‘See you tomorrow, unless we die’: Recollections from Turkey curfews

A primary school in Nusaybin, February 2016 (Kom News/Duygu Yildiz)


Nusaybin, a district in the southeastern province of Mardin, of almost 100,000, is on the Syrian border, just across from Syrian town Qamishli.

Last year, the Turkish government declared several military curfews in Nusaybin as a part of military operations against Kurdish militia. The last curfew lasted 137 days. During the curfews, hundreds of people lost their lives, thousands had to migrate, around 10,000 students were deprived of basic education rights, as reported by the Human Rights Association (IHD).

After almost seven months under curfew, Nusaybin has become a post-war battlefield, some residents could not even find their homes when the curfew was lifted.

Speaking to Kom News, two teachers* recounted their harrowing experiences during the curfews.

You were both working as teachers during the curfews in Nusaybin last year. Could you please tell us about your experiences during that period?

Zeynep: It is really hard to talk about what we experienced. Imagine you are alone at home without electricity. During a long curfew, you may face starvation. You are not able to go outside, the networks are down, you have no idea what’s going on outside. You hear the sound of bombings and gunshots all the time. You are literally facing death. To sum it up, we experienced an irrational situation antithetical to what human rights and democracy is all about.

Nurcan: Last year, in December, I was there when the six-day curfew began. We never expected the Turkish Armed Forces to attack so harshly. I stayed with a student’s family during the curfew. I didn’t want to be alone in case of an emergency situation.

What did it feel like to teach in the middle of an armed conflict? Were you and your students able to conduct classes?

Zeynep: Being a teacher during times of war is probably the most difficult of things. According to the Civil Servants’ Act No. 657 we must remain politically neutral, so we must act like nothing is going on in the classroom. When the student comes to school in the morning, you have to hold lessons and pretend as if everything is normal. The number of students coming in decreased as the process went on. A handful of students stayed in school. Many of my students joined the guerrilla [the Civilian Defence Units (YPS)]. I knew they would join the YPS but I couldn’t do anything about it.

Nurcan: For almost a whole year, we were unable to teach. We were able to go to school when the government occasionally lifted the curfew. My students were telling stories of violence, how they survived the incidents in the basements, how they left town, which students had to migrate to the cities and so on. Some of them chose not to speak, even some of the most joyful ones were so quiet. It was very heartbreaking.

What was the people’s reaction to the conflict? How did they react to Turkish soldiers and police and the Civilian Defence Units (YPS)?

Nurcan: Once, we were walking on the street. Suddenly, clashes between the YPS and the army began. They didn’t care about the civilians outside, we faced death many times even when there was no curfew. During the curfew, we stayed in the basement of a house because we thought it would be safer. During the six-day curfew, we were stuck in the basement with three families, including a two-year-old baby, without electricity or food supplies.

Zeynep: The people of the area consider the state’s approach to the trenches and barricades an excuse for occupying Kurdistan. The people lived through similar experiences during the 1990’s. The people have reacted fiercely towards the state and the police since most of the people that were killed during the period of curfews were civilians. In the neighbourhood controlled by the YPS, most of residents were living together with them behind the barricades. They didn’t leave their neighbourhood until they were forced to. The presence of the YPS made them feel secure against the police and military. Because their children, their relatives joined the YPS.

Civilian Defense Units (YPS) member and a woman from the neighbourhood, February 2016
(Kom News/Duygu Yildiz)

What impacts of the war on your students and the people have you been able to observe? During the conflict, which incidents influenced you the most?

Nurcan: The armed vehicles of the Turkish forces were on the streets all the time and they were constantly playing nationalist Turkish and Ottoman anthems through loudspeakers. Hunger, fear, cold… it was psychological and physical torture for my students, for all the civilians in Nusaybin.

The worst memory I have is trying to talk to a wounded student who had lost his pregnant mother. He was so serious and talking like a grown man, he was full of anger. He was the funniest of my students. He used to work at tourist spots along Turkey’s western coast during summer to support his family, which is very common within families in Nusaybin. After that his mother was shot, he changed a lot. All he has left now I think, is to fight back.

Zeynep: People are really having a hard time right now as they have experienced an irreparable death trauma and this phase is not over yet. The psychological experiences of war has left no hope, but the Kurdish people have lived through similar events before. The Kurdish people have been through many massacres but they never lost hope as they overcame many hardships. They believe that these days will be over and that justice will eventually prevail. They say that “Erdogan will pay for the massacres he has committed”. They hold on to life through solidarity with each other.

If this war between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces ends, if they agree on peace, what will happen to those children who grew up in war? What are your thoughts regarding the rehabilitation of traumatised children and teenagers?

Nurcan: Before the army operations, some students were criticising the YPS for digging the trenches and building the barricades. However, after witnessing the Turkish Special Forces attacking all living creatures, they changed their minds. After the curfew, I was talking about peace and hope in the classroom but my students did not put any faith in my words. They were very pessimistic because they thought they had no future at all. Most of my students want to fight back. I think sports and arts could save the less affected kids and teenagers. The Kurds love music and dancing, so alternative schools of fine arts or sports, taught in their mother tongue could have a healing effect.

A boy holding a stone in his hand, walking to armed vehicle, Nusaybin, February, 2016 (Kom News/Leyla Ogurlu)

Zeynep: This is a difficult issue, I must say…The children still haven’t realised what they are living through since the war is still ongoing. Time will show the effects of the war. I heard them say repeatedly every day..

“Do we have class tomorrow? What if there is a curfew? See you in class tomorrow unless we die on our way home! What will become of us, how will we get over all our losses? Nothing matters anymore, let’s take a picture as a memory just in case we die…”

*The real identities of the teachers have been modified on their requests. 

Interviews by JO and Duygu Yildiz