From homicide to memorycide: The cultural revolution in Amed which led to the decimation of Sur

by Adnan Celik    


Sur, the ancient city centre surrounded by Diyarbakir Fortress and home to several ethnic and religious groups up until the beginning of the 20th century, first went through demographic “reduction” then “augmentation” as a result of the genocide and forced-displacement of autochthonous Armenian and Syriac and Chaldean Christian communities. With the establishment of the new Turkish nation-state in 1923, the demographic makeup of the district was largely Islamicized. In a visit to Diyarbakir in the 1930s, the prime minister of the period Ismet Inonu openly stated that the city should be a “stronghold” of Turkishness. Despite the nation-state's politics of homogenization, albeit few, some Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean community members continued to reside in Sur up to 1970s. Besides, there was a small Jewish community in the city until the establishment of Israel in 1948. Likewise, the Yezidi Kurds, who were often subject to massacres and discrimination due to their religious beliefs, constituted a small portion of the population in the district.

The 1942 Wealth Tax (Varlik Vergisi), the pogroms of September 6-7, 1955, and the Cyprus Events of the 1970s rebounded into more social exclusion and discrimination against the non-Muslim minorities in the localities of Turkey including Sur, which, consequently made almost all the remaining non-Muslim communities flee Diyarbakir. During the 1990s the Turkish State forcibly displaced millions of Kurds and, while a large number migrated to the western metropoles of Turkey those who were extremely poor and couldn’t move further, settled in neighbourhoods of Sur. The district became home also for the nomadic and semi-nomadic Gypsies (Mirtip and Qereci) after the conditions for their mobility were suppressed by war. Accordingly, Sur, that was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious district just at the beginning of the century, turned into a ghetto populated by poor Kurds and Gypsies.

This new demographic shift in 1990s produced two different images of Sur that persist to date. The first image emerged as the “criminalization” of Sur. It was principally driven by the state but subsequently, those “natives” of the neighbourhood who migrated to better-off parts of the city in the 1990s and the middle classes of the city rising after 2000s also contributed to the discursive production of this image. Through the implications of ghettoization, Sur became associated with “dangerous”, “unreliable” and weed-consuming “rambling youngsters” while gradually also framing this ancient location as a place that should be rescued from the people of the ghetto. The justification of “urban renewal” policies relied greatly on the repertoire within this approach. The second and more dominant image of Sur was woven around a decolonization struggle stemming from the Kurdish movement’s local government politics which would emancipate Sur from the state’s century-long practices ranging from genocide to assimilation. In this view, Sur was conceived as a memory site that would reveal another historical truth suppressed or denied by the official historical narrative, and a nostalgic site where the history would be “reinvented”. Indeed, the process that started with the resistance for self-governance in the autumn of 2015 and that continues with the destruction, plunder, and “reconstruction” of Sur by the state unfolds as a result of the struggle between these two competing images. In order to better understand the first approach based on criminalization and thereby “rebuilding” of Sur, and better see what is involved in the second approach’s decolonization practices, it is paramount to understand the cultural revolution of Amed. 

A Cultural Revolution in Amed

In 1999 the Kurdish political movement won elections in many municipalities, including Diyarbakir, and a new process formulated as a “Cultural Revolution” by Ocalan started. In this new era, the urban space was conceived as the new sphere of the organization for the Kurdish movement and, therefore, all the cadres, components and sympathizers of the movement were expected to do their own revolution in the cities making also use of the conditions enabled by local governments. The obscurity over Kurdish identity and culture were to be removed and the Kurds were to get to explore not only their own past but also of those with whom they lived together. To do this, an extraordinary momentum of culture and art mobilization should were to be initiated in the cities and the youth were to get to know about their identity, history, culture, music, and literature.

The macro-level context where the Kurdish question was thought in relation to Turkey's membership to European Union, liberal democracy and multiculturalism prevailed and the debates on post-modernism foregrounded the localities and micro was blended with Ocalan’s readings of Murray Bookchin about the local government's decentralised society formation practices and with his idea of a multicultural republic where all peoples would be able to live together in peace. Thus, the struggle of the Kurds evolved into a new paradigm aiming at constructing a new history and historical narration which would also include all the people that the Kurds lived with in the past.

All the cultural and art events organized by the Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality were shaped in such a context: concerts in multiple languages, panel discussions with well-known artists, literary days, novel and poetry workshops and so on. Armenian singers such as Aram Tigran, who was singing in Kurdish, or writers like Jaklin Celik, whose family roots traces back to Diyarbakir, were invited, carrying the rediscovery of the past to the public domain. The Turkist image embodied in the name of Diyarbakir, which was very much consonant with the official historical narrative, was evolving in the name of "Amed" in another direction that explored the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic composition of its past. At this point, the books by the Armenian writer Mıgırdiç Margosyan and the Kurdish writer Şeyhmus Diken, who were born and raised in Sur's Xancepek neighbourhood, or the "Quartier of Infidels" (Gavur Mahallesi), had remarkable impact on discovering and reconstructing the multicultural identity of the city, even though they, at times, were trapped by a production of nostalgia that would isolate this multiculturalism from the founding violence of 1915.

