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Photo-Essay: A Kurdish Rite of Spring

By Piotr Zalewski

Newroz, the traditional Iranian new year holiday, marking the arrival of the spring, is celebrated not only in Iran, but also in parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. In Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast, where a conflict between the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish army has claimed the lives of over 40,000 people since 1984, Newroz has become both a festive holiday and a political show of force. 

In Diyarbakir, the heart of the Kurdish nationalist movement, the celebrations routinely turn into violent protests. Three years ago, two people died during Newroz when rioting broke out in several cities across the Southeast. This year, with the government having shelved plans for new Kurdish reforms, and with parliamentary elections around the corner, the mood has been particularly tense. 

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A young man attempts to place a banner of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK, atop a light tower at Diyarbakir’s Koşuyolu Park. (The PKK has been officially labeled a terrorist organization by the EU, the US, and Turkey. Ocalan, captured in 1999, is serving a life sentence in a prison off the coast of Istanbul.)

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A young man jumps over a set of tires set ablaze outside Koşuyolu Park. Leaping over a bonfire, an invariable part of the Newroz celebrations, is considered a rite of purification.

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A pair of Kurdish girls holding a banner of Ocalan.

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A police helicopter hovers above a crowd gathered on Sunay Caddesi, one of the city's main thoroughfares.

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Young Kurdish men face off against Turkish riot police.

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A protester, wielding two chunks of pavement, flashes a victory sign. Seconds later, several boys in the crowd, no older than 14 or 15 years old, begin hurling stones in the direction of the police.

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Men scramble for cover after police fire water cannons and teargas into the crowd. Once the first stones are thrown, all manner of projectiles – including a gas canister and a chair – begin flying in the direction of the police vehicles.

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Women rush through a back street, escaping a cloud of tear gas.

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A woman rubs lemon into the eyes of a protester, to help relieve the effects of the tear gas.

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Police fire tear gas into Koşuyolu Park, where many of the protesters have congregated.

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An injured man lies on the ground at Koşuyolu Park

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Piotr Zalewski is an editor at European Stability Initiative and a correspondent for Polityka, Poland’s best-selling news magazine.  His article about Turkey's foreign policy, "A Self-Appointed Superpower," appeared in the Winter 2010-2011 issue of World Policy Journal.

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