Fearing Arrest, Kurdish Journalists Hide in Safe Houses as Turkish Soldiers Prowl Diyarbakir
Reporting the news is a dangerous game in Turkey’s Kurdish capital
by NORMA COSTELLO
On a cold morning in downtown Diyarbakir we sprinted across the road to catch the last minibus under the watchful eye of Turkish special forces.
“Don’t say anything,” Berivan, my translator, whispered. “If they hear you speaking English we could have problems.”
Half an hour later, we jolted past countless rows of military apartment blocks and armored vehicles until we arrived at our stop. Turkish soldiers and police stood guard on every corner of Diyarbakir — known locally as the capital of the Kurds — in Turkey’s troubled Kurdish region.
The local population loathes the military presence, and last year witnessed an onslaught of violence followed by curfews. Turkish special forces clamped down on the city after a declaration of self government by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — or PKK — in the historic district of Sur.
The rumble of artillery has faded. But after the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt, Turkish authorities began a purge of Kurdish activists and journalists in the southeast which has lead to the arrests of more than 10,000 political representatives on charges of supporting terrorism.
Most news outlets in the Kurdish regions were shuttered during the purge, but some, despite the constant threat of arrest, have re-branded and continue to report on curfews in the region.
In a cramped apartment on the city’s gray fringes I met one of these clandestine news agencies. Over desks in the agency’s makeshift office, editors worked frantically punching through copy as I was given a “tour” by Deniz, a news editor who is now a wanted terrorist.
“My passport was canceled after I was arrested so now I can’t leave, but you know, to leave to me is worse than death so that’s fine,” she reflected as we traced back the seismic events since the PKK galvanized locals youths to help build barricades inside the city after the breakdown in a fragile peace process with the ruling AKP Party.
It’s evident that reporting in Diyarbakir is a paranoid and dangerous game. News agencies behave like wandering militants carefully weaving their way through a collection of safe houses to avoid the probing eyes of special forces and Turkish authorities.
Deniz’s eyes darkened when I asked her about the weeks she spent inside a Kurdish enclave under 24/7 curfew. “I don’t feel … I just can’t talk about that yet,” she said while taking a long drag from her cigarette.
Reporting from inside the curfewed towns and cities is still impossible, as special forces emboldened by the government’s controversial state of emergency powers arrest and detain anyone suspected of being a journalist.
For Kurdish towns and cities, these emergency powers have been brutally expressed with elected officials arrested on charges of terrorism as government-appointed trustees rush in to take their jobs. Women’s organizations have also been shuttered and replaced by government approved Islamic outfits.
In a bizarre move, a male pro-government official is now leading the region’s domestic violence help line, a move which sparked outcry from Kurdish women who rallied against what they see as the rapid Islamization of Turkey.
Special forces also still patrol Sur, a district largely destroyed despite its UNESCO listing. Sur is for the most part out of reach to foreign journalists as special forces are quick to detain those they see as “terrorist sympathizers.”
The E.U. Commission for Human Rights has described last year’s military crackdown in Sur as “disproportionate” to the threat of PKK operating in the area. Journalists are still attempting to link the use of NATO weaponry to attacks on civilian populations, but it’s an arduous process and soldiers fiercely guard the destroyed towns and cities — blocking foreign media and arresting those who attempt to enter.
“It’s so dangerous for us now,” Berivan explained as we left the journalists’ fragile base. “If we are found we are arrested, and really, they can put you in prison for as long as they want and even torture you.”
For those who have lived through the past two years in the southeast, the threat of violence is ever present.
I met Dr Demir in a smoky cafe in the city center. The frail looking 29-year-old anxiously glanced to either side before quickly relaying his time in the curfew.
“When the curfew came it was too dangerous, so we left. When I came back to see my apartment I was stopped several times on the road by soldiers who spoke to me in Arabic,” he said.
“I was scared, they weren’t even Turkish. I overhead two soldiers shouting, they said to pull those men back that they were not supposed to speak to civilians. We really don’t know who is doing this to us anymore.”
Dr Demir’s comments are surprisingly common. Countless civilians claim they were spoken to in Arabic during the curfews and described men unable to speak Turkish working side by side with Turkish special forces. Those with rudimentary Arabic said the foreign men were surprised to discover Korans in Kurdish homes.
“They told us you were kafir [non-believers] but you are Muslims,” an elderly woman recounted.
Despite attempts by international delegations to visit the towns and cities still under curfew, those inside remain cut off to the outside world. Those who live in the recently opened cities are too frightened to speak to journalists, and families I previously interviewed actively avoided me for fear of government reprisals.
Cards, cameras and notebooks are all tools of terrorists, according to Erdogan’s governments, but a possible “No” vote in the upcoming referendum which could consolidate his power is also a tiny slither of hope for journalists shuttered by the coup in the west of the country.
In Diyarbakir to the east, the future seems far bleaker, as Kurds hunker down waiting for the next wave of arrests.
In a small dimly lit cafe in one of Sur’s open streets, the sound of helicopters hummed in the background. For Berivan, the war that started in the barricades of Sur has affected nearly everyone she knows, and many have fled seeing no future for Kurds in Turkey.
“Even the PKK have left here. It was never a fair fight. We will criticize the PKK for what they did here but now isn’t the time. The streets here are soaked in blood.”