Photograph by Anush Babajanyan
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Residents of Sur fled their houses during the clashes. This family—including Halide (far left), Gulistan (standing in center), and Kader (far right)—left Sur with their 11 other family members for two months during the winter. When they returned, a Kalashnikov gun had been stolen from their house. Many had come back to find their houses looted.
Photograph by Anush Babajanyan

In This Corner of Turkey, Stories of Conflict, Loss, and Hope

An Armenian photographer explores intertwined passions against the backdrop of recent clashes.

In the heart of Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey lies the ancient walled district of Sur. The mosques, churches, and stone houses lining the narrow streets are a manifestation of the multitude of peoples who have lived here over the centuries—Arabs, Jews, Persians, Armenians, Turks, and Kurds.

More recently Sur bears the marks of violence. During a period from August 2015 to March 2016, clashes between Kurdish militants seeking local control of the district and the Turkish government seeking to drive them out left homes and businesses in ruins. Lives were lost. A 24-hour curfew was imposed. Many were forced to flee Sur, becoming refugees in their own city.

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Many of Sur's buildings and houses have been destroyed, either by time or the recent clashes. There are plans to turn Sur into a tourist center, which would involve destroying and rehabilitating many of the houses while leaving the historical ones. Residents are being offered a small amount in compensation for their houses, Babajanyan says.
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Ilknur, six, and Berçem, two, play in one of the numerous backstreets of Sur during preparations for a family gathering.
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During the periods of curfew, markets and stores did not operate in Sur.

Residents have since been allowed to return though the part of the district where the harshest fighting took place remain blocked off by the Turkish police—inaccessible, still under curfew, and empty.

The government has offered a small sum those still displaced for relocation and has pledged to rebuild the damaged historic sites. But while a rehabilitation of the area would be a boon for tourism, the ensuing gentrification would effectively mean the end of the community that lives and works there.

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Suphi Temes, 77, has been working with poplar, or kavak, trees for 54 years. The trees are cultivated in the UNESCO-protected Hevsel gardens that surround the walled city of Sur in Diyarbakır. People buy the wood to heat their houses in winter. The trees are also used in construction.

Armenian photographer Anush Babajanyan traveled to Diyarbakır in October to document the aftermath of the clashes. She and a translator knocked on doors, introducing themselves. Over glasses of Turkish tea inside beautiful courtyards, she listened as residents shared feelings of hope mixed with fear of the violence returning again.

Walking the streets lined with buildings built by Armenians, she discovered a deeper appreciation of her own ancestral roots, as well as a culture that has built itself over centuries, layer by layer. One of the places she spent time was the House of Dengbêj, where the ancient Kurdish tradition of dengbêj, or storytelling by song, is practiced.

In an excerpt of a song performed at the House of Dengbêj, a father laments the marriage of his son to a woman who lives far away.

One song stuck with her in particular. It tells the story of a fated love affair between a young Kurdish basket seller and a young woman from a wealthy Armenian family. The two run away together, only to be captured and killed by men sent by the woman's father.

For Babajanyan, this song of love and loss serves as the symbol for the intertwined passions of the people who have long lived side by side in the Anatolian region—the painful contradiction of wanting to live in peace but perpetually falling into conflict.

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Kurdish family and friends celebrate an engagement in the center of Sur. This house, now used for special events, belonged to an Armenian family about a hundred years before, says Babajanyan. Several meters away from the house, Turkish police checkpoints guard the part of Sur that's still off-limits to civilians.

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Shops begin to operate again in Sur. Babajanyan observed a sense of hopefulness among the people she met.

"[I want] to show the true beauty that exists in this historical place and the pain that is there with it," she says. "The way the women get together in their beautiful houses within their blue walls, the way the singers express themselves. The way [the] children are in their beauty and simplicity. [It is] a place ... like any other. [I] hope there can be peace."

Soon after she left, Babajanyan says, the city of Diyarbakır itself fell into disorder after several Kurdish opposition leaders across the country were arrested, including the mayor. What happens next is in the hands of the Kurds and the Turkish government, leaving the residents of Sur with little to do but wait and see.

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A shop front along one of Sur's central shopping streets.

Anush Babajanyan is one of the founders of 4plus, a nonprofit aimed at empowering women through photography. You can see more of her work on her website.