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Ahmet, 21, walks past a house where a man is smearing wet concrete on a wall riddled with bullet holes. A young girl balances over a massive mine crater that scars the street, filled with debris and muddy water.
“Look what this war has done to the neighbourhood,” Ahmet says, greeting the girl with a nod. A member of the Civil Defence Units (YPS) – formerly known as the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) – Ahmet voices doubts about this new urban conflict in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east. “I believe in autonomy, but these methods are wrong, they hurt us.”
Violence has escalated since a ceasefire between the government in Ankara and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) broke down last July, leaving a tentative three-year peace process in tatters and reviving a conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives since it began in 1984.
“So many of my friends have died here,” says Ahmet, pointing vaguely at the narrow streets that now lie devastated. “Many of them were kids from Sur.” According to the Turkish general chief of staff, 279 militants were killed in the clashes in the central Sur district of Diyarbakir, as well as at least 60 soldiers and police officers.
“Many believe they can take on the army, the Turkish state, because they carry a gun,” he says. “But the rich people don’t end up in the police or the army. It’s always the poor.”
In one of several attempts at self-rule in cities and towns across the region, activists announced local administrative autonomy for Sur in August last year. The government in Ankara responded with a violent crackdown, imposing blanket curfews on several towns, and Turkish security forces have deployed tanks and other heavy weaponry against armed Kurdish militants who have dug trenches and erected barricades.
Local residents are caught in the crossfire. According to a recent International Crisis Group report, at least 250 civilians are estimated to have been killed and more than 350,000 displaced. More curfews have been issued for the towns of Nusaybin, Sirnak and Yüksekova, where massive security operations are under way.
The conflict reached the heart of the country when suicide bombers killed 29 people in February, and another 37 in March in Ankara. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (Tak), a radical offshoot of the PKK, claimed responsibility for both bombings and vowed that attacks would continue in retaliation for security operations in the south-east.
In Sur, the military intervention officially came to an end on 10 March. The pro-government press declared victory, claiming that “Sur was cleansed of all terrorists”, but Aynur, a teacher in a primary school in central Diyarbakir, fears that the long-term costs of these operations will be high.
“The children feel totally disconnected from their country. They feel that the government sees them as enemies, not citizens,” she says. “Right now everyone is afraid, everyone is worried about staying alive. But once the dust will settle, in a year maybe or in two, fear will give way to anger.”
Those familiar with the region have long warned of a radicalisation among young Kurds in Turkey. Seraffetin Elçi, a well-known Kurdish politician originally from Cizre, who died in 2012, spoke of “tempest children” when describing this coming, angrier generation.
“We are the last generation with whom you can find a solution [to the Kurdish issue],” he told a parliamentary commission only months before his death. “After us comes one so angry that it will be difficult for them to make peace with the Turks, because … that generation sees Turks only as the gendarme, the police, the prosecutor, the judge, as those that beat them up and oppress them.”
Aynur agrees. In her class, she says, all the children sympathise with the Kurdish militants of the PKK’s youth wing, the YPS, who are fighting government forces in the cities. Names of fighters appear as admiring doodles on notebooks, and during breaks children imitate the “defence” of a “barricade” in the yard.
“These fighters are their idols, their role models,” the teacher explains. “The kids here are traumatised. First graders in Sur don’t dream of becoming doctors or engineers; they want to become guerrilla fighters. Instead of additions, they learn how to tell the sound of a mine explosion from that of a missile. They are not afraid of the shooting any more. No child should have to grow up like this.” In her eyes the entire school year is lost. Of the 800 students enrolled at her school, two-thirds are now absent, either because their families have fled or because they are too scared to leave the house.
“But school is everything for kids in Sur. There are no playgrounds, no parks in this neighbourhood,” Aynur says. “Here they can take a breath, see their friends and play. It’s good for their well-being. But that, too, is now finished.”
Due to the violence in urban centres across the region, numerous school buildings have been shut down or turned into military headquarters or, due to pressure from Kurdish militants to boycott Turkish-language education, tens of thousands of children have been deprived of schooling. Parents and teachers in Sur say that those children who do still attend classes are often unable to concentrate, and that report cards do not reflect academic success.
Sakine, 35, a mother of three and a lifelong Sur resident, says that her eight-year-old son, a second grader, is still unable to read and write. “The teachers give them passing grades, but it’s just a formality. Often there are no lessons at all,” she says, dismayed. “My children don’t believe me when I tell them that Kurds are equal to Turks. They are very angry. If they don’t listen to their parents now, how will they listen to anyone when they are older?”
Many of those who fight on the barricades today might not remember the “dirty war” that raged in the 1990s, but they have grown up with family members’ tales of forced disappearances, torture and humiliation at the hands of the authorities.
Turkish writer and publicist Ömer Laçiner adds the importance of socio-economic factors, citing high unemployment, especially among young people, and the utter lack of any perspective as reasons why they enlist with the PKK or their offshoots.
“Kurds have been disenfranchised for decades. They start their education at a disadvantage because of the lack of mother-tongue education. They often come from poor backgrounds. Many feel they cannot compete with Turks in the labour market,” he says.
“When a kid from one of the poor neighbourhoods in the south-east sees how fighters are glorified on social media among friends, they also see an opportunity to finally be someone.”
Unemployment rates in the south-east, especially among young people, have consistently been the highest in the country. Investment is utterly lacking. Scores of young men find only seasonal work in tourism in western provinces, but with the sector expected to plummet by 50% this season, prospects are increasingly grim.
Parents in Sur worry about their children joining the urban militants, many of whom are believed to be under age. “I don’t let [my 14-year-old son] do the victory sign any more, I don’t let him do all the [PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan] stuff. I know what a dangerous path that can lead down,” said one man, a minibus driver originally from Bingöl. “Two boys from our village were killed in Sur. They were 16 and 17 years old. Both went to school in our neighbourhood. What for? I feel our youth is being fooled [by the PKK] in this fight.”
Hundreds are said to have joined the PKK since the conflict flared again last summer. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ party (HDP), warned the Turkish government against further curtailing legitimate Kurdish politics. “After 27 days of the curfew in Silopi, 500 young people went to the mountains [to join the PKK]. Not one single person joined the HDP, which means they don’t see any hope in parliament.”
“Young people fighting in the cities are the real victims, but they don’t realise this,” says Gürcan, stressing the lack of any deradicalisation programme in Turkey. “Toxic politics and extreme polarisation in Turkey alienate them from political processes. The PKK has direct communication channels to these kids, but Ankara simply does not.”
Some names have been changed.