On 14 July, the day that I write this column, four inmates of Diyarbakır prison started a hunger strike against the brutal regime in Diyarbakır prison. It was 1982, two years after the military coup. During his visit to Diyarbakır last week, Erdoğan vowed to close the prison and turn it into a ‘cultural center’. Here and there, I see people wonder if this means that the state is finally listening to long-time demands of the Kurdish movement to turn the prison into a museum. Of course he’s not. Or do you think the ‘cultural center’ will show the portraits of the four inmates on hungerstrike, acknowledging the sacrifice they made for the struggle of their people?
A museum would honour the resistance of these four men Kemal Pir, Mehmet Hayri Durmuş, Akif Yılmaz and Ali Çiçek. It would honour those who survived the atrocities there, like Sakine Cansız (who was eventually murdered by the state in Paris in January 2013) and Gültan Kışanak (who is again in prison now). It would tell the full story of the cruelties and how they told the bigger story of the way the state of Turkey has always treated Kurds and others who resisted. And of course, it couldn’t shy away from showing, somehow, the impact the prison cells and everything that happened there had on the Kurdish movment, on the growth and strengthening of the PKK and the dedication of the armed and unarmed Kurdish movement that would eventually have lead to the transformation of the prison into a worthy museum.
This would require the solution of the Kurdish issue. Which is also the wider context of the demand for a museum: it should be part of a real, lasting and just solution of the biggest, almost one century old problem of the republic. But what Erdoğan proposed, is a ‘cultural centre’, which is something completely different. He said that the transformation of the prison would erase the memory of the 1980 coup. That’s what Erdoğan wants: erasure. Pretend it all never happened. Pretend the prison was never even there.
Can you imagine walking around in his ‘cultural centre’? You won’t recognize it anymore, like you recognize nothing old and significant anymore once Erdogan’s renovation team has visited and done its job. Not even a name plate on the wall will recall that the building was once a prison. The blood in the walls and floors will be covered with new bricks and white plaster, the echos of the cries of agony won’t be tangible in the air anymore, the dungeons, cells and hallways will be stripped and turned into a sterile cafeteria, management offices with luxury furniture and guest rooms where those close to the state can have sweet dreams.
There will be a grand opening ceremony, of course. The invitees will be AKP members and civil servants who have to show up whether they want to or not. There will be Turkish flags, loads of Turkish flags. Children, there will be children. Kurdish children who will sing Turkish songs, or for the ocassion Kurdish songs that are approved by the state to show the outside world how far Turkey has come with ‘giving freedoms to Kurds’. Kurdish culture and language will be a tool in the state’s hands, similar to the whirling derwishes: reduced to an appearance, stripped of its depth, heritage, of its true and full identity. Used to show Turkey’s richness, destroyed in the process.
The current prison inmates will be transferred to the prisons the government is building now. New political prisoners will be added, because as long as the Kurdish issue isn’t solved, the resistance will continue. Erdoğan hopes to marginalize it, especially now that the armed movement is under pressure in the mountains because of intense drone warfare, collaboration of Kurdish groups in South-Kurdistan with Turkish forces and the increased Turkish occupation of South-Kurdistan. Maybe the Turkish army will manage to kill a leading commander of the PKK – if so, the state will declare military victory over the PKK. That’s Erdogan’s dream for Turkey’s centennial celebrations in 2023.
Shoulders of giants
But history and resistance can’t be wiped out. Thanks to (among others) the sacrifices made in Diyarbakır prison decades ago, they will come back to haunt Erdoğan, and whoever comes after him. And starting the centennial of the Republic, all the former Kurdish uprisings will be commemorated at their 100th anniversaries by those who keep demanding their rights. Sheikh Said didn’t survive in 1925, but he is not forgotten and continues to inspire. All the other uprisings, up to the resistance of Seyid Riza in the 1930s are not forgotten and continue to inspire. The second century of the repression of the Kurds is about to commence and however infuriating and mind-boggling that is, the Kurds stand firmly on the shoulders of giants and won’t give up.
Erdoğan gave us a peak into his dreams for Turkey in 2023 last Friday in Diyarbakır. He better prepare for a nightmare.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.