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Writer and activist Nurcan Baysal, working in Diyarbakir: ‘Until they detain me, I will write’

Fréderike Geerdink photo
Fréderike GeerdinkAmsterdam
Writer and activist Nurcan Baysal, working in Diyarbakir: ‘Until they detain me, I will write’
Repression of the media is at an all time high in Turkey. More than 150 journalists are jailed, thousands lost their jobs, many media were closed. Byline tells the story of Kurdish journalists through the stories of three of them. Today the last, Nurcan Baysal: ‘I feel stronger than ever’.

This is the last story in a trilogy. Earlier this week the stories of imprisoned journalist Nedim Türfent and of Faruk Encü, who had to flee Turkey and is now a refugee in Europe, were published.

‘How many years prison sentence the prosecutor has asked against me? I have no idea. My lawyer wants to inform me about the details of the cases against me but I don’t want to know. It will happen, one day they will take me, but I don’t want to think about it too much because it will decrease my motivation and my energy.’

Nurcan Baysal laughs a lot during the interview about her work in Diyarbakir and about the latest developments in the city and the region. But it doesn’t mean she is happy. She is trying to make life bearable. Baysal is a well known activist and writer from Diyarbakir. She has also worked as a researcher for several NGO’s. Besides her work in the city, she is internationally active. For example, she just went to Brussels to meet, among others, Members of the European Parliament to talk to them about the situation in Turkey and especially in Kurdistan. As well, she often speaks at conferences and cultural events in Europe and always draws attention to the plight of the Kurds.

Recently, I saw you tweet in anger about the ongoing curfew in parts of Sur, the old city of Diyarbakir. Can you explain your anger?
‘The curfew has been going on for two years now. There is no security problem anymore, so why is Sur still closed? I think the state is doing something there that it wants to hide from us. I think they are selling the 7000 year old history of the city. This is the story that goes around in Diyarbakir as well. They are taking and selling things that belong to the Armenians.’

Former parts of Sur.

This is not just a rumour. The Armenian Surp Giragos church is situated in the part of Sur that is still closed to civilians. Part of it has been razed to the ground. The church is still standing, but is damaged. The only people allowed into the area are members of the security forces. Now and then, they give entry to the church to administrators of the Surp Giragos’ board , who then find the premises more damaged and notice that books, historical pictures and artifacts are missing. Another journalist in town, Mahmut Bozarslan, published a story about it on Al-Monitor

What is the political atmosphere in Diyarbakir now? For example, are people sometimes trying to make their voices heard on the streets?
‘No, there are no demonstrations. A few small ones about Ali Paşa, a part of Sur that was demolished under the pretext of ‘urban renewal’. There is no Ali Paşa anymore. A group of young people established a platform, ‘No to destruction of Sur’, and they held small protests, but in general the city is in silence.’

Why is that?
‘For a lot of reasons. One reason is: people are scared. Even if three, four people come together, the police is coming because demonstrations are banned. Every day we wake up wondering who will be on the list of detained people that day. So there is too much pressure.
But that is not the only reason. People are also resentful. They didn’t understand why all of this happened. Why did the city wars break out? They are very angry at the state, but also they don’t understand... They have some questions to the Kurdish movement. Why? They try to find answers.’

Do you understand what happened?
'Not totally. You know, we have lived in peace for three years. Well, not totally in peace of course, but there was a peace process [between early 2013 and summer 2015]. We are human beings and it is so easy to be comfortable in peace, so after that, to see so much violence, people were all in shock and asking ’Why? Why in Sur, this 7000 year old city?’

Several stories have been published about what caused the city wars, which raged between roughly autumn 2015 and spring 2016. Here is an interview with PKK co-leader Cemil Bayik (by the author of this piece) and recently there was a piece on the website War on the Rocks. It is clear that the state reacted disproportionately to the youth that entrenched themselves in the cities of Kurdistan (read reports here, here and here) but many people don’t only put the blame for what happened on the state. 

Do you blame the PKK for what happened?
‘I don’t. It’s not about blame. I mean, the thing is...’, says Baysal, struggling to find words. ‘I was often there, and I saw the young people while they were digging trenches and there were arrests and so much pressure from the state. One side of me keeps asking: why did we lose these young people? Maybe we didn’t need to be such heroes. Why didn’t they think of another way? We lost the baby sitter of my children, in Gever (the Kurdish name of Yüksekova, FG). She was so young. I don’t want to accept this, they all have very valuable lives, they are not just numbers. They had people who loved them. We should care about our children. Kurdish children shouldn’t die so easy. Maybe because of that I am a bit angry, yes.’

What choices do you make when you write? From what I read of you, you don’t seem to lower your voice. Do you self censor at all?
‘No. I am not thinking about such choices too much. I don’t want to think too much because when you do, you become afraid. I don’t want to do that to myself.
In the city, people always talk about the ‘lists’. There are reportedly lists of people that will be detained. I close my ears when I hear such talk. Some day, I can get detained, sure. But to close your eyes is really much harder than to open your eyes. The problem is, we writers, we are very few nowadays. Sometimes I feel that I am tired, maybe I need to take a break for a few months. But families are calling me to tell me that there are still dead bodies on the streets and in rural areas. For example, I know that in Cukurca there is an area where nearly fifty dead bodies are lying around. I can’t tell these families that I...’

Baysal doesn’t finish her sentence. She sighs and says: ‘I am afraid but also I feel stronger than ever. They will detain me but till that day I will write.’

