Poverty haunts Turkey’s Kurds

Years of war have left Diyarbakir’s economy in tatters.

Bomb blast Diyarbakir

A Kurdish demonstrator displays a poster of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Kurdish rebel leader,
during a gathering to celebrate Kurdish new year in 2007 [GALLO/GETTY]

It has fallen well below freezing in the backstreets of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey.

On a slum street corner in this regional capital, car tires and broken doorframes have been set on fire for warmth, lighting the faces of a handful of street children.

Just a few days earlier not far from this snowy corner, a bomb blast shattered the winter chill, putting Diyarbakir back in the news.

The bomb killed six – three of them teenagers at a nearby high school – and Turkish authorities blamed the violence on the rebel Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting for an independent Kurdish state.

The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

In the past few months, the skies over the city have been filled with the roar of Turkish warplanes, off to bomb alleged PKK bases in neighbouring Northern Iraq.

Yet on this street corner, Zafer, a local teenager, wants none of this perpetual war.

“What we want is peace,” he said. “Without peace, there will only be stale bread for us to eat.”

City in crisis

Some 40,000 people have been killed in southeast Turkey since 1984 when Kurdish fighters launched a military campaign to win independence from Ankara.

Throughout history, the city of Diyarbakir has played a key role in this conflict, and for many, the city is not just the capital of Turkey’s largely ethnic Kurdish southeast, but of Kurdish nationalism itself.

When the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne no longer required Ankara to grant the Kurds autonomy and allowed it to divide their region between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, Kurdish tribes rose up in open rebellion.

It was in Diyarbakir that the bloody revolt was suppressed by the modern Turkish state in 1925.


Demographics have also played a key role; in Diyarbakir Kurds heavily outnumbers Turks.


A survey conducted by the Diyarbakir district of Sur in November 2006 found 72 per cent of the population used Kurdish as their daily language. It is in Diyarbakir too that Kurdish nationalist parties have dominated the town hall for decades.

Tattered economy


Ankara has been trying to root out Kurdish
separatists in Diyarbakir and the southeast

But years of war have left Diyarbakir’s economy – and the livelihood of many of its inhabitants – in tatters.

Nedim Dengiz, general secretary of the Southeast Businessmen and Industrialists Association (GUNSIAD), says unemployment in the city is more than 60 per cent. 

“No investment comes here, with the conflict and the bombing of Northern Iraq next door, everyone has just been scared off,” he said.

When the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, Diyarbakir ranked third in industrial production. Now it ranks 63rd, according to a report from the local municipality.

About half the families in the city are on welfare and the region’s economic output is less than half the national average.

Population boom

One reason for the poverty is the surge in population that has occurred since the conflict began. In 1990, the city registered 275,000 inhabitants. By 2005, there were over 1.3 million. The social and economic infrastructure has been unable to cope.

“Many of the people living here now came as a result of forced migration,” said Ali Akinci, head of the Diyarbakir branch of Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD).

A July 1997 report by the Turkish Parliament’s Migrations Committee concluded that the forced evacuations had seen the destruction of 3,428 Kurdish villages, with between two and three million people displaced.

Many of these people now live in Diyarbakir’s slums.

Yeten Yilmaz, coordinator of SOHRAM, a group that tries to rehabilitate street kids and victims of violence, said the migrating families are nearly penniless when they arrive in Diyarbakir.

“No job, no money, no health or educational support. Nothing,” he said.

Poor education

Many children have left school and resorted
to life on the streets of Diyarbakir

Ihsan Babaoglu, branch secretary of the Turkish teachers’ union in Diyarbakir – Egitim Sen, says the population boom is reflected in the number of students swelling classrooms.

“Generally, in secondary and primary schools, class sizes are around 60 pupils,” he said.

“We also have a desperate shortage of equipment. Basically, the budget only covers the cost of the wages – there’s nothing left over for books, materials, building repairs or anything.”

“In Turkey as a whole, about three per cent of pupils make it to university. Here the figure is 0.01 per cent.”

Teachers also say achievement is poor because of language barriers.

By law, Turkish is the only language allowed in state classrooms, yet in Diyarbakir, children often begin school only knowing their native Kurdish.

“In the first class I taught here,” Baboglu recalls, “not one of the kids spoke Turkish. It was like talking to a brick wall.”

Celal Balik, an analyst at Gunsiad, says those who graduate from high school are unable to make use of their skills and education.


“Every year in the region, 800,000 kids graduate from high school. Half of them have no work to go to,” Balik said.



The lack of employment opportunities and poverty have been influencing Diyarbakir’s youth to leave school. With few options they usually wind up on the streets.

“Parents are often so poor here that they don’t care where any money their kids bring in comes from,” Yilmaz said.

“The children thus become vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and exploitation, from criminals and others.”

The municipality estimates there are some 26,000 street kids in Diyarbakir alone.

The health service is also strained. Municipality figures show that while the average number of doctors per thousand in Turkey as a whole is 13, in Diyarbakir it is seven.

In surrounding rural areas, the ratio falls to about 3.5.

Government addresses poverty

The Turkish government sees the region as an inseparable part of Turkey and backs a continued military campaign against the PKK. But it is also trying to address the issues of poverty and the damage caused by the war.

Abdurrahim Hattapoglu, the Diyarbakir chief of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), said the government has increased infrastructure development in the region.

“When we came to power in 2002, some 1200 villages in the region weren’t connected to the electricity or water grids. Now 90 per cent of them are.”

“As the national government, we’ve also built and repaired roads and given welfare cards to 50 per cent of the people in Diyarbakir. We also want to reform human rights and we are currently drawing up Turkey’s first civilian constitution to reflect this.”

At the same time, under a recent law, victims of the conflict can apply for compensation, including for homes lost in the village evacuations.

The changes seem to have won Kurdish support as many increasingly turn to the AKP. In last year’s parliamentary election the AKP gained ground in the city.

War fatigue

Back on the street corner, two army helicopters thud overhead, drawing barely a glance up from the children. The city has just begun the 24th year of this conflict.

“People are really tired of all this,” said Zafer. “You can be a child and already have gotten too tired of all war.”

Source: Al Jazeera