Jared has an excellent question for our Ask the Expat series, prompting me to write about a serious travel issue that I think it's time we discussed:
Hi, Great blog, it’s refreshing to read an ‘insiders’ view of things rather than a tourists, and as keen cooks the food bits were great.I read your posts on eastern turkey with interest, as we are planning to head to Diyarbakir/Mardin etc for a look around. It’s pretty hard to get any realistic info on how safe/worthwhile it is to lug ourselves all the way east. But you made it sound great, so we are off to Diyarbakir in late September. Any hot tips on the city and surrounds? Thanks again for taking the time to write the blog! -- Jared
Before I dive in with all the great things to do in Diyarbakir, let me start here: I would suggest that any traveler going to southeastern Turkey anytime soon travel with caution.
In case you haven't been reading the news, violence in the southeast has skyrocketed this summer, with more than 50 Turkish soldiers killed, plus some 46 PKK soldiers, not to mention civilians.
First, some background:
The Turkish government's so-called "Democratic Opening", a plan introduced nearly a year ago to end fighting with the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, has stalled after renewed fighting in the region. The plan included talk of ending restrictions on using the Kurdish language, the establishment of a new human rights body in the region, and, more broadly, the beginning of a new era between Turks and Kurds.
Nothing concrete (until yesterday, at least) ever materialized out of those lofty goals, with the government failing to introduce specific plans to parliament in November 2009, as it had promised.
When the PKK entered itself into the fray and demanded that it be the representative for Kurds, that's when things started to turn sour. No government, least of all Turkey's, would consider negotiating with the PKK: both the EU and the US consider it a terrorist organization. Also, I personally know many Kurds who would balk at allowing the PKK to negotiate on their behalf.
Since then, Turkey's constitutional court banned the Kurdish Democratic Society (DTP) party, the country's leading Kurdish party, over its alleged links to the PKK. (The DTP has since set up again as the Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP) party.)
On May 31, Abdullah Ocalan, who founded the PKK and is still an important figure for the Kurds, though he has been behind bars for more than a decade, announced from his jail cell that the ceasefire was over.
The summer has been fraught with violence, mainly in the areas closest to the Iran and Iraq borders, but elsewhere too. PKK soldiers have killed Turkish soldiers, insurgents on both sides have killed both soldiers and civilians. Quite frankly, it's disgusting.
The current situation:
So far, only one law has come out of the Democratic Opening initiative, and it was passed just yesterday. The law reduces the penalty for children accused of terrorism-related offenses, such as throwing stones. Now, children who participate in illegal protests or who propagate separatist propaganda can no longer be tried under anti-terror laws. (read a recent news story about the law here)
The PKK recently suggested to the Turkish government a complete disarmament under UN supervision. Murat Karayilan, the PKK's current leader, told the BBC "his rebel group would agree to a truce in return for greater political and cultural rights for Turkey's Kurds - the most open call for peace it has made in the 26 years it has been fighting." (for full BBC article, click here) The Turkish government is not likely to directly respond to this call, says the BBC.
So, what does that mean for travelers?
Just yesterday I received a travel alert from the US Embassy in Ankara regarding travel in Turkey, particularly in the southeast. The email advises American citizens (and presumably, by extension, all other people) traveling to the southeast to exercise extreme caution. From the email:
"The PKK, also known as the Kongra-Gel (KGK), terrorist group has recently threatened increased violent activity in urban areas in Turkey, and there is credible information that the PKK intends to target tourist areas. There have also been recent clashes involving security forces and the PKK in parts of Turkey outside of the PKK's usual operating area in southeast Turkey.
The Department of State advises U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Turkey to be alert to the potential for terrorist related violence and the possibility of increased PKK activity in urban and tourist areas as well as throughout southeastern Turkey. We encourage all U.S. citizens to exercise extreme caution and maintain a low profile throughout Turkey. We reiterate Department of State advice to take prudent steps to ensure your personal safety. Remain vigilant and aware of surroundings, listen to news reports, avoid crowds and demonstrations, and vary times and routes for all travel."
Now, typically, I tend to brush off such warnings from the US Embassy, as I typically find them over the top and exaggerated. However, I'm going to have to agree with them on this one. I had actually planned to head down to Mardin again this summer and buy some more copper, but I have since decided to hold off until the fall or maybe next year.
The escalation in violence this summer has also led to the reinstatement of roadside military checks, meaning that private vehicles and public transport are being stopped much more often for security checks. These types of checks are not uncommon throughout all areas of Turkey, but most of the time, the gendarme are simply looking for guys who haven't completed military service, not insurgents and bombs. This means that traveling from one city to another is going to be much more difficult and will take longer.
Now, I will be the first to admit that southeast Turkey is a place definitely worth visiting. You'll see a different side of this country, one that you probably couldn't fathom existed. You'll meet the most generous, most hospitable people you will ever meet in your life.
But going to the southeast poses its own challenges, especially now. I would suggest doing the following:
Carry your passport at all times. Most travel guides say to leave your passport at the hotel and carry a color photocopy. I say do the opposite here. If you're stopped by the gendarme while on a bus, they're not going to give a shit about your color photocopy. Have the real thing on you at all times.
Keep up on the news. Read anything and everything you can about the southeast. Know how far away towns are and how long it takes to travel between them that way if you're stuck in a particular area, you can easily figure out how to get out of it.
Be flexible. If you hear there's going to be a protest in Batman on the Saturday you're going to be in town, skip it. Go to Mardin or Midyat. Be prepared to change your plans at a moment's notice.
Ask your hotel for advice. If you're staying in a hotel, or even if you're not you can always ask people at restaurants, cafes, etc, ask people there if there's a rally or protest planned for the next couple of days. Many times protests are planned and everyone knows about them. It's best to avoid them.
Sign up for travel alerts. To receive travel alerts from the US Embassy in Ankara, you can sign up here. You don't need to be American to sign up.
Readers, what else can you recommend?
Psst! Want to read all the posts I've ever written about southeastern Turkey? Click here for the fun stuff!