Turkey’s Sur district: Disobedience and Collective Punishment

by Duygu Yildiz   Duygu Yildiz  


Sur: a district that is still partially banned to its own residents, was first demolished by the bombardments of the Turkish Army and then excavated by the bulldozers of the municipal authorities. For thousands of years, Sur was a beacon for over 33 nations, which coexisted in harmony until the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Now, the heavily Kurdish populated district of Sur has been largely reduced to rubble.  

A south-eastern district in Diyarbakir, Sur was at the edge of a devastating army intervention at the end of 2015. When a military curfew was ordered on the 2nd of December that year, clashes between the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) lasted for 103 days. Heavy shelling threatened to demolish Sur’s heritage, and thousands of residents were left displaced. After sustaining months of heavy bombardment, the historical city of Sur – a UNESCO World Heritage – was left virtually abandoned. Many residents felt that the only choice offered to them was to either leave or risk death. Sur’s ancient architecture, from the 500-year-old Kursunlu Mosque to the neoclassical St. Giragos Armenian Church which was consecrated in 1836, was barely left intact.

At least one hundred people died, hundreds of others were detained, while thousands were forced to abandon their residences in what grassroots activists have called “the war on Kurds”. Things hadn’t been this tense since the last decade of the 20th century.

Since the early 90’s Diyarbakir, and other Kurdish populated cities, have been a central theatre of conflict in the war between the PKK and the Turkish state. When the armed conflict between Kurdish militants and the Turkish state escalated in the late 1980’s, Sur became the site of a massive urban migration. The policy of the Turkish State, beginning in 1987, was to set up village guards, usually under duress, in order to fight the PKK. If Kurdish residents refused to cooperate with the state and become village guards, they would either be forced to leave or face violent consequences. During the 1990’s, the Turkish Armed Forces believed that they couldn’t even trust their own village guard forces. They began forcibly evacuating somewhere between 3,400 to 5,000 villages. A 2004 study by the Turkish Government concluded that over 1 million residents were displaced. With no where to go, many of these Kurdish residents either fled the country or moved towards the urban centres of Diyarbakir. Where they went, the Turkish State followed them.  

Now, many of those very same IDPs, have been forced to move again. 

After the curfew of 2015, it was widely believed that the attack on Sur was a form of ‘collective punishment’ for those who either voted for the pro-minorities Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) at the 7th of June 2015 elections or those who sympathised with the armed struggle waged by the PKK. 

Following the military curfew, the Turkish State expropriated 5 neighbourhoods from property owners in Sur. Many buildings were ordered to be demolished and hundreds of residents were prevented from being able to return to their own homes. The plan was clear; the state wanted to tear down buildings, even undamaged ones, and rebuild Sur for ‘exclusive customers.’ To do so, it needed to expel both the poor and those Kurds which it deemed disobedient. The Turkish Government tried to justify demolishing the neighbourhoods of Sur by saying that ‘the conflict heavily damaged the city’ and that they were beginning a process of urban renewal. The decision to expropriate the whole district, though, was later interpreted by Human Rights Organisations as laying the groundwork for a process of gentrification.

It has been almost two years since the curfew was declared. Hundreds of people have protested the Government’s decision to repurpose their own homes for the benefit of private investors.

In the last couple of months, the Diyarbakir Municipality, which appointed a trustee after the imprisonment of the elected HDP co-mayor, Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, sent bulldozers to demolish Sur’s neighbourhoods. The government appointed trustee has also been responsible for preventing Sur’s residents from gaining access to water and electricity. But inspite of all of these difficulties, the people of Sur have continued to struggle for adequate shelter.

Finding it difficult to find water and electricity, the residents of Sur must also confront the added burden of regular police raids and threats. For instance, on the 26th of November, 2017, the police warned residents that they only had three days to leave their homes in Sur, local reports have said. 

Speaking to JinNews, a woman news agency, a Kurdish woman says that “I have neither electricity nor water but I still have hope.”

She is one of many inhabitants who have refused to leave the district.

A world-heritage site is being destroyed, thousands of Sur’s residents have been displaced, hundreds have been killed. Will hope be enough to save Sur?