A veteran Turkish reporter travels to a Kurd stronghold to gauge reaction to Erdogan’s recent anti-Kurdish rhetoric ahead of the Prime Minister’s expected victory for a third term on June 12.
Diyarbakır - "Don't take sides against me. I am a citizen. I am the people. Any leader who takes sides against the people is bound to lose," says Mehmet Özgül. "So far all we have heard are harsh words."
I was sitting on a stool, chatting to 57-year-old Özgül, as we sipped tea in front of his shoe shop in Diyarbakır. I had come to this predominantly Kurdish capital city of southeast Turkey to talk about the reelection campaign of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the country's future.
Özgül owned a shoe repair shop before the 2001 economic crisis, but the crisis forced him to sell. Although he graduated from the Istanbul Education Institution, he chose to become a tradesman instead of a teacher. His daughter is a university graduate and both of his sons are in high school.
Like the majority of Kurds in Diyarbakır, Özgül complains about the insolent attitude the Prime Minister has displayed lately in his campaign for reelection. In recent campaign speeches, Erdoğan has sharply backtracked on the pro-Kurdish stances that distinguished his early years in office, and even called the main Kurdish political party ‘terrorists'.
Yet Özgül is still optimistic that Erdoğan might return to his more conciliatory ways after the election on June 12, when he is widely expected to handily win a third term.
Fear of the abyss
"Dialogue is always a possibility. These elections are not held for nothing. Everything needs to be openly discussed, every demand needs to be raised," says Özgül. "People living here don't want to take up guns, they want pens."
Despite his optimism, Özgül says he can also see the risk of an "abyss' in relations between Ankara and the Kurdish people, though he believes neither the Prime Minister nor the Kurdish BDP party wants to see that.
After leaving Özgül, I walk down the main Melik Ahmet street. About a half-mile down the road I come across a burning tire. Around it is a circle of stones. A bunch of kids are playing near the fire. A boy comes along with another tire in his hand, probably they will set that on fire too. Cars passing by swing right or left to navigate around the burning tire and the stones surrounding it.
The shops on the street where the tire burns are shuttered, many of them just closed. I assume that they closed down soon after the kids started to play. All of a sudden, the kids start running in different directions. There is something extraordinary about the situation. Two armed police Scorpion vehicles arrive on the scene. One parks on the right side of the street, the other on the left. Plainclothes policemen wearing sunglasses step out of the back doors, moving with cold-blooded toughness. One is carrying a pepper gas gun.
One boy, possibly one of the earlier gang, moves close to the gun, examining it carefully. The police leave within 10 minutes and the kids return as soon as they are gone. Now I have the chance to watch them closely. One of the kids is wearing a Galatasaray soccer shirt, another of rival squad Beşiktaş. One of them carries a blue ball. They might start a new fire or begin a football game. Its a thin line between playing and rebellion. Where does the game end and the protest begin?
There are three other people on the street corner where I am, watching what's going on. I find out that they are the shopkeepers who closed for business when the kids started burning the tire. They are angry with the kids. They would like to open their shops again and get back to business as soon as possible.
The chat I had with Mehmet Özgül, his words ‘It's long way down from here," linger: the shops closing down because the kids are burning a tire, the kids scattering as police vans arrive... all of this happens in the course of one hour, within a 100-meter radius.
The walk I took down Melik Ahmet street is like entering a laboratory of information, showing how complex and difficult the Kurdish issue has become.