Football against the State: how Turkey is marginalising Kurdish football and its biggest clubs

Football against the State: how Turkey is marginalising Kurdish football and its biggest clubs

Before the war came, Cizre had been known for its annual watermelon festival. Each July, riotous red triangles of the green, tiger-striped fruit would invade the town’s sullen walls, sweetening buckets of freshly-made yoghurt and decorating marketplace stalls. So prized were the melons’ watery juices that, at dawn, children in speedos would line up excitedly to be dolloped like life-sized hobnobs into each fruit’s hollowed-out shell. These were the years of slurpy happiness in this Turkish town, when children would sit amongst a harvest’s watermelons. 

In the cold, damp basement, the children sat amidst fractured mortar shells and fragments of loved ones lost. Trapped beneath an avalanche of collapsed buildings, they could still hear the distant rumbling of the army tanks – the haunting tones of a radio playing Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. It’s February 2016 and in Turkey’s south-east, Cizre has been under siege from Turkish armed forces for 79 days. The town’s Kurdish population stands accused of harbouring terrorists. Yet media scrutiny soon turns to 130 civilians who remain trapped in the town’s basements. 

“The place for love is Bodrum, my dear.” The lyrics are taken from a cheesy pop song by Bülent Serttaş, but as Amedspor take to the football pitch away at Ankara Demirspor, the words on the home fans’ banner take on a new chilling meaning. Bodrum is a popular tourist destination on Turkey’s south coast. In Turkish, however, it is also the word for basement. The choice of slogan is not coincidental. 

The day before, human rights observers had accused Turkey’s armed forces of burning Cizre’s 130 trapped civilians alive before pouring concrete over their bodies to conceal the evidence. For Amedspor, such news is particularly delicate. They are from Diyarbakır, a Turkish city that for years has been the centre of Kurdish cultural life. The town has already lost 350 lives to the war, with its famous world heritage Hevsel Gardens and Kurşunlu Mosque levelled. 

Diyarbakır is also a name that brings painful memories for Turkey’s non-Kurdish population. In 1993, 33 Turkish police officers were ambushed and executed here by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organisation according to the United Nations. In Turkey, old memories die hard. Even if Kurdish politics have become much more moderate in tone, Diyarbakır is still imagined by the nation as a hotbed of terrorists. 

These political stigmas have migrated onto the football field. In 2016, more than four in five Turkish football fans believe Amed to be the team of “PKK terrorists”. Forty-one of the club’s 61 previous away games have seen it banned by Turkish police authorities from travelling with an away support. That fans of Amed are statistically the least violent of the country’s football supporters is irrelevant here. Nor does it matter that the club is operated not by PKK terrorists but by moderate politicians from the centrist People’s Democratic Party (HDP). In Turkish politics, facts are subjective; prejudice has long since conquered the domain of truth.

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Many had thought Turkey had renounced its era of football against the enemy, in which groups of ultras would regularly engage in violent clashes. In 2013, Turkish football fans had earned a newfound respect when they joined anti-government protests triggered by then Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan’s decision to build a shopping mall on the site of Istanbul’s historic Gezi Park. Gezi’s mood of solidarity had been immortalised in a photo of rival football fans joining hands to ascend a rainbow coloured public stairway. 

Yet, in just three years, Turkish football had descended from the heights of Istanbul to the politics of Cizre’s basements. Amed were not the sole Kurdish team to be targeted that week in February 2016. Vanspor were subjected to mocking military salutes by Bergamaspor players; in Karşıyaka, Kurtalanspor were greeted by supporters wearing white berets, a provocative reference to the white cap worn by the gunman who murdered the celebrated Kurd-Armenian writer Hart Dink in 2007. 

The Kurdish politician Seraffetin Elçi had long warned that if the Turkish state allowed Cizre’s basement dwellers to die, the political fallout and acrimony would unleash a new era of “tempest children”. The Kurdish question had long been repressed in national politics after the terrorist attacks and military reprisals of the 1990s. For Elçi, all it would take was one moment of controversy to sew the seeds of political contempt once again. In what was about the produce itself on a nation’s football fields, Elçi could not have been more correct. 

In the shadows that lie beneath Diyarbakır’s magnificent basalt walls, it is common for disgruntled youths to speak of “going to the mountains”. The term is shorthand for joining the PKK, whose fighters today launch their military reprisals from the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. It is not hard for the PKK to find willing recruits in Diyarbakır and its neighbouring villages: since 1993, Turkey military forces have razed 42 settlements in the area, rendering three million Kurds homeless. As the academic Alisa Marcus notes, two-fifths of the PKK’s recruits have come from Diyarbakır in the past 10 years. 

