Skip to main content

Destruction of Kurdish sites continues as Turkey hosts UNESCO

Ilyas Akengin, AFP | Turkish soldiers walk past the destruction in Diyarbakir’s historic Sur district on February 26, 2016.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is holding its 40th session in Istanbul, but activists say the UN body has been silent on the damage to ancient sites in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey.


A year ago, officials in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir were welcoming the inclusion of its ancient sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List and preparing for the increase in tourism that UNESCO recognition brings.

Today, those hopes seem like a joke.

Diyarbakir is now off-limits to the international journalists, lawyers and activists attempting to document the human rights abuses in a city widely considered the heartland of Turkey’s Kurdish community.

This ancient trading hub by the Tigris River – which has been conquered by the Arameans, Romans, and Byzantine and Ottoman troops – is now the site of a renewed wave of civilian killings, mass displacements and destruction of property, according to witnesses. Since the July 2015 collapse of a peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish government has escalated its military assault on the banned separatist group.

The recent fighting has killed hundreds and laid waste to swaths of the region, according to local officials. But authorities have blocked UN and non-governmental groups from accessing Turkey’s Kurd-dominated areas, prompting Human Rights Watch’s Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair-Webb to warn that, “The Turkish government’s effective blockade of areas of the southeast fuels concerns of a major cover-up”.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) away from Diyarbakir, in the country’s commercial capital of Istanbul, the Turkish government is hosting the 40th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which will end with the release of its official list of heritage sites for 2016.

In his welcome speech this week at the start of the UNESCO session, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus noted that, “UNESCO's mission is to protect our shared values … and this role is even more crucial today, as we live in difficult times. The best response to these [terrorist] attacks is not only political, but also artistic and cultural.”

But in Diyarbakir, politics is threatening the city’s ancient cultural heritage.

Erdogan's urban renewal alarms conservationists

"In a year, we went from UNESCO [listing] ... to destruction so complete, there is no chance of return," Nevin Soyukaya, head of Diyarbakir’s heritage office, told Reuters.

Soyukaya estimated that more than 800 buildings in the ancient district of Sur in the heart of Diyarbakir were razed. The damage became irreversible when the rubble was bulldozed and dumped in the nearby Tigris River, she said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, squarely blames the PKK and has been unapologetic about the destruction. "We will not only cleanse the cities of terrorists but, through urban regeneration, [eliminate] conditions that have allowed them to act," said Erdogan earlier this year.

But Erdogan’s promise of urban regeneration has sent shivers down the spines of conservationists, who fear the city’s historic district will be the latest victim of the ruling AK party’s “growth miracle”, which has seen reckless urban transformation across Turkey. Critics say the frenetic construction has enriched real estate developers and builders but has endangered heritage sites and impoverished the communities uprooted in the process.

The Turkish government has estimated that the cost of rebuilding and replacing 6,000 damaged buildings will be around 1 billion lira ($345 million).

‘They want to destroy the living spaces’

In late March, a government decree to expropriate around 7,000 plots in Sur drew condemnation from the pro-Kurdish opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

According to Figen Yuksekdag, co-chair of the HDP, nearly 90 percent of Sur district properties were to be expropriated, even though the areas and buildings belonged to the HDP-dominated local municipality.

“Where is the law, right and justice in this?” asked Yuksekdag, in an interview with a Turkish daily. “They want to destroy the living spaces and houses of the people who survived death and the massacres in those places.”

Destruction of sites as a war crime

The damage and destruction in Diyarbakir and other areas in southeastern Turkey has put UNESCO in a tricky position.

With a global jihadist movement spreading its tentacles across the Middle East and parts of Africa, the UN’s cultural body is grappling with the problem of destroyed heritage sites in conflict zones from Syria to Mali.

UNESCO has been supporting a move to consider the destruction of cultural monuments a war crime.

In a landmark move, the International Criminal Court (ICC) earlier this year opened its first war crimes trial against a jihadist leader accused of levelling ancient shrines, tombs and mosques in the historic Malian city of Timbuktu.

But Turkish activists say UNESCO has been quiet on Sur's ruin. "The dilemma is [UNESCO's] support and funding come from governments, so political pressure renders such organisations ineffective," said renowned Turkish novelist Omer Zulfu Livaneli in an interview with Reuters.

Livaneli should know about the compromises the UN body is forced to make. A best-selling author, poet and composer, Livaneli resigned as UNESCO’s goodwill ambassador earlier this year, accusing the UN body of hypocrisy in ignoring the damage to heritage sites destroyed in the fighting in southeastern Turkey.

Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, Lale Ulker, who heads the World Heritage Committee during Turkey's chairmanship, noted that, "We are approaching this issue with extreme sensitivity and do not want to see any harm to the site."

World Heritage Centre director Mechtild Rossler would not speak specifically about Sur, but welcomed steps by the state to prevent more damage.

Turkish officials have, however, dismissed the warnings by activists and conservationists.

"Buildings damaged during operations will be renewed in rehabilitation projects. One of the most important of these is Sur. Historical buildings will be renewed in ways suiting the historical fabric," a Turkish official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

Destroying pluralism

But conservationists are not reassured by the Turkish government’s promises. For local officials who have spent the past decade building interfaith ties in a bid to heal the wounds of the past through conservation, the recent onslaught on Diyarbakir’s heritage has been soul-crushing.

In 2011, for example, the Saint Giragos Armenian Church – an architectural gem built in the black basalt stone of the region and believed to date back to the 14th century – reopened after a conservation initiative that brought together local Kurdish officials and members of the Armenian diaspora.

Five years later, the Turkish government’s announcement that it had expropriated the church has sparked alarm in the Armenian diaspora.

For Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Sur from 2004 to 2014 and who worked on the Saint Giragos project, the Turkish government’s latest appropriation bid represents a personal loss as well as a cultural one.

"I feel like a helpless father watching his sick child die," Demirbas told Reuters. "This wasn't just about fixing up old spaces but embracing pluralism and reconciling with our past. We showed different faiths can live together in the Middle East."

Page not found

The content you requested does not exist or is not available anymore.