The atrocities of the 2015-6 war carried out by the Turkish state against its Kurdish population have seen little international attention. In fall 2015, after the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP gained enough votes to enter the parliament, thereby disrupting the AKP’s plan to win the parliamentary majority, the Turkish state responded with a crackdown on the Kurdish opposition. As primarily young people took up arms to defend their neighbourhoods in the Kurdish cities in the southeast of the country, the Turkish police and army --in what the government described as an operation to “cleanse” the area of militants-- brutally punished both the rebels and local population, dislocating up to half a million people and subsequently shutting down most organizations and civil society initiatives built by the Kurdish movements. As the victims’ stories have hardly been heard up to now --given the continuous repression of the Kurdish movement-- Zana Kibar’s and Hicran Ürün’s documentary Sur: Ax u Welat makes a much-needed contribution to revealing the crimes of the Turkish state. Sur, an ancient center of the Kurdish city Amed (Diyarbakir) and a UNESCO world heritage site, suffered an almost complete destruction due to the shelling and the subsequent demolition of remaining houses in order to clear the land for construction to profit the state and its allies. More than 30,000 people were forced to migrate, many of whom had already been expelled from their villages by the Turkish state in the 1990s.
Based on news footage and live interviews, the film gives voice to those who defended their neighbourhoods and those who lost their loved ones, homes and community, while highlighting the spirit of communal life, solidarity and resistance that underpin the radical ideology of the Kurdish movement.
With Hicran Urun, one of the filmmakers, in detention since April 2018, for her work as an editor for a pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgurlukcu Demokrasi, we talked to Zana Kibar about the film, the state’s actions to prevent its screening, and his trip to other Kurdish cities that were under siege in 2015-6. The film will be shown at this year’s Kurdish Film Festival in Hamburg.
Why did you decide to make a documentary on Sur?
ZK: Actually, we didn't have a plan to shoot a documentary. We were doing research on war and migration that took place in Kurdistan in 2015. At the same time, I was doing my master's thesis on Sur. We conducted fieldwork about the forced migration experience of families and individuals in Sur and I talked to the families for my thesis. After that, I wrote a news piece about Sur for Bianet news website. This is how I got involved with Sur.
During the military offensives, the Turkish state insisted that it was only targeting armed rebels in Sur and other Kurdish cities. Your film shows that the civilians were the primary victims of the conflicts. What was the experience of the local people that you talked to?
ZK: Every family experienced the conflict differently. The more people we listened to, the more different stories we heard. There were clashes with the police in the early days of the conflict when military and heavy weapons were not yet involved. This was a situation that Kurdistan was already familiar with, but no family thought that the war would intensify to such an extent. People had been dying before, but that was the war that we were used to. During these conflicts, however, when people woke up one morning and saw tanks and soldiers on the streets, they realized how serious the situation had suddenly become. Some civilians had to live with the bodies of their dead in the basements for 40 days. They kept the wounded in their homes because they heard that the soldiers were executing the wounded on the way to the hospital. They were deprived of basic necessities, electricity, water. For example, there were people who were drinking rainwater in Cizre. We talked to people who would spend an hour getting from the living room to the kitchen because of the bullets. Those people whose homes were on the warline would gather in safer houses. They were deprived of many things and were living in fear.
An estimated half a million people were forced out of their homes. What were the experiences of these forced migrants?
ZK: People hoped, especially in Sur, that they would be able to come back after they had left their homes. But Sur, one of the oldest cities in the world, is still under the blockade. The entry and exit to its six neighbourhoods is forbidden. In addition, this was the city where the curfew lasted the longest. People still don't have the permission even to see their houses that were destroyed.
The people whom I met said that they wanted to live in their own home, even if it was just a tent. The state is demolishing the houses that had remained after the conflicts and rebuilding without permission even from the legal property owners. While the war had brought a great destruction, the main conflicts occurred with construction companies after the war. After the conflict ended, the destruction intensified. Yet, people are still hoping to return to their homes.
What difficulties did you face when shooting the film in Sur?
ZK: Actually we did not experience any difficulties, although we’ve seen a lot. Since we were aware of being in a conflict zone, we realized what and to what extent we could actually shoot. In fact, even the journalists were surprised when we entered Sur neighbourhoods with a camera in our bag, because there was a risk of police violence or that our camera could be confiscated. We did not confront difficulties, but we were shooting really secretly. When we wanted to take a shot on Sur from above, people told us that the police could target us; in some places, we had to shoot by phone. The people we interviewed wanted to disguise themselves because the police could later raid their houses. Thus, we were acting with awareness of the blockade conditions.
What other cities, besides Sur, that were attacked by the Turkish state in 2015-6 have you visited? Were they condemned to a similar fate?
