We arrive in Kurdistan in the evening, on the streets of Diyarbakir there is a quiet atmosphere. Our improvised guide explains to us, with three English words picked up somewhere, that the city walls are the longest of the world after the Chinese Wall and that they give to the historic center the shape of a fish. We don’t really believe it (Diyarbakir has the shape of a manta, perhaps, or maybe it is a kind of professional and aerodynamic kite) and we end up eating in a very chic restaurant where “vegetarian” looks like a swearword or the name of an enemy warrior; during the whole journey we will choose to immolate The Chicken to find a compromise with each other’s ethical choices.
We have been invited as International Observers by the party HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), a Kurdish party to the opposition for the presidential and parliamentary elections that will take place on June 24 in Turkey. Erdogan was expected to win by remaining in charge, with his new coalition with the ultra nationalist MHP party, so everything was played on the percentage of votes obtained, which can give more or less flexibility to his political project. As it already happened in 2015, great electoral frauds were feared. In the last two years, the Turkish government has been carrying about jailing 80 mayors of the pro-opposition Kurdish provinces, numerous political opponents and students, and in November 2016 it arrested Selahattin Demirtas, leader and candidate of the same HDP, who followed the elections from his brig. Despite a definetly compromised electoral campaign, supporters of the HDP, decimated but supported by a large part of the Kurdish population, have been working to bring it forward to the best, in order to pass one of the highest barrier threshold in the world, 10%, to enter the parliament.
As independent and voluntary observers, we were called by 11 European countries to testify to possible irregularities in the polling stations, supporting the OSCE’s Official Observers (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). Furthermore, we were there to show our interest in the Kurdish majority area of Turkey, to express our solidarity to the population experiencing daily discrimination, to people who are forbidden to speak their own language, recognize themselves in a flag, determine their own landscape. This is what I perceived in the air of Dyiarbakir and in the other Kurdish cities that saw the civil war of 2015: whole areas destroyed, cleared, reconstructed “Western-style“. You can see it in the streets, tiled again, with the street lamps that recall a stylized crescent moon, in the gigantic posters attached to the protection barriers of the destroyed sites, posters that praise this majestic reconstruction, the greatness of the Turkish state. And behind it, rubble, houses abandoned in a hurry under the bombs, skeletons of shops. The gaze of our guide is lost in the ruins and does not hide a strong sense of bitterness, of injustice, of the desire to live a normal life. The young Kurds tell us that their fathers have been arrested, and that now their families and them, they are being monitored by the police if they take part in demonstrations, if they express opinions favorable to the HDP, if they claim their origins… then they will be arrested in turn. “My father ended up in jail when I was in second grade … he came out that I had finished my High School.”
The Kurds in Turkey do not have access to Wikipedia (except on the AKP page, the Justice and Development Party, and some other carefully chosen by the government), they can’t access their information channels, except on the web using VPNs; several opposition newspapers and TV channels have been closed. The government can shutdown access to the internet at its discretion and in the offices it goes back to handwriting until it is restored. Even The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which in the 1980s proclaimed a free and independent Kurdistan obtained by armed struggle, and now proposes a line closer to a democratic federalism within states with Kurdish minorities, it has been declared illegal. Its founder Abdullah Öcalan has been in prison since ’99 and since 2000 the party is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the NATO, the United States, the European Union and Iran. Any reference, appearance of support, backing or participation in it is punished with arrest and imprisonment in Turkey.
… The same PKK who engaged in the fight against ISIS in Syria, along with Peshmerga and YPG, the one who was exploited by the same powers in their fight against international Islamic terrorism and for their geopolitical or economic interests in the area. And the HDP is accused by the Turkish government of being its “legal showcase“.
At the elections eve, in the hot and humid climate of the Kurdish mountains and the boundless countryside, we feel the political atmosphere of uncertainty, of “who knows how it will go“, what will happen, what will we see, what will we do, how will we behave… Saturday evening we are silently sitting at the table in front of some chicken skewers and a few sips of Ayran (yogurt diluted with water). The HDP members are hoping to pass the 10% barrier threshold, and we are hoping to be useful and that everything will be ok.
Sunday morning begins with the police who stops us on the way out and asks for our documents. We know we are not welcome: the European newspapers, on the one hand, tell of how many International, Italian, French, Swedish, Austrian, etc. Observers were rejected at the Istanbul airport and could not get to Diyarbakir, on the other, the Turkish one, they denounced the same International Observers as supporters of the PKK.
The opinion of our HDP hosts is that the president’s party, the AKP, aims to limit access to the vote to the villagers of this region, because many of them support the pro-Kurdish opposition. In fact, in several villages we visited, voters explained us that there were three or five polling stations of towns far 12, 15, 30 km away grouped in that city. Some organized themselves with the buses of the municipality to go voting, others tell us that they came on foot, or with their family by car.
