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Turkey's largest non-Turkish ethnic group, the Kurds, are concentrated in eleven provinces of the southeast, the same area that their ancestors inhabited when Xenophon mentioned the Kurds in the fifth century B.C. There also are isolated Kurdish villages in other parts of Turkey. Kurds have been migrating to Istanbul for centuries, and since 1960 they have migrated to almost all other urban centers as well. There are Kurdish neighborhoods, for example, in many of the shantytowns, which have grown up around large cities in western Turkey. About half of all Kurds worldwide live in Turkey. Most of the rest live in adjacent regions of Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Turkey's censuses do not list Kurds as a separate ethnic group. Consequently, there are no reliable data on their total numbers. Latest estimates of the number of Kurds in Turkey are about 20 million.

Although the government of Turkey does not compile official data on religious affiliation, scholars estimate that at least two-thirds of the Kurds in Turkey nominally are Sunni Muslims, and that as many as one-third are Shia Muslims of the Alevi sect. Unlike the Sunni Turks, who follow the Hanafi school of Islamic law, the Sunni Kurds follow the Shafii school.

Whereas the number of Kurds belonging to the Alevi sect of Shia Islam is uncertain, the majority of Alevi are either Arabs or Turks. Historically, the Alevi lived in isolated mountain communities in southeastern Turkey and western Syria. The Kurdish Alevi have been migrating from their villages to the cities of central Anatolia since the 1950s.

A small but unknown number of Kurds also adhere to the secretive Yazidi sect, which historically has been persecuted by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Small communities of Yazidi live in Mardin, Siirt, and Sanli Urfa provinces. Yazidi are also found among Kurds in Armenia, Iran, and Iraq. In Turkey the Yazidi believe that the government does not protect them from religious persecution. Consequently, as many as 50 percent of all Yazidi have immigrated to Germany, where they feel free to practice their ancient religion.

Impressions of Newroz Day, 2011,
in Diyarbakir

Ihsan Kaçar Interviewed by Kutay Derin Kugay

Ihsan Kaçar: It started at 11 AM and all was finished by 1 PM. Everybody was flabbergasted; all programs were cancelled. Apart from a couple marginal small fires, there wasn't even a Newroz bonfire.

Kutay D. Kuğay: No bonfire in the central square?

Ihsan Kaçar: No bonfire was lit in the big square of the Newroz festivities; everybody was leaving... The mass of the people left, we left too. See, the march had started. 3 to 400,000 people were marching from the square. There was a public announcement: the organizers said they were canceling the program, that a "freedom tent" had been set at the place called Kosuyolu and that a freedom march was to start; that our MPs and mayors were to lead the march and everyone to follow. The crowd moved. So, no bonfire and no celebration.

Kutay D. Kuğay: No artistic performances?

Ihsan Kaçar: Only Cömert was there, and also a single performer that had been brought from the Kandilli area villages. They sang one song each. Everybody was taken by surprise, including the journalists; there were a lot of celebrities there, Cengiz Çandar and people like that, and everybody was surprised at one o'clock, when they announced that the program had been cancelled. There was a Newroz program scheduled to until at least four or five PM. This switch was programmed. The crowd moved; now he had to run to get to the head of the march if we wanted to reach the BDP car: we were unable to walk 17 km, i.e. 11 miles, the distance from the place of the Newroz celebration to Kosuyolu park, and the people here were going to walk these eleven miles. The "Democratic Solution" tents were waiting at the park. These Democratic Solution tents are those housing the organization of the guerilla fighters' mothers, the "Peace Mothers" whose children are in jail; they have a tent there, occupied 24 hours a day. Now that's where the march was heading. There already was some tension there, and now this huge mass of people: the press had estimated the crowd as being more than a million people strong. The celebration area was built to handle eight hundred thousand but it was overfilled, running over from all sides to neighboring areas so that adding all sides it made up like a million four hundred people. When the march started the column was four or five hundred thousand people strong; impossible to see the other end.

Kutay D. Kuğay: Was the atmosphere tense, or was it more excited?

