From Urban Transformation to Urban Warfare: Kurdish Cities Under Siege

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In the last decade, Turkey’s urban transformation regime introduced by the Justice and Development Party rule has been increasingly experienced as a cycle of violence. Strategic decisions on urban development were made behind closed doors; changes in the legislative were sided with the power-holders; the accumulation of capital was based upon dispossession of urban poor and enclosure of urban commons; established neighborhoods were demolished to the ground for the value of their land; urban inhabitants were forced to sense the fragility of refugees in their own cities; urban social movements were criminalized for their voice; the means of surveillance and control were expanded; and the construction workers were liberally killed throughout this process due to poor safety conditions. Overall, the economy dominated by the extraction and construction sectors left behind an urban landscape resembling in many aspects geographies of war. Today, for multiple Kurdish cities under siege by the repressive state apparatus, this resemblance has turned into a direct form of representation.

Diyarbakır, the unofficial Kurdish cultural and political ‘capital’ in Turkey, is one of the seven cities (Batman, Elazığ, Hakkari, Mardin, Muş, Şırnak) within the Southeastern part of the country that has been going through a destructive urban warfare since the summer of 2015. In total 22 districts from these seven provinces have been experiencing curfews and subsequent military siege and bombings by the Turkish State since August 16, 2015. Some lasted for few hours; others up to few months, claiming at least 310 civilians lives as of March 18, 2016. The historical walled city of Sur in Diyarbakır, which was declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, has been among those districts, where 24 civilians were killed. Sur is made distinct by its urban heritage from the other cities, allowing the articulation of urban warfare to the ongoing urban transformation plans.

In Sur, urban development being confined by the historical walls had paved the way into the densification of the inner city area where mainly the urban poors have been living. This creates a maze like, complex urban form adorned with narrow streets, small alleys and numerous heritage sites and monuments. Whilst Sur’s morphology has been allowing its mostly internally displaced low income residents to seek refuge at the center of Diyarbakır and Kurdish rebels to ‘play’ hide and seek with the authorities, its rich urban heritage has whet the appetite of the public and private actors behind the urban transformation projects. 

Funambulist Adanali
February 3, 2016 in the walled city of Sur / Photograph by Ayşe Adanalı

The case of Sur reveals the fact that what makes urban heritage initially and essentially political/contested notion is its linkage with destruction. Destruction belongs to the jurisdiction of power. It has utmost centrality especially for a power in search of establishing its hegemony through space. The current Turkish government, which has increasingly become authoritarian in the last decade and enthusiastically pursued neoliberal politics, also transformed destruction into a celebrated event. Most of the interventions into urban space are first heralded by way of destruction.

Tahir Elçi, a prominent human rights lawyer and former president of Diyarbakır Bar Association, was shot in the head during a press release he was making next to a damaged historical monument in Sur on November 28, 2015. Elçi was trying to raise voice and increase the visibility of the destruction caused by the armed conflict on the lives of civilians as well as on the urban heritage. A couple of days before being assassinated right next to the UNESCO listed monument dating back to 906 AD, Elçi tweeted: “One of the symbols of Diyarbakır, the Four Legged Minaret has been assassinated by guns.” The minaret was among 124 historical monuments and 410 registered buildings theoretically protected by both the National Heritage Conservation legislation and UNESCO. In less than 3 months from Elçi’s death, the whole inner-city area had been demolished through the ongoing urban warfare, most of the listed buildings including the Minaret were heavily damaged.

The heritage town, by waging a war and sending tanks to the streets, was demolished and consequently made ready for reconstruction. The site had already been declared “a high risk area in need of urban transformation” in 2012, based on a particular law on disaster drafted in order to facilitate the transformation process. The destruction of the old town and its urban heritage was followed by the dispossession of urban poor living in the area. The ‘creative’ destruction via urban warfare opened a window of opportunity for the power-holders entering the site, first to declare a curfew, then to forcefully evict its residents. Based on the earlier “risk area” decision, the Council of Ministers implemented the emergency expropriation of around 60 percent of all the properties within the area. The land and property grabbing was legitimized by the de facto demolition of urban heritage, hence, the need for renovation/reconstruction.

The aim to “discipline, control and colonize” Sur disguised as heritage conservation has been an excuse for forced eviction of urban poor, expropriation of their properties and redevelopment of the inner-city area for potentially higher income and politically in/less active groups. There has been a direct link between gentrification and heritage conservation within urban transformation. The so-called “conservation” of heritage sites legitimizes forced displacement of urban poors, housing violations and state-led gentrification projects. And the way in which these “conservation” projects are implemented consists in destroying the heritage itself, so that a new regime of control can be introduced in the narrow and rebellious streets of Sur. With regards to the reconstruction of the Walled City of Diyarbakır, PM Davutoglu stated recently: ‘‘We’ll rebuild Sur so that it’s like Toledo: everyone will want to come and appreciate its architectural texture.’’

Whilst the militarized urban transformation paradigm treats the city and urban heritage as a tabula rasa, hence decontextualizing the space from its historical, cultural, geographical, and social dimensions, at discursive and symbolic levels, it also aims to rely on a nostalgic urban/architectural reference point. Within the context of Turkey, we can call this strategy “the restoration of the glorious past,” which tries to rediscover/redefine the past based on today’s cultural codes. Yet, the authenticity of the rediscovered past is nothing more than a theme park, with its baseless historicism, collage style, contemporary construction techniques and materials. Despite the fact that the official architecture of the current government in Turkey is so-called ‘Ottoman-Seljuk’ style, emphasizing the Turkish-Islamic cultural roots, Toledo reference for Sur probably aim to conceal the obvious threat of colonization of the Kurdish heritage town under siege.

Urban Heritage Under Attack – Timeline ///

1988: Sur declared an urban heritage site by the Regional Cultural Heritage Conservation Board

2009: Diyarbakır Governorship, Mass Housing Administration (TOKI) and Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality sign a protocol for urban renewal projects targeting 4 neighbourhoods (Cevatpaşa, Fatihpaşa, Alipaşa, Lalebey) in Sur.

2012, November 04: The Council of Ministers declares Sur ‘risk area’ to ease the renewal process.

2012: Houses of residences take part in the urban renewal project were demolished.   

2015, July 04: Sur and its surrounding area is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

2015, July: The armed conflict between the State and Kurdish rebels restarts.

2015, August 15: Kurdish political establishment declares “autonomy” at Sur district.

2015, September 06: Curfew declared (last for 1 day)

2015, September 13: Curfew declared (last for 2 days)

2015, October 10: Curfew declared (last for 4 days)

2015, November 28: Tahir Elçi is killed during making a press release on the damaged heritage site.

2015, November 28: Curfew declared (last for 3 days)

2015, December 02: Curfew declared (last for 9 days)

2015, December 11: Curfew declared (last for 93 days)

2015, December: The army tanks start to shell the city.

2016, March 21: The Ministry of Environment and Urbanism decides to forcefully expropriate majority of the buildings in Sur district.

2016, March 29: The Bar Association of Diyarbakır opens a court case against the expropriation decision. 

2016, April: Diyarbakır Conservation Board approves the construction of 9 police stations and 2 observatory towers within the historical Sur district.