The last time I had been to Diyarbakir was in a boiling summer in 2014, when a long-finished peace process was still in play. Three years later, I returned during a rainy, miserable winter and found a city where the conflict was both ever-present and nowhere to be seen. Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s south east, has for decades been affected by the conflict between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Fighting in 2016 saw the most extensive damage to the city in the conflict’s history.

I had heard the city’s current mood described as a ‘nervous calm’. Driving from the airport, preparations were being made, I was told, for the mayor to pass through. This meant soldiers, guns, roadblocks – the route likely searched for IEDs before the convoy would pass. The level of precaution taken to simply move around the city was remarkable. But then, the mayor is a target for the PKK, having been appointed by the government to replace the previous co-mayors jailed for supporting the group. 

At traffic intersections within and entering the city, there were checkpoints. Elsewhere, for example at the historic Suleyman Mosque - a tourist attraction - there was little security presence to be seen and life was carrying on. Along the banks of the Tigris, couples strolled while cafes blared out pop-tinged traditional Kurdish music. Despite the tensions, locals still go out, flocking to bars and restaurants across the city, enjoying the many culinary delights their city has to offer. I had a traditional breakfast in a crowded café in one of the few sections of the old city still accessible – as I left, my table quickly filled up. Diyarbakir is open for business. Foreign and domestic companies are taking advantage of generous, new government incentive packages to drive investment into the area. Slowly, investors are returning; local entrepreneurs too are trying their luck. I was excited to come across a broad range of ventures, both typical and surprising, from winemakers to clothing manufacturers to hair transplant clinics. 

But almost everywhere I went, talk of the conflict, in hushed and furtive tones, came quickly. Before 2016, the violence in the rural areas of the south east had never struck Diyarbakir city with such intensity. Many people I spoke to were evidently still deeply shocked, more than a year after the government re-established full control of the city. A car backfires, a child sets off a firecracker, a doors slams and everyone jumps. 

From Diyarbakir I went through the south of the province into the neighbouring province of Mardin. Diyarbakir’s fog-draped green landscape gradually changed into Mardin’s dry, yellow hills and plains as I drew closer to the border with Syria. Using the communal minibus routes I moved through the provinces, stopping off in smaller towns. I was welcomed by the laid back, friendly attitude you find in rural areas across Turkey. Vignettes of welcome were mixed with stark reminders of the conflict. These reminders had become part of the scenery for local inhabitants. For me, they were jarring. In one tiny town, men idled the day away on a street corner, chatting in Kurdish, while a small tank stood unattended metres away.

Moving further south through Mardin province towards the city itself, the landscape broke into a seemingly endless, dusty plain; the city loomed imposingly. Here again, the normalcy of the conflict mixed with day-to-day life was most striking. There were guns, soldiers and tanks, but also crowded squares and busy streets, even in the bitter, winter cold. 

The local government is working to expand and improve the connectivity of Mardin city and the province; work is almost finished on a huge project to build an overpass to cut across city-centre traffic. Projects are underway in rural outposts, too. While I was there, Deputy Prime Minister Fikri Isik was in town to promote development and new technologies. The mayoralty recently planted hundreds of trees in the city, creating a ‘green wall’ along a main road. 

A change of sorts and a certain vibrancy has taken tentative hold in Mardin as in much of the south east. There is also a sense of collective trauma hanging over everything. I felt traces of this in 2014, but back then, we focused on an emerging, hesitant optimism instead. Now that optimism has given way to resignation and greater fatalism. With certain triggers, the conflict could easily flare up again in 2018. In any case, the security situation seems unlikely to improve much any time soon. The region will continue to walk this delicate balance between hope and progress on the one hand, and violence and stagnancy on the other, for some time to come.



  • George Dyson, Associate Analyst 

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