Turkey’s Museum of Shame: Will Turning a Prison into a Museum Solve Turkey’s Kurdish Problem?
DIYARBAKIR - On a warm Sunday in October, Mehmet Takar, a 49-year-old Kurd in a tailored gray suit, sat beneath an umbrella in Diyarbakir’s Kosuyolu park, sipping strong, unsweetened tea. Students chewed pistachios and studied their textbooks on the lawn, enjoying the last days of an extended summer.
The park is often a meeting point for Kurdish protesters; large, loud crowds fill the lawns between its fences, shout into clouds of tear gas, and wait to be arrested. It’s these protests that give Diyarbakir, a city of 1.5 million in southeastern Turkey, its reputation as a bastion of Kurdish nationalism and anti-government unrest.
Diyarbakir flaunts its politics. Graffiti throughout the city cheers the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and roads are scarred by burned tires — the centerpieces of small protests.
The latest flashpoint came on the night of Dec. 28, when Turkish warplanes struck what the military thought were Kurdish militants near the Iraqi border, killing 35 people. The men later turned out to be cigarette smugglers, many still teenagers. Stone-throwing protesters took to the streets of Diyarbakir in response, clashing with police.
At the literal and figurative heart of this long-simmering war sits Diyarbakir prison. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was a notorious torture site, and the hardships that Kurdish activists underwent there laid the groundwork for the modern Kurdish resistance. Its jail cells are still full to this day.
Takar is a former resident of Diyarbakir Prison — he was sentenced to death in 1980, at age 18, for his connection to the PKK. His four years in that prison, he said, included physical torture — electric shocks, “Palestinian hanging,” and worse. He built escape tunnels without managing to escape. He witnessed the deaths of fellow prisoners, while being reminded routinely that his own was imminent.
But it is the psychological torture that Takar remembers most vividly: The Kurdish language was forbidden, so when his mother visited, they were unable to communicate. He couldn’t write letters to his wife, whom he had married shortly before his arrest. “Everything was a gun for them to use against us,” he said. “Family was a gun.”
“Diyarbakir prison was designed as a stage on which the Turkish state could perform all kinds of bloody operations on the Kurdish people,” Murat Paker, a professor of psychology at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, told me. “In Diyarbakir prison they wanted to crush Kurdishness.”
Twenty years and seven days later, Takar was released, and immediately resumed his work. “I didn’t waste any time,” he said. “If the issue is freedom of society then you have to fight.”
He contacted the local offices of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the legal Kurdish political party, and started doing outreach work. He is also a member of the 78ers Union — a network of leftist political activists who have tried to heal the deep wounds the Kurdish conflict has left on Turkish society, focusing specifically on prisoner abuse.
For the residents of Diyarbakir, there is no greater symbol of Kurdish oppression and resistance than the prison — a cluster of low, red buildings in the center of the city. In 2010, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, campaigning in Diyarbakir, raised the hopes of the city’s residents when he promised to close it, acknowledging the difficulties of living in its shadow and recalling his own time in prison.