DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (A.W.)—Abdullah Demirbas is a man on a mission. The mayor of Diyarbakir’s central district strives to restore some of the city’s multi-cultural and multi-ethnic character through a series of initiatives to renovate places of worship, adopt multi-lingualism, and encourage those with roots in the city to return.
I sat down with Demirbas in his office in Diyarbakir on Oct. 23.
“For decades, we were told, ‘People [of different cultures] can’t live together, so we won’t tolerate difference, we will make them all the same,’” Demirbas laments. “Ours is an effort to restore what was lost during the state’s campaign to erase different identities, faiths, and cultures in the city.”
From the moment a visitor enters the city, signs of this multi-cultural approach manifest themselves, literally. Diyarbakir is the first city in Turkey to welcome its visitors with signs in Armenian.
“We could have done it in Turkish and Kurdish only. But these lands do not belong to the Turks and Kurds alone. They are also the lands of Armenians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans,” the Kurdish mayor explains.
These signs are not just for visitors, but constitute an effort to change mindsets. “We want the people living in the city to realize that historically, Diyarbakir has always been a multi-cultural city,” he notes.
More than 100,000 Armenians lived in the Diyarbakir province in 1914. Although mostly peasants living in villages like Palu and Lice, the majority of the tradesmen in the province were also Armenian. In turn, Armenian craftsmen and artisans constituted a significant presence in the province.
The Armenian Genocide shattered this vibrant community. Diyarbakir witnessed one of the most violent and comprehensive campaigns of massacre in the Ottoman Empire, with many Armenians being killed outside the city walls. The Armenian wealth was confiscated by the authorities and local elites and, within a few years, the centuries-old Armenian presence in the province was erased.
Demirbas does not mince his words when talking about the Armenian Genocide. “Our grandparents, incited by others, committed wrongs. But we, their grandchildren, will not repeat them. Not only that, but we will also not allow others to repeat them,” he says. “We learned from the past. Those lessons inform our actions in the present, and will continue informing them in the future.”
The mayor insists that he does not believe in “dry apologies,” but actions that demonstrate genuineness and sincerity. He sees the renovation of Surp Giragos as one manifestation of this approach. “Today, we are not simply asking for forgiveness in a dry fashion,” he notes. “I am a Kurd. And I want for Armenians what I want for the Kurds.”
“What is your message to the Armenians who were uprooted from their ancestral lands?” I ask him. He changes his posture, looks at me straight in the eyes, and says, “Return! At least come and find your homes and your lands. If you can find your old houses, renovate them! Have a home here too. This is your motherland. Other lands cannot and will not be your motherland. Come to your lands. We want to correct the past wrong. This is our message!”
Demirbas has suffered dearly for his initiatives and for being an outspoken critic of the Turkish state. Twenty-three lawsuits have been filed against him, he says, asking for 232 years of imprisonment. “I am the only mayor in Turkey who was forced out of his post. I was imprisoned for two years for my opinions and policies, but when I returned, I was re-elected with an even bigger margin,” he points out.
Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish region, promises to become an oasis of multi-culturalism in a desert of denial and oppressive policies. The strategy of embracing all cultures—as opposed to struggling solely for Kurdish autonomy and rights—could serve as an example for other Kurdish-dominated municipalities in the southeast.
Demirbas’s efforts are not lost on the international community. The European Union and the U.S. have encouraged Diyarbakir’s initiatives and restoration efforts. The EU provided a grant to highlight the city’s historic and cultural heritage. The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, U.S. consuls in Istanbul and Adana, and embassy staff attended the Oct. 23 mass in Surp Giragos. The consuls also attended the consecration of the church the day before. “Our multi-cultural approach is in line with theirs,” the mayor notes.
The Turkish state, on the other hand, is far behind, argues Demirbas. “There was no representative from the state today [in Surp Giragos]. But they will come. They will have to. And it all depends on our struggle,” he says. “I was thrown in prison, my 16-year-old son has joined the PKK and is on the mountains, and [the state] will harass me again, they will imprison me again, even something worse might happen to me, but I act based on my convictions. And one day they, too, will come.”