“Newroz, celebrated in halls or squares, always had contained political significance for the Kurds. The message Mazlum Doğan sent from the Diyarbakır prison, a message he delivered with his own life, ensured that he became known as a ‘contemporary Kawa’,” writes Vecdi Erbay for Duvar.
Each Newroz has been shaped in accordance with the spirit of the current agenda. Will the hope for peace that emerged in the Diyarbakır [Amed] Newroz area in 2013 – and was later broken – germinate again in 2022? We’ll see together tomorrow… Newroz pîroz be!
Over the years, Kurdish intellectuals and politicians have had to celebrate Newroz indoors. The popularisation of the Kurdish movement carried the Newroz celebrations out to the streets and squares. Eventually, every Newroz turned into celebrations attended by thousands of people. Certainly, this hasn’t been easy. Dozens of people have either lost their lives or received permanent injuries during Newroz celebrations held across Turkey, especially in the 1990s. Thousands of people have been detained during house raids in the days before Newroz. Despite all these pressures, Newroz has been celebrated persistently. The state, which could not prevent the celebrations violent methods, then embraced Newroz in order to interfere in its content. It called Newroz, ‘Nevruz’, and devised celebrations of its own with games like egg-knocking.
But Newroz, celebrated in halls or squares, always contained political significance for the Kurds. The message Mazlum Doğan sent from the Diyarbakır dungeons, a message he delivered with his own life, ensured that he became known as a ‘contemporary Kawa’*, and that his political message was spread and accepted quickly, decisively and effectively.
That Newroz celebrations continued despite all the pressures of the 90s, showed that the message had reached its destination. Time passed, and Newroz celebrations are still tense, but have begun to be relatively less restricted. It has always retained its political content.
Festivity spirit in the back of a lorry
I have attended many Newroz celebrations. I attended the Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakır for the first time in 2009. I was in Istanbul at that time and of course I didn’t know what awaited in Diyarbakır when I came here to attend Newroz. Incidents and conflicts could break out, and it would not be easy to face them and escape unharmed in a city I did not know.
On the day of Newroz, myself and the friend I was staying with went down to the street early. We wanted to go to the Newroz area, but we could not find any transport. The area was not in walking distance. After a time, a silent crowd had gathered at the stop where we waited not knowing what to do. As people started saying out loud, “What should we do?” a lorry stopped in front of us. The voice of the man who said, “In you get!” conveyed his happiness of having done a good job. Before I could ask what was happening, I found myself in the back of the lorry with dozens of others. The lorry was taking us to the Newroz area. Slogans, songs, jokes… it was as if we were going to a picnic, a wedding, a feast. Maybe a million people attended that Newroz celebration and it passed without notable incident.
Politicians gave their speeches, artists sang their songs. The people of Diyarbakir danced their halay, chanted their slogans and sent a strong message about their demands. We can say that Newroz lived up to its name both in its atmosphere of festivity, and in the messages it sent.
‘We’ll come and get you’
In 2012, I was now working as a journalist in Diyarbakır. On the day of Newroz, I would follow the politicians going to the Newroz area. However, the politicians could not leave the branch office building until noon. Who knows why, the governor’s office had refused permission for Newroz to be celebrated. The police surrounded the brnch office with all their forces, blocked the roads, and tried to prevent politicians from going to the Newroz area. Meanwhile, the news of clashes was coming from the Newroz area. According to journalist colleagues, the police were intervened against people entering the area. Gas bombs were being thrown at people from a helicopter that was circling over the area. Those who entered the area by crossing the police barricades, responded by throwing stones at the helicopter. The branch leader of the party was talking on the telephone. He was saying to the person on other end, “You don’t have to come here, we’re coming there.” Who was going where in this turmoil? It turns out that it was the citizens who had entered the area who had called the branch leader. When they said that the police were not allowing them to leave the branch office building, the people in the area said, “We’ll come and get you.”
It was a strange situation. The people of Diyarbakir had filled the Newroz area, but the politicians could not leave the branch office building.
The negotiations yielded results. The old and truly museum-worthy party bus, bearing the traces of the various blows it had been subjected to in the past, set off for the Newroz area. But what a start to the journey! The bus was frequently stopped by the police, and was greeted with applause and chanting by the people of Diyarbakır who did not go to Newroz, and the police’s efforts to block the bus backfired. The bus, which was caught in the middle of clashes in which the police used gas and the youths set off fireworks, finally reached the Newroz area and met the crowd.
That day, the politicians could not get off the bus and go to the section reserved for them. The artists did not go on stage and sing. Nobody danced the halay. In order to make their speeched, the politicians climbed on top of the bus, which could barely break through the crowd and make it to the middle of the field. The speeches were cut short, the chanting never stopped.
In 2013, I was at the Newroz area in Diyarbakır when a message was read out from PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. There is no doubt that it was one of the most magnificent Newroz celebrations that ever took place. Öcalan’s message was listened to with complete attention. Was there a really peace that coming to the country? Was it possible?
It is always said that the Kurds are political people. The political public accepted the peace message, with questions. Should we trust the government? We have lost so many, will there be a just peace now? They started to discuss the answers to these questions among themselves while they were on the field. They had their doubts, doubts based on past experiences. So it was not idle talk. They argued until 2015, when the negotiating table was overturned.
‘Where is the old Newroz?’