Yet “going to the mountains” now has a new meaning in the city. Diyarbakır Stadium sits on a hilltop overlooking the city, its grandiose setting somewhat debased by the rusty combine harvester that sits in an adjacent field. Painted red, white and green in the colours of the Kurdish national flag, the stadium is home to Diyarbakırspor and Amedspor, who have taken on all the force of the unarmed army of the Kurdish nationalist movement since the events of Cizre. It is not hard to see why: a football pitch quickly blurs into a battlefield in Diyarbakır. 

Just a 10-minute drive from the new stadium gates lies Diyarbakır’s devastated district of Sur. As Amedspor stormed to national attention in 2016, in Sur, a ragtag band of youthful Kurdish militants threw Molotov cocktails at army tanks whilst plainclothes officers casually sauntered the streets with pistols and assault rivals. There were no combine harvesters here, only the rusted carcasses of upturned military vehicles riddled with bullet holes and the faint smell of rotting corpses that hung in the air. 

For those angry Kurds not willing to take to the military trenches, Amed home matches became their surrogate, political battlefield. As Bilal Akkalu, founder of the club’s Barakat supporter group notes, “Our matches became mass meetings; our victories, military conquests. Amedspor is to the Kurdish issue what Barcelona once was for the Catalans.” With Diyarbakır subject to a 53-day curfew in 2016, and few civil society institutions in existence through which Kurds could channel their frustration, the football stadium became the only place to take their anger. As Akkalu notes, “We took our rage to the mountain.”  

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Başakşehir, a slick suburb on Istanbul’s eastern fringes, is as contrasting a place you could imagine to the streets of Cizre or Diyarbakır. Redeveloped at Erdoğan’s instruction during his time at Istanbul’s mayor in the late 1990s, its modern yet lifeless streets are but one of a series of soulless megaprojects undertaken by the Turkish leader as he aims to cement his place amongst the pantheon of great rulers from this land.

Yet, in other ways, Başakşehir presents a microcosm of the Kurdish conflict. Until Erdoğan’s intervention, Başakşehir was originally intended to offer social housing to the one million Kurdish migrants who came to Istanbul during the political troubles of the 1990s. With its bloated shopping malls and broad avenues, it is instead now home to Erdoğan’s political base: wealthy Islamic families. 

“Everywhere is Cizre, everywhere is resistance.” As the Cizre basement siege was unfolding in February 2016, Amedspor was drawn away to İstanbul Başakşehir in the Turkish Cup. Amed fans could not have hoped for a more politically resonant fixture: Başakşehir has close links to Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party. 

Başakşehir’s new 17,800-capacity stadium was built by the Kalyon Group, the same construction firm commissioned by Erdoğan to build the notorious 2013 shopping mall in Gezi Park. The connection between Kaylon and the regime does not appear to be merely a business one: Kalyon’s owners include the brother and son-in-law of the Turkish president. Other Erdoğan allies similarly roam the club’s corridors. In 2014, the club was bought by Medipol, a chain of hospitals owned by Fahrettin Koca, Erdoğan’s personal physician. The club’s president, Gïksel Gümüsdag, is Erdoğan’s nephew. 

Başakşehir versus Amedspor was, therefore, the latest instalment in the proxy war between Erdoğan’s government and Turkey’s Kurds. It could not have been otherwise: the respective fortunes of the clubs embodied for many Kurdish citizens the widespread discrimination of everyday life. It had not gone unremarked that allies of the AKP had poured lavish funds on Başakşehir at the same time a sudden withdrawal of state funding had forced Kurdish footballing giant, Diyarbakırspor, into administration.

Nor had it been overlooked that Erdoğan’s political ally, Yıldırım Demirören, had used his tenure as president of the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to impose sanctions exclusively against Kurdish clubs. All six clubs punished in the 2015/16 season were Kurdish; Amedspor were sanctioned 61 times by February alone. 

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The beatings began before Amedspor fans had even finished chanting the second verse. “Everywhere is Cizre …” High up in Başakşehir’s Faith Terim Stadium, security forces swiftly entered the away stands. Fans report sustaining broken legs and fractured skulls at the hands of police violence. Bilal Akkalu has medical records showing that he suffered a broken arm; he attests that others too have records proving similar injuries. 

The extent of the police beatings cannot be verified because the CCTV footage of the night is alleged to have been erased. All that we know is that over a hundred Amedspor fans were detained for 24 hours, whilst on the pitch, a 90th-minute equaliser from Başakşehir’s Semih Şentürk was celebrated with the striker performing a provocative soldier’s salute. If Amedspor fans were banned from attending their next game, the Başakşehir striker went unpunished.

