Altan Tan was 24 years old when the famous Diyarbakir Military Prison No. 5 was built, just before the 1980 military coup in Turkey. Not long after that, his father was thrown inside, never to come out.
“He was only there for a few weeks before being tortured to death. I never had the opportunity to go in and visit it, ”said the Kurdish politician and writer. “There are no Kurds, there are no families who do not have memories associated with this building.”
Diyarbakır, a city of 1.8 million in southeastern Turkey, is the unofficial Kurdish capital of the country, with a complex, proud and bloody history of resistance against the state.
For many, the prison is the ultimate manifestation of the pain of the Kurdish struggle: in the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Kurdish men and women were imprisoned there and subjected to horrible forms of torture, earning it the reputation of being one of the the worst. prisons of the world.
The abuses committed within its walls filled the rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought against the Turkish state ever since.
Diyarbakır Prison continues to operate today. But in a rare visit to the city last week, the first in two and a half years, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the site would become a cultural center.
The decision has had a mixed reaction, largely because no one knows exactly what the president means by “cultural center.” Almost everyone agrees that the prison should be closed, but some worry that if the project is not managed sensitively, a significant part of Kurdish history will be lost, or even whitewashed.
Other restoration and regeneration projects undertaken during Erdogan’s tenure have been harshly criticized by damaging important historical sites.
“When the peace process [between the Turkish government and the PKK] It was at its peak 10 years ago, we had a similar discussion, ”said Dilan Kaya Taşdelen, an urban planner from Diyarbakir. “The president said then that we should just demolish the prison, but in my opinion we have to maintain it to face the past and heal as a community. At that time there was a big push from civil society to turn it into a museum to tell those important stories.
“There is a big difference between a cultural center and a museum… I don’t know if the new idea really suggests that we are going to create something that shows what we have learned from history. Erasing those memories would be wrong. “
A spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Culture did not respond to requests for more information on plans for the prison.
Erdogan’s visit to Diyarbakır comes at a delicate moment: his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has long enjoyed the support of conservative voters and the working class, including Kurds, has reached an all-time low. due to mismanagement by the government of Turkey economic problems.
Since 2015, when a ceasefire between PKK leaders and the Turkish government collapsed, Ankara has furiously pursued the PKK across southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, and northeast Syria, inflicting heavy losses and restricting movements. of militants.
At the same time, thousands of Kurdish activists and politicians within Turkey have been removed or imprisoned, and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the main pro-Kurdish political party, which Erdogan says is the same as the PKK, is facing the perspective of being completely outlawed.
“Like many of Erdogan’s political gestures, the idea of a cultural center or museum at the Diyarbakır prison site is highly symbolic,” said Abdulla Hawez, a researcher on Kurdish affairs.
“What he was communicating is: ‘We have turned the page on the Kurdish issue, it is time to move on.’ Of course, the truth is quite the opposite: in the same speech he also redoubled the government’s position on the PKK and the HDP. That’s what makes this idea problematic … Turning the prison into something else has to do with narrative control. “
After six years of repression, Turkey’s Kurdish opposition is tired. A 2020 study by Rawest, an independent research center based in Diyarbakır, also found that young Kurds in Turkey differ from previous generations with a marked “disinterest” in politics compared to older people when they were the same age. : Only 28.5% of those interviewed believed that the position of Kurds in society would improve in the next five years, no matter who was in charge.
For Taşdelen, the urban planner, it is important that future generations can connect with the past and understand it. She sees Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, a former jail that is now the site of South Africa’s constitutional court, as a good potential model for Diyarbakir prison.
“When you visit that museum, in the end the door of the court opens, where human rights are respected,” he said. “Create a sense of hope. There is no reason why we cannot do that here as well, but it must be a collaborative process and Kurdish society must participate. “