ISTANBUL - In Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, Turkish security forces have been engaged for months in bloody fighting against the Kurdish separatist group PKK.  Tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes, but many may not be able to return.

Controversially, the government has passed a law enforcing expropriation of many of their properties as part of a rebuilding program. The region’s main city, Diyarbakir, is one most affected by this controversial program.

A woman who goes by the name Berivan shows photos of her home in Diyarbakir’s ancient Sur quarter.  She does not give her real name out of fear of retaliation. 

After months of fierce fighting, the security forces have an iron grip on Diyarbakir, including the use of tanks in the heart of the city, which has turned much of the historical quarter to rubble.  Berivan, like thousands of others, was forced from her home and only allowed briefly to return.

“The curfew was lifted for a couple of hours.  I went back home with my mother to pick up some things with the hope that we'd go back soon," Berivan explained. "We took my brothers' books and some necessary items.  We didn't get much because thought we'd come back.  We are staying with my sister now as guests.  We are hoping for Sur to reopen.  Our only wish is for it to open.  It's been 5.5 months."

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Never going back

Berivan may never return.  The government this month passed a law expropriating over 90 percent of the properties in the Sur neighborhood.  Sur, with its centuries-old historical narrow alleyways, has always been a stronghold for Kurdish nationalists and PKK supporters.  Sur's mayor, Seyrt Narin, a member of the pro-Kurdish HDP, has been removed from office on accusations of supporting terrorism.  Acting Mayor Azize Deger Kutlu says the area is overwhelmed by desperate people.

“The municipality is the place where people who are forced from their homes come to first.  We are the first ones to confront this situation.  Those who ran away from the curfew and armed conflict without any clothes and belongings all came to us.  At this time, 4,400 families made applications for help - they say 'we left our home, we have nothing left.'  We try to offer as much support as much as we can, but it just keeps going on and on,” Kutlu said.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insists officials are committed to rebuilding the Sur quarter of Diyarbakir, pledging to restore it to the splendor of the Spanish city of Toledo.  Toledo is symbolically important as it was too badly damaged during the Spanish civil war. Six churches are included in the expropriation law, including one of the largest Armenian churches in the region, the recently resorted Saint Giragos.

Turkish PM Davutoglu gave a speech at Diyarbakir a
FILE - Turkish PM Davutoglu gave a speech at Diyarbakir after Friday prayers (Photo: Mahmut Bozarslan -VOA)

Critics point to a video illustrating the prime minister’s urban renewal plan, while filled with references to Islam with numerous images of mosques, failed to show the rich religious diversity of Sur, which was once home to large populations of Jews and Christians.  

Political agenda

Merthan Anik, the former head of Diyarbakir’s Chamber of Architects, has studied the plans and accuses the government of pursuing a political agenda, aimed at not only erasing Sur’s diverse past, but also as a warning to future resistance.

“It is a political decision based on the recent war situation.  In fact, the state has given another historical message to Kurds.  After the tanks, cannons, guns it used against the Kurds, now dispossession and displacement,” he said.

Selahattin Demirtas, the head of the pro-Kurdish HDP, criticized the plans, calling them collective punishment against the people.  Muhammed Akar, the AKP leader in Diyarbakir, dismissed the accusation.

“There is no question of collective punishment...Our first choice is to call the property owner and negotiate and pay for the building and ask for demolition.  And we won't be asking them to leave Sur.  Sur people will continue to live in Sur.  If they want, they will continue living in the historical buildings we will build in Sur. The HDP should look to themselves for allowing terrorists to take over Sur and build ditches,” he said.

A member of police special forces stands guard on
A member of police special forces stands guard on top of a building in Sur district before the arrival of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey April 1, 2016.

Fear, uncertainty

Despite such words of reassurance, fear and uncertainty stalk the streets of Sur. The Demir tea shop can be found in one of Sur's narrow alleyways, where PKK rebel graffiti is still visible along with bullet holes from recent fighting.  Mustafa, a tea shop owner, says he, like everyone else there, worries about expropriation.

“This is what fear is; the home is where you earn your bread.  If they expropriate, what will happen?  I don't understand anything.  This is where our job is.  I can't do any other job, at my age.  Shall I be a porter?  There is no job available.  I don't know anything about the future,” he said.

A masked demonstrator walks around a bonfire durin
A masked demonstrator walks around a bonfire during a gathering to celebrate the spring festival of Newroz in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 21, 2016.

Mustafa points to the end of the street, where a van was moving out another family.  He says authorities are still expelling people from the neighborhood, alleging the buildings are unsafe.  The government insists anyone who wants will be allowed to return.  For Berivan, that day cannot come quickly enough.  “Living in Sur is as important as living, as important as breathing for me.  Sur is like this to all its residents.  We can't give up.”

Critics warn similar promises were made in other government urban renewal projects but were rarely honored.  Others fear the real aim behind Sur’s redevelopment is to end it being a center for Kurdish nationalism.