I began my journalism career in the early 1990s in the Netherlands, where I grew up. From 2006 to 2020, I worked as a freelance correspondent in Turkey and Kurdistan, where my honest journalistic coverage provoked those in power so thoroughly that I was arrested twice — and then deported. These experiences sharpened my view of the Netherlands. After all I’ve learned in the past 15 years, I’ve come home to hold power to account.
I do not sit in the lap of power or practice access journalism, where the priority is maintaining connections to power. Instead, I amplify the strong and heartfelt voices of marginalized groups. After all, they know the destructive force of power firsthand. To give an extreme example: if I were a journalist in the 1930s trying to report on the rise of fascism in Germany, would I try to interview the man in power in Berlin or the people of the Jewish neighbourhoods?
The boys are dead
In Turkey I was initially based in Üsküdar, on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, for six years. Everything changed in early 2012 after I visited a small town on the Iraqi border called Roboski. It was the scene of a massacre: in December 2011, Kurdish villagers who smuggled goods across the border had been bombed to smithereens by the Turkish airforce. Thirty-four men and boys had died.
The first two stories I wrote about the event gave me more questions than answers. So I kept returning to Roboski to investigate the massacre. I soon understood that telling the story of this tragedy, which unfolded on a square kilometer in the rugged, icy mountains of Kurdistan, would explain the whole Kurdish issue in Turkey, where the Kurds have been suppressed by the nationalist state since around a century. My book about the Roboski massacre, ‘The boys are dead’, was published in Dutch in 2014. It was shortlisted for the Brusse Prize for best journalistic book. In 2015 it was published in English and Turkish, and in 2018 in Arabic.
Two arrests and one deportation
After moving to Diyarbakir, the political heartland of the struggle of the Kurds, in 2012, I started to draw the attention of the Turkish state. This attention intensified when I started to publish articles in Turkish and English. In January 2015, I was shortly detained by the police in Diyarbakir, suspected of ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’ – the PKK, whom I interviewed and reported about. I was prosecuted but acquitted.
In September 2015, while working in a remote valley close to the Iranian and Iraqi borders, I was once again detained, this time with a group of Kurdish activists I was reporting on. After two nights in a police cell, I was put on a plane to Amsterdam. I am still banned from going to Turkey.
In a defiant move, I came up with a ‘crazy plan’. What if I spent a year with the PKK (and the YPG in Syria) and wrote a portrait of the armed movement from the perspective not of the organisation’s leadership but of the ordinary guerrilla fighters?
The result was ‘This fire never dies’, published in the Netherlands in 2018. It was longlisted for the Brusse Prize for best journalistic book. The English translation will be available in late 2020.
Ever since, I have spent half of my time reporting in Kurdistan, based in Sulaymanya in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and half of my time in the Netherlands. The coronavirus crisis will keep me in the Netherlands for the foreseeable future. Luckily – I’m being ironic – there are many stories to tell about power here. There are just as many vocal voices whom I love to listen to and whom I love to share.
In September 2020, I will complete a Master’s degree in International Journalism at Edinburgh Napier University.
You can book me for lectures and debates. I have experience at universities, NGOs and conferences in Turkey and Kurdistan, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Australia and the European Parliament. Here’s my TedX talk.
I have no hobbies.