Since 2015, the PKK launched a new campaign of urban assaults across Turkey’s southeast. Cizre was a key training ground. The tactic failed, costing many lives and damaging property, along with Turkey’s peace process. But people are still optimistic.
CIZRE, Turkey — Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made an unannounced visit to Cizre, an ancient town with a 130,000-strong population, a year and a half after one of the most deadly clashes in its history. “I have a special thanks to make you,” the prime minister told the crowd in the city centre during his speech on November 17.
“Cizre stood up against the coup by blocking the Serafettin Elci Airport and prevented traitors going from here to Ankara,” Yildirim said. Last year on July 15, a group of rogue Turkish army officers tried to overthrow the democratically elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party-led government.
Though Turkey has a long record of mostly successful military coups, this time the putschists faced strong civic opposition, which filled the streets of Turkey’s cities, including mostly Kurdish-populated southeastern towns like Cizre.
Cizre, or Jazeera, which means island in Arabic, is located on the banks of the Tigris river– one of the oldest rivers in Mesopotamian lands – and has witnessed the long and contentious history of the Middle East. The Tigris once split into two branches here, turning the ancient city centre into an island, which led people to name it Cizre.
Two-thirds of Cizre’s population left the town after heavy clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces, which lasted from September 2015 to February 2016. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, the US and NATO. Its armed campaign against the Turkish state has cost more than 40,000 lives since the early 1980s.
But the latest PKK attacks against Turkish security forces beginning in July 2015 after the collapse of Turkey’s peace process, represented a new PKK tactic to bring its armed campaign to Turkey’s urban centres in the southeastern and eastern provinces. Cizre was one of the training grounds where this tactic was employed. Its residents have no doubt about that. A high-ranking official in Cizre, who does not want to be identified, is one of them. He also didn’t mind breaking Cizre’s code of silence.
“Cizre has ten neighbourhoods, but two of them correspond to two-thirds of its whole population. During this troublesome period [when the PKK’s heavily armed YDG-H youth wing were active in these neighbourhoods], you can only use a few streets out of more than a hundred streets for traffic in Cizre,” he said.
“[We were living like we were] in a cage. Because of that, our needs could be met, but under difficult conditions. The fire department could not access these streets and ambulances could not make their way in these streets either. After darkness set in in those streets, people could not get out from their houses [fearing for their own safety]. They [the YDG-H militants] were taking shelter in the ditches which they dug,” he pointed out.
He thinks that operations launched by the Turkish security forces in September 2015 against the PKK-linked groups in Cizre were necessary to normalise life in the town. “If this period continued that way, then, our city could not be a viable place to live.”
He hopes that the future will bring peace and calm to the city.
In the heart of Cizre, you can feel the optimism . The old bazaar is full of people, restaurants serve tasty food, and kids attend schools that were mostly closed during heavy clashes. You can still see some graffiti on houses across schools, remnants of recent fighting.
“We will build a 500-bed hospital. [In addition] Cizre will have natural gas next year,” Yildirim promised, during his visit to the city.
Muhammed Kalkan, 32, a young, single businessman from the district, is also very optimistic about Cizre's prospects.
“Under any circumstances, I am hopeful about the future which always opens new ways for hope. Cizre especially has more strength and the capability to overcome its own pain, compared to other cities because of its vast past experience of similar incidents,” Kalkan said.
“Being a historical centre makes the district adapt to new conditions at a fast pace in terms of both economic life and social activities. As a result, I believe that it will be possible for the people of Cizre to overcome all the negative effects that it experienced recently earlier than most people expected,” Kalkan said.
Outsiders could easily view Kalkan’s assertion as overly optimistic considering 2,000 houses were demolished in the city, as a result of the fighting. "Kalkan's home was destroyed and his businesses were also affected by the violence. But many people in the city think Kalkan's optimism stems from the fact that it's easier for a businessman to recover from such a loss."
But indeed, the life of this young entrepreneur was also turned upside down during the PKK’s armed urban campaign in the city. When the first curfew was declared in the district on December 14, 2015, he and his friends squeezed into a car to leave their troubles behind, heading towards Mersin, on the Turkish Mediterranean, where they had relatives.
They hoped they would be back in their lovely hometown soon, at least before New Year’s eve. But it didn’t go that way.
“Nobody guessed that the clashes will take that long,” he said, remembering those days. “It took so long to clean the explosives mired in the ditches [by the members of the PKK youth group YDG-H]. The neighbourhoods had almost been turned into mine fields. Nobody knew where that was. So the security forces chose to move cautiously [during the operations] to keep civilian casualties low,” he explained.
“When we talked with friends who had been left behind, we recognised the severity of the situation and initially thought that nothing would be as it used to be.”
But they decided, regardless, to go back to the city after the interior minister informed the public three months later that the curfew would be lifted on March 2, 2016. They were in a hurry to return to the ancient city and came back the next morning after the curfew was lifted along with many other Cizre residents.
“I saw heavy damage in my gas station. The roof of the station was also hit by an unidentified object,” he recounted. If it hit 30 or 40 metres away where its fuel tanks were located, other than the roof, it would be a terrible disaster. He was lucky, as were others close to the station.
But fortune and misfortune tend to go hand-in-hand as a German proverb correctly points out. When he reached his house which was located right behind his gas station, he saw a house which was heavily hit with a collapsed roof. He felt that his life was also upside down, like his house.
“It was even sadder [to see the destruction at home] because it’s where I was born and raised with all my childhood memories. My father created a wonderful garden in front of our house. I lost everything there concerning my childhood. I felt my memories were buried in the wreckage of my house,” said Kalkan, which means "shield "in Turkish.
The whole garden was also destroyed. The house used to be surrounded by pine trees, several of which have survived the destruction. As he stood in the middle of the demolished house describing the garden's layout, birds tweeted, a reminder about the amazing continuity of life.
“Here was a date palm and here was an olive tree. A lemon tree, a quince tree, a pomegranate tree, a loquat tree, and two walnut trees were all growing here,” he said sadly, pointing one by one to the locations where each had stood.
Now they are all gone. His parents, who have lived in Mersin since the late 1990s, were also deeply saddened by the tragic scene. But they chose to receive the news with optimism, saying “Let’s hope for the best!” That has also been Kalkan’s general reaction to the incidents.
“On earth, there is nothing unresolvable as long as we talk. If we preserve our hope for resolution, hope for resolution will remain strong,” he insisted. He thought some of the major Western powers were trying to turn the Kurdish issue into an international cause.
“Around the world, the countries that don’t like Turkey want to make [the Kurdish question] an issue for the country. The countries who don’t want Turkey to be a powerful or developed country aim to exploit this issue against Turkey,” he said.
“The most important issue for resolving the Kurdish question is [candid] sincerity. Both the Turkish state and the Kurds need to both be sincere towards the issue.”