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Under Fire: Translating the Growing Crisis in the Kurdish Cities of Turkey’s Southeast

Scene of destruction after a curfew in Nusaybin, 26 November 2015. Image provided by the author. Scene of destruction after a curfew in Nusaybin, 26 November 2015. Image provided by the author.

Turkey’s sokağa çıkma yasağı is being mistranslated, with serious consequences.

Turkey’s decades-long conflict with Kurdish militants and its unresolved inclusion of Kurds into greater Turkish society has in recent months reached a new and violent phase. The current encounter, largely between Turkish state forces and a new urban youth group, the YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement; Tevgera Ciwanen Welatparêz Yên Şoreşger) affiliated with the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party; Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê), is taking place in the streets of the Kurdish cities of Turkey’s southeast. Pressure on the civilians caught between these two forces has gotten worse since 15 December, when Turkish armed forces launched a major “cleaning” operation, dramatically increasing the number of military units active in these cities.     

International coverage of events in Turkey has almost entirely privileged developments in the Western part of the country, with a focus on the flow of refugees through Izmir into Greece. The coverage of the siege in the Southeast has been almost nil, by contrast, and the siege’s impact on civilians has gone unreported. The affected cities include Diyarbakır (Amed), Silvan (Farqîn), Nusaybin (Nisêbîn), Cizre (Cizîra Botan), Silopi (Silopiya), Dargeçit (Kerboran), Yüksekova (Gever), and Derik (Dêrik). With few Turkish and no foreign reporters on the ground, most observers are left to sift through endless claims and counter-claims on social media sites like Twitter, with no way of verifying any of the minute-by-minute reports.

Making matters worse, English language media that do mention these events all make a consistent and critical translation mistake: the special law enacted by local Turkish administrators signaling the beginning of a military operation and militant crack-down, known commonly in Turkish as a sokağa çıkma yasağı (literally translated as “prohibition on going out onto the street”), is being mistranslated as “curfew.” This mistranslation is made not only by outlets such as BBC and Reuters, but even by anti-government news agencies like Today’s Zaman and Hürriyet Daily News.

The wide acceptance of this mistranslation is not surprising—indeed all the dictionaries I consulted, including Turkish-English legal dictionaries, indicate “curfew” as the official translation of sokağa çıkma yasağı.[1] However, what is understood by the word “curfew” in the English language does not accurately reflect the meaning of a sokağa çıkma yasağı or the resulting levels of violence. These linguistic limitations fail to capture a context-specific form of military action. As a result, the severity of the situation facing civilians remains unexpressed.

To understand these differences, consider the commonly-accepted meaning of the English word curfew:

Oxford:

“a regulation requiring people to remain indoors between specified hours, typically at night.”

MacMillan:

a law that does not allow people to go outside between a particular time in the evening and a particular time in the morning.”

Dictionary Reference:

an order establishing a specific time in the evening after which certain regulations apply, especially that no civilians or other specified group of unauthorized persons may be outdoors or that places of public assembly must be closed.”

Merriam-Webster:                                                                                                        

“an order or law that requires people to be indoors after a certain time at night.”

Cambridge:

“a rule that some or all people must stay off the streets during particular hours, used esp. to maintain peace during a period of violence.”

As can be seen, four of the five definitions specify that a curfew occurs at night, with the last suggesting it is limited to particular hours of a day. This is because the English word comes from the French couvre-feu, meaning “cover-fire,” and carries a specific prohibition on activities after sundown: in medieval France, a bell signaled the time all households should extinguish candles and fires, ostensibly to prevent house fires in the night.

While in English, curfew has a specifically nocturnal association, the Turkish sokağa çıkma yasağı is held to no such limitation. Indeed, the prohibition on leaving one’s house is enforced around the clock, without any defined ending.

Furthermore, as of late, the declaration of a sokağa çıkma yasağı is inherently connected to police and military operations. This means that, while civilians are trapped in their homes for twenty-four hours a day, the streets have been militarized with tanks and armored vehicles, soldiers on patrol, and snipers on rooftops. Barricades have been set up, trenches have been dug, and bullets are flying. With this order in place and in such a context, anyone not part of state forces found outside of their home at any time of day is liable to be identified as a militant and dealt with as such. Those in their homes are essentially trapped, unable to flee. Civilians in need of urgent medical care have in rare instances left their homes with white flags raised—the international symbol for surrender in a warzone. 

