Amedspor football club was little known outside of Turkey and the Kurdish diaspora until its captain and star player Deniz Naki was shot at on a German autobahn in January 2018.
Pictures of his bullet-ridden car revealed just how close Naki had come to being killed and German authorities are treating the attack as attempted murder. The German-born Kurdish footballer suspects the involvement of Turkish security services or right-wing nationalists targeting him for his outspoken views on the Kurdish question.
Naki had every right to be worried. In December, HDP MP Garo Paylan revealed that he had been leaked details of death squads being sent across Europe, with a hit list of prominent critics of the Turkish state.
However, instead of offering assurances and protection, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) sensationally issued Naki with a life ban from playing in the country after a video was posted online with the footballer calling for people to attend a Cologne march in solidarity with Kurds in Afrin.
He clearly had a sense of what was coming. The day before the ban was imposed he announced in a statement that he would not be returning to Turkey as his safety could not be guaranteed and that he would be terminating his contract with Amedspor.
The ban was roundly condemned as an attack on freedom of thought and freedom of expression. HDP spokesman Ahmet Yildirim said it was the “most severe punishment in the history of Turkish football” with Naki also fined a record 273,000 Turkish Lira.
It was the latest in a string of attacks on Amedspor and Naki. In April 2017 he received an 18 month suspended jail sentence for “spreading terrorist propaganda” for the PKK after he dedicated a crucial Amedspor victory to those that had been killed in the Turkish assault on Kurdish towns and cities following the breakdown of the peace process in 2015. If he returns to Turkey, Naki also faces the prospect of being jailed.
The latest action against Naki and the club can be seen as an extension of Turkey’s war on Kurds. Supporters were banned from Amedspor’s most recent match away to Sivas, for so-called “security reasons”.
It was the first away game since Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch, its deadly assault on Afrin in Rojava which has left nearly one hundred dead and many more maimed and injured.
Amedpsor refused to take to the field in protest at the ban and were docked three points. They are likely to be hit with further punishment, however, club officials have vowed to stand up to the football authorities and will not play in any further matches in which a ban on supporters is imposed.
Club President Nurullah Edemen said Amedspor supporters had been banned from 41 of the last 61 matches over the last two and a half years.
The timescale is significant. Over this period there has been a clampdown on all forms of democracy in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have been sacked, thousands of academics purged from their posts, and more journalists have been jailed than anywhere else in the world.
Democratically elected opposition politicians, including HDP co-leaders Figen Yüksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas remain in prison with others receiving lengthy jail terms on trumped up charges of terrorism.
And in the wake of Turkey’s attack on Afrin, hundreds more journalists have been arrested with eleven members of the doctors union also being detained after speaking out against the war in Afrin, leading to widespread condemnation.
The two and half year period has been marked by an escalation of Erdogan’s war on Kurds both in Turkey and across the border in Syria as he arbitrarily abandoned the peace process to pursue a military response to the so-called Kurdish question.
Amedspor is targeted as it is seen as a symbol of Kurdish resistance. Its importance for Kurds cannot be overstated. Amedspor has become the unofficial national team for Kurdish people across the world and in many ways, it is a club that transcends football.
Its chairman Ihsan Avci describes the club as not “Diyarbakır’s team but Kurdistan’s team, the people’s team.”
In his book Homage to Barcelona, writer Colm Toibin said of Barcelona FC: "in times of political difficulty it took on all the force of a political party, an unarmed army. Its victories were political victories, its games mass meetings."
Both teams can be said to be identity clubs. Barcelona representing the hopes and dreams of Catalonia while Amedspor plays the same role for Kurds, its reach extending far beyond the tiny 2,700 capacity stadium and into the Kurdish diaspora.
Amedspor was born through struggle. Founded as Melikahmetspor it became Diyarbakir’s team when it became a metropolitan city in the 1990s playing in Turkey’s lower leagues.
The club started calling itself Amedspor from October 2014 and playing in green, yellow and red, leading to a 10,000 Turkish Lira fine from the TFF for using an “unapproved name.”
Amed is the ancient name for Diyarbakir and is seen as the social, cultural and political capital of Turkey’s Kurdish community. Edemen explained the importance of the city for Kurds. “Amed is not only a way of thinking, but a way of life,” he said.