One day a week

Ever since the ‘peace process’ fell apart in the summer of 2015, many Kurdish journalists have been detained, also in Diyarbakir. Some others seem to have left the city. Others continue their work, for example Mahmut Bozarslan, who works for Al-Monitor, Felat Bozarslan (not related), the city’s reporter for Turkey’s most important news agency Doğan. There is verteran Diyarbakir journalist Faruk Balikci, and local journalist Vecdi Erbay writes a lot from Diyarbakir and other Kurdish cities for news site Gazete Duvar. The site Özgürüz, managed from Germany by the exiled journalist Can Dündar, has many reports from the city by Ferhat Sevim. 

Do you often meet with other journalists in the city? Maybe to talk about stories, exchange tips, or about travelling to places together to be safer?
‘My position is a bit different than theirs. I am in the first place an activist. The others are professional journalists who have been doing that work for a long time, coming from journalism. Yes, I am writing, but it takes me one day a week and for the other five days I am working for families and with NGO’s. And I show solidarity with the Kurdish press. You know there are many journalists in prison so we meet and decide who goes to which trial for example, and we try to collect money so the sometimes poor families of imprisoned journalists can go to the trial days too. We do more work but we do that in silence.
When you look at the list of journalists in jail in Turkey, most of them are Kurdish but all the campaigns, especially in Europe, are about Turkish journalists. The Turkish press does this too and I always criticize them for it.'

Baysal continues: 'A few months ago I was at the Frankfurt Bookfair and there were campaigns for the freedom of Ahmet Şık and other Turkish journalists in jail. Ahmet is a good friend of mine, it’s not about him personally, but when I began my speech, I asked the audience if they knew the name of a Kurdish journalist in prison. Nobody could name one. Then I spoke about Nedim Türfent and about Zehra Doğan and the conditions they are jailed under. The prisons in the southeast where they are jailed are worse than in other parts of Turkey.
There is also a difference for the journalists who are not jailed. Those who remain outside prison are living in the shadow of the guns. The OHAL (state of emergency that was declared after the failed coup in July 2015, FG) is defining life much more than in Istanbul.’

What is the difference?
‘Here in the southeast OHAL is everywhere. You go out on the street and you see the police with big guns. You can go to a restaurant and the police can come and sit with you and you can’t say anything. They can take you any time. So much pressure is building up.’

Baysal reflects in a broader sense on the state of war in the southeast that people outside the region can just not imagine. She tells of a friend of hers who lives in a house with a view of the old city of Sur. Her children were so afraid during the shelling of the city in early 2016 that they hid under the table and started to spend more time there.

Baysal: ‘She then talked to a doctor, who advised her to try to return to normal life as much as possible. Send the kids to school again. Many people, also my friend, didn’t let their children go to school anymore out of fear that the school would be hit by ammunition. The friend thought it would be a good idea also to take the kids to the cinema. So she did. But in the dark of the cinema, she cried. She asked herself how on earth she could go to the cinema while people were dying outside. She cried of shame. And then what happened? Some people, also journalists, from Istanbul came to visit Diyarbakir. Upon their return to Istanbul they ciriticized people in Diyarbakir because they continue to go to the cinema. They have no idea what it’s like to live in a war.’

In 2017 you were summoned to the police station to give a statement in an investigation against you. Was that the first time?
'No it wasn’t. It happened in 2016 too but I didn’t mention it publicly. There are two court cases against me now and two more investigations ongoing. On 6 February I have to go to court for a hearing. They are all about my writing, for example about the city war in Cizre, and about social media posts, including sharing pictures of Newroz last year and sharing the HDP referendum song Bejin Na. At the police station, when they confronted me with my writings and my posts, all I said in my defence was: “This is my right”. I added: “I say only this because you and the government are trying to make us forget about our rights but I won’t forget them. They are in the constitution.”

A hundred years of struggle

What do you expect for 2018? Do you think for example the presidential elections will be held this year, on 15 July, the day of the coup attempt in 2016?
“Such discussions are meaningless to me. I don’t think there is a parliament anymore so why would we talk about elections? The last democratic election was in June 2015 and after that, Turkey closed that era. Turkey is another country now.
The country is governed by decree now. The place to struggle is no longer the parliament. If Kurds take to the streets alone now, they will kill or jail us all. So we would have to take to the street together, which we could if CHP would leave the parliament because they can’t influence politics there anymore either. The first aim should be to stop OHAL.
During OHAL, you can’t even prepare for elections because it is banned to get together, to hold rallies. Elections can no longer provide people with hope.’

Do you have hope?
'I do. But I am not talking about Turkey, but about the Kurdish people. I see all of this as part of 100 years of struggle. Sometimes there are dark times, sometimes good times, and now in the north (north-Kurdistan, the part of Kurdistan situated in Turkey, FG) we are in dark times. Yes, we suffer, but we also struggle.
For example, many NGO’s were closed. Some of them are opened again in silence and people continue their work and support each other. I cannot name them. To struggle is more than to be on the street. When you re-open an NGO, this is a struggle. When you continue to write, this is a struggle. The river of freedom flows. Maybe not wildly at the moment, but it flows.'

'You know', she continues, 'it is also a war of psychology. They want to demolish our psychology. And I do feel sad when I look at our municipalities that we worked so hard for, we build so much and the state takes over. The many women’s centres were closed. But we are still here, and struggling.
One important reason why I keep writing is that I want this struggle to be recorded for history. To record the people who fight for freedom, for justice. I write for today and for fifty years later. I want people in the future to know that Turkey did all these things in 2015, 2016, 2017, but there were people resisting and struggling, and there were people supporting them.’

This is the last story in a trilogy about Kurdish journalists. While Nurcan Baysal continues to write, Nedim Türfent is in prison and Faruk Encü fled to Europe

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