Other Newroz celebrations in the meantime sent its message and passed in a carnival atmosphere in accordance with its spirit. Women in brightly coloured dress participated in Newroz with their children. Barbecue smoke rose from the empty plots around the area. Peddlers moved their stalls around the area. Various home-cooked meals were arranged on picnic rugs laid out on the grass. Speeches were heard and slogans were chanted. Songs were heard and people danced the halay. Those who attended the Newroz celebrations in the 1990s began to ask, “Where is the old Newroz?”
Newroz celebrations were banned on the specified dates. Newroz had been celebrated not in the fields, but by setting fires in the streets and often clashing with the police. The fires they lit were usually built of tyres. Those who know, know that tyres have a strong odour that permeates clothes, skin and hair and instantly turns one’s face black. The police were checking the hands and faces of the children they caught on the street to see if they were activists. If they found anything resembling soot, the child would be beaten and detained as having taken part in the action. On a summer day when the waters of the Tigris were receding, I saw countless tyres under the On Gözlü Bridge. It was said that the police collected them in a “tyre operation” before Newroz and threw them into the river. But actually, the nostalgia of “Where is the old Newroz” calls to mind the people killed in Cizre and Nusaybin. But I believe it is missed because it also invokes the spirit of resistance.
Joyless Newroz celebrations
The most joyless Newroz celebration took place in 2016. Diyarbakir was carrying the weight of the a period of clashes that had started in the cities. Apart from this, there was also an uneasiness caused by bombs that exploded in Diyarbakır, Suruç, Ankara and Istanbul in 2015. A rumour that ISIS was going to send a suicide bomber had spread to the city days before. For this reason, there were doubts expressed that enough people would join the Newroz celebrations.
In fact, attendance was higher than expected, but unlike previous Newroz celebrations, there was no joy. The women did not wear colourful clothes, no one lit barbecues or laid picnic rugs with home-cooked food. It was as if no-one responded to the songs, and the slogans had lost their volume and their joy. Everyone was gloomy in Newroz 2016, and everyone was reminding each other that Newroz is about resistance and saying, ‘We had to come.’
The latest Newroz celebrations
After 2016, there was no ban on Newroz celebrations. Participation was always high. However, once the hope for peace had been weakened, Diyarbakır could not regain its former joy.
In Newroz 2017, the university student Kemal Kurkut from Malatya was killed by a police bullet.
In Newroz 2018, the developments in Rojava were on the agenda. Turkey had entered the city of Afrin, and the participants’ concern was what happened there.
In 2019, the imprisoned co-Chair of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), Leyla Güven, was continuing her hunger strike demanding that the isolation on Öcalan be lifted. Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MPs also supported the hunger strikes that became widespread in prisons. The main message of Newroz 2019 was along the lines of Leyla Güven’s demand.
In 2020, there was a development across the whole world that no one had predicted. The world was shut down because of coronavirus. Considering the danger of the epidemic, the Newroz organising committee cancelled the mass celebrations.
The Newroz area, empty in 2020, was once again filled in 2021 with the slogan, “Let us resist with the fire of Newroz, let us be free!”
‘Dem dema serkeftinê ye’
‘Dem dema serkeftinê ye’ (‘Now is the time for victory’) has been decided as the slogan of Newroz to be celebrated this year. Diyarbakır Newroz will also be the finale of the celebrations that are going on in many provinces and districts of the region. Brief information about the Newroz programme: Invitations were sent to hundreds of journalists, thinkers, trade unionists and politicians for the celebrations, that will start at 9am and go on to 5pm in Newroz Park. DTK Co-chair Berdan Öztürk, Democratic Regions Party (DBP) Co-chair Saliha Aydeniz, HDP Co-chair Pervin Buldan, as well as political party representatives involved in the Kurdistan Alliance Action will make speeches. Artistes Rojda, Azad Bedran, Servet Kocakaya, Kazo and Elenora will perform at the celebration. “Abolition of the isolation of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in Imrali F-Type High Security Prison”, “Kurdish national unity”, “Kurdish as an official language and a language of education” and “The situation of sick prisoners” are expected to be the headlines emerging from this year’s celebrations.
The Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir and the messages delivered here are carefully watched not only domestically but also by the international public. It will be the same this year, because despite the Russia-Ukraine war that concerns the whole world, the economic crisis in Turkey, the tactical and strategic attacks of political parties for the elections, and the pressure on the HDP, the Kurds will deliver the messages about their top priority demands from Diyarbakır.
Let hope grow like a song
Newroz is exciting like every feast and sometimes it comes with songs. There are dozens of songs about Newroz. Before every Newroz, maybe for the chorus alone, a certain song comes to my mind: Koma Dengê Azadî’s 90’s song, ‘Newroz tê’ (Newroz is coming). The title, with the hope it evokes, the pain it recalls, and everything else about it, is exciting.
Each Newroz has been shaped in accordance with the spirit of the current agenda. Will the hope for peace that emerged in the Diyarbakır [Amed] Newroz area in 2013 – and was later broken – germinate again in 2022? We’ll see together tomorrow… Until then, Newroz pîroz be.
* Mazlum Doğan, a prominent member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), took his own life on the day of Newroz in 1982, in protest against the cruel treatment of political prisoners in Diyarbakır prison, and became the vanguard of the great prison resistance that ensued.
** Kawa the Blacksmith, who revolted against the tyrant king Dehak in the Persian and Kurdish legend.