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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 November, 2004, 13:16 GMT
Turkish journey: City in transition
The BBC's Istanbul correspondent Jonny Dymond is exploring Turkish life across the vast country as it lobbies the European Union to open membership talks.

He sent the fourth of a series of reports from the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.

Appearances can be deceptive. For the first two days of my visit to Diyarbakir, the emblem of Turkey's "Kurdish problem", the city was bathed in winter sunshine.

The city walls which date back to the Byzantine era, made from great blocks of basalt and in places several metres thick with chambers within, were a fine place to stand and view the place.

Children celebrate the end of Ramadan in Diyarbakir with toy guns
Celebrating the end of Ramadan in Diyarbakir with toy guns

From there I could admire the mosques built in the Arabic style and the vast gatehouses of the wall themselves, and watch the hordes of children run around or tear about on low powered motorbikes, oblivious to the risk of sudden death.

Nearly all the children in Diyarbarkir were armed over the three-day holiday following Ramadan, and they were brandishing their new weapons with glee.

Some held pistols, carefully cleaning and filling the magazines with ammunition. Some held rifles, peering down the sights at their enemies.

And many held the paramilitary's weapons of choice, the Kalashnikov. Gun battles raged along the narrow streets of the old city. Sometimes, I was caught in the crossfire.

All of the weapons were made of plastic. It is one of the crazier traditions of this area, bloodied as it was by decades of paramilitary, state and extra-judicial violence, that children get toy guns for the holidays.

The mayor says it is a tradition he will break when he has children. We will see how long that particular promise lasts.

In the sunshine it was difficult to be as miserable as I normally am when I come to Diyarbakir.

A friend with esoteric tastes in travel told me over the phone that he found the city "rather charming".

For twenty-odd years this city has been a place of violence, fear and sometimes of horror

I remained silent, sceptical. But he clearly is not the only one. Because there are Turkish tourists now coming to Diyarbarkir.

They wandered into my hotel; it's not the best in town - no business suites, and broadband connections are some way off - but it is the most beautiful, a 16th century caravanserai - a resting point for travellers and their camels on the Silk Road - built around a courtyard in basalt and the black and white stone that many of the local mosques also use.

The tourists came into the courtyard, wielded cameras, took glasses of tea and then went off again. I sat dumbfounded.

Because whilst there are many good reasons for tourists to come, for 20-odd years this city has been a place of violence, fear and sometimes of horror. It was the sort of place that journalists love and tourists hate. No more, it seems.

The city feels much more relaxed and, at times, especially in good weather, you might almost say it is at ease with itself.

Being watched

For a start the residents will talk to strangers happily, rather than warily looking over their shoulders to see who might be watching. One couple told me that five or six years ago they would never have let me into their home.

That is not to say that the vast and underemployed security apparatus has disappeared.

Jonny was monitored as he visited a cemetery in Diyarbakir
Jonny was monitored when he visited a cemetery in Diyarbakir

When I went to the city cemetery on the first morning of the holiday - first residents visit the dead, then they visit the living - the policeman I spoke to to try and find out the whereabouts of the mayor knew my every move of the last hour.

"You've been in the cemetery," he said. "You've been taking pictures." It was for him clearly a day's pay well earned.

Several Turks whom I had told that I was coming to the city had all but groaned. "It's the first place you foreigners always go to," one middle-aged lady had told me. There is some truth in the accusation.

The city is easy meat for journalists looking for outrage. You can fly in, chat with the human rights gang, talk to some poor soul who has been brutalised by the security forces, file a story on how ghastly the Turks are and fly back to the comforts of Paris, Copenhagen or Edinburgh.


So, as I trudged up an unlit stairwell towards a woman whose husband had been "disappeared" in the mid-nineties, I knew I was on a well trodden path. We talked for an hour and a half.

The only time she got to know of her husband's fate was when a police officer would attempt to turn her into an informer and would, by the by, tell her that she should stop looking.

I asked her whether the fight had been worth it, given that the Turkish government has, under pressure from the EU, yielded on cultural rights for the country's large Kurdish minority.

Turkish tourists visiting the city
Turkish tourists are beginning to visit the city

Silly question. Because she, and nearly all her relatives, had not fought for the right to run a Kurdish language TV station, or have a school teach in Kurdish.

They fought, and many died, for an independent Kurdistan, a place that just happens to sit on territory currently in the possession of the Republic of Turkey.

One should not be too surprised that Turkey fought back as it did. The country was born out of struggle - the struggle to maintain some kind of territorial integrity at the end of World War I as the Allies decided to carve up Anatolia and walk away with it themselves.

No threat to the integrity of the republic was ever going to go unanswered. It is a matter for others to judge how proportionate Turkey's response was.

I schlepped back down the six flights of stairs. Outside it was pouring, the grey roads filling with rain from the grey skies.

The new city, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Kurds live in miserable poverty, looked horrible - stump after stump of ugly apartment blocks. "Rather charming," I thought as I stomped around looking for a taxi. Hmmm.

Things are getting better in Diyarbakir, no doubt about it. But it is a slow, slow process.

Many - most - residents are badly damaged by what they refer to as "the war" and the resurgence in violence between Kurdish paramilitaries and the security forces threatens much of the progress of the last few years.

Appearances can be deceptive.


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