Monica Frassoni went on a mission to Turkey. Read up on her experience below. You can find the MEPs appeal for the cease-fire here and the press release here.
A cold wet wind is on us and the soaked policemen in front of the makeshift barrier prevent our delegation of MEPs and Turkish ecologists to enter Derik, a Kurdish village 70 km from Dijarbakir. Derik is the last on the list of locations suffering an amazing 24-hour curfew a day. Who knows if Derik will become like Cizre, near the border with Syria, now completely destroyed and abandoned by its inhabitants. Many have died there trying to escape the siege after the killing of a child by the police and the construction of trenches inside the city by the "militants" closer to the young wing of the PKK (YDG-H). It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 have had to flee and leave their homes in that area. These too, are "refugees", only that they are Turkish nationals.
Or perhaps Derik will become the new Sur, the historic center of Dyjarbakir. A place 24.000 people used to inhabit and where, after weeks of mortar shells and gunfire, there are still an estimated number of 20 militants and 130 people trapped. A group of 6 came out last Friday with the mediation of the Dutch draftsperson on the accession process of Turkey, the MEP Kati Piri. Of those six people, a 55-year-old lady bled to death after waiting in vain for an ambulance for 2 hours in the center of a city that hosts one million inhabitants. The other five were arrested on charges of being members the PKK, not exactly an encouragement for other citizens to come out.
This was the context of a short trip to Mardin and Dijarbakir with a delegation of Greens/EFA MEPs and Turkish Greens whom I was glad to accompany from the 21st until the 24th of February. Michel Reimon, MEP and member of the EGP Committee, accompanied us.
During our short stay in Mardin, a historical city which once was the destination of five million tourists a year, we met the Co-mayors of Mardin, Nusaybin and Cizre. Like us Greens, the HDP party has always had co-leadership, but applies it in an even more stringent way. In municipal elections there are always two candidate-mayors, although officially only one is elected. This practice, just like many others, is very disturbing to Erdogan. He has repeatedly stated that there is no such thing as women's issues, because a woman's role is to take care of the household and have children. The Co-mayors of Cezre, Leyla Imret, and Nusaybin, Sara Kaya, have managed to get permission to go out after weeks of complete curfew. Leyla, a sweet fair-haired young woman, explains life under 24H curfew; she says that she was dismissed from her post after an interview whose meaning was completely distorted. She was happy to be with us after 78 days of "house arrest" extended to all her fellow-citizens. Sara, a beautiful lady full of energy, explains that she was in jail for three months. At the very least she had access to electricity and hot water, unlike her 4 children who stayed at home.
In Mardin and Dijarbakir we also met the leaders of the AKP ruling party, Mehment Dundar and Muhammed Akar, as well as the governors of the provinces of Mardin and Dyjarbakir, Omer Faruk Kokac and Huseyin Aksoy. The environment in their offices is vastly different; giant posters and photomontages of a triumphant Erdogan and Prime Minister Davoutoglou. There’s a woman in sight, not even to serve the inevitable tea. Very cordial but with a large amount of bla-bla. Basically copy-paste vocabulary, which boils down to the position that peace will be possible when terrorists will depose arms and surrender. No answer on the real reasons that led Erdogan to break the negotiations with the Kurds on the verge of the end of last year, or about what might convince the government to resume the dialogue and stop the war, nor about the use of “excessive” force denounced by all major international NGOs.
Erdogan's government believes in victory through violence and moderate voices, like the head of the AKP of Djyatbakir, do not seem to have much space. Erdogan openly expresses his will to eradicate the Kurdish resistance and Davoutouglou envisions Sur similar to Toledo after the bombing of Franco (!!). Ordinary citizens, terrorists and activists are often indiscriminately put in one group. Not many outside of here talk about this conflict and this is of course one of the reasons why we decided to come. Indeed, we should not forget that it takes place in a NATO country, which in recent months has a key role in many fields. Ranging from the war in Syria to the tragedy of refugees, within a context of increasing restrictions on freedom, repression of dissent and economic crisis.
We spent our day in Dijarbakir focusing on the issue of the siege of Sur; we met various representatives of intellectuals and NGOs who came from Istanbul, several Members of the HDP and the DVK party and Djarbakir Co-mayors. They suggested us to speak with the Governor and to push him to grant a truce long enough to allow people to get out safely and without being systematically arrested.
The Governor, Huseyin Aksor, who behind the kind words and manners deals with the issue without giving much space for compromise, promised that on Wednesday the 24th of February from 15h30 to 17 he will stop the mortar siege. He argued that the area is small and that an hour and a half of ceasefire would be enough to bring out those who want to get out. However, he will not allow either the medical personnel, nor the local deputies or Co-mayors, nor us, nor anyone at all to come and take people who were barricaded in cellars. He concedes at most that a camera films everything, in order to show how special forces behave. He noted that this is the last chance before the final attack because the terrorists who have built barriers and trenches throughout the city cannot remain. If their families do not want to leave, that's their problem. He asked us to let him know at what place the people will come out.
