Gizem Yarbil is a producer at Worldfocus and recently reported, along with Bryan Myers, the Worldfocus signature video Turkey’s Kurds Seek Justice for Unsolved Murders. Gizem grew up in Turkey and writes of her experiences covering the story of Kurdish grievances, which remain a polarizing political issue in Turkey.
It was a blistering morning in early June and we were driving in the southeast of Turkey. Worldfocus producer Bryan Myers and I were traveling to Diyarbakir for a story about the Kurds and the latest developments in their often tragic plight.
We had already shot and produced two stories around Turkey, but this one was especially important for me. Surrounded by golden fields that were illuminated by the scorching southeast sun, I was traveling to a region, which, up until a few years ago, was a no-go area in my country.
The southeast of Turkey is a predominantly Kurdish region, which has witnessed a three-decade long armed ethnic conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish separatists. The separatists have been fighting for the region’s independence from Turkey since the early 1980s, although now they claim they would accept basic cultural and political rights. According to many sources, the conflict has claimed more than 30,000 lives, most of them Kurds.
I didn’t know what to expect from the trip in Diyarbakir, the main city in the Turkish southeast and the capital of Kurdish political and cultural life. I had heard stories about journalists who had had their tapes confiscated and erased, and been subject to aggressive behavior from the Turkish police. The local journalist who accompanied us said that the situation was slightly improved from the time when the conflict was at its most intense a decade ago, but he also warned that filming police, military personnel and official buildings was out of the question.
When I was growing up, everything I heard from Diyarbakir involved death and tragedy. Turkish media has covered the conflict extensively through the years, but generally only from the Turkish military’s point of view. Visuals of crying mothers of dead soldiers, coffins and military funerals on the evening news often accompanied our family dinners. But I don’t remember ever seeing a crying Kurdish mother or anything about the other side of the story on the news. For many of us, Kurds were the enemy, the “Other” that existed to destroy the Turkish people and the nation.
But, later in life, as I dug deeper into the subject (and especially during our trip to the region) everything was very different from what I’d been told growing up in Turkey.
The story we’ve produced in Diyarbakir is about two men, whose family members went missing in the 90s, during the height of the conflict. They long suspected that their loved ones have been kidnapped and murdered by a secret paramilitary group that is directly connected to the State security forces.
A former member of the paramilitary group, who now lives in Sweden, came out a few years ago and confessed to taking part in some of these kidnappings and murders. Now, he is leading state authorities to find the sites that may hold the remains of some people who went missing in the 90s. So far several sites have been excavated and hundreds of bones have been dug up and sent for DNA testing.
These developments would have been a quixotic dream for many Kurds only ten years ago. But now things are changing. Several government and military officials have been arrested and put on trial in connection with human rights violations in the region among other crimes.
These positive developments certainly had an impact on the people of the region. Before we left, we went to eat at a beautiful restaurant with a view of an ancient bridge just outside of Diyarbakir. As we were admiring the view, our driver pointed to the landscape spreading out before us and whispered into my ear. “A lot of bodies used to be dumped around here,” he said. When I asked him how Diyarbakir was nowadays, and how people were feeling, the waiter serving our table immediately jumped in, “Everything is great in Diyarbakir. Everything is perfect!” he exclaimed.
To my eyes, there was a more peaceful atmosphere, and people seemed to feel more hopeful and more secure. There was more investment in the area, especially in tourism. I even heard Hilton was planning to build a hotel very soon.
But that was several months ago. Recent developments have stirred up the region once again, reminding us of the turbulent days of the 1990s. After a top Turkish court banned the main Kurdish political party from parliament, violent clashes between frustrated Kurds and the Turkish police erupted across the southeast including in Diyarbakir.
This move by the judiciary will undoubtedly stall the reform process the leading political party initiated. Without more concrete steps to make peace with the Kurdish minority, tranquility will continue to elude the region.
– Gizem Yarbil
For more Worldfocus coverage of Turkey, visit our extended coverage page: Turkey between East and West.