Sur: urban renewal in the Southeast Anatolian war zone

Police prevent protestors walking to Diyarbakir's Sur using teargas and wter cannon, December 2015. Demotix/ Avni Kantan. All rights reserved.The Turkish military operation
against the PKK in Southeast Anatolia continues with no end in sight. While
Kurdish locals are leaving the targeted areas in droves, plans for urban
renewal have been waiting in the wings.

The relationship between
crises and profit-making has already been pointed out by Canadian journalist
Naomi Klein in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of
Disaster Capitalism
. Klein describes how public and private investors
utilize economic depressions, natural catastrophes and wars in order to push
their neoliberal agendas. As such, urban historian Megan French-Marcelin
describes New Orleans a decade after Hurricane Katrina swept through the city
as the “most
neoliberal city in the United States.” Once the center of the American Civil Rights Movement, most of New
Orleans inner city is today gentrified. Many of the former residents have not
returned after being forced to evacuate their homes and have thus left
Louisiana’s capital to investors.

There is, thankfully, no
natural catastrophe taking place in Turkey these days. Rather, a humanitarian
and cultural crisis is ensuing. In fights between the Turkish armed forces and
the PKK, large parts of the historical Sur district in the Southeast Anatolian
city of Diyarbakir have been reduced to dust. Not only are places on UNESCO’s
World Heritage List being destroyed but so also are residential areas. Hence,
the larger part of the population has already left Sur. The district has been
under curfew for over a month now. A few weeks ago the pro-government newspaper
Star reported that the profit-oriented public mass housing administration
TOKİ will, after the district has been “cleansed from terrorists,” tear down
the old and damaged buildings and replace them with modern, “luxurious” TOKİ
apartments. The historical areas of Sur will at the same time be restructured
for touristic consumption.

Re-housing and urban renewal
are not new to the Sur area of Diyarbakir. In 2009, Diyarbakir Metropolitan
Municipality and Sur District Municipality (both run by the pro-Kurdish party)
had signed an engagement letter with the ministry for environment and urbanization
according to which the informal housing in Sur–the so-called gecekondu[1]—were to be
torn down. Among other activities, archeological excavations were planned on
the vacated area. In this process, some families from the gecekondu were
relocated into TOKİ buildings about 20 kilometers outside Sur in 2011. However,
the process has since come to a halt as many of the remaining residents have
refused to leave their homes. 

In an interview with the daily
Agos, the Chamber of Architects in Diyarbakir, Merthan
Anık, claimed that the military operation in Sur could serve in the press as
legitimization for the urban renewal of the area without the participation of
the Diyarbakir and Sur municipalities. Member of Parliament from the
pro-Kurdish HDP
Feleknas Uca has also suggested that this is what the government is aiming to
do. In a parliamentary
inquiry addressed to Prime Minister Davutoğlu, Uca claimed that the goal is
not, as originally planned in 2009, to protect Sur’s
history but to make Sur into a “center for consumption” with cafes, hotels, and
shopping malls. Uca has also claimed that TOKİ plans to replace the torn down
buildings with 4,000 TOKİ apartments. The debate became yet more heated when
the PKK-founded Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) called the TOKİ plans a
“cultural genocide” and released a warning that
anyone attempting to erect TOKİ buildings in Sur will encounter resistance from

Meanwhile, the head of TOKİ,
Mehmet Ergün Turan, referring to the already existing agreement on urban
renewal with Diyabakir and Sur Municipality in 2009, has
denied the claim that high-rise TOKİ buildings will be erected in Sur, emphasizing that the district is a world heritage
site that only allows for the building of one or two-story apartments. Instead
Sur would be renovated to look like it did in the 1940s and become Diyarbakir’s
center for touristic attractions. However,
Anık claims that beyond the initial engagement letter no master plan has been
presented to Diyarbakir Metropolitan Municipality.

Though the confusion continues
on what it is exactly TOKİ will do in Sur, the fact is that with the fighting
raging in Diyarbakir and with hundreds of buildings either destroyed or
damaged, Sur’s urban renewal is once again on the agenda of the
national government, and this time it will be easier to realize. While the
government has claimed that all original residents will be able to return to
Sur, it is likely that, similar to what happened in New Orleans, many of those
who have fled will not come back. If this is the case, this will open the way
for a dramatic change in Sur’s social and economic
composition without encountering further resistance. 

This form of crisis management
would not be surprising given the Turkish government has proved countless times
that it can masterfully generate profit from human tragedy. For example, the
disastrous 1999 earthquake in the Marmara region served as legitimization for
the tearing down and rebuilding of whole neighborhoods in Istanbul and
elsewhere under the nationwide urban regeneration program Kentsel Dönüşüm.[2]

Since this incident, not only
has the construction sector grown exponentially but so also have the quarters
that are home to ethnic and religious minorities been completely transformed. Gecekondu
residents in particular have been systematically displaced. In return the state
has typically offered locals apartments for apparently favorable credit terms
in social housing built by TOKİ at Istanbul’s periphery.

Many of these poor areas
populated by Alevis and/or Kurds, for example Okmeydanı in the Beyoğlu district
of Istanbul or Küçükarmutlu in Sarıyer, are
at the same time strongholds of left political activism. Thus, while on the one
hand construction firms in cooperation with the state line their pocket, on the
other hand part of the political opposition is effectively contained—killing
two birds with one stone. It remains to be seen whether a similar logic could
soon be applied to Turkey’s Southeastern crisis

[1] “Gecekondu” refers to informal settings that were
virtually built “over night” and in which until today relatively primitive
living conditions prevail. Many of these settings are located on the fringe of
big cities such as Ankara and Istanbul; however, some are located in the
center. In 1966 a law was passed that legalized most of these settings.

[2] “Kentsel Dönüşüm” refers to a nationwide urban
renewal program based on an urban transformation law from 2012. The program is
administered by the Ministry for Environment and Urbanization. In the framework
of the program millions of apartments have been torn down and replaced with new
buildings, most of them in Istanbul. The public mass housing administration is
the most important actor in Kentsel Dönüşüm since it both builds social
housing at the urban periphery and supports more luxurious construction
projects in the center.

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