Turkish president visits Kurdish area

ISTANBUL – The Turkish President Abdullah Gül is paying a visit to Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the southern southeast of the country, on the last two days of the year. It’s hoped that Gül can ease the rising tensions over the Kurdish question. He will also appear live on Kurdish language state-owned TV station TRT6, and is expected to say a sentence in Kurdish.

Gül paid a visit to Diyarbakir once before, in 2007, just after he was elected President. He himself says there is nothing special about the two day trip: he considers it just another visit to a region in Turkey. However, over the last two weeks debate about the Kurdish issue has become heated again, after an umbrella organisation of Kurdish organisations presented a plan for an autonomous Kurdish region within the Turkish state.

Immediately pleas were made to close down the pro-Kurdish party BDP, part of the umbrella organisation. The National Security Council, an influential group of military and government politicians, declared this week that Turkish is the one and only official language of Turkey. The army also spoke out firmly against the plan.

In the meantime politicians in the southeast have already started putting part of the plan into practice, for example by replacing Turkish signs on municipal buildings with bilingual signs.

Kurdish leaders hope that Gül will point out during his visit that the Kurdish question has to be solved by democratic means. There is realism too: the Turkish President has a mainly ceremonial function, so he has no power to declare any new plans. And whatever Gül says, it will not make the polarisation around the topic magically disappear.

Walk to the fallen soldiers

After one and a half hours of walking silently in the snow, the group arrives at a mass grave. The grave is old, the group is young: 45 boy and girl scouts are here to pay their respects to Ottoman soldiers who froze to death in the Battle of Sarikamis, fought in December 1914 and January 1915. ‘There is not much I can do for them’, says 26 year old Çağla as she warms up later by a fire. ‘I can only try to experience a little bit of what they experienced, and pay respects at their grave.’

Çağla is one of the oldest in the group: most are between 14 and 25. They are part of a group of 250 scouts from all over Turkey who visit the small village of Bardiz in the eastern province of Erzurum every year to attend an official ceremony marking the deaths at Sarikamis. A small group leaves Bardiz the day before the ceremony and they walk seven kilometres up into the mountains for a special commemoration. Tents on their backs, and sleeping bags that will keep them warm in temperatures reaching minus 20 degrees Celsius. By sleeping in tents in the snow and by walking to the mass grave in the mountains, they try to experience history and feel more closely connected to the soldiers who defended the former Ottoman Empire. The camp is organized under the name ‘We walk to the fallen soldiers’.

It’s considered an honour to be in this group of 45, and the youngsters behave accordingly. There are no fights or even quarrels in the group, the atmosphere is serious, everybody is helpful towards everybody, songs are sung in harmony and during the walk there is no sound heard other than scrunching shoes in the snow. At the grave there is silence too, a history lesson from one of the scoutmasters and then the scouts sing the national anthem.

The history lesson is interesting: the Ottomans lost the Battle of Sarikamis rather dramatically. Nobody is sure how many soldiers died, but estimates vary between 40,000 to as many as 90,000. It is said about 30,000 Russian soldiers died. Sarikamis was on Russian territory at the time, which gave the Russians a huge logistic advantage since it had a railway station. The Ottomans were poorly equipped, had no proper winter gear (some regiments came straight from Tunisia and had only summer uniforms) and the strategy of commander Ismail Enver wasn’t well thought through.

Considering the fact that Turks love to sing praise over their victories and are not always good at admitting mistakes or failures, it seems a bit odd to revive the memory of this particular one. Hasan Subasi, head of the Turkish Scouting Federation, who started this event when he became head of the Federation in 2004, explains: ‘The Ottomans lost this battle, but that gives you a chance to learn. That’s what we discuss here: if you want to reach a goal, how will you plan it properly and, for example, get your logistics in order?’

In an evening session all sorts of practical things are discussed: how to weigh the risks of an expedition you want to undertake, how to stay warm when it’s cold, how to help each other in difficult circumstances. And human rights are discussed too, more specifically the ethics of war. No killing of civilians, no use of chemical weapons, no killing of unarmed soldiers.

It’s a relief to see historical events placed in a certain context that is not only nationalist, but which turns mistakes of the past to useful lessons for today. These are not the messages of politicians, of official ceremonies and of state museums that endlessly repeat the glory of the Ottomans and Turks. These are just young people trying to feel history. Okay, they are members of a big organisation that is not critical of the state and that is nationalistic too (this is Turkey, what can we do?), but still, the young men and women are genuinely grateful to be in this camp and they practice what they preach: friendship, proper behaviour, respect for nature, respect for their country.

