Searching for a solution through oral history
Young people from different backgrounds are brought together under the project to demonstrate the impact of the Kurdish conflict and promote understanding.
By Ali Ciftci for SES Türkiye in Ankara -- 06/12/12
Leyla Neyzi, a professor of anthropology and at Sabanci University, is searching for a new approach to resolving the Kurdish issue in Turkey.
Young people dance recently during National Youth and Sports Day in Ankara. A new oral history project at Sabanci University aims to build mutual understanding among Turkish and Kurdish youth. [AFP]
As part of an oral history project, Neyzi brought together youths from Diyarbakir and Mugla to examine their social memories and knowledge of the country's past. She hopes the project will contribute to reconciliation by building shared understanding of the Turkey's history and present.
"I consider their stories really important in the construction of social memory, because stories are an attempt to build empathy," she told SES Türkiye.
The project was recently completed after two years of work. It includes an exhibit at the Hamursuz Firini gallery in Istanbul that will run until December 29th. Books about the project are set to be published in Turkish and English in the coming months.
Neyzi, who is also a visiting scholar at Oxford University, told SES Türkiye she hoped to answer three questions by interviewing youths from Diyarbakir and Mugla: How do young people in the east and west develop their view of history? What do they understand from it? And how do they perceive each other?
The results suggested that young peoples' attitudes were formed by their life experiences above all, according to Neyzi.
"Young people from Diyarbakir all told similar stories, and the main topic was the ongoing war," Neyzi said. "The effect of the Kurdish movement changed their perception of history and helped them develop historical awareness."
In contrast, youths from Mugla in their testimonies often described an idyllic upbringing in the seaside province, showing less awareness of the past than their counterparts in Diyarbakir. "Young people from Mugla aren't very interested in history," Neyzi said. "They haven't developed a strong understanding of it."
The difference, Neyzi said, stems from the political situations in each region.
"We realized that because the [Mugla] youth are closer to power, they didn't understand the youth in the east," she said. "We witnessed that the children in the east were more politicised, and that they felt old."
The youths who participated in the oral history testimonies used pseudonyms to protect their identities due to the sensitivity of the subject, but Neyzi gave SES Türkiye permission to quote their remarks.
Elif, a 26 year-old from Diyarbakir's Silvan county, said she's only recently started to recover from the trauma of the 1990s.
"Until a year or two ago, I couldn't sleep by myself, I couldn't sleep in the dark. I never wanted the early evening to come, because for two years one or two people would be killed every early evening," she said. "So I never wanted it to be evening. It should either be the morning or the night."
Elif added: "There would be a clash in front of the door -- the type of clash you know, when they shoot at each other with long-barreled weapons, police, Hizbullah members, [PKK] guerrillas… A tank would pass across our house, which was pockmarked with bullets anyways. They'd open fire on the house, all of it."
Neyzi said documenting Elif's stories would contribute to social peace by helping the Turkish public come to grips with what happened in the 1990s.
"We wanted [the youth from Mugla] to have an understanding of the east and the Kurds," she told SES Türkiye. "Even though many people from the [Kurdish] region live in Mugla, Mugla's youth are uninformed about what's happened there."
Huseyin, a 23-year-old Silvan native studying in Mugla, echoed Elif.
"I remember going under my bed at night out of fear of the sound of gunshots," he said, adding that everyone felt pain regardless of whether they were Kurdish, Turkish or Arab. "A bus going to Silvan from Diyarbakir was burned. I remember the 100 dead bodies."
Meanwhile, young people from Mugla recalled their upbringing with a wistful nostalgia. Ege, a 24-year-old woman from Bodrum county in Mugla, called the town of her childhood "cleaner, more peaceful," adding that she would work during the week and go to the beach on the weekend.
Cenk, 29, drew attention to the communal spirit in Marmaris county in Mugla.
He said: "When you got bored, you could knock on peoples' doors and invite them out. I remember that people were less urbane, but far more innocent."
Neyzi said she hoped the oral history project will help young people develop empathy and create a common conscience. Her effort is among the first aiming to contribute to a solution to the Kurdish issue through bottom up social history.
The testimony from a Diyarbakir native named Silan suggests Neyzi may be on to something. "You're always forced to 'be' something. You always need to be under some sort of label," Silan said, adding that there was no difference between Kurds, Turks, Arabs or Armenians.
"Why am I forced to be something? I don't understand that, but we still always try to fulfill it."