Ihsan Kaçar: Tense. The crowd was excited but it also expressed its request: democratic self-government! Intellectuals, writers I talked to said the same thing. In fact, the march was itself like a rehearsal for democratic self-government. I saw this for the first time everywhere the march went: on all houses in Diyarbakir, well maybe not all but 8 out of 10 were sporting KCK flags and poster-size pictures of Abdullah Öcalan. This is a first for something so courageous. Increasing with the advance of the mass of people. Everyone had that hanging on the houses, all along the march itinerary. The day had been declared an official holiday, which in part flattered the people. Everybody was now joining the march. At a certain point, the police was barricading the street in front of the march, trying to stop it. Impossible, of course; the crowd could just walk through that; they were hoisting flags of the KCK and PKK on top of the tanks, imagine the courage that takes! We ran a couple miles and climbed on top of the car so we could continue filming. Baydemir, the Diyarbakir Mayor, was there, then Ahmet Türk, Leyla Zana, Levent Üzer from EMEP. They mediated. Then, just as we reached Kosuyolu Park the people wanted to enter it --not the entire crowd, just for a symbolic visit to the Mothers' tent. But then the Government forces were blocking the Park, saying they would absolutely not let the people in. No reason was given. I think they had received directions. I'm guessing what they thought was something like "here is something called freedom march and here the crowd called the masses, so an insurrection will burst out if it they're allowed to enter Kosuyolu Park". There was a little of that in our expectations, really --what was the name of that square, El Tarif or some such, in Egypt? There was that kind of an atmosphere, once in Kosuyolu Park the crowd wouldn't leave. Where the resistance would start. That kind of excitement. I was on top of the bus for half an hour while initiatives and negotiations went on. I mean we were on the roof of a bus, with many press representatives of the Democratic Society Party [BDP]. We were positioned between the masses and the police, with a barricade by the Special Forces in front of us and, back of us, some 400 or 500 thousand people. The people weren't just standing idly, they got busy throwing stones and such. We couldn't have done anything even if we had come down from on top of that bus. All of a sudden, teargas bombs were raining Stones and bombs. When three or four gas bombs hit close, our cameras fell to the floor and we got light-headed.

Kutay D. Kuğay: Was it smoke or gas that came out of those bombs?

Ihsan Kaçar: Smoke. You go faint. I believed to be dying. I couldn't breathe or speak. The camera was on the floor, meaning on top of the bus. I fell there too, wanting to holler but not making any sound. It seems that I first fell on the gas bomb and rolled down, passed out, and received some medical care, meaning given lemon cologne to breathe. When I came to, inside the bus, the place was full of cries and calls. The children were in the bus, and it was like Hitler's gas chambers, the windows wouldn't open in that bus full of smoke. Stones rebounded off the walls; people took refuge behind the Party bus, the glasses broke. Some got wounded. As for us, we were under the seats.

Kutay D. Kuğay: Stones thrown at the police. And you guys stuck in between.

Ihsan Kaçar: I was passed out for some five minutes while the fight was going on. I was miserable. All wet, they also used water jets and my whole body felt like it was burning. The police went on and on, started gassing us again. Also, they had blocked the road and there was no way to get out of there; in fact they brought one more tank to block us on the other side and we were prisoners in there for about an hour. When we could get out, emergency assistance arrived and started helping. I was taken into an ambulance and treated somehow; I was given water to drink and waited some fifteen minutes. The "Taraf" newspaper reporter was there. When I said that I had to get out and I was burning, my buddies started joking: "You guys from Istanbul aren't used to our local gas!" The tear gas there is highly concentrated, so as to stop you breathing. It can kill. In fact, at the clashes during the burial of Ibrahim Oruç in Urfa, a person died from asphyxia. The high concentration immediately puts you out, unconscious, unable to make a sound, seeing only shadows and feeling like headless chicken...

I couldn't go back to Istanbul anyway, I had to go to Hakkari and Van, where the real Newroz celebrations are: the Diyarbakir events were clearly organized as political marches and demonstrations. But I couldn't go anywhere the next morning. It took several days to be able to get back to Istanbul. I was still sick then, and went to the doctor. He asked me if I was snuffing solvents! I was shocked. He explained that I had a serious inflammation of the body and the airways, generally seen in addicts who sniff chemical solvents. He said I had received a very concentrated dose of gas and had to rest for a longish while...

One interesting thing in Diyarbakir, when taking pictures in the evening: now we have to count with the PKK Security. That was my first experience with them. Well, it's all well and we have mediators that I know, but they order you to only shoot from a 10-meter distance; the police get people based on pictures and how are they to know that your pictures won't fall in police hands? They are right. They check out all the pictures you make if possible, and you have to always work with small apertures. These are the conditions now; they are organized and show you the person you have to talk to, who applies their rules about how to make photography. It was very hard, I could have made much better pictures in Istanbul; this here was only journalism but there was no way to avoid it.

Now what makes Newroz is the bonfire, the smoke, the dance around it. There is none of that anymore. We are in the process of Democratic Self-Government now; I don't know how high the price to pay will be. So they selected Diyarbakir as the center for the start of this process. The whole area was wide away from the festive spirit of Newroz. The celebrations were more political meetings. I have made picture in a lot of demonstrations in Istanbul but never, in all those clouds, got gas poisoning as I have this time. You know, when you want to kill someone without using bullets, I mean put people out of commission with no regard for consequences, well, that seems to be what that gas is formulated for. Not for keeping order but causing lasting damage...

