headquarters of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), a political advisory council, several hundred protestors dispersed as soon as the last speaker laid down his microphone. "Here, you see, we’re still at peace," says Saleh Coskum, an architect employed by the city. "But Kobani is also our home, they are our brothers and over there, it’s already war. How could we still negotiate?"
Freedom in the air
These days, the whole city seems to be watching the spectre of civil war take shape, hour after hour. Television screens broadcast news of the latest ISIS attacks against their Kurdish brothers in Syria, on the other side of the border. It is there when one learns that a Kurdish newspaper seller, Kadri Bagdu, 46, was killed by two men on a motorcycle, who shot him five times Monday in the Seyhan district.
Last week, at least 10 people died in Diyarbakir and more than 30 in Kurdish territory during riots sparked by the Kobani tragedy. Ibrahim, a 30-year-old teacher, went up to the border to see the battle on Oct. 6, fearing the city would finally fall. He came back the following morning to find the center of Diyarbakir completely deserted.
"The streets were empty. The police were scared of us. We could feel an air of freedom. That’s something you can’t forget," he said. "Today, we’re following the HDP’s calls for calm. But one day, the people from my generation and the younger ones, we won’t listen anymore."
In his office, with the windows shut, the president of the Kurdish DTK council, Hatip Dicle, is being evasive. And what about the fighters who had assaulted the Kurdish guerrillas in the east of the country? The actual meaning of the bombardments is not yet clear, he says.
The PKK announced it was already repatriating fighters from Iraq to Turkey. To justify the airstrikes, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu asserted that the Kurdish fighters were "harassing" a Turkish military post with their fire. Dicle says he knows nothing about that.
Dicle had been released in June after five years in prison for having advocated for a terrorist organization (the PKK), after a previous ten years behind bars from 1994 to 2004.
He smiles when he talks about the many shops that opened in the meantime in his town, the cafés, the streets that are alive thanks to peace — even if Diyarbakir looks like a set of military barracks and remains poor compared to other cities in Turkey.
So when he talks about the broken ceasefire, Hatip Dicle weighs his words. "We don’t want to revive the war. I don’t want to believe we could go back to the 1990s," he says. "I dedicated 30 years of my life to this fight. If Turkey doesn't leave any other choice than war, it will be war."