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Destruction and Construction, Resistance and Solidarity: Diyarbakir/Surici Observations Part II

[Mass iftar held to protest destruction in the İçkale valley. All photographs by the author] [Mass iftar held to protest destruction in the İçkale valley. All photographs by the author]

[To read the previous article in this series, “Diyarbakir: The Heart of this City Beats in Suriçi,” click here.]

Things will not calm down in Suriçi. The destruction and construction of İçkale Valley has come to a close, and the neighborhood has been transformed into a park. While the closed-off areas have been entirely demolished, the demolition of the Alipaşa and Lalebey neighborhoods—which started under an urban renewal project in 2012, but stopped due to resistance—has resumed. This widening, expanding operation suggests that the entirety of Suriçi will be demolished.

On a sunny day in May, I am making my way through Saraykapı to İçkale to visit the İçkale Valley Urban Planning and Landscaping Project - Recreational Space opened up by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization. İçkale, which has been home to the city administration from the time it was founded in 3000 BC until the 1940s, is separated from Suriçi by interior city walls.[1] İçkale used to house public buildings such as the prison, the courthouse, and the gendarmerie general command until it was cleared in 1999 and handed over to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. One of these public buildings was the headquarters of JITEM (Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism), an organization involved in the many unidentified murders and disappearances (faili meçhul cinayetler) between the 1980s and the early 2000s.

In 2012, the remains of twenty-six people were uncovered during renovations to the building formerly used by JITEM. Of course, this is not entirely unexpected to the residents of Diyarbakır, for whom it is well-known that whoever enters the JITEM building will not leave alive. A year later, in 2013, Tahir Elci—then the president of Diyarbakır Bar Association—delivered a speech in front of the JITEM building as part of a Human Rights Week protest held with the families of victims and human rights activists.[2] He said: “We are in front of the building that once housed the state’s justice and its prosecutors. This building was the headquarters of JITEM. The justice of the state resided in this building. In order to find the perpetrators of the disappearances, we demand that the files in the courts be released and the cases be heard as soon as possible.” Most of these files have not been released; the few that have been opened remain unresolved.

I leave the old city administration area, which has been transformed into a museum, and walk in the direction of Hz. Süleyman Mosque. Built in the twelfth century, the mosque adjoins the interior city walls of İçkale. Home to the tombs of twenty-seven sahabes (companions of Prophet Muhammad), it is now a frequent destination for regular visits and religious services. The new recreational park is in this area, separated from Suriçi by the tall city walls.

Neighborhood of the Miserable

I am looking at the park. The landscape reminds me of Eyal Weizman’s notion of “no construction without destruction.” Once upon a time, children ran around in the streets of this neighborhood. Now, a green space with a carefully-designed landscape has taken the place of the stacked-up houses leaning against the city walls that used to be there. The park is quite crowded. People sit on the grass or the wooden benches, chatting, taking selfies with their families and friends in this well-manicured park. The “construction” that Weizman described seems to weigh heavier in their minds. I, on the other hand, dwell with the “destruction” part of it; I am busy reliving my memories of the neighborhood that I used to see when I visited İçkale.

Most of those who used to live in this neighborhood were families that took refuge in Diyarbakır in the 1990s after they fled their villages due to the threats by state security forces. A Suriçi resident describes those days as follows:

A couple of families would arrive from Mardin, having nothing with them, they would settle near the city walls; they had nothing. Neighbors would help them and give them stuff. We would clean and arrange a ruined, empty apartment. We got these people settled there. Migrants would generally come having nothing; they were miserable[EM1] .[3]

It was not only this particular area: all of Suriçi was a refuge for those whose villages were burnt and demolished, people who had to “choose” between “either working as a village guard or abandoning [their] village.” Suriçi opened its doors to the Kurdish villagers who had refused to use arms against their own children as village guards; it opened its doors to people who left behind everything they had.

In the 1950s, when the city started expanding beyond the city walls and living in new apartment buildings became fashionable, the upwardly mobile were able to move to new neighborhoods. Many houses in Suriçi were abandoned. Those who migrated from their villages moved into those abandoned houses. After long and arduous efforts, they made these apartments livable. They created jobs for themselves that are close to the neighborhood; their kids attended neighborhood schools; new babies were born in Suriçi. They added rooms to the houses and built new floors. They “damaged” the historical buildings to improve their lives. Defying those who wanted to transform this residential area into an open-air museum, Suriçi changed into a neighborhood for living-and-breathing individuals. Tourists started visiting; cafés opened up. Suriçi has been shaped by the needs, purposes, fears, and resistance of its inhabitants for thousands of years.

Forbidden to Watch the Destruction

The area currently occupied by the park did not have any of the historical basalt-stone houses distinctive to Diyarbakır. It was a neighborhood built later, shaped according to the needs of its migrants. Some of the families that moved here were called Doms,[4] Kurdish-speaking Roma most of whom used to make a living by travelling from village to village, making music for weddings and celebrations. In the 1990s, after travel between villages was banned on the grounds that it facilitated logistical support for the PKK, they were left with no way to make a living and moved to Diyarbakır, the closest major city.

However, some have different perspectives about this demolished neighborhood. At the opening ceremony for the park on 1 April, for example, Minister of Environment and Urbanism Mehmet Özhaseki said:

The space that we are in now is one of the most significant projects we have ever conducted. There were squatters on the 115 acres of land surrounding Hz. Süleyman Mosque, which hosts twenty-seven sahabes who are sacred to all in Diyarbakır; these squatters have been cleaned out, and as we can see the area is open for visiting now[EM2] .