Kutay D. Kuğay: The gas effect could last longer. Psychologically and also physically...

Ihsan Kaçar: The physical one isn't healed yet for me. I still have serious chest pain on waking up. I had x-rays done, got recommendations, like not to drink hot liquids and breathe clean air...


Kutay D. Kuğay: You did take part in Newroz in earlier years, didn't you?

Ihsan Kaçar: There had been no aggression during the earlier ones. This time, too, perhaps we wouldn't have been attacked if it hadn't been for the march. Newroz was being celebrated the other times. One big general celebration and also a lot of smaller, private bonfires, around which people danced and every one organized his own feast.

Nothing like that this year. People were still arriving. No Newroz bonfire was lit. There in a picture I took an old man is piling wood for a bonfire; well, that pile was left without fire. We believed that the bonfire would be started by Ahmet Türk and the group [of political leaders] when they arrived, nothing like that. Political demands. Organized in advance. The organizing committee knew that, of course. And the crowd there was full of excitement, huge excitement. People climbing on top of poles. The space assigned to the press was invaded, we got squeezed pretty bad. We tried for half an hour to circulate in that crowd; our flashlights got broken, other things like that happened. We couldn't stop or touch anything, and we'd have been beaten if we touched anything. All of Diyarbakir appeared to be there.

This year's Newroz was political; it probably achieved its goals. If the march had managed to join the masses in Kosuyolu Park, the confrontation would have happened anyway. It happened to break out earlier. The fact that 500,000 or so people walked 17 kilometers demands enormous organizational ability and faith.

Kutay D. Kugay: Let's see, the Newroz celebration area is outside Diyarbakir, and Kosuyolu is in another direction?

Ihsan Kaçar: It's in the diametrally opposed direction. Also, one cannot walk to there in a straight line, so I made a point of researching it and it's a 15 to 17 kilometer distance, even though some will guess 14.

Kutay D. Kugay: How close did you get to the tents?

Ihsan Kaçar: There only was the thickness of a wall between us and the tents. We had arrived. I didn't understand why we were stopped, I guess an order arrived then. Someone could not accept the people's enthusiasm. Arriving all the way there was already a victory for the Kurds, for the marchers. And the State became pigheaded about blocking such a sense of victory....

Kutay D. Kugay: Were the tents surrounded by the police?

Ihsan Kaçar: They encircled the tents there and then only. The road, down which the crowd was flowing, is a wide road. When the police completely surrounded the tents it was too late for the crowd to change its path; people were walking on each other. When the attack started you couldn't see anything at all for the gas bombs shot by the police from the tanks and the scorpions. Also and mostly cops on foot with bomb throwers, with some 100 bombs on them.

Kutay D. Kugay: What is a scorpion?

Ihsan Kaçar: A scorpion is an armored car used by the police. Small and easy to handle, it can use water cannons and gas throwers. The police cars were hosing us with water, colored water to mark the people. I was all red. When I passed out, they were projecting water inside the bus, full of elderly people; those women of 60-70 were miserable, could not walk or breathe. The people weren't dying but it all did look like a carnage scene. I understand that normally measures are taken to discourage people from what they are doing, but this time it wasn't like that, there was no pity; there was an atmosphere of open war. That take-no-prisoners attitude is all the more provocative. They were pitiless with the press, too: the reporters were calling to all to flee, because even they could not escape being most brutally beaten. The police were lynching people. Anyone taking pictures was a target, and was not released before his camera had been destroyed.

Kutay D. Kugay: What happened to your camera?

Ihsan Kaçar: The flashlight of one got broken. The other fell in the water. For me, and many colleagues, our only capital is our camera; we incurred a big loss.

The Kurdish movement used political language in this. It was a political Newroz. It was dominating the discourse, organized to make a statement. This was necessary in their view, and it was successful. It is not a small thing to bring 500,000 people to a freedom march in Diyarbakir. It's something no one else could ever do. If that is a definition of success, it certainly was successful. No one was hiding his face in Diyarbakir. They were in open defiance. People were hanging PKK flags on their house without hiding. This was a clear announcement of something. Something new come to life. I sensed it the last time I was there, too.

Ihsan Kaçar: As already said, they don't allow close-range filming at night, they keep asking what paper you belong to. I spoke Kurdish but they were saying we are all with the State. Our Friends told them that we are with them, but they didn't let us get close. Also, these guys are all very young. Kids.

From now on, we'll have to choose local events instead of Diyarbakir.

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