Diyarbakir Prison is a notorious site of torture and repression. Now, activists want to transform it into a symbol of Turkey's long war against the Kurds.
- By Jenna KrajeskiJenna Krajeski is a writer based in Istanbul. Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
DIYARBAKIR – On a warm Sunday in October, Mehmet Takar, a 49-year-old Kurd in a tailored gray suit, sat beneath an umbrella in Diyarbakir’s Kosuyolu park, sipping strong, unsweetened tea. Students chewed pistachios and studied their textbooks on the lawn, enjoying the last days of an extended summer.
The park is often a meeting point for Kurdish protesters; large, loud crowds fill the lawns between its fences, shout into clouds of tear gas, and wait to be arrested. It’s these protests that give Diyarbakir, a city of 1.5 million in southeastern Turkey, its reputation as a bastion of Kurdish nationalism and anti-government unrest.
Diyarbakir flaunts its politics. Graffiti throughout the city cheers the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and roads are scarred by burned tires — the centerpieces of small protests.
The latest flashpoint came on the night of Dec. 28, when Turkish warplanes struck what the military thought were Kurdish militants near the Iraqi border, killing 35 people. The men later turned out to be cigarette smugglers, many still teenagers. Stone-throwing protesters took to the streets of Diyarbakir in response, clashing with police.
At the literal and figurative heart of this long-simmering war sits Diyarbakir prison. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was a notorious torture site, and the hardships that Kurdish activists underwent there laid the groundwork for the modern Kurdish resistance. Its jail cells are still full to this day.
Takar is a former resident of Diyarbakir Prison — he was sentenced to death in 1980, at age 18, for his connection to the PKK. His four years in that prison, he said, included physical torture — electric shocks, "Palestinian hanging," and worse. He built escape tunnels without managing to escape. He witnessed the deaths of fellow prisoners, while being reminded routinely that his own was imminent.
But it is the psychological torture that Takar remembers most vividly: The Kurdish language was forbidden, so when his mother visited, they were unable to communicate. He couldn’t write letters to his wife, whom he had married shortly before his arrest. "Everything was a gun for them to use against us," he said. "Family was a gun."
"Diyarbakir prison was designed as a stage on which the Turkish state could perform all kinds of bloody operations on the Kurdish people," Murat Paker, a professor of psychology at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, told me. "In Diyarbakir prison they wanted to crush Kurdishness."
Twenty years and seven days later, Takar was released, and immediately resumed his work. "I didn’t waste any time," he said. "If the issue is freedom of society then you have to fight."
He contacted the local offices of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the legal Kurdish political party, and started doing outreach work. He is also a member of the 78ers Union — a network of leftist political activists who have tried to heal the deep wounds the Kurdish conflict has left on Turkish society, focusing specifically on prisoner abuse.
For the residents of Diyarbakir, there is no greater symbol of Kurdish oppression and resistance than the prison — a cluster of low, red buildings in the center of the city. In 2010, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, campaigning in Diyarbakir, raised the hopes of the city’s residents when he promised to close it, acknowledging the difficulties of living in its shadow and recalling his own time in prison.
But a proposal to convert the prison into a school was nixed after opponents reacted with horror to the idea of their children being educated there. The 78ers Union stepped in; it had recently helped organize a temporary exhibition in Ankara that memorialized victims of torture in the 1980s and 1990s in western Turkey. They proposed to continue that project in Diyarbakir prison. In an unusual example of smoothly functioning politics, all sides — the Ministry of Culture, the Diyarbakir municipality, the BDP, the 78ers Union — agreed.
"It will be called the Museum of Shame," Takar told me, the same name as the Ankara exhibition. "But the shame won’t just be in the name, it will be clear in everything they show. Everyone will see it. We still have our bloody clothes; we want to put them on display. We have to remember the people who died there, and show people that for us, even though we are still alive, our future was killed in that building."
But it’s one thing to make a campaign promise, and another thing to translate those promises into reality. The long conflict between the military and the Kurds is a minefield on the Parliament floor and the Turkish street alike — is Turkey really ready to confront it in detail?
The 78ers Union is doing its best to make sure that it has no choice. In 2007, its members formed the Truth and Justice Commission for Diyarbakir Prison, a group of 30 academics and activists who record, transcribe, code, and analyze 90-minute interviews with men who were incarcerated there between 1980 and 1984, when the country was under military rule.
So far, the group has interviewed 500 former prisoners, mostly Kurds, and the findings are staggering — firsthand accounts of systematic torture; hunger strikes; and the organizing of a behind-bars resistance that would help form the modern PKK.
The commission’s findings stitch together a part of Turkish and Kurdish history that goes largely unacknowledged in Turkish media or education. While the modern-day violence between the PKK and the military continues to dominate headlines, the story of how the conflict began has largely been forgotten. "Most Turkish people don’t have a clue," Paker, who is a member of the commission, told me.
The project has only grown more important as Erdogan’s attempts at rapprochement with Turkey’s Kurds has foundered. While Erdogan’s "Kurdish opening" in 2009 initially seemed to hold promise for easing tensions, it was stopped in its tracks after 34 PKK members were given amnesty — and promptly returned from Iraqi Kurdistan to rally for the PKK. The ensuing public uproar caused Erdogan to retreat from the plan.
