Let me start with a picture of how I spent most of Sunday afternoon, when Newroz (the coming of spring) was celebrated in Diyarbakir: here it is. All quiet, no police to be seen, only in the air were two helicopters keeping an eye on the crowd. Around me, there were families having a picnic (some even took a barbecue), kids were playing and laughing, there was dancing and singing and political slogans were chanted. A peaceful day in the park.
Well, that’s of course not the whole picture. The day started rather violent in Diyarbakır. Usually Newroz is celebrated at March 21, mostly by Turkey’s Kurds. This year pro-Kurdish BDP took the initiative to celebrate it on Sunday in Istanbul and Diyarbakir. They wanted it to be a day of protest. Since a year, the situation around the Kurdish issue has deteriorated: the talks between the state and representatives of the PKK have stopped, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been in solitary confinement for almost a year and the arrests in the KCK probe (read more here) continue undiminished. No, it had nothing to do with the 21st being on a weekday: it was, as far as I could figure out, the first time the celebrations were rescheduled to the weekend.
The gouvernourship of both Diyarbakır and Istanbul didn’t allow the celebrations – or should we call them protests – on Sunday. The reason is unclear, but it was stated that Newroz is on the 21st and on that day celebrations would be allowed, and that was it. But people didn’t care about the ban. If Kurds want to celebrate Newroz on a Sunday, well, they can hardly be stopped.
What was expected, happened: people tried to reach the festival grounds, which was closed by police already in the early hours, and clashes with the police started. Both in Istanbul and Diyarbakir. In Diyarbakır, in the end things turned out pretty well. After the clashs, apparently it became clear to the securıty forces that about a million people couldn’t be stopped, and they opened the festival grounds. It was weird: my friend Beyza and I made it to the grounds via sideways through fields and waste lands, and when we arrived we saw the main entrance was open.
The atmosphere was in general good. There were many fires – they are part of Newroz celebrations – and there was music and dancing. I was surprised and it took me a while to understand what was happening: so the police decided to give up, back off and let people celebrate? Yes, they did. They did confisquate the sound system at the stage though, to prevent the whole happening to become too much a protest. I consider that a violation of the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest, but it didn’t lead to large scale trouble.
I was afraid that things would get out of hand when I saw some young people attack two GSM cars standing next to the festival terrain. They were set on fire. Older people tried to stop it, but couldn’t. I wondered why these were destroyed, and later learned that people distrust the mobile operators and believe their phones are being tapped. Not too surprising, since for example much of the so called ‘evidence’ in the KCK trials is based on illegal wire tapping. Anyway, this violent group was only small, and there was no police around to worsen the situation with water or with tear gas, so soon all turned quiet again. Not too much later, the pic of your sleeping favourite correspondent was taken.
Tear gas canister
How different the situation in Istanbul was, I found out later. The day started the same: police closing the festival grounds, large crowds of people trying to reach it anyway and violent clashes between police and protesters. But while the Diyarbakir police somehow came to its senses and opened the grounds and allowed the festivities, the Istanbul police didn’t change its policy: the huge park was closed and stayed closed. The result: large scale clashes, around 150 arrests, dozens of people wounded, one BDP member killed by a tear gas canister, and a lot of material damage because protesters threw stones at busses and shops and destoyed bus stops.
Imagine what would have happened when the Sunday Newroz celebrations would have just been celebrated, without being banned by some gouvernours clearly not in total touch with reality. I bet it would have just been a wonderful day, like it was for a big part in Diyarbakir after the police gave up its resistance. By the way, I heard of new clashes and tear gas use in Diyarbakir after people left the festival grounds at the end of the afternoon, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I left at the same time, walking away from the grounds give a rather good view at the surrounings and I heard no tear gas being shot, I saw no people running, I didn’t smell tear gas and didn’t see people affected by tear gas or by a water cannon. Still, of course I was only one person in one place.
Yes, nowadays Newroz celebrations in Turkey have become partly political and that is not the original meaning of the feast, but why is that a problem? Why is that a reason to ban it when it is not celebrated at exactly the right day? If people want to celebrate Newroz on March 18 or on whichever day they wish, let them. There is no law that says Newroz can’t be celebrated on any other day than the 21st, is there? Even stronger: the Turkish constitution states people don’t need prior permission to demonstrate, so it seems there was no legal ground for the ban. And no, also the fact that the celebration would be more of a demonstration, is no reason to forbid it. Demonstrating is a democratic right.
The only way for Newroz to turn back to its original purpose – celebrating the start of spring – is to solve the Kurdish issue. Then Kurds don’t feel the need to take the opportunity to protest. Till then, the way to not let things turn ugly and violent, is to let people celebrate and demonstrate as they wish. That’s the recipe for a peaceful, happy day in the park.