Since 16 August 2015, there have been fifty-eight “curfews” affecting approximately 1.4 million citizens of Turkey, the longest of which are in Dargeçit (nineteen days), Cizre, Silopi, and Diyarbakir’s Sur district (now over a month). The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey has stated that during these “curfews,” the fundamental rights of citizens, “such as right to life and right to health” have been violated. By 8 January, the conflict had resulted in the deaths of at least 162 civilians (with at least twenty-two of these people reportedly killed in their homes) alongside an unknown number of Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants. Furthermore, Turkey’s Human Rights Association has questioned the legality of declaring sokağa çıkma yasağı.  

Can, a Turkish graduate student doing a PhD at an American university, has been conducting fieldwork in one of the towns where a “curfew” was declared and related to me his first-hand experience with this problem of translation:

“I contacted my professors at my university to inform them about the situation I was in, they responded saying ‘Oh, is it your first curfew? We know it can be unsettling,’ and ‘Don't get wild ideas of going out to the streets.’ It was obvious they didn’t understand what was going on. I responded, ‘Well, we don't have wild ideas of cooking because there is a barricade right next to our kitchen window and two military tanks with their guns pointed at our window.’ Only then did they understand the severity of the situation. […] I think I was most worried when a rocket (which looked like a fireball landing in our garden) punched a hole in the wall of our yard and it was a near escape for my friend who was in the yard at that moment.”[2]

When asked to explain the current situation in his city, the co-mayor of Nusaybin, Cengiz Kök, also painted a picture that is incompatible with the English term “curfew”:

“Since the beginning of such 'curfews,' a total of twenty-two people have died and more than sixty have been injured. Those who have been killed or injured are almost all civilians, people from age three to seventy. The police show the same attitude when it comes to demonstrations against the 'curfews' as well. […] Despite all the inhumane pressure [put on the civilians by state forces], the protest marches, the sit-ins, [strikes of] shop owners by closing business, the activism of civil society [continues]. The current [state] actions greatly exceed the 1990s and the state of emergency. In the 1990s, we saw the evacuation of villages, today they are attempting to evacuate cities and towns. Whereas the 1990s was a 'state of emergency,' it’s now martial law; in fact, now they inflict such violence and lawlessness that exceed what would have been applied under martial law.”[3] 

Likewise, Cûdî, a native of Nusaybin living in Western Europe related his family’s experiences in the so-called “curfew” with similar terms:

“The situation cannot be described. You must live it, otherwise, it is hard to understand. Days without water, electricity and lack of food under the sounds of all kind of weapons. We cannot even call it prison. Prisons provide essential needs. As a small example: you are not even able to use the toilet, because there is no water. Or, traditionally, most of the houses have the toilet in their garden, and being scared to go there…you don’t know where the bullets will come from. Snipers are set up on tall buildings. Not knowing when it is your turn to die, which can come at any time.

You are disconnected from the rest of the world. You don’t know what is going with your next-door neighbor, you can’t help anyone, no one can help you. You die on the street but they don’t allow your bodies to be taken for days. […] Yes, sixty percent of people have fled the dangers of Fırat neighborhood. These people have no choice, most of their houses have been destroyed. These people are living in very hard conditions with their relatives. Fifty people are living in one house in safe neighborhoods. More than twenty civilians have been killed in Nusaybin and authorities say that they killed terrorists; they are right, because we are all terrorists in their view. The economic situation is at a breaking point and in danger of collapse. Most of the people earn their life on daily basis. It has been months, people haven’t worked. […] Children...relatives who cannot even bury their dead bodies.”[4]

As Jadaliyya contributor Nicholas Glastonbury has previously noted, who the state allows to be publicly mourned is a reflection of “whose lives are considered worth living and whose are not.” In this case, the sokağa çıkma yasağı folds the ungrievability of Kurdish death, and thus the worthlessness of Kurdish life, into its other humiliations and deprivations.

In light of this, global news agencies and media outlets should consider using alternatives to “curfew” such as “twenty-four-hour martial lockdown” or “mass house arrest” to describe what’s happening. But, just as importantly, they should consider sending more reporters to the Kurdish cities of Turkey’s Southeast. If they did, they probably would recognize for themselves the dissonance between a curfew and what is happening under sokağa çıkma yasağı.                   

NOTES

[1] Pars Tuğlacı. İktisadi ve hukuki termiler sözlüğü; İngilizce-Fransızca-Türkçe [Dictionary of Economic and Legal Terms: English-French-Turkish] (Istanbul: Sermet Matbaası, 1965), p. 137.

[2] Personal communication, 26 December 2015.

[3] Personal communication, 29 December 2015.

[4] Personal communication, 3 January 2016.

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