Kurdish entrepreneurs pay price of Turkey's renewed war with PKK

Trenches and barricades now mar a historic district in southeast Turkey where the attitudes of Kurdish business owners who once hoped for a peace dividend are hardening.

Dominique Soguel
Two friends, who ran businesses in Hasan Pasa Hani, share a tea on Jan 11, 2016. The historic building Hasan Pasa Hani, a favorite among locals and tourists alike, is closed as a result of unrest. Diyarbakir's historic district of Sur, where six neighborhoods are under curfew, is the scene of clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants.

The copious breakfasts served at the Ottoman-era khan have long been a favorite among locals and tourists alike. But the tables are now empty and the souvenir stands covered in plastic. Only two Kurdish friends sit drinking a self-brewed cup of tea in the cold winter sun.

“Even if there are clashes and curfews, we want to enjoy our cigarettes and tea right here,” says Ahmet Altesh, a graying but sprightly man. He owns a coffee shop that has been closed for nearly two months, leaving him like many others here struggling to make ends meet. “We were born inside the walls of Sur so we won’t leave.”

For more than a month, Diyarbakir’s historic district of Sur has been a focal point of massive security operations seeking to rout the young Kurdish militants who have set up trenches and barricades to keep the authorities out.

Six neighborhoods are under curfew. At the forlorn breakfast spot, sounds of clashes reverberate almost daily within basalt walls that date back to the Byzantine-era. 

Thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and been displaced since last July when the decades-old conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) reignited. The result is the deadliest violence since the 1990s. And a conflict over greater Kurdish rights and autonomy that was traditionally confined to rural areas in southeast Turkey has shifted to urban centers like this one. 

Community members estimate 200 members of a PKK-linked youth group are doing battle alongside 20 to 30 PKK guerrillas. Local rights group accuse the authorities of excessive force and failing to distinguish between militants and civilians, noting that 25 have been killed in Sur since early December.

The two friends spoke with the Monitor just two days before a PKK car bomb attack on a Turkish police station in Diyarbakir Province that left six people dead and 39 wounded. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to defeat the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group, once and for all. At the same time, Turkey faces a rising threat of attacks from Islamic State jihadists. 

Lost peace dividend

The new cycle of conflict has undone the modest economic gains that a two-year peace process, however shaky, brought to Diyarbakir, a city of nearly one million people that Turkey’s Kurds view as their capital. Many here had pinned their hopes on tourism: Peace had attracted a modest but growing number of foreign tourists, an important source of revenue in Turkey.

“The peace process gave a big boost to the economy,” says Cetin Gungormez. He used to sell shawls in the arched entrance of Hasan Pasa Hani, the ancient khan, or inn; now he drinks tea, his business on hold. “On a normal Sunday, you would see 10,000 people coming through here.”

Now clashes and curfews keep people at bay.

Mr. Altesh says he earned $300 per day before June, when tense national elections and spillover from the Syrian conflict set the stage for a sharp economic downturn. That income gradually dwindled down to zero as the crackdown on militants put Sur in lockdown mode. 

Mr. Gungormez estimates he has lost $20,000 since Dec. 1 when the last curfew in Sur came into effect. His unsold goods sit on a table under a sheet of plastic. While 200 meters of main road that lead to the khan has reopened with a high security presence, no one comes anymore. The closure of 86 small businesses in Hasan Pasa Hani, they say, has left 400 people unemployed.

All 38 hotels of Sur have been closed for weeks, and about 1,500 small shops inside Sur selling anything from cheese to prayer beads have shut down, putting more than 10,000 people out of work, according to local business associations. And the repercussions extend well beyond the microcosm of this neighborhood-turned-conflict zone.

“After this last conflict with the curfews, we are facing a big economic crisis in this area,” says Alican Ebedinoglu, head of the local union for small traders and craftsmen. A growing number of small businesses, he notes, are defaulting on payments, unable to make rent and pay off loans.

“It’s been like an earthquake,” he says. “In Diyarbakir, the curfew is just in Sur, but it has affected the whole city because people are scared to go out and the only thing they buy is food.”

Businesses blame both sides

Filiz Bedirhanoglu owns the 60-room Liluz Hotel, which catered to tourists from Turkey, Iraq, and Europe. She says young militants made a mistake digging trenches and raising barricades in the historic alleyways of Sur. 

“You can’t announce self-determination by yourself,” says Mrs. Bedirhanoglu, a pharmacist by training. “You have to make an agreement with the state. People don’t understand that you must fight in democratic ways.”

A native of Sur herself, she worries this months-long cycle of conflict will radicalize yet another young generation, pointing out that many of today’s young militants are the children of impoverished families who resettled in the city after their villages were burned down by the state.

“These children know death and prison, all the bad things of this region,” she says. “They don’t have work, they don’t have education, they imagine nothing for the future. They have nothing to lose.”

For now, the asymmetric conflict between the Turkish state and young Kurdish militants shows no signs of abating. Some say the conflict is beginning to harden attitudes in the business community.

“With the peace process people had started to live a comfortable life, so at first businessmen were against these young people,” says Salih Erkan, a businessman who closed his Turkcell branch in the Sur area. “Later, they saw the horrific acts of the Turkish state, [so] they began supporting the youth, even the rich men.”

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