Displacement and insecurity in Diyarbakir

Diyarbakir, Turkey – Vahed Cetiner has been working at the same corner on Hazreti Suleyman Street in Diyarbakir’s historic Sur district for more than 50 years. Until recently, the 67-year-old shoe shiner says he earned a decent living, and he and his 10 children had a good life.

“It was really nice here. Sur was like paradise for us,” Cetiner told Al Jazeera.

But after the Turkish government launched a security operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Sur district on December 18, 2015, he was forced to stop working for the first time in his life, fleeing with the rest of the area’s civilian population.

His house was destroyed during the security operation and he now lives in a rented apartment in another part of Sur, paid for by the government. 

Cetiner is among more than 20,000 people displaced during the security operation, which ended in March 2016. According to the United Nations, the fighting in the country’s southeast between security forces and the PKK – designated as a “terrorist” organisation in Turkey – took more than 2,000 lives and displaced between 350,000 and 500,000 people.

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One year on, local authorities say the situation in the city is relatively stable.

“Terror incidents in Diyarbakir city have now stopped and public security has been restored,” Diyarbakir Governor Huseyin Aksoy told Al Jazeera, noting that an economic recovery plan and reconstruction efforts for the destroyed parts of Sur have been launched.

But for Sur residents like Cetiner, displacement and insecurity have taken a severe socioeconomic toll – and under the new urban reconstruction plan launched by the government, not all will be able to return to their old neighbourhoods.

The decades-old conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state had previously been fought largely outside of major urban centres. But in the summer of 2015, a few months after the collapse of peace talks with the government, clashes erupted in major cities across southeastern Turkey.

“We told the PKK not to come here, but they didn’t listen. If the PKK hadn’t come here, we wouldn’t have faced this situation,” Cetiner said.

Violence escalated throughout the autumn of 2015, and efforts were made to mediate between the PKK and security forces. In late November 2015, prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elci, who was facing charges for saying the PKK should not be considered a “terrorist” organisation, came to Sur to call for a de-escalation of violence. He was killed as a shoot-out between police and unknown assailants broke out in the streets of Sur. Aksoy told Al Jazeera that the investigation into his death is still ongoing. 

As violence escalated, PKK fighters started building barricades in Sur’s narrow alleyways and digging ditches to prevent security forces’ vehicles from entering. The government responded with curfews and security operations employing heavy weaponry.

As a result, six districts were badly damaged by the fighting, and the residents of four of them – around 3,000 families – are still unable to return, Aksoy confirmed.

The 500-year-old Kursunlu Mosque was damaged during fighting in the Sur district of Diyarbakir in December 2015 [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Shortly after the end of the security operation, the government launched a reconstruction plan aimed at rebuilding the damaged neighbourhoods and restoring historic buildings. The funds allocated for restoring mosques, churches and other historic buildings amounted to 40 million Turkish lira ($11m), Aksoy said.

“The project that we have started conducting in Sur was originally signed by both the government and Diyarbakir municipality in 2012,” Muhammed Akar, head of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Diyarbakir branch, told Al Jazeera. “We want to save those neighbourhoods from slums and rebuild them according to their historic fabric.”

In December 2016, Amnesty International released a report saying that Sur residents have suffered forced displacement and “what may amount to collective punishment”.

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Akar said that displaced Sur residents, whose houses have been destroyed or demolished as part of the redevelopment plan, have three options: to return to newly built houses in Sur, to take low-cost government-built housing in another part of Diyarbakir, or to receive monetary compensation for their destroyed houses.

But the government scheme has not been well received by some local residents.

“They offered me 100,000 Turkish liras [$27,000], but I refused. I told them, ‘Give me back my house!'” Cetiner said. One of his sons accepted 96,000 Turkish liras ($25,600) for his house, but it is not enough for him to buy a new one, Cetiner said. He is now waiting to receive more information about the houses the government is building in his old neighbourhood.

According to Akar, local residents who choose to return to their neighbourhoods will have to pay the difference between the price of their old house and the new one, but the government will facilitate the process with a long-term payment scheme.

Many children in the Sur district of Diyarbakir were unable to attend school during the fighting [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Diyarbakir’s Chamber of Architects has criticised the government’s reconstruction plan for Sur, expressing concern over damaged and destroyed historical sites. Herdem Dogrul, a member of the chamber’s board of directors, told Al Jazeera that the extensive demolitions and reconstruction plans will have a detrimental effect on the communal life of the district and exacerbate poverty.

“In Sur, people live poor lives. They don’t have a lot of money. Those who did not own their house will not receive any compensation. They can’t rent a house in other parts of Diyarbakir because they are too expensive,” Dogrul said.

Mehmet Cenapli and his family had nowhere to go during the fighting last year. They spent three months sleeping in the corridor of their apartment – away from the windows, fearing bullets and blasts, he said. The building survived the fighting unscathed, except for a hole in one wall where a shell lodged itself but did not explode. It took him months to save up enough money to repair the windows shattered by explosions.

During the fighting, his daughter’s house was badly damaged, and she and her family moved in with him. Today, out of a household of eight, only his son works, holding a job as a waiter.

“It is worse than before. We don’t have any jobs. Every morning, I go out from home and go to the coffee shop, and in the evening I return [empty-handed],” said Cenapli, 58, who used to work as a manual labourer before the fighting escalated in late 2015.

This hole in the wall of Mehmet Cenapli’s apartment was caused by an unexploded shell, he said [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

According to Sahismail Bedirhanoglu, president of the Eastern and Southeastern Industrialist and Businessmen Association Federation in Diyarbakir, during the five months of the security operation, nearly 2,000 shops were closed and 15,000 people lost their jobs.

“I identified the barricades and ditches [dug in the cities] as the biggest mistake of the PKK in its history,” Bedirhanolgu told Al Jazeera. 

He says that the government’s measures for economic recovery have been positive, including interest-free loans to local businesses, and Sur has slowly started to recover.

MP Sibel Yigitalp from the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), meanwhile, criticised the reconstruction plan for Sur, saying that local residents were not consulted when decisions were made about how to proceed with the rebuilding of destroyed neighbourhoods.

“This is why we need decentralised administration. The central administration doesn’t take into consideration what local people want when making decisions,” she told Al Jazeera.

Thirteen of the HDP’s MPs have been detained since last year, and the two co-chairs of the party, Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, have been arrested on “terrorism”-related charges – allegations that the party strongly denies.

The political situation in Turkey’s southeast remains tense, as arrests have continued over the past few months. In February, the government said that it had detained more than 800 people for alleged links to the PKK.

“We need to find a solution to [the] Kurdish issue. We need an atmosphere of dialogue,” said Bedirhanoglu, adding that peace is needed in order for the region to recover fully.

But some Sur residents remain pessimistic.

“I don’t have hope,” Cenapli said. “I don’t think things will get better.”

Source: Al Jazeera