For me, besides being an impressive experience, this is a wonderful opportunity to write about the Turkish traumas of the First World War for Dutch media. I’ve been wanting to do that for years, but couldn’t really find a good angle or a good lead, nor much interest from the magazines I write for, as you can read in a former blog post here. I think this is finally my chance to write and actually sell this story.

Then there will be at least some balance in my reporting about historic events in 1915. I’ve often published stories about that period of time, but only from another angle. Remember, we are talking about the commemoration of events that evolved at the beginning of the First World War in an area that is now eastern Turkey. Yes, exactly the time something else happened in this region: the mass killings of Armenians, referred to by many people outside Turkey as the ‘genocide’. It is never ever a problem to sell a story about that. Armenians sell, so to say.

But the Turks have a story about this area too, and I think it’s a story worth telling. It’s not only about fallen soldiers, but also about killed civilians. I had a talk about that with the scouts and their scouters, and stories were being told of families being murdered by Armenians rebelling against the Ottoman state. About the mass killings of Armenians they all strongly defend the state version of the events (that is written down here by the Turkish Coalition of America), and I expected nothing else. But does that make the story of the Turks less interesting? I don’t think so. I wonder what Dutch media will say.

I will keep you posted and hope to publish an extensive story about this that will of course be published here too. You, dear readers, will get a special treat later this week: I made a video, and I will edit it and publish it here. The first mail to a Dutch magazine has been sent. Let’s see if I can give the scouts and their experiences, emotions and history a face in the Netherlands!

Crunch

‘In this hall’ – and the muscled guy switches on the lights – ‘you can follow crunch classes, or yoga, or pilates, or aerobics.’ I don’t want aerobics, yoga or pilates, and what the hell is crunch? Something with muscles, I understand. I ask where the swimming pool is. ‘There is no pool, but we are the biggest sports centre on the Anatolian side of Istanbul!’, says mister Muscle. Yes, you said that three times already.

I am still in the sports mood (click here to read how it all started). I prefer my sport outdoors, but I thought it would be wise to subscribe to a gym for the winter months. Not because I’m afraid of cold (okay, a little bit), but mostly because when snow comes I won’t be running outside.

So I went to a huge health centre in Kadiköy, the area next to Üsküdar, where I live. It’s on the top floor of a huge shopping mall. I’m welcomed with a questionnaire, get interrogated about my health, am advised to pay a visit to their doctor for a check-up (no thank you!), and then the tour begins.

I already said I mainly want to run and do some muscle-building exercises, but Mr. Muscle keeps going on about the sauna (I prefer the neighbourhood hamam), about ‘crunch’ and the ‘community feeling’ they offer: in the summer they go to the Istanbul islands all together as a group! The horror!, I think.

Then we sit down in a small office, I get tea and then the price of all this sports happiness is presented to me: 3300 tl per year. That’s €1643. That’s € 130 per month. When Mr. Muscle sees I’m about to faint, he says that at this time of year and especially for me huge discounts are available, and with a whole lot of calculations he brings it down to € 112 a month. I say it’s still way too much, and ask what price can he offer for a subscription of three months. ‘You can only choose for a membership of 1, 2, 3 or 5 years, no less.’ I shake his hand and leave the premises.

On the way home I think of something Mr. Muscle said: that the concept for the sports school came right from the USA. I’m not sure what the ‘concept’ is exactly, but their target group is clear: the urban rich.

This sport centre has three branches in Istanbul: one in Kadiköy (not a rich area, but apparently the best place for this sports concept on the Anatolian side of town), one in Ataköy (a huge and hyper-modern area on the European side) and one in Nisantasi, a rather posh, rich neighbourhood also on the European side. There are also branches in Ankara and Izmir, the other cities considered modern, partly inhabited by rich elites.

Going to an expensive gym is not in the first place meant to get or stay healthy and in shape, but considered part of the urban lifestyle. A membership card of an expensive sports school is just as necessary an accessory as a fur coat, a shiny car, a daily visit to the hairdresser and twenty pairs of killer heels.

The non-rich, more average Istanbulites, the group I consider myself part of, has no access to this world. Not to the ultra luxurious apartment blocks in the gated communities of Ataköy, not to the ultra expensive shops of Nisantasi, not to fur coats and shiny cars. And not to urban sports concepts offering crunch.

We can go to smelly, unprofessional and small, badly equipped sports centres in the basements of crappy buildings in our own humble neighbourhoods. They cost and offer hardly anything. If you refuse to descend down there, all you can do is keep running in the open air sports school that Istanbul is. Until you break a leg while stubbornly running in the snow. I’ll keep you posted!