Since then, the government’s crackdown on the Kurds has only gained pace. In the last two years, hundreds of Kurdish politicians and activists have been arrested. The most recent wave of arrests came on Dec. 20, when Turkish police threw dozens of journalists in jail for alleged links to Kurdish rebels. This crackdown has only succeeded in convincing a new generation of Kurds that there is little point in politics or peaceful activism, and that their only hope is to resort to violence with the armed PKK militia in the mountains.
Diyarbakir Prison was the breeding ground for the sort of militancy that Turkey has been fighting for generations. Its overcrowded prison cells became recruiting centers and training grounds for the PKK. The PKK’s conduct in prison — establishing order, teaching Kurdish history, recruiting — provided it with both a mythology and a manifesto. Letters and pamphlets, written in forbidden Kurdish, marked the beginnings of the Kurdish media that today dominates Diyarbakir. Many of those writings were hidden in the walls of the prison, away from the guards. In the Museum of Shame, they would be unearthed and put on display.
Detractors worry that the museum could be a half-apology, a way for Turkey to distance itself from the crimes of the past and further delay discussion of Kurds’ outstanding grievances. Recently, Erdogan’s publicly apology for a massacre of ethnic minorities in the 1930s that killed thousands, drew mixed reviews.
Many were encouraged by Erdogan’s acknowledgment of the crimes, but critical of his delivery. "It was an important apology, but very haphazard," Paker said. Such apologies, he thinks, should be accompanied with enough information about the incident to give a sheltered public the full picture.
Others saw the apology as a cynical attempt to push responsibility onto the shoulders of the rival Republican People’s Party (CHP). A similar political motive is often linked to the Diyarbakir museum project.
"It’s only a PR campaign for the government," Inan Keser, a professor of sociology at Dicle University in Diyarbakir told me. "The discussion about making it into a museum is a discussion with an agenda."
The agenda, some suspect, is to win the AKP votes. Even a BDP stronghold like Diyarbakir could be persuaded by Erdogan’s promise that Turkey is finally coming to grips with the crimes of its past. In the lead-up to the last election, when Erdogan made the promise about Diyarbakir Prison, the AKP campaigned vigorously in the southeast’s Kurdish areas.
Even more difficult than pinning down the government’s motives is imagining it cooperating with the municipality, led by members of the BDP, which the Turkish state views as the political appendage of the PKK. Since the original talks, communication seems to have broken down — unraveled by a spike in PKK violence. And the ongoing arrests — many of which have taken place in Diyarbakir — wind the political climate too tight for a sit-down over a museum.
In this atmosphere of speculation and suspicion, the Diyarbakir municipality — accustomed to functioning independently on Kurdish issues — drafted its own plan. It wants the museum to display the "torture instruments, pictures, and the writings of the victims," said Baris Alen, a spokesperson for the municipality, as well as old Turkish newspapers that confirm some events, and illustrate a campaign of government disinformation.
The municipality wants the museum to serve as more than a remembrance for the individuals that died in the prison — it is pushing for a discussion of the "non-democratic character of the state," Alen said. The 78ers also envision an education component, as well as resources for the families to help them rehabilitate former prisoners. Another idea that has been broached is to include a green space in the large complex, where families could have picnics.
According to Alen, the implementation of their plan is not a pipe dream. "The municipality has the right to label the land status," he said. "The prison is operated by the state, but the land is owned by the municipality."
In other words, once the prison closes, Diyarbakir has the authority to do what it wants. Or so its officials seem to think.
The two cities of Diyarbakir and Ankara — separated geographically and culturally — often work in contradiction to one another. Just because the Diyarbakir municipality prepares a proposal does not mean anyone in the Turkish capital will read it. The Turkish state could circumvent the BDP officials in Diyarbakir by appointing a representative at the city level to work on the museum.
Of course, Ankara has its own plan. An employee at the Ministry of Culture, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the state is "still working to transform the place into an important warning place. Things are going slow, but we are decisive about it." Her words seemed conciliatory, even hopeful. "The minister," she said, "supports the idea personally."
But the devil is in one important detail. "The culture minister will never accept the word ‘shame,’" Yilmaz Akinci, a Kurdish journalist for Al Jazeera and a Diyarbakir resident, told me. "They see it as more of a warning."
Shame — it’s a word that can be used in Ankara, but catches fire in Diyarbakir. And on this issue, the state likely cannot be convinced to compromise. "For sure the municipality won’t get what they want," Akinci said. "They want to politicize it, and they won’t be allowed to."
As hard as the municipality works, only the official backing of the state could truly transform the public debate. "The majority of Turks believe the government. If the state officially accepted it as Turkish history, the effects would be incomparable," Paker said.
However, it will not be easy to reverse a historical narrative that has been drummed into Turks for generation, particularly when new violence and new arrests continue to polarize Turkish society.
It’s impossible to know what, exactly, the Diyarbakir prison museum will display in the end. The power struggle over the museum is only beginning; how it ends depends largely on what happens on the outside. If the conflict between the Kurds and the Turkish state has proved anything, it’s that the victors get to design the museums, choose the exhibits, and set the admission fee.
When Erdogan made his big campaign announcement last year that the prison would close, he was met with cheers. But he wasn’t finished speaking. "Don’t worry," he said. "We will build you another one."
The new prison, just outside of town, will be almost twice the size. Construction on it is already underway.