However, its story is intertwined with the oppression of the Kurds.
Under the Turkification programme, the country sought to impose a forced cultural shift to create a unified nation-state.
One of its aims was: “the domination of Turkish ethnic identity in every aspect of social life from the language that people speak in the streets to the language to be taught at schools, from the education to the industrial life, from the trade to the cadres of state officials, from the civil law to the settlement of citizens to particular regions.”
The Kurdish language was banned and Kurdish schools closed down. Kurds were unable to practice their culture and traditions. The word Kurd was forbidden, even in private, with them referred to as” Mountain Turks”.
Geographical names that were deemed to be “foreign” or a threat to Turkish unity were banned with Kurdish cities renamed as part of a forced homogenisation and an attempt to wipe out Kurdish culture.
In this context use of the name Amed was seen as a bold political move. Club officials agreed to apply to Turkish football authorities to make the name change official.
Edemen said the move was to bring the club closer to the people, to be more inclusive. However, it proved too controversial for the TFF who used bureaucratic maneuvering to block the name change.
However as the political climate shifted with an ongoing peace process and negotiations taking place between the government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, it became more acceptable to use the name Amedspor and in 2015, the TFF finally agreed to the name change.
“Our colours were green, yellow and red,” the colours of Kurdistan explained Edeman.
“When we wanted to register our name as Amedspor two options were imposed on us. You can either choose the name Amedspor or the colours. We chose to adopt the name and play in green, white and red,” he added.
As the club voted on the name change, another important vote was taking place which would change the political landscape in the country once again. The Turkish elections of June 2015 saw a breakthrough for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) who broke through the arbitrary 10 percent threshold and enter parliament.
Former HDP co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag
It saw 80 pro-Kurdish HDP MPs elected but more importantly, it ended the ruling AKPs long-held majority leading to them scrambling to try and form a coalition government as they tried to cling on to power.
Edemen said that it was at this point that the hostility and sanctions against Amedspor increased.
The club began the 2015/16 season for the first time officially known as Amedspor. The name change coincided with success on the pitch as the second- tier club achieved incredible results against bigger sides to advance to the quarter-finals of the Ziraat cup.
However, while Amedspor were enjoying sporting success the fragile ceasefire ended and attacks on both the club and Turkey’s Kurdish population escalated.
Amedspor Director of Football Servet Evrol explained how as the peace process broke down, the war on Kurds reached new levels.
“As the politician’s discourse hardened, step by step people’s point of view changed on a larger scale. Racist and separatist discourse was everywhere and everyone began to see Amedspor as an illegal organisation,” he said.
The Turkish government suddenly and arbitrarily declared that the peace process was over.
Then prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, publicly blamed the PKK in order to justify a military response saying the government had been “forced to launch Operation Peace and Democracy in July 2015.
Tanks rolled into Kurdish towns and cities with many reduced to rubble as Turkish armed forces moved in to crush the armed resistance. PKK fighters bedded in behind barricades and trenches for weeks as south-east Turkey once again became a war zone.
Whole towns and cities were raised to the ground in the onslaught. Human rights abuses and war crimes were committed against the Kurdish people, with men, women, and children being killed.
Diyarbakir’s ancient central area Sur, meaning “fortress walls” in Turkish suffered as gunfire and tanks destroyed most of the buildings between the city walls.
Its rich cultural history had seen it and the Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape placed on Unesco's World Heritage List in June 2015. Yet the battle between government forces and the PKK saw most of it lying in ruins.
Diyarbakir, 2016 photo credit: Duygu Yildiz
As war raged, Amedspor matches took on a new dimension. Evrol said: “Games became like a war mission. Turkish flags were everywhere.” He explained how the previous season the club had been one of the fairest teams however suddenly were fined for everything.
The atmosphere inside the stadia became febrile. Amedspor and their supporters were subjected to racist abuse and branded “terrorists” by opposition fans.
As Turkish society became increasingly more polarised, Amedspor began to be seen as “the enemy” and the many of the players acted as soldiers in Erdogan’s war on Kurds. Opposition supporters began chanting racist slogans branding Amedspor terrorists and the PKK team.
Nationalist banners were displayed at away matches with hostility to Amedspor increasing both on and off the pitch.