Congress defines future Turkish opposition party

ISTANBUL – Turkey’s biggest opposition party, the CHP, is getting ready for a historical party congress tomorrow in the capital, Ankara. Will party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu get the chance to modernize the party and thus make it ready for the general elections in June, or will the ‘old gang’ remain in charge behind the scenes? The hope of leftist Turks rests with Kilicdaroglu.

The congress is coming together to choose the Party Council, which has a strong influence on the list of candidates for the elections. Up until now the Party Council has been dominated by a strong opponent of Kilicdaroglu, Önder Sav. Sav had a lot of influence as Secretary-General of the party, but was ousted by Kilicdaroglu during an exciting congress last month. Via the Party Council Sav wants to try to still get his candidates on the list of candidates for parliament.

Önder Sav is not the only one chasing Kilicdaroglu. The previous party leader, Deniz Baykal, is also working on a come-back. He had to step down earlier this year because of a sex scandal, after having lead the party for eighteen years.

During Baykal’s reign the CHP, the creation of Turkey’s founding father Atatürk, drifted away from social-democracy. The party became more nationalistic, becoming spokes- person for an army that is getting less powerful, took a rigid position in Turkey’s democratisation process, and thus didn’t contribute in any way to reforms necessary for EU accession.

Kilicdaroglu is seen as the man who can lift the curse from the party and give a new voice to leftist Turkey. Being a Kurd and an Alevite, he could also weaken the strongly nationalist face of the CHP. For the present, Kilicdarogly hasn’t yet done much to make the party more Social-Democrat once again, but that could be related to his still fragile position at the top. Iit’s generally acknowledged that the CHP doesn’t stand a chance in the general election without Kilicdaroglu and without radical reforms.

The elections on June 12th are mainly between the CHP and governing AKP. The AKP has been governing for eight years now with an absolute majority in parliament. In the previous elections, in 2007, the CHP got 21% of the votes, the AKP 46%. That gap has narrowed, but for now nothing points to a potential victory for the CHP. That could change after this weekend’s party congress.

Coup plot court case begins in Turkey

ISTANBUL – In the Turkish city of Istanbul the ‘Balyoz’ (Sledgehammer) court case has begun. ‘Balyoz’ is an alleged coup plot against the APK government. No less than 196 military personnel (many of them retired) are on trial. It’s the first court case ever in Turkey against officers suspected of planning a military coup.

The coup plot was revealed by daily newspaper Taraf about a year ago. There was supposedly a big secret meeting referred to as ‘Balyoz’ in 2003, at which the plans for a coup were being forged. The plans were spectacular: the officers wanted to make the country ‘ready’ for a military take-over by creating chaos, for example by bombing big mosques in Istanbul. The first arrests were made in February this year. The most important suspect is (retired) General Cetin Dogan. The other 195 suspects are also all from the military.

The case has been making emotions run high in Turkey for months now, mostly for political reasons. Opponents of the AKP accuse the government of using Balyoz to discredit the army, and there is continuous debate about the authenticity of evidence.
Earlier this week two judges appointed to handle the case were replaced: they were supposedly not independent and were sympathetic toward the suspects. The new judges were appointed by a high judicial council, the HSYK, that has recently come under more government influence.

Most of the suspects are being prosecuted for ‘attempted coup’, for which the maximum punishment is twenty years imprisonment. It’s unclear how long the trial will take. It’s feared that there will be an immediate delay because the new judges have not yet had enough time to study the case.

About Ahmet Kaya and a young woman

The whole evening, actually the whole Kurdish question came together in one young woman last night. I saw and heard her during a break in the commemoration night for Ahmet Kayak, a Kurdish singer who died ten years ago in exile in Paris. She was being interviewed on camera about what Ahmet Kaya meant for her. The journalist wanted her to answer his questions in Kurmanji, her Kurdish mother tongue. I saw her hand tremble, she stumbled over her words and was so overwhelmed with emotion that she just couldn’t do it. After a few broken sentences in Kurmanji, she switched to Turkish.

What happened last night was unimaginable ten years, or even five years ago. In those days, the Kurdish question officially didn’t exist and Kurdish couldn’t be spoken in public. Ahmet Kaya was on one hand loved by both Kurds and Turks, but was also a man prosecuted and pressured so much in Turkey that he went into exile. He died in Paris, even though he wanted to die in his own country. Could he have come back now, if he were still alive? Could he have continued in Turkey with what he did indefatigably: call for everybody’s right in Turkey to be who he or she is, living peacefully together with everybody’s rights fully recognised?