ZK: I visited a lot of places relevant to my research area. We also worked in the metropoles affected by migration. We worked on the problems of women. When I saw Cizre and ÅÄ±rnak, I understood that even pain has a hierarchy. When I saw Cizre, I said that Sur had experienced nothing in comparison. In Sur, 89 people died and 34, 000 people had to migrate --and yet, I said that Sur had experienced nothing when I saw Cizre. Because in Cizre people had to stay inside basements without any news from the world for three months.
When people finally got out to the street three months later, they saw human and animal corpses and [hungry] animals attacking corpses and people. These people thought they were alone in the world. Domestic violence also increased while they were staying in the basements. They have traumas due to having stayed closed off for 3 months. Men were violent against women, women against children. Children, in turn, would break their toys. Everyone turned to violence whenever they felt in a position of power; for example, one child told us that his angry father had put a burning iron on his back. In this manner, violence spread into every aspect of life.
As it is known to the public, atrocities were experienced in the Cizre basements [they were burnt]. The exact number of dead is still unclear because flamethrowers were used to target the buildings. And some families have not reported the deaths hoping that their children were still alive, or in order to avoid problems with the state.
The neighbourhood, where these basements were located, was inhabited by people whose villages were burned in the 1990s. And people had built basements underneath their homes in order to take shelter there if a war broke out. There were 20 basements in that area. Three basements, as we know, lived through terrible atrocities. The reason why these three basements came to public attention was because there were a great many people inside. We have not heard of others. After the clashes, police and soldiers were searching with dogs for wounded or for those who were hiding in order to shoot them. According to local people’s accounts, there were many executions like this.
In regards to Silopi [a town and a district of ÅÄ±rnak Province], we actually know very few stories. For example, mother Taybet came out of her house to protect her daughter; snipers shot her 10 meters away from her house. Her children and family could not take her body. Her husband was injured in his arm. Her brother also got shot. Her family could not get her body for a week. I also heard that a similar story had happened in Sur. People would throw stones at animals to prevent them from eating the bodies of the injured. There are many examples like this. People even may not know that such incidents happened to their neighbours, because victims are afraid to talk. People don't want to tell what they've been through. They're afraid of being executed. When our friends met with a family, the family said they had no problem with the state. But then there was a fight in the family. The children were asking their parents why they had said this.
In all of the cities of Kurdistan that we visited, bearded people were mentioned. People guess that, not being police or soldiers, they came from Syria or Chechnya. When one family entered their home after the clashes, they saw a crowd of bearded people praying, but the language they were speaking was not Arabic. They may have been from Central Asia or Chechnya. People said that bearded men were usually 50-60 years old, big and frightening. These men with long hair and beards were allegedly on the frontline, and their corpses are said to have been thrown into the river.
Apparently, they formed different teams during the war, like those who performed executions and bombings. Our interlocutors said that there was a special team that blew up houses. After the war, they were setting up explosives to destroy the houses that had remained intact. There are so many different stories that even people living in different neighbourhoods are surprised to hear about new incidents. The horror of the war has not yet come out in full. As one of the people we talked to said, the main disaster will outlive the shock of the war.
In your most recent research, you focused on the violence against women during the conflicts. According to the 2016 report published by the KJA (Free Women’s Congress), an umbrella organization for the women’s movement in North Kurdistan, women were the first to suffer the consequences of the oppression by the Turkish state. What did the 2015-6 military offensive mean for women specifically?
ZK: We asked women if they had experienced sexual assault. No one said that they had. However, some overreacted in response to our questions and did not want to talk about it. Our association [Goc-Der] estimates that a lot of women were raped during the conflicts, but we do not have any evidence or witnesses. Pharmacies were robbed and all the items related to sex disappeared. Some victims, after they returned to their houses after the conflicts found used condoms inside. Children did not know what these were and started playing with them. Dolls were found raped, with sperm on them. After the conflicts, police cars drove around the neighbourhoods making announcements that they had come there because of beautiful women, in order to intimidate people and force them to leave.
So far you have not been able to show the film in Turkey. Tell us what happened when you attempted to do so.
ZK: We wanted to make a special screening for the 2nd anniversary of the Sur events and arranged it with the Sisli Cultural Center in Istanbul. We had already printed our invitations and posters. Three days before the screening, the Cultural Center called us and said that the police had raided the centre and said they would not give a permission to such a screening. The centre told us that the police could possibly come to the screening and stage a provocation. The centre did not want to take this responsibility for the fear of a possible massacre. The police never contacted us directly. In other words, they do not want that the events that happened in Kurdistan are heard. The Cultural Center also suggested that we watch the police first and have a screening only if we get a permission. The situation was not like this even after the 12 September coup [the 1980 military coup in Turkey]. The police cannot be the institution of censorship. They did not act officially; yet, they prevented the screening by de facto bullying.