May 7, 2018 / 6:04 AM / 20 days ago

In Turkey's Kurdish heartland, a battle for homes and votes

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Kurdish electrician Sukru Gunduz was out on a job when a friend came running to tell him his house was being knocked down, with five members of his family inside.

People watch Sur neighbourhood, ravaged by urban warfare between security forces and Kurdish miltants and then flattened by diggers, as they sit on top of UNESCO World Heritage Roman-era city walls in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Angry and alarmed, he rushed home. By the time he got there, a mechanical digger had smashed a hole in the small house in the historic Sur district of Diyarbakir, the biggest city in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.

Gunduz’s mother, his wife and three of their five children were inside but no one was hurt and he persuaded the demolition workers to stop. But it was only a brief reprieve: two weeks later, at the start of this year, the two-storey structure was torn down in line with a state expropriation order. 

The house was one of thousands razed under a state urban renewal programme intended also to relocate residents from areas devastated after a decades-old conflict between government forces and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants resumed in 2015.

The government hopes the programme will boost the economy and win President Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AK Party some goodwill — and votes — as they prepare for snap presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.

But Gunduz and three others interviewed by Reuters whose homes were demolished say they are awaiting compensation. The 47-year-old electrician has also lost part of his livelihood: the ground floor of his house was his electrical shop and a grocery store.

“I haven’t sold the house, received money or signed anything. What right do you have to demolish my house?” Gunduz, 47, said in the courtyard of a house in Sur where he and his family are staying.

Two government officials in Ankara declined to comment on the redevelopment issue. But Urbanisation Minister Mehmet Ozhaseki said in March the government would provide housing for all those left homeless by the destruction in Sur, one of seven areas of southeast Turkey that are being redeveloped.

“We will give houses to all our brothers whose homes have been destroyed. Our levels of agreement are around 80 percent. When houses for the remaining 20 percent have been built and handed over, we will have dressed the wounds,” he told a crowd in Sur when Erdogan visited to launch the construction of new homes.

Hundreds of thousands in southeast Turkey have been displaced by clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK, which began its separatist insurgency in 1984, and more than 40,000 people have been killed in its conflict with the Turkish state. The PKK is designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

A general view of Sur, a historical district ravaged by urban warfare between security forces and Kurdish militants and then flattened by diggers, in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

    A group set up to support those displaced in Sur says more than 700 people have opened court cases to challenge the expropriation and settlement terms for their homes, among some 4,000 properties demolished in the process.

The top administrative court rejected the challenges to the expropriations, citing the need to redevelop areas damaged by conflict and on the grounds that affected buildings presented a risk to locals and did not respect the area’s cultural heritage.

Homeowners say they have been offered only small improvements in the sums the state offers for their properties. Appeals over the expropriation have also been made to Turkey’s constitutional court.

The constitutional court has not yet put these appeals on its agenda and it is unclear when it will do so, according to a court official who declined further comment.

SNAP ELECTIONS

    Erdogan’s announcement of snap elections has caught the opposition off guard and will complete Turkey’s switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

But the opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is dominant in southeastern Turkey and won a large share of votes there in a parliamentary election in 2015.

In the clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK, Sur witnessed some of the heaviest fighting in the conflict, and violence has picked up in the southeast since the breakdown of a 2-1/2 year-old ceasefire in 2015.

Slideshow (21 Images)

When he visited Sur in March, Erdogan launched the construction of 1,500 houses and inaugurated the renovation of the district’s main streets under the 10-billion-lira ($2.36 billion) plan to revive damaged areas in the southeast.

“When the terror is over, tourists will come. My citizens will come from across the country. The economy will be vibrant,” Erdogan told a crowd waving Turkish flags near revamped shop fronts in the main thoroughfare running through Sur.

Firat Kertisci, who is among those whose homes were demolished in Sur, has been offered an apartment in a new housing development outside Diyarbakir city.

“I went and saw it and liked it very much,” the 34-year-old tradesman said. “We are now slowly getting over it and the biggest support came from the state, materially, morally and psychologically.”

    Despite the availability of new housing, rights group Amnesty International says many of the 25,000 displaced residents, around half the district’s former population, had expressed a desire to return to Sur.

The AKP disputes this, saying the vast majority of people who have been displaced have agreed on compensation.

“People will move to a more modern life than in those ramshackle, run-down, derelict houses,” Serdar Budak, the head of the AKP in Diyarbakir, told Reuters.

    “OLD SPIRIT HAS GONE”

The HDP says Erdogan cannot count on winning votes from the urban renewal programme.

“They are calculating that they can turn this into votes in the elections,” said Mustafa Akengin, the HDP’s deputy head for Diyarbakir province. “They won’t be able to succeed in that in the region. The elections will show that.”

People who have lost homes receive monthly rental support of 1,000 lira ($236), and the state has paid out 96 million lira in such support, the provincial governor said in April.

Like the other Sur residents interviewed by Reuters, carpet seller Hasan Yilmaz, 53, did not disclose how he planned to vote in the snap elections. His preoccupation is with how more has been lost than buildings.

“There was deep solidarity, coordination and social activity among the people who lived there,” he said in his carpet store in Sur. “That old spirit has gone.”

Editing by Dominic Evans and Timothy Heritage

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