I don’t know, but the undoubted fact is that Turkey has changed. The opening speech was in both Kurdish and Turkish. Another Kurdish singer in exile, Sivan Perwer, sang a song and spoke in Kurdish on screen with Turkish subtitles, and activist slogans were heard in both languages. All the major television stations were there to record it, and the audience was exploding with emotions. During a documentary about Ahmet Kaya’s life, in which concerts, interviews, scenes of his life and his funeral were shown, the audience behaved as if they were there: applauding, cheering, booing, finger whistling, standing ovations, tears.

But the fact that a lot has changed doesn’t mean that the past has been dealt with (or that there isn’t a whole lot that remains to be done before the Kurdish question is solved, for that matter). The past is deep in people’s systems. The past of forced assimilation, the past of denying people’s identities. That’s what became apparent in the young woman.

Her eyes were red from crying, her hands were shaking, she was bursting with emotion and wanted to speak confidently and proudly in her own language – she told me when we spoke afterwards walking away from the concert hall. But her own language just never had a chance to really take root in her. It was overshadowed by Turkish, the only language allowed for so many years. Even at home little Kurmanji was spoken, because her parents knew that their kids would have a better chance in Turkey if they spoke proper Turkish. She learned Kurmanji from her grandparents, and was now taking a course with a group of friends to learn her own language better. Her first public performance in Kurmanji sure wasn’t fluent, but it couldn’t have been more symbolic.

Egged

Throwing eggs: Turkish students are good at it and getting better. This week they brought down an ‘egg rain’ on AKP MP Burhan Kuzu, member of a parliamentary commission that advises on constitutional change. He came to the Political Science Faculty of Ankara University, and was welcomed by the ‘Egg Throwing Collective’. Dozens of eggs landed on him. Well, on his umbrella – he came prepared.

It sounds ridiculous: political science students welcoming with eggs a MP who wants to discuss constitutional change. It would make more sense to prepare good questions and discussion points and really make your point about what you feel needs to change in the constitution. But considering what happened earlier this week between students and the police, and considering the history Turkey has with protesting students, I can somehow understand their action.

Last weekend Prime Minister Erdogan held a meeting with university rectors in Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul. Students protested the fact that they were not invited to the meeting and took to the road leading to Dolmabahce, armed only with banners. No weapons, not even eggs, they claim. The police were determined to stop them, and soon started using violence: water cannon, pepper spray, batons. That was not a pretty sight, some students ended up in hospital (where one 19 year old pregnant student lost her early pregnancy after being hit in the stomach). More than thirty students were arrested.

A few weeks ago, eighteen students of a university in Istanbul were sentenced to fifteen months in prison for waving banners and shouting slogans against the AKP when Prime Minister Erdogan came to open the university. Their crime: protesting. The list of court cases and violence against protesting students is long, and getting longer.

In Turkey, unlike in, for example, my own country, the Netherlands, many students still lead a very political, activist life. They group together in often socialist or communist (who said communism is dead?) and also sometimes right wing groups. They discuss their political views, hold protest meetings, meet with like-minded groups from other universities, and engage in demonstrations. And there is indeed a lot to fight for. Independent academic life, for example, not controlled by a state institution. Better job prospects after graduation. No mingling of politics in academia. Just to name a few.

How are you going to be heard if protests are followed by violence or a court case? Egg throwing is childish, but I can imagine the obstinate mood students are in this week. And I feel no sympathy whatsoever for Mr. Kuzu, who, after being ‘egged’, said that the students were ‘brainless’. He called on the rector, deans and the head of the Politics Faculty to step down.

How about he put the events of this week in a broader perspective and ponder his own and his party’s basic principles? Why are there still so many restrictions on the constitutional  right to demonstrate? His party has been in charge now since 2002. They love to talk about democratisation but haven’t even managed to guarantee one of the most basic democratic rights. The shame of that is so much deeper than the shame of throwing eggs.

What Turkish politicians can learn from WikiLeaks

Turkish politicians are very honest. You will, for example, never see CHP leader Kilicdaroglu warmly shake hands with Prime Minister Erdogan and tell him that the AKP government has made such a great contribution to the self-confident positioning of Turkey on the world diplomatic stage. And Prime Minister Erdogan would in return never thank Kilicdaroglu for trying to make the CHP more democratic and thus contributing to the democratization of Turkey. An ultra-nationalist would never say to a pro-Kurdish politician that he’s a nice guy or a great woman despite their political differences, or vice versa.