For many Amed fans and Diyarbakır residents, such erasures of the historical record have become a way of life. Erdoğan’s presidency has seen an attempt to eradicate any signs of a unique Kurdish culture: street names have been changed, monuments razed and over 80 elected Kurdish mayors fired. Even a Kurdish cartoon channel, Zarok TV, has been closed down. “The aim of the government is very clear,” says Hakki Boltan, editor of Kurdish-language newspaper Azadiya Welat. “The policy is to end the Kurdish political movement and end the wider Kurdish culture.” 

It is perhaps because of the fading, imperilled status of his nation’s culture that midfielder Deniz Naki has the Kurdish word for freedom – Azadi – permanently tattooed on his forearm. Born in Germany to a Kurdish family, the devastation wrought on Diyarbakır’s district of Sur had a particular personal resonance for the former St. Pauli player. Naki has ‘Dersim’ tattooed on his other arm, the name of the Kurdish town from which his family was forced to flee to Germany. But you won’t find Dersim on any map. A 1937 rebellion in the town was answered with a devastating campaign of aerial bombing by the Turkish government. Its Kurdish inhabitants forced to flee, the town has now been given a new Turkic name: Tunceli. 

When Naki lifted his arms in celebration after scoring the goal that qualified Amedspor for the last-eight of the Turkish Cup in March 2016, little did he know that he had unleashed a chain of events that would end with an attempt on his life on a cold Cologne motorway 24 months later. 

After scoring the winning goal away to Bursaspor, a team that had taunted Amedspor fans prior to the game by screening footage of Turkish fighter jets bombing Kurdish cities, Naki took to Facebook. Beside a picture of his azadi tattoo, he dedicated his team’s victory to “those who have lost their lives and been injured in the fifty days of oppression we faced on our lands.” Naki‘s political protest was never likely to be met with sympathetic ears by the Turkish Football Federation.

The TFF’s president, Yıldırım Demirören, had already publicly stated his support for the war. He had also begun to crack down on any political dissident expressed within the game. In the Kurdish province of Batman, amateur team Petrolspor were threatened with liquidation simply for releasing white doves prior to a match in February. When Cizrespor’s players were brutally assaulted by police officials for unveiling a banner saying “peace now”, photos of the squad’s head injuries became an overnight sensation. Yet it was Cizrespor, the victim of these attacks, that was fined 31,000 Turkish lira by the TFF. 

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Naki was eventually handed a suspended criminal sentence of 18 months for spreading “terrorist propaganda” through his Facebook post. Forced to flee to Germany in 2017 after being told his safety could no longer be guaranteed, Naki was driving along Cologne’s A4 motorway in January this year when a large, black van moved into the lane beside him. Two shots were fired: one bullet entered at head-level through the driver’s nearside window, the other deflected off a tyre. 

Luckily, Naki had ducked his head below his steering wheel immediately upon seeing the black van. He had heard Turkey’s presidential spokesman, İbrahim Kalın, tell the international media just weeks before that the country’s security services would now pursue “at any time, in any place,” operations against dissidents living abroad. He had seen how six Turkish political dissidents had been abducted in Kosovo, never to be seen again. Naki is one of the fortunate ones: he is now in German protective custody. 

Naki is not alone in being the victim of an attempted lynching. Behind the red Turkish flags that Ankaragücü fans waved through the air as they greeted their opponents Amedspor onto the pitch in May 2016 lay something more menacing. When Amedspor took a 2-1 lead with just five minutes remaining, it came to the fore. Amidst the rusty fixtures and rigging of Ankaragücü’s 80-year-old stadium, the violence began in the VIP box. 

Ankaragücü club officials attacked their Amedspor counterparts as the latter celebrated the goal. Seven Amedspor directors were hospitalised and one official was topped head first off the stand and into a stairwell below. No Ankaragücü official faced criminal charges; they were released from police custody after just 36 hours. 

On 18 July 2018, Erdoğan finally announced an end to the state of emergency that was imposed following unrest in Cizre and a failed political coup in 2016. Over 100,000 civil servants have been fired, while 50,000 political dissidents remain in jail. According to the Turkish poet Mustafa Beyar, the crisis has produced its own “state emergency of the mind … civilians are now too scared to talk in public, everyone lives on the edge of anxiety.”

It is a mindset that Amedspor are familiar with, as it becomes clearer by the day that they are to be on the losing side of football’s latest battle against the enemy. The economic sanctions being levelled upon them by Turkey’s government are simply too strong; the will of local officials to help them, too weak. As the club’s lawyer Soran Haldi Mizrak notes,  “Disciplinary measures are unfortunately part of our team’s identity.” The club’s debt now stands at over 800,00 Turkish Lira (£100,000), as Diyarbakır’s new Erdoğan-appointed governor has removed all funding from the team. It is unclear whether the club will make it through the 2018/19 season. 

That is the haunting reality of war in Turkey’s Kurdish lands. Football clubs, like children trapped in basements, sometimes just disappear.

By Alexander Shea @alexjshea

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