While we were busy working, cooking meals and trying to live through the day, there are people fighting for their lives, running away from gunfire and living in fear. You have heard of the civil war in Syria and the bloodshed in Yemen, but have you heard of the civil war in Diyarbakir? There is so much chaos in the world right now, but not enough airtime to report them all on television news. Just like that, the civil war in Diyarbakir began and ended without the world knowing about it.
The irony was that I was living in Istanbul while the civil war in Diyarbakir was ongoing. However, I had no idea that it happened because no one talked about it, nor were there sufficient international news about the war. In late 2015 to early 2016, the millennium-old historical center of Diyarbakir was under siege. Also known as Sur, the walled old city was the epicenter of gunfire, bombs and dead bodies. In a bid to flush out whom the government deemed as “Kurdish terrorists”, the Turkish military ravaged the historical center with bombs and guns.
Many residents of the historical center were caught in the bloodshed between the Kurdish fighters and the government. Almost 30,000 people left their homes, while some of those who wanted to hold onto their homes perished in the gunfights. After the months-long siege of the historical center, the military left, but also left the thousand-year old city in ruins. The historical center could easily been mistaken for a scene in Syria: devastated, destroyed and doomed.
One year later, I visited Diyarbakir, hoping to experience the culture of the proud capital of the Kurdish. It was then that I realised there was a grave civil war just a year ago. As I walked along the broken ancient city walls, I could not help but noticed the emptiness within the walls. Many of the destroyed homes have been razed to the ground and cleared, leaving behind a dusty, flat and empty field. The worst parts of the old city were cordoned off, with armed military guarding the access points. It was shocking to see this vast emptiness, knowing that it once used to be bustling with life, people and old houses.
The destruction was severe, so much so that not all of the rubble could be cleared in time. From the military checkpoints, you could still see the debris of the houses and mosques. It was unfortunate that even ancient mosques were targeted during the civil war. A unique mosque with a four-legged minaret, the only one in Diyarbakir, was not spared. Located just behind temporary fences, the mosque lies in limbo. You could still see the bullet holes on the walls of the mosque, and the damaged entrance. The lingering evidence of war and destruction was the ugly face of Diyarbakir.
However, you could walk into the walled city of Diyarbakir and not realise that a civil war had just happened a year ago. Parts of the destroyed old city were quickly reconstructed into parks, museums and cafes. On one side of the ancient walls, you only see rubble and dust. Turn around and poof! Beautiful parks, boardwalks and restored buildings. People running around on the nicely trimmed grass and families having picnics… Live goes on for these people, and that should be the way.
As I roamed inside the old city with a local friend, I could not help but notice this drastic difference between dust and dandy. The main streets were beautiful, full of people and bustling with life. However, once you turn into one of the small alleyways, you would always be stopped by a tall police fence. Peek inside and you will only find ruins and silence. These are the two faces of Diyarbakir.
However, I really appreciated the fact that everyone was still going about with his or her lives. People were going to work, preparing meals, shopping and having fun. My friend and I visited a traditional teahouse in the walled city and it was extremely packed! We had to wait a while for a seat, and it surely did not fit the stereotypical impression of a city recovering from a devastating siege. There was so much life in Diyarbakir that sometimes you forget what had happened. I admired the tenacity of the people, to move on with their lives and to try to live optimistically.
Nobody gains from a civil war, neither the government nor the people. It is unfortunate that a part of Diyarbakir’s lustrous history had disappeared with the civil war, but thankfully the culture lives on. You can always destroy the buildings and the walls, but no government can destroy the hearts of the people. I really enjoyed the fact that the people were still so cheerful and hospitable despite the horrific war. Businesses were bustling and people were out on the streets and enjoying the beautiful sun. Even though there exists two distinct faces of Diyarbakir, you can easily leave the city seeing just only one.
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