March 23, 2001

Diyarbakir Journal: Where Misery Abounds, the Kurds Make Merry

By DOUGLAS FRANTZ

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey, March 22 — They arrived in every type of vehicle, even in wagons pulled by tractors. Six men balanced awkwardly on a motorcycle and teenagers dangled from the sides of trucks.

More than 100,000 people streamed into the fairgrounds outside this city to welcome spring with the Kurdish festival Newroz. Women wore gaily colored dresses and spangled head scarves and young men waved flags of green, yellow and red, the colors of the Kurdish people.

In a region scarred by 15 years of civil warfare and mired in poverty, the celebration marked what optimists saw as a potential turning point toward a feeling of hope and renewal for the Kurds of southeast Turkey.

"We want everybody to have their democratic rights to celebrate their culture," Canan Tariz, 20, said as she took a break from a circle of dancers spinning hypnotically to the beat of a powerful drum and a zurna, a clarinetlike folk instrument. "They tried to pressure us to give up our rights, but this celebration is a step that shows it is not possible."

There are many steps to go before the region can be considered normal. Four provinces remain under emergency rule despite two years of calm after the Kurdish separatists guerrillas laid down their weapons after the arrest of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Military checkpoints dot the highways, and armored vehicles and troop convoys are part of the dusty landscape . Plainclothes security policemen patrol every neighborhood and village, traveling in threes in unmarked cars with Kalashnikov rifles wedged between the seats.

Tucked into the headbands of many Newroz participants were small cards with photographs of two Kurdish politicians who disappeared in January. They were last seen entering a military command post in Silopi, east of here.

The day before the disappearances, the popular police chief of Diyarbakir was killed by 20 gunmen a hundred yards from his office. No one has been arrested and a deep fear runs through the community that the assassination was orchestrated by people unhappy with the chief because he treated people with respect and tolerance.

The gunning down of the chief and the disappearances underlined the tension that remains beneath the surface in the region. Though they did not lead to counter violence, the events sent a frightening message.

"For two years I did not feel it necessary to look back when I was on the streets, but for the last three months I look back, front, left and right," Osman Baydemir, the head of the Diyarbakir office of the Human Rights Association, said as he sat in his office beneath the photos of four predecessors who were killed or disappeared in recent years.

Mr. Baydemir said reports of torture and other abuses to his office had climbed in the last three months after dropping off for two years. He sees the tougher climate as evidence that some in government do not really want peace in the southeast.

Government officials said time was needed to restore peace and prosperity. The presence of the military and the tough controls of emergency rule, they said, are necessary to prevent a return to violence.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or P.K.K., was fighting to create a Kurdish state, but most Kurds say they want nothing more than the right to observe their Kurdish heritage within Turkey.

A central part of that heritage is Newroz, which dates back 2,500 years as a celebration of spring and the new year in parts of the Middle East and Asia. In past years, the Turkish security police banned the celebrations because the P.K.K. tried to turn them into political rallies, which often ended in violence.

But the region is calm enough that local officials received permission to stage festivals on Wednesday as a symbol of progress and hope. In Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region, city officials were even allowed to ignore the official ban on the Kurdish language and spell Newroz in the Kurdish way.

There were scattered clashes and arrests elsewhere in the region and roads out of some militant villages were closed for the day. But here the celebration was decidedly festive, with music and dancing.

"Newroz is our most important holiday," Sultan Yildiz, 45, said as she and other dancers circled a smoldering fire that symbolized the new beginning of spring. "Despite any oppression, we have continued to celebrate it."

Politics did not take a holiday, but they stayed in the background, just as the police monitoring the party kept to the periphery of the grounds.

Within one circle of dancers, a young man in a kafiyeh pretended to be shot and fell to the ground. He was revived elaborately by a young woman dancer. Others dancers flashed the two-fingered V symbol of the outlawed P.K.K. and chanted the name of Mr. Ocalan.

But the overall mood was happy, a celebration of Kurdish culture without bloodshed.

"This shows a wish for peace," Ahmet Turk, deputy director of the People's Democracy Party, which runs the local government, said as he watched the huge crowd from the grandstand. "Our people are in search of their human rights and they want to live in peace."


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company