Diyarbakir’s historical areas were severely damaged in fighting between the Turkish army and Kurdish guerillas. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—Just one year ago, residents of Diyarbakir, the capital of Turkey’s Kurdish heartland in the southeast, were delighted that two historical sites in their city had been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Today, activists are lamenting the destruction in the city due to clashes between the Turkish army and Kurdish guerillas and UNESCO’s silence on the matter while it holds its 40th session in Istanbul.
The ancient fortress of Diyarbakir and the Hevsel Gardens on the banks of the Tigris River were added to the list of important cultural monuments in July 2015. The recognition was greeted with fireworks and hopes that a boost to tourism and investment would follow.
“This decision to add the sites not only protects Diyarbakir city walls and the Hevsel gardens. It further gives us courage to protect the culture of the entire nearby area,” said Gultan Kisanak, co-mayor of Diyarbakir at the time.
The Diyarbakir city walls were built in 349 A.D. during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine II. The walls of the fortress, which are almost five kilometers long, contain 82 bastions and have four gates.
The 8,000-year old Hevsel Gardens are the fertile lands between the city walls and the Tigris River valley.
But within weeks of the UNESCO listing, a ceasefire between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) unraveled and the army imposed military curfews on Kurdish cities and towns throughout the countries southeast.
Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 338 civilians have been killed and more than 355,000 displaced. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), an international body producing information on internally displaced people around the world, believes the number of displaced in the renewed conflict is actually much higher – 945,000.
Ankara has banned the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and journalists entry into the area. Local activists report that whole neighbourhoods have been destroyed, homes razed to the ground. Their claim is backed up by satellite imagery.
The destruction in Diyarbakir is reportedly widespread.
“In a year, we went from UNESCO… to destruction so complete, there is no chance of return,” Nevin Soyukaya, head of Diyarbakir’s heritage office, told Reuters.
Soyukaya stated that more than 800 buildings in the city were destroyed and the rubble dumped into the Tigris River, meaning reconstruction of heritage sites is impossible.
The destruction was a planned tactic in the military offensive with the goal of creating conditions such that the guerilla forces could not return; “urban regeneration” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described it.
Ankara estimates that the cost to rebuild 6,000 destroyed buildings will be about 1 billion lira ($345 million).
"Buildings damaged during operations will be renewed in rehabilitation projects. One of the most important of these is Sur. Historical buildings will be renewed in ways suiting the historical fabric,” a Turkish official told Reuters, referring to Diyarbakir’s ancient district of Sur.
Co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Figen Yuksekdag, said that nearly 90 percent of the properties in Sur were seized by the authorities. “They want to destroy the living spaces and houses of the people who survived death and the massacres in those places,” she said, speaking to Hurriyet Daily News in March.
As the UNESCO World Heritage Committee holds its 40th session in Istanbul, which opened on July 10, activists have staged forums to bring attention to the destruction in Diyarbakir, which they accuse UNESCO of being silent on.
The official line from the UN agency has been diplomatic. “We are approaching this issue with extreme sensitivity and do not want to see any harm to the site,” Lale Ulker, head of the World Heritage Committee, told reporters.
But others were more pragmatic. “The dilemma is [UNESCO’s] support and funding comes from governments, so political pressure renders such organizations ineffective,” Zulfu Livaneli, a Turkish novelist and filmmaker, told Reuters. He quit is role as UNESCO goodwill ambassador, a position he filled for 20 years, in protest of the destruction in Sur and the alleged human rights abuses.