The day was scorching hot, starkly contrasting to the frigid and snow-covered winter days spent travelling Anatolia. My curiosity pushed me to make this journey despite the boiling heat, around 38 °C. My friend Fırat had asked me to visit a group of cities known for their favourable views towards the Kurdish cause and their distinct interpretation of Islam – Tuceli, Bingöl, Elazığ and Malatya. I agreed wholeheartedly with seeing these places first-hand to form a well-rounded opinion of the region. After all, a traveller needs to observe things with their own eyes to truly understand a business and its stories.
I could tell what he wanted to know–the truth about the conflict between the Kurds and Turks that wasn’t reported by the media. I only had bits of information about this, most of them given to me by Fırat. I wanted to learn more, read more, and talk to both sides (not an easy task when my travel companion is a Turk). Though I may never understand why we value life differently based on language, religion and looks, I could still attempt to summarise the history of the conflict in a more impartial way. It was evident in our travels that many different groups, including the Turks, occupied Anatolia’s lands. Other groups developed their language and culture before moving into Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. As all groups before them and will come after, they claim the right to the land. This disagreement has been intensified by the formation of Turkey and its constitution. A difficult concept to grasp.
Before the formation of the Republic of Turkey after WWI, present-day cities like Tunceli, Dıyabakır, and Van, which lie in the East of Turkey, were home to Arabs, Kurds, and other ethnic groups. When the map of the new country was drawn up, they were integrated into it. Their language, beliefs in Islam and different customs were kept distinct from those of the Turks. Atatürk’s emphasis on Turkey being a secular state and using the Latin alphabet for the Turkish language caused some groups to become disgruntled. The region has historically been less developed due to its remoteness from Istanbul. There are numerous reasons for this animosity that have been lost over time.
The Eastern part of Turkey feels excluded from the government’s attention. This is reminiscent of Brazil’s North-Northeast situation, even if in Brazil, there is no terrorist group that promotes separation or terrorises innocent civilians and soldiers alike.
It’s hard to observe without judging, but I should try. Let’s talk about the Kurds.
The Kurds are an ethnic group that lives across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In the past, ‘Kurdish’ was just a term used to describe nomads from Iran, and as time passed, it became a word used to describe distinct people. The Kurdish language is believed to have the exact origin of Turkish, although some disagree. Most Kurds are multilingual, speaking the language of their host country and their native tongue.
These characteristics of the Kurdish people have caused them to campaign for an independent state for themselves, Kurdistan. However, the countries home to this group is willing to give them autonomy. The result is a contentious and frequently violent dispute caused by superficial differences such as skin colour, language, and beliefs.
Yet, many organisations in Turkey strive to unify the different cultures living in the area. One such group is the Güllen Movement (nowadays, the movement is persecuted and banned in Turkey) —they run schools and educational centres. They are working hard to create a safe and unified space where everyone can respect and learn from one another’s differences.
Next, we talked about Tunceli and its residents. This region is home to a large Alevi population, who follow a distinct branch of Islam. According to Fırat, they do not usually attend mosques, which has caused them to be looked down upon by the Sunnis, who comprise most of the population.
My eyes followed Fırat as we drove through the area. He was very anxious and seemed to be preparing himself for anything coming our way. He was most worried about running into Kurdish rebels on the road and how the locals in Tunceli would receive him.
The road was captivating, with mountains to one side and a vivid blue sky dotted with white clouds. Fırat wanted to stop for tea, so we sat at a roadside cafe packed with people of all types. I observed my surroundings, and Fırat did not challenge my curious gaze. One thing caught my eye; a family was filling a bottle from a nearby fountain, with a plaque above it with Turkish words that Fırat translated to “holy water.” I smiled and wondered if not all water was sacred, but I thought it better not to bring up religion or myths.
We continued along the road, looking at the terrain–meadows and farms readied for planting and mountains as far as the eye could see. My eyes feasted on a river nearby and its breathtaking blue-green hue. We snapped some shots of its curves until our stomachs began to grumble. We then stopped at a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the river; it was one of the best meals on our journey.
At around two or three in the afternoon, we spotted the sign that marked the entrance to Tunceli. We took out our cameras for the traditional photo with the city card.
As we arrived in Tunceli, the provincial capital of the same name, the first words we noticed written on one of the Munzur Mountains were “Guçuluyuz Cesuruz Haziriz Komando.” Helicopters continuously flew in and out of the city. The surrounding mountains were filled with army bases,and as I looked around, I couldn’t spot the town itself. We found a hotel at the centre and settled in for the night.
The next day, Fırat and I started exploring. As we walked around, I realised something was missing: I noticed no Turkish flags, and the only flags visibly displayed were on public buildings. Visiting a western city in Turkey is rare without seeing a flag flown proudly by its inhabitants.
We kept walking, hoping to find a nice spot to get a drink, rest and talk. It was hot and dry outside, so we were looking for someplace airy. We stumbled upon a small restaurant near the river. The river was teal-green; it was the Munzur river. We sat under the shade of large trees and asked for something cold to drink; Fırat ordered his traditional beer Efes, and I had a glass of sour cherry juice. Inevitably, we started discussing the issues of the region.
So far, we had gone only a bit eastward and hadn’t seen what we expected from all the news reports. Yes, it was an arid area; crops depended on water from the Euphrates, and thus the government had implemented a project for irrigation canals. Schools needed improvement all over Turkey, not only there; yet cars, houses, and clothes were not that different from what we had already seen in other parts of the country.
We talked about differences and prejudices; how people sought excuses to fight their neighbours instead of seeking peace. Fırat was deeply saddened by soldiers dying needlessly; he believed any party would ever accept negotiations as the PKK was labelled a terrorist group in multiple countries worldwide. Influential people often took sides in this conflict, whether artists or musicians. No matter how much we talked, death remained a constant companion.
I started to question myself: did the different languages, dress styles, and prayers we spoke make us less? Fewer humans? When I was around Fırat, it seemed like the people we interacted with gave us a sharp glance and a sarcastic smile. Was I being influenced by his views? After some time, I realised that both sides had their extremists: those who wanted to erase anyone who didn’t think the same as them or worship their country. Later that day, we took pictures near a bridge before dinner at the hotel. The following day, we took more photos and explored towns where the Kurdish people were the majority. It was a new experience with many impressions.