We entered the seats of some villages in the countryside that were small schools with some classrooms and many military presides over the area. Outside the structure, men are seated on brick walls: they answer kindly to our questions, the atmosphere seems relaxed. We realize, however, that in different electoral offices, some military forces armed and wearing uniforms are inside the classrooms, instead of staying outside as the law requires: it is an intimidating measure that shows the presence of the ruling party, which observes, watches, hear and reports, everywhere. Some tell us that the military forces asked the voters to show their identity card, or that they received orders to vote for their party.
At 4.15 pm we are heading towards the last seat of the day when we are stopped in front of a check-point manned by the army. They ask for our passports and the ID cards of our guides, as they drive us out of the car. We remain under the blazing sun, it’s like 40 degrees, while the soldiers are seated ten meters further under an umbrella or inside the armored black van, and with a camping stove placed on the traffic island they prepare some chai. Let’s wait, wait, wait. “It’s the procedure” they tell us, when we start insisting to give us back the documents. It’s the procedure, of course, the same procedure that usually lasts 5 minutes and now that there are 45 minutes left to the closing of the polls, at 5 pm, and we are International Observers, it lasts one hour.
Meanwhile, while we were moving between one poll station and another, our colleague Cristina has been arrested. She had entered as an Observer in a school with our interpreter, when the police asked to see her passport and took a picture of it. In that moment there had been no problems, but while we were passing through a city not far from the village, the undercover police stopped us. We thought it was the usual check and we were all ready with our passports in hand, but they asked just for her. She was taken to the Police Station where they checked her facebook page: there was a photo of an event in support of Afrin, in Milan, where she appeared with a friend under the PKK flag, and also a couple of articles from the newspaper Corriere della Sera denouncing Erdogan’s abuses in Syria. They accused her of making propaganda for an international terrorist organization. She went in front of a judge claiming that it is not a crime to publish photos on facebook, later they absolved her from any accusation. And at the time of writing she’s still a prisoner in the Deport Center at the Syrian border, indefinitely. A delay decided by a state of emergency exploited to have the full power to do anything, against anyone who hinders the will of an anti-democratic regime. * A regime that has supported the Islamic State against the Kurds, its own citizens, in the north of Syria. A regime that has swept away the independent institutions of a self-respecting democratic state: the media, the police and the judicial system, justice, all of them are mostly at his service. Erdogan, thanks to these elections, has taken a further step towards a presidential system that controls the executive power, which concentrates considerable powers in its hands, moving away from what was the Democratic Republic at the basis of modern Turkey, approaching what we call here, a dictatorship. He obtained 52.6% in the first round of the presidential elections, while in the legislative elections the AKP obtained 46% that combined with the 11.1% of its nationalist ally allows it to maintain the absolute majority.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party got 11.7%. In the evening, while we eat a lamacus on a terrace at the first floor of a restaurant, cars whizzing below us, full-blown horns and HDP flags, people singing, in the Kurdish majority province from 8 pm they began to celebrate the bypassing of the barrier threshold, the entry into parliament with 67 members, their slice of representation. Yet on the faces of the party members at the table with us, we read conflicting emotions. They tell us that both at the local and at the national level, as they denounced to the High Electoral Board, there were visible irregularities and the percentages were lower than the real and expected ones, given the majority of Kurdish population that votes and supports HDP.
The festivities went crazy as the percentage increased, around 9 pm we arrive at the HDP tent where a lot of people, families, old ladies and many, many children gather. “The children are the most radical, they tell us, the police passed by and they made the Kurdish symbol of peace in their direction”. There is a wonderful, cheerful atmosphere, kids burst firecrackers and fireworks, people dance in traditional Halay dance groups, there is music and they sing folk or guerrilla songs … until suddenly, without warning of dispersion, a rain of tear gas pollutes the air, everyone runs and shelters the children. The celebrations of a peaceful crowd, gathered to celebrate the electoral result of a party legally candidate for democratic elections, are interrupted. There are no clashes with the police, people flee and we return to our base. From the windows on the main square we see the police still shooting with the hydrants, they arrest people and the smell of tear gas enters regularly from our window, until late at night.
My travel diary is interrupted on Sunday evening, because the following days are dedicated to the search-to-get-out-our-partner-Cristina-from-there.
In the HDP Diyarbakir headquarter, one member told me that the 90% of International Observers have been hindered in their job, some have been arrested, stopped, checked, for an hour or a few days. A French delegation was arrested and detained from early in the morning until the closure of the polls. In Kurdistan there were 136 people belonging to left-wing parties or political and humanitarian associations, distributed in 15 provinces.
On the streets of Istanbul, it’s 42 degrees, big posters of Erdogan with his election slogan “A great Turkey needs a strong leader” mark the landscape between skyscrapers and intersections without traffic lights. Cult of personality, alliance with the most nationalist party in the race, exclusion of political opponents, censorship … A story already heard in Europe not even too long ago.
* Cristina Cattafesta was released on the 6th of July after spending 10 days in the Gaziantep Deport Center.