This rediscovery of the past was made even more apparent with the policies based on the the multi-cultural composition of the city, such as changing the names of the streets and the avenues in the neighborhood (e.g. Migirdic Margosyan Street, Naum Faik Avenue), the restoration of the Surp Giragos Armenian church, starting Armenian language classes, constructing a Monument of Common Conscience, the commemoration of 1915 organized by the components of the civil society in the city. In a way, by conducting such policies, Sur was transformed into a place where the political project of the Kurdish movement was being shaped. The flow of visitors to Surp Giragos Church and countless of curious people touring in the streets of Sur was not only marking the district as a site of memory but also a symbolic place of a future desire where different ethnic and religious groups could live together again. In fact, the amount and the profile of the people who attended the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on 24th of April 2015, was, in a sense, representing such a desire. At the end, Sur became a symbol of both the objection to the colonialist practices of the Turkish State and the idea of a new historical narrative and a common future.

Around November 2015, it turned out that the Turkish State didn’t quite consent to the new historical narrative and memory construction of the Kurdish movement. Starting in October 2015 and intensified around November, armed confrontations broke out between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants - mostly young residents of Sur who organized themselves in an army group to demand self-governance. For about 110 days the neighbourhood was the scene of a resistance for self-governance and a relentless state siege trying to annihilate the resistance. During the siege, the residents suffered from clashes and repeated extended curfews. Aside from Kurdish militants, tens of civilians were killed by the state forces and thousands were urged to leave their homes. Never-ending curfews and sieges based on a policy of depopulating the district and demolishing it to the ground, not only led to the death of people, material damages or displacement of thousands but it also destroyed, almost completely, the sites of memory that had carried the thousand years of historical heritage. In this sense, the state's strategy of besieging Sur aimed not only at depopulating the area but also at the annihilation of its memory. Thus, the homicide or human killings were accompanied by memoricide, that is by a policy of annihilation the memory, that destroyed the material and cultural constructs which manifested the past and the memory of the city. The process in Sur was reminiscent of what Jacques Rancière calls, in his analysis on the movie "Shoah", as “double annihilation”, referring to the annihilation of the Jews and the annihilation of the traces of their annihilation. This time, destruction and depredation took place by eliminating, not the Armenians who had already suffered from double annihilation but those who object to this double process and by erasing the memory of the experience of the confrontation with the past and its reconstruction based on this objection.

In fact, the expropriation law issued in the Turkish Official Gazette on March 25, 2016 has a story that dates back to before the outbreak of urban clashes and the state violence in the late autumn of 2015. Since 2009, in Sur’s Lalabey and Alipaşa neighbourhoods, an urban renewal project was being carried out and several families were already displaced. There was a strong and ever-growing opposition from the side of the NGOs and environmental and youth organizations against this urban renewal project conducted by a governmental entity commonly known with the abbreviation TOKI. Residents and their supporters insisted on an in-situ urbanization, which would imply no population displacement and the protection of the cultural and historical fabric of the neighbourhoods. However, the state had an opposite plan: pushing the residents to the isolated outskirts of the city and leaving its ancient heart to the appetent market forces.

In his book Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière states that “There is no more a privileged form than there is a privileged starting point”. This sentence itself summarizes how easily the state can mobilize means of violence against any resistance movement and legitimize its use. The state’s necro-politics of destruction and plunder in Sur were conducted from such a privileged starting point. When the local resistance started, the state turned the state of emergency into an opportunity and pursued a policy of destruction and reconstruction. The state could thereby aim at killing two birds with one stone, implementing a necro-policy of escalating violence in response to the existence of the YDGH youth, with extended sieges which would, in the end, depopulate the district and enable the state forces to demolish all the physical constructions, while offering itself the ultimate pretext of justifying the urban renewal projects that it had been struggling to implement for years. In this view, the armed resistance in some Kurdish cities was believed to be essentially resulting from irregular spatial arrangements of those neighbourhoods, which required rearrangements that would strengthen the state’s infrastructural power. In the words of James Scott, these places were needed to be “legible” to the state. Therefore, it was necessary, first, to destroy those places then to reconstruct them with (1) fortified gendarmerie stations (kalekol) so as to have absolute control over the space and make it “safer”, (2) a social engineering agenda to change the demographics and (3) a new economic distribution of the reconstruction with local collaborators as a price for their loyalty. In short, the objective of spatial rearrangement inside Sur was nothing new, however, with the urban conflict in the district, the state co-opted it as an instrument of its security policies thereby creating the opportunity to realize it faster and by force.

In Sur, the synthesis of the Turko-Islamist conquerism, which is a new stage of Turkish nation-state’s colonialism, and aggressive capitalism resulted in two different practices that add up to the same thing: destruction and plunder. The first one was observed in Xancepek ("Hasirli" on the map) that was completely destroyed with all the means of the new Turko-Islamist conquerism, while the second was realized in Alipaşa and Lalabey in the form of their plunder by neo-liberal pragmatists relying on the ideological and infrastructural power of this conquerism. These two successive but synchronized practices (destruction and plunder) also represent two different faces of the state's despotic and infrastructural power. Essentially, there was no difference between the self-defense vs. state violence in Xancepek and the resistance to urban renewal vs. the imposition of plunder in Alipaşa and Lalabey. One is about the violation of the Kurds’ right to self-governance and of their sovereignty while the second is the violation of the right to live in one's own place and of the urban rights. As it appears, the state's dyadic image consists of two despotic and infrastructural powers, while the war of the first one is about the killing of people and memory through destruction, the war of the second proceeds in the form of dispossession practices attained through plunder.