The annihilation of collective memory and life in concrete blocks in Diyarbakır

Sur, the ancient heart of Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakır, has a rich historical and cultural heritage, bearing the traces of different cultures. For centuries, it has been home to various civilizations. 

Diyarbakır’s famous city walls that encircle Sur and the Hevsel Gardens were listed as “world heritage” sites by UNESCO in 2015.

Sur has also been the economic and cultural centre of the region until very recently. However, curfews declared in 2015, and the battles between Turkish security forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants have devastated the city’s ancient heart, called Suriçi, an urban archaeological site. 

In late 2015, the outlawed PKK leaders declared autonomous regions in several cities in Turkey’s Kurdish dominated southeast after the collapse of a two-and-a-half-year peace process. 

The youth wing of the PKK set off implementing the declaration by digging trenches and establishing barricades to keep the security forces out.

The Turkish responded with massive military operations on urbanized terrains, conducting house-to-house fighting with tanks, urban assault vehicles and dozens of Special Forces units.

Turkey, the European Union, and the United States have designated the PKK, an armed group that has waged an insurgency in Turkey for over three decades, as a terrorist organization.

 The historic fabric and cultural heritage of the city have been irreparably damaged by virtue of the urgent expropriation orders and urban renewal projects implemented by the government after the armed clashes.

According to the “Sur Report” of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB), published in July 2017, 72 percent of buildings in 6 neighbourhoods of Sur have been wiped off the map by the state.

Almost 26,000 people living there have been forcibly displaced.

NGOs, including UNESCO and professional associations, have not been allowed to conduct investigations inside four neighbourhoods, which have been under curfew for four years in Sur. 

A vast majority of those residents, living in the buildings, which were forcibly expropriated through urgent orders, are people who had left their homes due to state policies, such as burning down and evacuation of villages in the 1990s.

Due to the demolition and forced migration in six neighbourhoods of Sur, cultural identity and collective memory of the city have been destroyed.

Sur possesses a high value of economic rent because of its accessible location and historical significance. 

It is alleged that those commercial centres, boutique hotels, and villas which have been built in place of buildings expropriated at 600 Turkish liras ($105) per square meter will be put on the market from 4000 lira ($700) per square meter.

Most of the old residents cannot afford to buy these houses. Since the State Council has dismissed their appeal against the decision to expropriate the buildings, there remain only two options for them to be able to return Sur. 

They will either accept the expropriation price offered for their old houses or concede to settling in apartments built by the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ).

The TOKİ is Turkey`s government-backed agency famous for its low-cost, high-rise apartment blocks across the country. Along with other state-sponsored major projects, it has been playing a leading role in urban renewal projects in southern Turkey, launched after the armed clashes between the security forces and the outlawed PKK militants.

A total of 1700 housing units built by the TOKİ in Üçkuyular and Çölgüzeli neighbourhoods for Sur victims are located on the outskirts of Diyarbakır.

Forced to live within the concrete blocks of these box-like TOKİ homes, which have not been designed in accordance with the vernacular architecture and traditional culture of Sur, locals have become estranged from the new living spaces and become lonely families.

Economic difficulties have worsened the living conditions of the displaced people.  

For Maaz Tanrıkulu, who moved to Çölgüzeli TOKİ houses two months ago, this is the second forced migration.

He had moved to Fatihpaşa neighborhood in Sur because his village was burnt down by the state after members of his family refused to become village guards in 1993.

“Wherever we went, we were persecuted. We have been in tatters since Sur’s destruction. Houses of my two daughters and two brothers have been demolished as well. I have moved here, as I had no other option. We do not know what to do henceforth. My wife has become ill because of her longing for Sur,” Tanrıkulu said.

A local woman named Sultan said her home, which she had lived in 40 years, had been annihilated along with all her household goods. 

“We were promised two houses for our losses. We had our own home in Sur, but we have been obliged to receive a loan of 46,000 Turkish liras ($8050) to purchase a place here. Our children are unemployed, we have been unable to make a living here,” Sultan said.

“Though we long for Sur, it is a vain hope. A lot of friends and neighbours have died while longing for Sur,” she said.

Nuri Karadağ, 60, had been living in Fatihpaşa neighbourhood of Sur for 22 years. Since his home and all belongings were burnt down, he moved into a TOKİ house and tried to live on an old-age pension of 300 Turkish liras ($52) a month.

Karadağ says he was offered 53,000 liras ($9300) for his destroyed home and belongings.

He complains about current expenses in TOKİ houses, and he misses social life and relations he used to have in the traditional neighbourhoods of Sur. 

“Here, life so expensive. Sur was a place of the poor. We all were like a family with those living in Sur. We were commiserating with neighbours when things were bad,” Karadağ says.

 Only 17 percent of the buildings in six neighbourhoods of Sur were damaged or destroyed during the armed clashes continued for 104 days, according to Şerefhan Aydın, head of the Diyarbakır branch of the Chamber of Architects.

“Through the urgent expropriation orders declared for the whole of Sur by the Council of Ministers, all properties here were confiscated. Because of security concerns, locals were not allowed in the district. Properties were bulldozed to the ground,” Aydın said. 

The state could have been attentive to keeping the cultural makeup of Sur alive, he said, by causing minimum harm while it was restoring the damaged parts of the city. 

“The state has taken the easy way out. It has destroyed the living spaces of thousands of locals. They have created a flattened field, a desert,” Aydın said. 

“The destruction in Sur has been quite different from those urban transformation projects implemented in other cities of Turkey. The project in Sur has been realized with the ambition of pulverizing the politicized population in the region,” Aydın argued.

İskender Demir, head of the Diyarbakir branch of the TMMOB, describes the urban renewal projects in Sur as unlawful from beginning to end.

“During this process, NGOs and professional associations were excluded,” he told Ahval.

“Principles of the urban design were ignored, and the oldest settlements were demolished in Sur. This spatial destruction is also cultural destruction. It has caused the vanishing of the bond of belonging constructed between the people and the city. The collective memory of the city has been erased,” Demir said.

Aydın draws attention to the social trauma, the forced displacements have caused.

“Individuals and families have become isolated. Social disintegration has occurred. As the principal partner of the projects, the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning has not developed any strategy to rehabilitate these people. We, the NGOs in the city, have been unable to find remedies to the problems of the locals,” Aydın said.