Diyarbakir: Barricades, Assassinations and Shadowy Special Police Units

In Eastern Turkey, home to a long-running leftist Kurdish insurgency and more recently to spillover from the extremist jihad in Syria, there are signs that the situation is spiralling out of control. Kurdistan Workers Party youths are in open battle with the police in the region’s largest city, while shadowy jihadi groups have been suicide bombing gatherings of leftists and assassinating prominent figures. In this troubling report from Diken, locals in Diyarbakir’s embattled Sur district report violent incursions by squads of enigmatic ‘special police’: masked, sporting long beards and sowing terror.

The four-day curfew imposed by the Turkish state in the Sur district of [predominantly Kurdish]Diyarbakır province has left behind scenes that are no different than those one witnesses in a war.

Stores in the city have opened for the first time in four days. Most of the store owners conduct a “damage assessment” as they roll up their shutters. Most windows have been smashed: there are traces of clashes on the shutters. Somebody tells us: “This is nothing. You should see the Kurşunlu Mosque.” As we make our way to the mosque through the back streets, we are met by this sight:

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Kursunlu hostoric Mosque in Diyarbakir after the clashes between Turkish special forces and PKK. Photo: Diken.

Although it is early morning hours, a small crowd has already formed outside the mosque, trying to make sense of the damage wrought on it. When we start talking with the members of the group that has gathered here, we learn that some people could not leave their homes for days during the curfew; that there were people who couldn’t enter their own neighbourhoods and homes; people who couldn’t see their children for days.

When we ask what exactly went on, most give the same answer: After the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) announced that it would halt all attacks on Turkey until the November elections, the members of the PKK-affiliated Patriotic Revolutionist Youth Movement (YDG-H) manning the trenches they had dug around Sur after announcing autonomy, retreated and abandoned the trenches on the first day of the curfew. The special forces however, remained in the area for another three days.

“They simply fired bullets on the people [during the four-day curfew],” somebody says. “It was worse than it was in the ’90s [when state-sponsored violence against Turkey’s Kurds had peaked]. It was like watching the ’90s all over again. Any civilian is a potential terrorist for them. The minute you stick your nose out of the door, a bullet whizzes past. Look at the mosque, it really is now ‘leaded.’” [The building’s Turkish name means the ‘Leaded Mosque’ for the covering on its dome].

Those who have gathered in the mosque’s courtyard say that 12-year-old Helin Şen was shot dead in the head with bullets fired from a police tank, after going outside to the bakery, following her aunt. Another one who lost his life was 27-year-old Halil Tüzülerk, shot by security forces, as he went up to his house’s roof to feed his pigeons. Tüzülerk’s body was kept waiting for a long time before it could be transferred for burial. His left behind a pregnant wife.

When those who have gathered in front of the mosque first saw its state after the end of the curfew, a Turkish flag was hanging on it. Later, it was taken down. We had already noticed the ‘crescent and the star’ [symbols on the Turkish flag and a sign of Turkish patriotism]drawn on walls here and there. They haven’t seen who drew those, but they assume it had to be “the special forces.” We soon see a piece of graffiti painted with the largest lettering of all wall writings on the exterior of a run-down house, which reads “You will see the power of the Turk,” bearing the signature “the Esedullah team,” a shadowy organization about which little is known but which is generally believed to have links to jihadi groups and also have some backing from illegal elements within the Turkish state.

‘AS IF THEY WEREN’T THE STATE’S POLICE BUT MEMBERS OF ISIS’

People on the streets here say that some of the armed people they have seen outside during the operation did not look like special forces officers at all. One person says: “They were worse than special forces. It is not clear who they work for. Their faces are covered. Some of them wore long beards. Their eyes looked like they were high on drugs.”

We hear a similar story from another local in the school yard, a few steps ahead of the point where we are now. Most of them don’t want to be named, or photographed, out of fear, but everybody wants to talk about what they have been through. “I looked out the window, sticking my neck out a little bit. Who came here weren’t the normal police of the state. They were clad in black, had long beards, didn’t look like police at all. I don’t believe they were police. One of them yelled at me ‘Step back inside now.’ With their long beards, they looked like ISIS, rather than the police of the state. You should have seen how they looked at people; their eyes burning with violence,” a young man says.

A man who says that he had spent years to “straighten up” the school yard, planting trees and looking after them , speaks of the damage done by the police. “This is our so-called state. They crashed the door with tanks. They first fired rounds from machine guns in case there might be youths [YDG-H members] inside. They used this school as a base. We can’t trust [the state]with our children, we can’t trust them. There was a samovar here, but they kicked it on the floor. They fired shots into the ceiling. They broke the TV. I know there are people worse than me, but this is not justice, nor is it the state. These people don’t see us as human beings at all.”

Everyone wants to talk about their experience under siege. One man approaches me and says, “Take photographs of this as well,” and leads me to his house. His wife tells me that they used an electric cable connected to their neighbour’s house, because their own electricity was cut off. Special forces blew up the house of the door, finding the cable suspicious. He goes on, “My son was screaming, ‘Dad, they are firing howitzers at our house.’ Later they [special forces ]entered our house. He told my son, ‘Don’t be afraid, the state is here. We are protecting you from terrorists. We are here for you.’ He made us leave the house, and searched the house to see if any of the youths [YDG-H members] were there. Why would you blow up the door? Wouldn’t we open it if you rang the bell? They know there are no youths here, they blew up the door knowing full well there weren’t any.”

“HE IS THE REAL TERRORIST’

We arrive at the location where 12 year-old Helin Şen was shot dead as she walked to the bakery to buy bread. There are still blood stains on the ground. Those who saw the moment she was killed say there were no clashes going on at the moment; that there were no YDG-H members firing on the opposite side of the street where Helin was shot. Helin, who went outside following her aunt, was shot dead after three rounds of fire. Nobody dared approach her lifeless body for a long time. After a while, a neighbour held the young girl and brought her into her house.

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Diyarbakir after the clashes between the Turkish special forces and the PKK. Photo: Diken.

As we listen to Helin’s story, another woman leads us to her own house, telling us “My husband would like to talk to you.” Her husband became a target for special forces soon after he set foot outside; he was shot in one foot. When he went to the hospital, police there asked him who the shooter was. “It was you guys,” the man said. When he kept repeating the same answer, the police officers detained him, accusing him of engaging in clashes with the police.

The streets here always have another story to tell.

A young woman points at a young boy beside her and says: “This is my son. He was bored so we made a paper gun for him. He was outside playing with it, and a police officer asks, ‘What are you doing?’ He says, ‘I am firing at you’ The police says ‘Why?’ My son says, ‘Because you killed Helin. I saw you.’ The police says, ‘Well then get out of here, so I don’t kill you too.’ What had Helin ever done? Was she firing a gun? The poor little girl was out to buy bread. They call us terrorists. The real terrorist is Erdoğan. He is the terrorist.”

Since this dispatch, Sur district has once again descended into insurrection and curfews with shoot-on-sight orders; the historic Fatih Pasa mosque yesterday burned to the ground.

-Reporting for this piece was supported by Turkey’s P24, the Platform for Independent Journalism.

Nur Banu Kocaaslan Translated from Turkish by International Boulevard