Given that more than one-third of Suriçi has already been demolished, we have yet to see the full reach of this “cleaning out.”

I turn right in front of Hz. Süleyman Mosque, towards the city walls. I had been told that when you climb the city walls, you can see the destruction around Kurşunlu Mosque. Yet all the stairs that climb the city walls are now cordoned off by the police; it is forbidden to climb the city walls. While construction and revitalization is proudly presented to the public, demolition and destruction seem to remain hidden from watching eyes—for an unknown period of time.

As I walk by the city walls, I see a crowd of people and make my way towards them. Küpeli Gate, one of the doors that provides the passage from Suriçi to İçkale, is now closed with iron bars. Yet it is still possible to see the destruction through the bars. The entire neighborhood up to Kurşunlu Mosque, everything within sight, has been destroyed.

Let us look at pictures for a moment: before and after pictures of the area where the park is built. Indeed, the new one is considerably airbrushed. It looks like the region to the left of the city wall that separates İçkale from Suriçi, cutting the photograph diagonally, is a green area seeded with grass. But in fact this area is the debris seen from the Küpeli Gate.   

Let us imagine for a second. Picture all of Suriçi turned into such a park, except for the officially registered historical buildings, mosques, and churches (some of which are said to have been demolished too). A landscape with historical buildings turned into museums…

Küpeli Gate used to open up to Direkhane Street of Suriçi, the street for which the famous folkloric song Erbedaş Direkhana was composed. “Erbedaş Direkhana / Gambling house in the middle / If it goes on like this / We will end up in an asylum…”[5] Direkhane Street doesn’t exist anymore.

Entering the demolished neighborhoods is also prohibited. In six neighborhoods of Suriçi, curfews have been in effect for more than five hundred days on streets that do not exist anymore.

“Service” That Destroyed What Is Above and Buried What Is Below the Ground

I sit down on a bench to rest a bit. The slope of the park provides a beautiful view of the Tigris River. As I take in the view of the Tigris, I think of what remains unseen beneath the ground I am sitting upon. According to archeological research conducted in the area, there are historical structures like a Roman bath, an amphitheater, water canals, and a steel mill below this park. I wonder how the history of this park, which destroyed what is above and buried what is below, will be written.

For the last couple of months in Diyarbakır, we have witnessed how the trustees[6]—authorities who are appointed, replacing the elected local authorities—understand the concept of “service.” Roads are paved with asphalt, parks are built, sidewalks are repaired, the bazaar is renewed, and flowers are planted. The state has become a corporate-state that aims to provide customer satisfaction, promising “peace” to the public right beside the destruction.[7] They ask the people to pay attention to the services rather than the process that paved the way for these services (in other words, the destruction). They want the city to be an apolitical space of people who appreciate the services provided—rather than a space in which political actors encounter and negotiate with one another. They behave as if politics is merely the management of needs, pushing people out of politics with a mentality of “stop the politics, get to work,” and forcing them to appreciate the services provided.

The current situation in the İçkale valley is indeed one part of a wholesale destruction. A few weeks after that sunny day in May, demolition started in the neighborhoods of Alipaşa and Lalebey, the resurgence of an urban renewal project that started in 2012 but stopped under public pressure. Electricity and water to the neighborhoods were cut off, and the sewers stopped draining. The dwellers are rendered helpless and forced to leave their houses. Those who don’t want to leave resist.

Since the beginning of Ramadan, mass iftars have been organized on the streets by No to the Demolishment of Sur Platform, which seeks ways of resisting the destruction together.[8] The event is supported by a different NGO every night. Suriçi is brushing away the ashes. It is not ready to be wiped from the face of the earth just yet.

 [The original version of this article was first published in Express, No. 154, July-August 2017. It was translated from Turkish by Kaner Atakan Türker and Mukadder Okuyan.]


[1] See Canan Parla, “Diyarbakir Surları ve Kent Tarihi.”

[2] Tahir Elçi was shot on 28 November 2015 while he and other lawyers were making a press statement. At present, his case also remains unresolved.

[3] Kalkinma Merkezi, Zorunlu Göç ve Diyarbakır, 2010, p.27.

[4] This community is also called mitrip or karaci in the region.

[5] “Erbedaş direkhana / Ortası kumarhana / Bu iş böyle giderse / Sonumuz tımarhana.”

[6] Eighty-four elected municipal co-chairs of the DBP (Democratic Regions Party, the regional sister party of the pro-Kurdish HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party]) have been arrested, and trustees were appointed by the government to seventy-nine municipal offices.

[7] On how the AKP’s corporate-state regime was built through restoration, service, and performance, see Bülent Küçük and Ceren Özselçuk, “‘Mesafeli’ devletten ‘hizmetkar’ devlete: AKP'nin kismi tanima siyaseti”, Toplum ve Bilim, No. 132, 2015; Yahya Madra, “Bir ilksel birikim sureci olarak neomerkantalist sirket-devlet”, Express, No. 150, 2017.

[8] During the Gezi Park protests in 2013, upon the arrival of Ramadan, anti-government protestors participated in mass iftars in Gezi Park. Mass iftars have been held since then as a form of anti-government protest in Istanbul and other cities of Turkey.


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