CIZRE, TURKEY —
The town of Cizre, in the heart of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, was a frontline of the war pursued by PKK Kurdish rebels seeking greater minority rights. It is a town synonymous with stories of death, torture and violence.
But the story of its newly elected mayor offers some hope, observers say.
At age 27, Leyla Imret is Turkey’s youngest mayor. Her election in March marked the culmination of a remarkable journey.
During the three-decade conflict between Turkey and the PKK, tens of thousands died and many of the victims' families fled to Europe. After Turkish security forces killed her father, a leading local Kurdish activist, Imret was brought up by relatives in Germany.
For more than 20 years, she and her family stayed away from Cizre. But last September, the urge to return became too strong.
"It is a strange feeling to come back to your hometown for the first time after 22 years, to the land where your grandfathers and father grew up, to your own soil," Imret said.
A sense of belonging
When she arrived, Imret immediately felt she belonged, she said. She felt this most strongly when she visited her family's old house, the street where they lived, and her father's grave for the first time.
Imret not only decided to stay in Cizre, she was inspired to carry on her father's struggle and to seek the nomination to run for mayor for the pro-Kurdish BDP.
Imret recalled that, when she was a child, her father would tell her mother the girl “should study in Europe and come back here and serve her own people.”
"Twenty-five years ago, he uttered these words and they all came true," Imret says. "My father became a martyr and we had to leave Cizre and I ended up in Germany, none of which I ever imagined could happen.”
Memories of father persist
She left at age five, but memories of her father remained a powerful force in the town. Powerful enough, Imret acknowledges, to secure her nomination.
Observers say it also contributed to her securing 80 percent of the vote, a record for Turkish elections.
As Imret walks through the streets, spontaneous applause breaks out. Calm has returned to this region, with the government initiating a peace process with the Kurdish rebels.
While its progress has stalled, Imret's return and her taking up her father’s struggle for Kurdish rights is symbolically important to people here.
A man on the street says he never met Imret's father, but heard he was a good man, a patriot who made many sacrifices. The man calls it positive for the town that she has become mayor and is carrying on her father's legacy.
Imret says the opportunity to serve her people more than compensates for any fears she and her family had about leaving the safety and comfort of life in Germany.
She says she is here out of love for her people and homeland.
But, observers caution, being the mayor of one Turkey’s most impoverished towns – one still recovering from decades of strife – will be a formidable task for the country’s youngest mayor.