In a taste of things to come, Amedspor were fined another 10,000 Turkish Lira as punishment for their supporters chanting slogans deemed to be “ideological propaganda” during a 2-1 cup win against Karaman Belediyespor – a charge denied by the club.
Diyarbakir, 2016 photo credit: Duygu Yildiz
As the minnows fairytale cup run continued, it was a match against Istanbul side Basaksehir in January 2016 that was to define the clubs fortunes.
The game itself finished with a 2-2 draw. Turkish international player Semih Şentürk scored a late equaliser for the Istanbul side and celebrated with a soldier salute, symbolic of victory in war.
In the aftermath of the match police brutally attacked the Amedspor fans. With the conflict in south-east Turkey raging, supporters were reported to have chanted “Everywhere is resistance, everywhere is Cizre” and a now-famous slogan “Children shouldn’t die. Let them come to the match.”
Around 100 supporters were detained, six of them children. However, there is a close bond between the club and its fans and officials were concerned when they saw Amedspor fans with their arms handcuffed behind their backs.
Evrol explained: “Just as we were about to leave, they paraded about 40-50 people in single file in front of our eyes. None of us left the stadium and we didn’t let the team leave.
“We said that we wouldn’t leave the stadium unless these people are released. The team will stay here.”
Despite being given assurances they would be released within half an hour, as the team coach left the stadium they saw police beating Amedspor supporters. More than thirty of those arrested have been charged with terrorist offences with a further court hearing in April 2018.
Along with chanting "ideological and political slogans", their crime was to hold a banner in commemoration of 13-year-old Ugur Kaymaz who police killed alongside his father Ahmet in Mardin during an operation by Turkish security forces in 2004.
Semih Şentürk giving the soldier salute
The authorities moved swiftly to ban Amedspor supporters from the next game away to Bursaspor. This was a critical match with victory needed to proceed to the quarter-finals of the cup. Despite the odds being heavily stacked against them against a side that had won the Turkish Super league in 2010, Amedspor came out on top with a 2-1 victory.
While the matches were being played, the Kurdish city of Cizre was placed under military curfew. Turkish security forces were pummeling residential areas and residents sought refuge in basements across the city to escape the intense gunfire.
Kurdish citizens waving white flags were gunned down in the street with the government claiming they had killed “PKK militants” But the worst atrocity occurred on February 7th in the Cizre Basement Massacre.
It is reported that 189 men, women and children – including those as young as nine - had been trapped in three basements for 20 days without food, water or medical supplies.
They were allegedly killed by Turkish security forces who poured petrol into the basements before setting them on fire, burning the occupants alive. The government again claimed to have “successfully neutralized several PKK militants” branding the accusations of civilian deaths “baseless propaganda”.
However, there was no crime scene investigation and the United Nations and human rights organisations were blocked from conducting research in the area. The authorities moved quickly to flatten the ruins and fill the basements leading to fears of a cover-up. Many of the bodies have never been recovered.
HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas said that a “mass murder” had been committed in Cizre accusing authorities of destroying the evidence.
Burnt Corpse: Cizre
When I visited the area in May 2017 I spoke to Hezni Aslan who told me how the body of her 19-year-old daughter had never been recovered, The apartment still bears the scars of the battle with the walls and ceiling riddled with bullet marks.
“They took over the Mem u Zin cultural centre at the top of the hill,” she said, pointing out of the window at a large building that imposes itself over the neighbourhood and is now a police station.
“I don’t know where my daughter is, but I am sure that she is underneath the building,” she told me.
Hacer Aslan was a student nurse at the local hospital when she heard the news that her brother had been injured.
Clutching photographs of her children, Ms. Aslan told me how the family was forced to flee as fighting intensified taking shelter in another house. “My little girl came and nobody was here,” she told me tearfully.
Naki, who scored the winning goal against Bursaspor had also met with the families of those killed and explained that they wanted peace and an end to the war.
After the match against Bursaspor, he tweeted: “Amedspor did not and will not bow down. We dedicate this victory to all who lost their lives or were left wounded in the atrocities going on for more than 50 days in our lands,” before adding in Kurdish, “Long live freedom.”
It was a tweet that would land him with an unprecedented 12 match ban. And it would see him miss the crunch match against Turkish footballing giants Fenerbahce. Naki was branded a PKK terrorist and a traitor by opposing fans and the Turkish media.