Actually, the most dishonest thing I’ve seen in recent years was a DTP politician (the former pro-Kurdish party) shaking hands with a MHP politician (ultra nationalist) in parliament, right after the elections of 2007. The hand-shake was applauded, but neither man meant his kindness and smiles even a tiny little bit.

Turkish politicians from different political colours in general despise each other. And they don’t hide it. Even when they meet on formal occasions like funerals of fallen soldiers or informal ones like weddings, they simply don’t talk. They hardly talk even behind closed doors, away from the media and the public eye. The CHP and AKP didn’t have any meeting whatsoever in the last couple of years.

They do address each other through the media. And very honestly too. For example Erdogan accuses Kilicdaroglu or Bahceli (MHP leader) of something, and soon after that there will be a ‘sert yanit’ (harsh answer) from the targeted politician on another channel or in another paper. Then Erdogan in turn comes out with a ‘sert yanit’, and so on and so on.
On the subject of WikiLeaks too, the ‘sert yanits’ go back and forth. In one cable, for example, there was something about Erdogan having secret bank accounts in Switzerland (which was, by the way, just something a diplomat had ‘heard’ and of which there is no proof so far). Erdogan denies it, Kilicdaroglu says ‘Prove it by going to court!’, Erdogan answers harshly, Kilicdaroglu even more harshly in return. They fool nobody: they hate each other’s guts, and they show it.

I read and I have heard Turks say that the cables prove what the USA really is: two-faced, dishonest. Play friends with a nation and say bad things behind its back. Well, I guess Turks can be proud of their leaders. They never play friends. But of course, in the meantime, this damn honesty leads absolutely nowhere. It basically blocks all development in the country. And we are not talking minor issues here. It would have helped get changes to the constitution and acceptance of them if all parties had sat down together to discuss their views on the constitution. The process of solving the Kurdish issue might have advanced a few steps further than it is now if only politicians had been hypocritical enough to sit down and face each other and talk like adults and negotiate like politicians.

In short: if they had behaved a little bit more like American diplomats. If they had been brave enough to throw overboard the immense Turkish machismo that stands in the way of any compromise or even approach. Share all necessary information openly without constraint in your own group, base a policy on it and then step into the outside world. Talk to as many actors as possible, even to those you like least or even the ones your informants despise. If not to make the world a better place, then at least to get as many as possible of your own policy goals realized. In my humble opinion, a little bit more American diplomatic hypocrisy would do Turkey a lot of good.

Turkish Armenians want election of Patriarch

ISTANBUL – Representatives of the Armenian community in Turkey have initiated a court case against the Turkish state to enforce elections for a new Patriarch, according to several Turkish newspapers on Thursday.

The court case is bringing to a climax a battle that started in 2008, when it became clear that Patriarch Mesrop II was no longer able to perform his duties due to dementia. The Ministry of Internal Affairs appointed a substitute Patriarch,very much against the will of the Armenians themselves. They want tohold elections to appoint a new spiritual leader in accordance with existing laws.

The position of ‘substitute patriarch’ doesn’t even exist, as a spokesperson for the Armenian Apostolic community is reported as saying in English language paper Hürriyet Daily News. ‘The ministry invented that position so they could appoint somebody of their choice.’

With the court case, the community wants to make elections still possible. A second court case must nullify the appointment of the ‘substitute patriarch’.

Mostly material damage at Istanbul train station fire

ISTANBUL – No deaths or injuries were reported from the fire that hit the historical Haydarpaşs train station in Istanbul on Sunday afternoon. The material damage though seems huge: the roof was completely gutted, parts of it collapsed and the fire damaged several floors down from the roof, according to several Turkish media reports on Sunday. Exactly how serious the damage is remains to be seen.

At first it was feared that the whole building was in danger, but in the end the fire brigade managed to put out the fire in about one and a half hours. The building is right by the water, which made it easy for fire brigade boats to quickly come close to the building from different sides. The fire was caused by renovation work being done on the roof, but exactly how it happened is still the subject of investigation.

The fire hasn’t caused much disturbance in the railroad network, even though Haydarpaşa is the station from where all east-bound trains  leave Istanbul. Rail traffic is not very intensive in Turkey, most long distance travelling is done by bus and airplane.

(ANP news agency wrote the initial news article about the fire at their news room in The Hague (Netherlands). I live close to Haydarpaşa and immediately went there, and afterwards wrote this news update for ANP)