Elci’s last battle: priceless, historic gems being murdered by ongoing clashes in Diyarbakır

He gave a statement to the press while holding up a sign that read “Take responsibility for your heritage.”

The famed minaret is a tall tower standing on four columns and serves as the single minaret for the adjacently located Seyh Mutahhar Mosque, which was built in 1500; the minaret is believed to be even older than the mosque it is physically detached from.

“In this historic region that has cradled many civilizations, that has hosted these civilizations, in this ancient region, in this joint space, we don’t want guns, clashes or operations. Wars, clashes, guns and operations should stay away from this area,” Elci told the press during his statement, finally noting, “We call on people to take responsibility for our history and our cultural heritage.”

He was killed at the scene shortly thereafter.

Although Elci is remembered for his efforts in bringing major human rights cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), in his last demonstration, Elci was trying to draw the public’s attention to the damage inflicted on the historic Four-Legged Minaret in Sur. The priceless structure had been hit by bullets on the night of Nov. 25. Elci had tweeted a picture of the damage, calling it an “assassination of the symbol of Diyarbakır.”

As the late lawyer mentioned, Diyarbakır is one of the culturally rich gems of the Southeast with the Tigris River running along the fertile land that has hosted Hurrians, Hittites, Assyrians, Armenians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans, to name a few. In July, the Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens were included on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List during the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee.

With such a pedigree, a city like Diyarbakır would normally be the kind of place where hordes of tourists would flock to take selfies, but for now, one would be hard-pressed to find a tourist, especially one from abroad, in sight.

Sur, which hosts many of the historic monuments, has turned into the stomping grounds of militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) youth wing, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), since the dissolution of the peace process with the government in July. The narrow, labyrinth-like streets are a strategic choice for militants against armed reconnaissance vehicles — smaller versions of tanks — or police water cannons.

On Wednesday, a YDG-H militant began shooting at police officers at a checkpoint when trying to enter the district; she was immediately shot down by police officers and instantly killed. In another incident, a young civilian was killed due to clashes. These are only a couple of examples of what has become the status quo for daily life in Diyarbakır.

Curfews by the governor’s office that prevent anyone from going out onto the streets have been imposed, lifted and imposed once again in Sur; businesses cannot function, tourists are nonexistent.

In addition to the Four-Legged Minaret, in this district alone there is the Great Mosque of Diyarbakır established in 1901, the Ancient Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary dating back to the third century and which underwent major rebuilding in the 18th century, the Hasan Pasa Han built in 1572 and the Surp Giragos Armenian Church originally established in the 17th century and rebuilt in the 1880s. The Armenian church is a particularly tragic story mirroring the fate of troubled Diyarbakır as it recently underwent a significant restoration process that now seems to have been in vain.

Extensive restoration of Armenian church

“I believe it took between three to four years, and within this time there was a lot of effort spent,” Gaffur Turkay, a board member of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church, told Sunday’s Zaman.

It was not just time and energy that was spent. A lot of money was poured into the project: TL 5.5 million, according to Turkay. The plans to restore the church were a major point of discussion for the Armenian community when they were ongoing.

“TL 1 million was given by then [Diyarbakır] Metropolitan Municipality Mayor Osman Baydemir, and TL 4.5 million from the Armenian community.” Both the Armenian community within Turkey and the diaspora, especially in America, hosted dinner fundraisers to sponsor the church’s renovation, which was finally opened in 2013.

A few weeks ago, Sunday’s Zaman attempted to visit the Armenian church, only to come within a few meters of YPG-H militants with keffiyeh-covered faces and Kalashnikovs in hand.

Since July, with the occupation of Sur by YPG-H militants and their ongoing clashes with police forces, the church has now reverted to its empty state, Turkay said.

He explained that during the settlement process between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and the PKK, the people of Diyarbakır had the chance to breathe and tourism to flourish.

“There would be around 400 to 500 visitors a day; that number would reach up to 1,000 on weekends.”

Although there is no standing priest for the church to give regular sermons since its restoration due to waning numbers of practicing Christian local Armenians, visiting clergymen would host masses for special ceremonies. The church remained open daily since it was restored until recently, and it was a point of great attraction.

There are normally two security guards and a cafe that operates on the grounds. The church also had a few workers of its own to watch over its upkeep, but it is now completely shut. “For the last three months, it has only been open for 15 days or so at the most,” Turkay bleakly noted.