After this strange conversation, we all went to the cultural center of Sur, in the middle of the still half open part of Sur. It was full of smoke, excellent bread, tea and worried people. The atmosphere similar to that of the communist “Case del Popolo” you can see in the neo-realist Italian movies of the 50’s. To enter, we passed a check of relatively informal and grouchy policemen. When they opened the barrier to let us inside the ancient wall, one of them ironically said to our companions: "and tell your foreign guests to be careful not to damage anything.". In the center, a great discussion was going on around the possibility to accept or decline the invitation of the Governor, because everyone understood that the time was getting short and a final attack was a real possibility.
A complete lack of confidence was dominating the conversations. They mentioned several times that in Sur, the same pattern of what happened in Cizre was being followed. In Cizre the HDP had trusted the police and had asked people to come out, but some of them were shot. To our surprise, we became involved in the debate and I spent some time on the phone with the governor’s office, HDP and the mayor’s offices to see if our presence could at all be useful. In this moment, I didn’t know how this would end, but I knew they were all pessimistic. The Governor asked – for the first time – the people still in Sur to surrender or face the consequences. On Wednesday, during the time in which the cease-fire was supposed to take place, shoot-outs were still continuing.
Green MEPs taking part in the mission together with other MEPs, including Richard Howitt, who was there a few days before us, together with Kati Piri have just published an appeal for an immediate cease-fire open to the signature of all MEPs, on invitation of the mayors of Djiarbakir.
Whilst aware of our impotence, we were happy to be there. At the very least we supported the local authorities and helped the image of benevolent Europe somehow to survive. Many of the people present weren’t very young, many were female, many had been in jail, but a lot mentioned to us the hope of a possible European intervention. They couldn’t understand why it seemed so difficult to accept that the authoritarian trend of the AKP government, the renewed conflict in the south-east and the lack of interest in going back to negotiations, would indeed not help limiting the flow of migrants. Yes, indeed, Erdogan threatened to send them all to us when the EU asked him to open the borders after the bombing in Aleppo. The answer Erdogan gave was clear and in a way well deserved: "I have not written “idiot” on my forehead".
I finished the short mission with an action together with the Turkish Greens in front of the prison of Silivri, where journalists Can Dundar and Erdem Gul were detained. Just a few hours before the Court accepted their appeal and stated that their rights were violated, as a consequence, they were set free but they’re still awaiting trial!
We were about the last ones to be present just in front of the small tent where everyday activists and supporters came to support them and all the other silenced journalists. Can Dundar spoke about the “power” of a small tent in front of a palace, referring to the enormous 1150 rooms and 600 million euro’s presidential palace that was built by Erdogan.
Despite this excellent news, it seems obvious that the government of Erdogan and Davoutoglou feels confident and strong at home. Yet, they could be misguided, judging from the declining economic situation and the heavy blow to tourism and investments. But it is a fact that they play the strong hand towards the EU, which is divided, weak and disinterested in the conflict in the South-East. It’s lenient to the ambiguous strategies of Erdogan, who is far from giving up the dream of becoming president and changing the Constitution. He seems to even be preparing for new elections. He aims to finally win the absolute majority that still eludes him after putting on a leash on the judiciary and allying with nationalists and the military, who he opposed for so long.
After receiving the promise of 3 billion euros from the EU to "improve the living conditions of refugees", Erdogan is using the refugee pressure to seek the approval of the EU to his strategy to create an anti-Kurdish "safe zone" in the North of Syria. For now, he has no interest whatsoever in stopping the violence. This is not a detail. A “safe zone” could entail a no-fly zone and the involvement of NATO.
It is also clear that Erdogan has a powerful ally in the toughest parts of the Kurdish resistance and extremists. Some of our interlocutors told us clearly that the PKK is concerned that the situation could really get out of hand, if there is no prospect of a resumption of dialogue. For example, the suicide bomber who blew himself up in the midst of young soldiers in central Ankara last week is not, as was thought at the beginning, a Syrian Kurd but a young Kurdish Turk member of an obscure independent group. And the young Kurds who build trenches in the middle of towns and villages of their people do not seem to care too much in view of the risks to which they expose the inhabitants.
To summarize; a country that only a few years ago seemed to enjoy stability, with a civil society increasingly vibrant and organized, economic growth, definitely not sustainable, but nevertheless real. This country now finds itself in a political, economic and social drift, that’s pushing it back to poverty and unemployment.
On March the 3rd Tusk will be in Ankara, in order to prepare a meeting of the Heads of State and Government with Turkey. This is scheduled for March the 7th and probably with the intent to say YES to the safe zone.
Certainly, judging from the ruins of the ancient Sur district, this meeting does not appear particularly promising. The EU seems to continue to cultivate the illusion of stopping the flow of refugees by focusing on the authoritarian government of Erdogan and his delusions of grandeur. Its member states are moving at random, further weakening the already unconvincing joint action.
We'll have to see what the future will hold. But I do fear that, unfortunately, this illusion will bear a high cost in terms of human suffering and political credibility to the refugees, both for the Turkish people and the EU.