Turkish state profits from our demolished homes - Diyarbakır residents

Former residents of the central district of Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, are suffering from government urban transformation policies that have destroyed the historical landscape of the town.

Sur, the ancient centre of Diyarbakır, was the city’s economic and cultural centre until the district was battered during the late 2015 to early 2016 violence between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

In August 2015, the youth wing of the PKK declared Sur and other city centres across the southeast autonomous zones and erected barricades to keep security forces out. After months of bitter street fighting, military operations officially ended the following March.

The government enacted a law expropriating Sur and bulldozers moved in to demolish six districts where curfews still remain in force. In 2015, the Diyarbakir Fortress that encircles Sur, as well as the Hevsel Gardens just outside, were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shortly thereafter, dozens of key cultural sites and thousands of years of history were destroyed by the state, which planned to redevelop the district.

Locals say they have suffered from the destruction and forced displacement in Sur.

Journalist Ramazan Yavuz, a former resident of Sur, told Ahval that Turkish authorities paid 150,000 Turkish liras (around $26,000) for his demolished house that was destroyed during the fighting, a below-market rate payment for the historical building.

"They dispossessed my house without asking my consent and say 'let's make a deal' as they set the price," said Yavuz. "The state is trading here."

By forcing people to sell their homes, the state sought to make a profit by selling new high-end residences built in their place.

"The aim is to do business, not return residences to the house owners in Sur,” he said.

About half of Sur was demolished and cleared of residents. People forced to leave these neighbourhoods during military operations have not seen their houses in nearly four years, due to curfews and police barricades.

"They (the authorities) will make benefits available to the wealthy. In the area behind the barricades, we used to have homes, streets. That area was my life, my childhood, my everything. My past was left behind those barricades," said another former Sur resident of Sur who asked to remain anonymous.

Several NGOs say the newly built residences contradict the district’s traditional architectural texture. The historical houses of Sur that lined the narrow labyrinthine streets were mainly inhabited by poorer Kurdish families, while some 1,500 buildings in Sur were listed by Turkish authorities as historic and protected by law, including one of the world’s oldest churches, dating back 1,700 years.

The head of Diyarbakır’s Chamber of Architects, Şerefhan Aydın, said most Sur homes were registered historical buildings, but that the General Directorate of Cultural and Natural Heritage lifted their protections after authorities declared an urban transformation project.

"Registered buildings can't be destroyed. Some of them were turned into ruins, some were totally demolished. We will file a criminal complaint against each institution (involved),” he said. “Registered building means it belongs to the common heritage of humanity.”

Lokman Bakır, a former headman of one Sur neighbourhood still under curfew, said authorities sought to change the district’s demographics by expelling poor Kurds and welcoming wealthier citizens.

"They assessed my house at 460 Turkish liras ($80) per square metre, then sell it at around 2,000 Turkish liras ($345) per square metre," Bakır said. “They are doing business.”