Following the tweet and subsequent shares on social media, the club was raided by around 40 anti-terror police who seized computer hard drives to try and identify the source. Club officials said instead of forcing their way into Amedspor’s headquarters they would have handed over the computers.
While Naki was banned for the Fenerbahce match, so were Amedspor supporters as punishment for raising the slogan: “Children shouldn’t die. They should come to the match.”
In protest, the Amedspor team walked onto the pitch with the slogan as a banner. They refused to play for the opening few minutes of the game leaving the Fenerbahce players to kick the ball around among themselves.
Outside, Amedspor supporters were attacked with tear gas and smoke bombs which were also felt inside the stadium.
The match finished in a 3-3 draw, a spectacular result against the millionaires of Fenerbache. Amedspor were beaten in Istanbul and the cup run was over, however they had given supporters and Kurds around the world something to be proud of in what are very dark times.
With the focus now on the league and possible promotion, Amedspor were to be targeted by the football authorities once again. As they pushed for the play-offs the TFF punished them again for allegedly raising the slogan “Everywhere Sur. Everywhere resistance.” They were docked three points effectively ending their season and making the playoffs an impossibility.
Now with Turkey's military assault on Afrin, the focus is once more on Amedspor which is seen as a centre of Kurdish resistance.
It has once again come under attack with attempts to shut-down its Facebook page and its supporters banned from away matches.
Erdogan is desperate to shore up support for Operation Olive Branch in the face of global opposition and condemnation. Those who speak out against his war face arrest and persecution.
And the TFF is not a neutral body, willingly joining Erdogan’s war on Kurds and operating not as an independent football authority but as another arm of the state.
Last year TFF president Yildirim Demiroren openly campaigned in favour of a yes vote in a controversial constitutional referendum which would grant the president unprecedented powers.He said that he hoped Turkey would wake up on the morning of April 17 with a majority having voted yes in the national poll.
At the same time, the TFF suspended a referee in the Black Sea area for publicly calling for a no vote leading to accusations of double standards.
Erdogan himself recognizes the unifying power of football. Speaking at a conference he said: “I believe politics and football share many common aspects at the core. Just like sports, the essence of politics is competition, race… Just like football, politics cannot be done without passion, love, and dedication. You have to dedicate yourself”.
And with the TFF help, Erdogan has tried to secure political control of the game and break the resistance of fans across Turkey.
TFF President: Yildirim Demiroren
It is Kurdish teams that have born the brunt of Turkey’s politicisation of football. In a shocking decision third-tier Batman Petrolspor was fined after they released doves before a match during military operations in south-east Turkey.
Yet in contrast no action has been taken against Turkish Super League clubs Besiktas, Fenerbahce, and Galatasaray for tweeting in support of Operation Olive Branch with the TFF condoning Erdogan’s bloody war.
And at time of writing, football clubs across Turkey, including Amedspor, were made to take to the field with banners in support of the attacks on Afrin.
Amedspor has been heavily criticised by its supporters as players took to the field in the match against Tuzlaspor with a banner reading “Kalbimizle Duamizla Mehmetçigin Yanındayız” (With our heart and prayers we are with the Turkish soldiers.)
Former club captain Deniz Naki said he would have refused to carry the banner and would have considered himself as “the murderer of the people of Afrin” if he had done so.
The hypocrisy of the TFF is staggering. While they are forcing football clubs to show support Turkey’s war on Kurds, Amedspor have been punished for carrying a banner and chanting the slogan “Children shouldn’t die. Let them come to the match.”
Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter has said that football is a tool “in our quest for development and peace.” Yet for the TFF it seems slogans of peace are to be punished while slogans of war are to be promoted.
And just as Nato and UN remain silent on Turkey’s war on Kurds, football’s governing bodies FIFA and UEFA have remained silent on the racist actions of the TFF.
The attacks on Amedspor are part of the wider war on Kurds. Yet while the world powers close its eyes to the war in Afrin, resistance is everywhere. No matter what happens the Kurds will continue to fight for a democratic and inclusive society and the revolution in Rojava will prevail.
The future doesn't belong to the Erdogan's of the world but to those who are building peace. It is the cause of humanity.