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Unbeknown – Impression in Continuation of Homeland Delirium: Emine Gozde Sevim’s Notes from the Field

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Wherever I go, I seek out human connection while traveling through moments of history. Sometimes, I happen to anchor to its memory, and other times, I get hooked to the dawn of what may lay ahead.

When I left for the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir last June, around the time of Turkey’s parliamentary elections, I planned to complete Homeland Delirium, my most recent body of work and a personal, emotional chronicling of the period after the 2013 Gezi protests.

Six months on, the photographs I made there are mere evidence of a long gone feeling, obliterated from memory like those killed by the explosions in Suruc or Ankara.

Only a select few in power, I believe, have something to gain from the violence. The rest of us have nothing to gain from violence. And so for the ordinary men and women, when it comes to peace, there is an intuition for it. We are simply driven towards it. The story of my journey is therefore one about the traces of hope and peace that exist on these precarious grounds. It is about a group of people that have to live in the shadow of history and as a consequence must negotiate day by day the past, the present, and an imagined tomorrow.

What prompted my visit to Diyarbakir and nearby Mardin were the Kobane protests early in October of 2014. Street fighting with police and among opposing Kurdish groups during the protests had left more than 40 people dead in a week.

A state of emergency was declared at the time in Diyarbakir, one of Turkey’s largest cities, but for most those events seem to have since become a faded memory. However, for the people who experienced those days in Diyarbakir and in nearby Mardin, the tragic week still comes up in conversation, like a plot twist in a very dark movie.

I was born in 1985. For longer than I have been alive, turmoil has embroiled the southeast of Turkey. The Kurdish minority there have endured decades of injustice. In the not-so-distant past, it was common to bury one’s cassettes of Kurdish music after listening to them. Being found in their possession could lead to jail time or worse, even for children.

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Although some progress has been made — Kurds are now allowed to speak their own language in public, for example — daily violence and fear remain. To date, thousands in the region have gone missing, their fate unknown, and perhaps the largest fear of all is that the worst of the old days could easily return in the form of a full-blown war.

However, the sense for a thirst for civil rights was present during my journey in June. These lands are resilient, I thought at the time. There is still hope.

On the day of my arrival in Diyarbakir, a newly acquainted Kurdish thinker told me the West of Turkey, which has been mostly spared from the violence needed the pro-Kurdish Halkların Demokratik Partisi’s (the Peoples Democratic Party, or HDP) entrance into parliament even more than the East and Southeast of the country, despite their years of instability from conflict and outright combat. It took me a few days to understand what he meant, but he was right.

The social complexities faced in the context of contemporary Middle-East have morphed well beyond ethnic differences, with violence now sweeping the region indiscriminately. The struggle had evolved into a universal one where hope has become the common denominator uniting different groups. At the 2015 general elections in Turkey last June, Pro-Kurdish HDP was the strongest hope for this endeavor. Despite the violence they’ve faced–HDP offices were targets of gunfire prior to the elections, their rallies were attacked by extremists.

On June 5, the day I arrived in Diyarbakir, their rally, which was attended by tens of thousands, was attacked by two bombs, leaving four dead and hundreds of people wounded. The Kurdish led, pro-human rights HDP has kept a calm face. They have asked for the same from their supporters.

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Those who suffer the most from violence know best the value of peace. I am not a Kurd, nor have I experienced the iron fist of nationalism that they and other ethnic minorities have had to endure in Turkey. Thus I can never fully comprehend what it means to live on that “side”. However, perhaps because I am a woman (hundreds of women are killed in Turkey for simply being s0, and for not “abiding by” the doctrines of a male-ruled Turkish society, for things like wanting to leave their abusive husbands or to ride the minibus alone), I can imagine the fear and risk inherent in the struggle to exist as an individual.

After my departure from Diyarbakir and Mardin, a bomb exploded in Suruc on July 20, 2015, killing 31 young activists who were on their way to Kobane. They were carrying books and toys for children. I was on the phone with a friend from the region — a regular check-in — as the news broke on TV and interrupted our conversation. The attack was said to have been carried out by an ISIS supporter, just like the one in Diyarbakir.

Each day afterwards, someone was killed by one on another side of this multi-front war. By that weekend, Turkey began to bomb ISIS in Syria (minimally) along with Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), who have thus far been the group of fighters most successfully challenging ISIS on the ground.

The social landscape shifts so quickly in Turkey it’s hard to keep a clear view, a feeling like navigating in a state of phantasmagoria. At one point the photographs I made in Diyarbakir and Mardin last June anchored me to a time and place that offered hope. One by one, they have been torn like the pages from a wall calendar; instead of representing hope, they’ve come to document crime scenes.

A village I recently roamed becomes besieged. Revisiting these images of public spaces and peaceful streets becomes a tour of lives lost. My memories of hope are shredded, one by one. This war has too many fronts to name, but across them all hope is its shared victim.

The voice of peace is too easily silenced in the eruption of guns and bombs, while those in favor of peace are forgotten as if they had never existed. They are often the ones killed first when bullets fly. And the photographs I made have, before time even has a chance to take its toll on them, become relics of the past.

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It’s a past that now seems implausible to have existed, a past where peace seemed possible, a past filled with hope, a past that has been replaced by a new reality in which we are forced to live.

There are only questions now, which perhaps are too naïve in this state of delirium. I can’t stop wondering: Was it my own need for hope that lead me to stumble upon these peaceful scenes?

And can we ever go back?

– Emine Gozde Sevim, 2015 Emergency Fund Grantee