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  • Of Kurdish Youth and Ditches
  • Haydar Darıcı (bio)

On 28 November 2015, an iconic event took place in the city of Diyarbakır in Turkey’s Kurdistan. The prominent Kurdish lawyer Tahir Elçi was making a statement to the press in front of a historic minaret damaged by the recent attacks of Turkish police, calling for an end to the escalating violence between Kurdish youth and the police. Meanwhile, nearby, two Kurdish young men who reportedly belonged to the YDG-H (Yurtsever Devrimci Gençlik Hareketi: The Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement) were stopped by the police while driving by in a taxi. In order to escape arrest, the young men shot at the policemen, killing two officers and wounding one, then running towards the ditches they had dug earlier in order to create a space that was inaccessible to the police. These ditches were not far from where Tahir Elçi was giving his press statement. Cameras were rolling. As the young men ran past the crowd gathered for the press statement, police officers who were in the crowd and around started firing at them. Somehow the two young men managed to evade being hit and continued running. Next, the cameras showed the dead body of Tahir Elçi lying on the ground, but they had missed the moment in which he was shot. The question was, who shot him? The scenes circulated on social media, receiving massive attention and generating debates about the murder of Tahir Elçi. It was as if thousands of people became part of the investigation of the crime scene through social media. From the footage, it is certain that the young people did not use their guns, while the police officers in the area did use theirs, and without restraint. The question engaging the public was, was this whole scene set up by the Turkish state to kill Tahir Elçi, who had recently become a public target after saying on a television program that the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê: Kurdistan Workers’ Party) was not a terrorist organization? Hence, was it an assassination? Or did the police kill him by mistake?

The killing of Tahir Elçi is an event that has meant not only the end of a life, but of an era. Tahir Elçi was one of the very few people who from the 1990s on translated the Kurdish question and political violence in Turkey in general into a practice and discourse of universal human rights. Arguably, his murder symbolizes the end of human rights politics in the age of the new wars in the Middle East. Furthermore, the footage showing the two young men running towards the ditches and the dead body of Tahir Elçi on the ground could be read allegorically: the death of a symbolic father and the rise of youth, with their distinct form of politics, as the central actors in the Kurdish movement.

Emerging as a guerilla movement in the late 1970s, the PKK effectively fought against the Turkish state for decades. The guerilla struggle has not only created liberated areas in the mountains surrounding Kurdistan but also politicized and mobilized Kurdish masses in villages and cities, leading to the formation of a political culture of protest. Later, the Kurdish movement, perhaps anachronistically, defined the guerilla struggle and the culture of protest as the “period of rebellion” in its long and multilayered struggle. From the late 1990s on, however, the Kurdish movement has occupied an ambivalent position. It declared a unilateral ceasefire, though broken many times due to the state’s attacks, stressed peace and non-violent struggle, and defined itself as a democratizing force for the entire country. The movement, in this era, waited for the state to take a step in solving the Kurdish question, while at the same time trying to open up a counter-public space for civil politics1 as well as mobilizing support from the Turkish population for peace through the circulation of stories of victimhood. And yet, questions such as what peace and non-violent politics actually meant or what shape the Kurdish people’s relationship with the Turkish state would take within the new...

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