“Nonexistent neighbourhoods” – candidates in Diyarbakır’s ruined areas prepare for vote

On March 31 over 57 million voters across Turkey will choose mayors, councillors and muhtars (neighbourhood heads) in local elections.

Candidates across the country are already fighting fiercely for seats in yet another election the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has said is of life-or-death significance. But the muhtar candidates in the historic Sur district in the city centre of Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south-east, face a struggle unlike any other in the country.

In Sur, the elections will take place in abandoned neighbourhoods still under the world’s longest-running curfew, amid wide-scale destruction wrought since 2015, when Turkish security forces mobilised to suppress an uprising by Kurdish militants.

Thousands of voters are still registered in the Hasırlı, Savaş, Cemal Yılmaz, Fatihpaşa and Ali Paşa neighbourhoods of Sur. Yet they have been reduced almost entirely to rubble, and no residents remain in the areas.

Two more of Sur’s neighbourhoods, Savaş and Fatih Paşa, each have just two streets still standing, with only a handful of voters living on them.

The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) sparked decades of conflict in Turkey’s southeast when it launched an armed uprising for Kurdish self-rule in 1984. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government entered peace talks with the PKK in 2012, but these broke down in 2015, leading to a period of heavy fighting and 24-hour curfews in many majority-Kurdish cities.

Diyarbakır was one of these, and has seen some of the worst destruction in its historic central district of Sur. Although the fighting ended in Sur on March 9, 2016,  the curfew has continued to this day, and residents who fled have not been allowed to return home.

Instead, the cabinet in the previous government announced a decision in 2016, weeks after the fighting ceased, to expropriate around 82 percent of the land in the district, casting further doubt on whether those residents will be able to return.

A ruined neighbourhood in Sur, Diyarbakır.
A ruined neighbourhood in Sur, Diyarbakır.

Meanwhile, a report published in 2017 by the Diyarbakır branch of the Union of Chambers of Engineers and Architects of Turkey revealed that 3,569 buildings had been destroyed in the six neighbourhoods, but that a significant number of these were demolished after the end of the fighting.

And, while a great many residents have fled their homes and are not allowed back, there is good reason not to officially change addresses for those receiving housing benefits or hoping to return to the neighbourhoods, making it impossible to determine the exact number of people who have left.

One of those residents is Kadir Yılmaz, who was forced to leave his home of 21 years in Cemal Yılmaz neighbourhood after the fighting started and has been prevented from returning to his home except for one occasion.

“When I went back I saw the neighbourhood in ruins. Our home has been destroyed, there’s nothing left of our garden except trees. It’s not just our neighbourhood that’s been destroyed, it’s all our memories, too,” said Yılmaz.

This is the situation the candidates for the muhtar role in the ruined neighbourhoods will have to contend with, first during campaigns where they have little idea how to reach voters, and later, if they are elected, when they have to carry out the day-to-day administrative duties of muhtars, including registering residents.

Nevertheless, there are already a good number of contenders for the muhtar position, and locals Ahval spoke to said they expected this number to rise even further before the elections.

With barely any buildings left standing in the neighbourhoods they are running for, and few if any residents remaining, the candidates are instead running their campaigns in nearby neighbourhoods.

Besides this, they are racing to track down registered voters at their new homes or by telephone to ask for their support.

Cengiz Madenli, a muhtar candidate in Sur.
Cengiz Madenli, a muhtar candidate in Sur.

Cengiz Madenli, a candidate running in the Cemal Yılmaz neighbourhood, told Ahval the number of voters had dropped from 1,300 to just 100. Going by the experiences of Madenli, a 25-year resident of the neighbourhood, that change is more than natural given the state of the area.

“When I went back I couldn’t find my home. My house had been destroyed,” Madenli said, describing the only time in four years of curfew the police allowed him back into his neighbourhood.

 “Since voters have moved all around the city, we don’t know their addresses, so we can’t go and talk to them. That means we don’t know about their problems or what they want,” Madenli said.

“Even so, as much as people have migrated away, they’ll never be able to stop themselves from visiting the neighbourhood, and since I work around here I see those who come back quite often. When I do, I ask them for support,” he said.

Madenli has said if he is elected he will strive to return the people of the neighbourhood to their homes and ensure that new ones are built to replace demolished ones at appropriate standards.

Several of the candidates reached by Ahval declined requests for interview, saying they feared that the government could replace them with its own administrators if they spoke openly about the situation in Sur.

Since the resumption of conflict in 2015, the AKP government has replaced almost elected 100 Kurdish municipal governments in Turkey’s southeast with government-appointed administrations, as well as many more local councillors and muhtars.

Ahmet Şen, who had served as muhtar in Savaş neighbourhood, is one of these. He was removed from his position in 2018, but is running again.

“I still don’t know why I was dismissed, but I think they replaced me because I always stood up for the rights of the neighbourhood people,” said Şen.  

While 90 percent of the neighbourhood has been destroyed, Şen says Kurdish communities overcame similar destruction in the 1990s, a previous period of fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants.

Şen is not making any electoral promises in this campaign, but says he would rather work to remedy the suffering experienced by the people of his neighbourhood in recent years. 

“I’m not going to promise to build roads or bridges like a politician would. I’ll do everything in my power to claim the people’s rights,” Şen said.

Şen acknowledges that will be a tough fight, especially since the expropriation of properties in the district seems certain to prevent residents’ return.

“Honestly, it will be hard. To be honest nobody will come back to Sur. It’s a clear fact. They’re giving out compensation for the houses destroyed there worth between 35,000 and 55,000 lira, but the new houses they’re building are going to be worth 400,000,” Şen said.

Metin Arslan, another candidate from Savaş, has like other residents of the neighbourhood seen his home destroyed, and shares Şen’s pessimism.

“It wouldn’t be right for me to make promises to voters, because there’s no neighbourhood. But I’ll try to do whatever muhtar’s duties I can do,” Arslan said.

Kadir Yılmaz is all too aware of the absurdity of the situation he and his former neighbours have been placed in. Yet he is determined to use his right to vote in spite of this.

“I’m the voter of a neighbourhood that exists on paper but not in reality,” said Yılmaz. “The problems we are facing are far greater than choosing a muhtar, and they aren’t problems that can be solved by any muhtar. But I’ll go and cast my vote.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.