Newroz celebrations overshadowed by political conflict
When public celebrations of Newroz were outlawed by authorities at the weekend, the Kurdish community refused to back down.
By Anna Wood and Ethem Cagir for SES Türkiye in Istanbul and Batman and Diyarbakir -- 21/03/12
Leyla Cetin tossed her head back, causing the bells to jingle on her tasseled headdress, colored the red, white, green and gold of the Kurdish flag.
In Diyarbakir Sunday, protestors torched several vehicles as they clashed with riot police. [Ethem Cagir/SES Türkiye]
Tens of thousands flooded Newroz square in Diyarbakir. [Ethem Cagir/Tens of thousands flooded Newroz square in Diyarbakir. [Ethem Cagir/SES Turkiye]
"No ban can hold us back," she proclaimed proudly.
Moments later, 19-year-old Leyla -- along with the rest of the estimated 500 Kurds who had come to Kazlicesme on Sunday morning to celebrate the spring festival of Newroz -- were running from clouds of tear gas launched by the Istanbul police.
The use of force to disperse the crowd came as a surprise to no one, least of all the Kurds themselves, as days of mounting tension preceded this week's Newroz events.
When the governors of Istanbul and Diyarbakir announced separately that Newroz celebrations would not be allowed on Sunday (March 18th), presumably to prevent a large turnout, calling instead for them to be held on Wednesday, few imagined that Kurdish revelers would stay home.
On Tuesday (March 20th), protests continued in Batman, Yüksekova, Nusaybin, Mersin, Van, Cizre and many other cities in the southeast. At least protester in Istanbul was killed and more than 500 have been arrested throughout the country. Several police have been wounded, and one officer was killed in Cizre.
A day before the protests, Selahattin Demirtas, pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) MP, asked supporters directly to defy the ban.
"In order to take ownership of our own honorable future, our own free future, we say that the time has come to fill the public squares," he said.
In Diyarbakir, protesters clashed with police and set fires to a number of vehicles, until they broke through police barricades to reach the Newroz celebration area.
Speaking to the crowd, Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir said, "The people are determined in their struggle. Kurds want to gain recognition."
Demirtas and other members of the BDP left little room for dissent, arguing that showing up at the outlawed events was a necessary demonstration of loyalty and dedication to the Kurdish cause.
Those who heeded this call and gathered together were conscious of the fact that rather than singing, dancing and jumping over the traditional Newroz fires, the focus of the event would be protesting what Demirtas characterized as the "fascism" of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In Batman, BDP Mardin deputy Ahmet Turk said that demonstrators are showing their resolve.
"You see that despite tens of arrests, restrictions and many other things, nearly a million people came out in Diyarbakir. They repeated their demands. We will continue these just demands in Batman," he told SES Türkiye, adding that 2012 would be the year Kurds gain their rights.
Turk was later hospitalised after pepper spray was tossed into his car. His is in good condition.
While each side is vocal in laying the blame on the other, professor of Turkish history Hakan Ozoglu said that the responsibility for events like these is shared.
"The government should lead by example and do anything possible to lower the tension that is rising," he told SES Türkiye. At the same time, however, "a great responsibility also falls on the Kurdish leaders in keeping the calm on the streets."
Meanwhile, President Abdullah Gül asked for “everybody to display caution and not to provide opportunity for attempts that could harm the climate of peace and fraternity." "Our differences and diversity are our greatest wealth," he said, adding that “everybody is an inseparable and equal part of this nation regardless of their ethnic roots, language, faith or political conviction."
Though events surrounding Newroz do not shed light on solutions to the ongoing political conflict, they do underscore the fact that neither the Kurdish people nor the Turkish state are willing to soften their position.
In the eyes of some members of the Kurdish community, the huge turnout in Diyarbakır and the events in Istanbul symbolise the Kurds' refusal to back down. Through its failure to deter the crowd, "the state made the serious tactical error of revealing its own illegitimacy," Mirbeg Tlax, a Kurd from southern Turkey, told SES Türkiye.
The Kurdish community and its Turkish advocates are asking how the state can celebrate democratisation in the Mediterranean region while still denying democratic rights to many of its own people.
Kurdish parliamentarians seem to be going one step further. They are not simply asking questions; they are demanding results, and warning that the current level of tension will worsen if solutions to these ongoing problems aren't reached.
Arif Demiroglu, a 45-year-old farmer from Batman, sums up many Kurds' thoughts: "We live in 2012 but we still can't dance halay [a Kurdish dance], we can't celebrate our holiday."