‘The PKK’, an elderly man says, ‘should not withdraw from Turkey. Why not? Because they are our children!’ He gets the biggest and longest applause from the people attending the first public meeting of the ‘wise people commission’ in Diyarbakir. At least five hundred people attended, in a theatre that can seat 375 people. The ‘wise people’ didn’t come to explain the current peace process to the people, as their task is described by the government, but to listen.
If there had been more time, every single man and woman of the 500 people attending would have shared his or her story. Everybody was very eager to get a hold of the microphone and speak. Etyen Mahcupyan, one of the commission’s ‘wise men’ and moderator of the meeting, had to remind the speakers now and then that the commission had come to get an answer to one question specifically: what do the people of Diyarbakir think needs to be done to achieve peace in Turkey? But even people who just wanted to share their experiences got some time and space. Good choice: not only are people’s painful experiences and their suggestions for solutions not to be seen in isolation from each other, but the people in this region can’t wait to be finally listened to by the government, and they hope to establish that via the commission.
That hope might not be in vain: the wise people who carry out their work in the Southeast (there are seven groups of nine people who are all assigned to a particular part of Turkey) intend to put the findings of their meetings all over the region in a report to the government. Not all nine wise commissioners were present, a few had other obligations. Present were, besides Turkish-Armenian writer and journalist Etyen Mahcupyan: Murat Belge (left-liberal academic, civil rights activist and literary critic), Mehmet Emin Ekmen (lawyer and former AKP MP for Batman), Yilmaz Ensaroglu (director of Law and Human Rights Department at think-tank SETA), Kezban Hatemi (lawyer specialized in religious minorities law) and Fazil Hüsnü Erdem (lawyer, professor in constitutional law and human rights).
‘These lands are called Kurdistan’
In order for everybody to be able to speak freely, media with film and photo cameras were sent out of the room (fortunately those with just pen and paper could stay). Those same media are mentioned by many people as part of the problem, and part of the solution. A young man says: ‘I want the media to stop using the word terrorism when they talk of the PKK or related issues.’ Many people support him with applause, and other speakers refer to the same problem. Another man adds: ‘The media act as if the guerillas come from outer space. But they are our people, they come from this land.’ Another man, also getting a lot of support, says: ‘And these lands are called Kurdistan, and it has always been like that. Why can we not say that?’
Many of the speakers start by welcoming the wise people to Diyarbakir, and end by wishing the commission success – the atmosphere is honest, straight, polite and respectful. Some speakers have written down on paper the things they want to say, in order not to forget anything. And they are not easily shut up by Mahcupyan, who sometimes encourages speakers to wind up so he can give time to as many people as possible.
The commission gets some criticism too, although mostly indirect. Several people say they believe the peace process has no balance, and one man puts it like this: ‘There are two men important in this process: Erdogan and Öcalan. Erdogan has the power in parliament, he can form a wise people commission with the people he chooses, but what can Öcalan do? He can only send letters from prison and receive the answers.’ A young woman: ‘Öcalan must be free so can he can really contribute, unlike now from between four walls’.
Another speaker wants Öcalan to come to Diyarbakir as soon as possible so he can exchange views with his supporters. Everybody mentioning Öcalan’s freedom gets loud applause. Several people mention once-jailed South African Nelson Mandela, and one man points to the time it took to realize real change in South Africa: ‘We shouldn’t think peace can be reached quickly and easily. It’s a long process.’
Mistake in the system
Many of the women who speak (only at most 20% of the audience is female) share their personal stories. These are stories of death, disappearances, forced migration and state pressure. A mother of eight children tells the commission she spent a year in jail for political reasons, after she was forced to migrate to Izmir when her village in the southeast was burnt down by the state. ‘And many of our friends are still in jail now; we want everybody to be free.’
Another woman points out that the women have always suffered more than any other group: ‘Their husbands disappeared in the nineties, their children went to the mountains, they had to raise their families in poverty.’ She adds that it is not a problem of the last thirty years, since the PKK took up arms in 1984: ‘This problem is much older.’ A man agrees with that: ‘It’s a mistake in the system, and we should stop calling it the ‘Kurdish problem’. The Kurds are not the problem.’
Several people point out that all the crimes from the past have to be thoroughly investigated. A man: ‘And then it will become clear who has been the terrorist all these years. It was the state.’ Some speakers specifically mention the Uludere massacre, and insist that the state has to apologize for it both to the families of the deceased and to the Kurdish people.
Still in jail
How problematic the situation still is today is illustrated by three students from the local Dicle University. Last week, fights broke out on campus between supporters of ultra religious group Hizbullah and pro-PKKstudents. In short, it is generally believed that the Hizbullah followers started the provocations to frustrate the peace process, and that they were not dealt with firmly enough by the police. The tension and violence lasted for three days. Several students were wounded, some sixty people were taken into custody and eventually eight of them (five pro-PKK, three Hizbullah) were arrested.
One student: ‘We are totally fed up with the violence against us at universities. We don’t want police at the campus, we want to get educated. This harms the development of the Kurdish people.’ Another student: ‘I was taken into custody and only released last night. But some of our friends are still in jail. How can we study if these provocations continue?’ Everybody supports the students, and a young woman says: ‘The pressure on our youth has to stop. At universities, but also on the streets. Remember Murat Izol, remember Sahin Öner.’ (Both young men recently died in Diyarbakir: Murat Izol drowned after jumping into the Tigris while running from police, Sahin Öner was shot in the back running from police. The wise people commission visited Izol’s family last Wednesday.)
After the meeting, people rushed to the wise people to shake their hands and thank them and wish them success, or add something personal to the members. In the hall outside the meeting room, tea and cookies were being served. The Turkish press, sent out of the room earlier, were nowhere to be seen. Gone? No. While there were hundreds of Kurds right there and eager to share their stories with the Turkish public in front of a camera, the Turkish journalists pointed their cameras at commission head Yilmaz Ensaroglu in a separate room. The personal stories that this peace process is all about, are not supposed to be heard nationwide just yet.