Three journalists who were incarcerated and charged of terrorism by a Turkish judge gained global awareness this week, as rights groups united under the clamor #freevicenewsstaff. Two of the British journalists were released but the prospect of freedom remains a grey zone for the third one, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, an Iraqi-born translator based in the country, as he will be kept in jail until a day in court with no fixed date.
The mention of Diyarbakir -- where Jake Hanrahan, Philip Pendlebury and Rasool were documenting clashes between members of the pro-Kurdish PKK and security forces -- rushed unforgettable memories to my mind, this time with the concept of Vice bizarrely intertwined with the Kurdish city.
A trip to Diyarbakir is rarely in the plans of western travelers to Turkey, but my husband and I are curious souls. With a couple of close friends, we immersed ourselves in the incredibly magical Istanbul during the fall of 2009, and then we threw in a quick visit to Kurdistan to add an off the beaten path portion to our first encounter with the country and the region, before surrendering ourselves to the beauty of Kapadokya to end our vacation. It has never ceased to amaze me how just a day and night spent in that city remains so vividly etched in the memory of a trip framed by other locations of much more exuberant character.
A rather bumpy taxi ride rushed us through potholed streets to a hotel at a "kervansaray," the type of building where caravans rested while crossing the desert in ancient times. It was located within the walls of the old city of Diyarbakir, on the road opposite to its main mosque. A visit to such place will take you back in time the minute you step in the central courtyard, open to the sky, nicely arranged with trees and chairs to sip çay.
Our sense of humor came handy when we opened the tiny doors to our quirky suites that smelled like, well, caravan camels. The rooms were dark, dusty, with two small single beds each and inadequate showers. They came equipped with old television sets offering free daytime sadomasochistic porn, so misogynistic and hard core, you would be tempted to make a rock start move and throw the TV out the little window, if only it were possible to open it. But of course you stay in the Otel Buyuk Kervansaray for the history, not the five stars, so it was OK and we wouldn't have choose any other option.
Warned of pick pocketing by some travel guides, we took the streets with some normal precautions, but knowing the locals were celebrating Eid Al Adha, an important religious holiday commemorating Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son for Allah, we assumed we would find people in a festive mode, and so we did. The streets were full but the atmosphere of the old city was of a tense calm, secured by armored police vehicles and barricades seemingly ready for crowd control. Nonetheless, men were busy praying at mosques and selling goods. Veiled women were running errands. And you could find young men shepherding hordes marked for sacrifice: each lamb branded with a red spot.
One specific store caught our attention for its particular offer of books, knives and pistols. Buying a weapon seemed as easy as buying bread, possibly like in America and many parts of the world. As the afternoon came to an end we headed to another "kervansaray" near our hotel, a shopping mall of sorts where we had "çay" and inquired about dinner options. The guy in charge of the shop was very nice, perhaps too nice in the sense you know he might want to get some money from you, but a well mannered person nonetheless who we were willing to tip generously in exchange for the nice tea and conversation. After recommending a nearby restaurant and taking us there, we promised to get back for coffee after dinner and so we did after a succulent meal.
He talked out loud and made pleasant conversation. At a certain point he wanted to know if we would like to party at his place. We politely declined the invitation, which was potentially opening the possibility of drinking alcohol, smoke hash or even try opiates, I guessed. Even if it was an invitation to have just a few drinks, it was definitively nor a wise thing to do in Diyarbakir with a stranger. But he went on and on, making sure we knew he was OK with our western ways: two women being out at night specially included as one of them. I remember pointing out to him that we were not the only ones hanging out accompanied by men at night, as I could see from our table two veiled ladies talking to some gentlemen in another table. To what he replied that I should pay closer attention to things. They happened to be two transgender or male prostitutes in disguise, it was difficult to know for sure as they were wearing full black burka outfits. I had to smile to one of them nicely when he/she caught me looking indiscreetly, to which I was corresponded. After changing the subject to the good live music we were listening to, my friend insisted in greeting the musicians. We had a pleasant exchange with them talking about New York, Puerto Rico and Colombia, our birthplaces, and ended up buying some CDs they had before saying good night to everybody and leaving for the night.
The next morning, just as I read many years before during my childhood in Bogota, the magical realism of "Chronicle of a Death Foretold", one of the best novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, came to life as soon as we stepped out of the "kervansaray" hotel, because a trail of blood was running freely everywhere you went in the old city. The thread of blood literally dripped from dozens of skins piled every couple of blocks into the city streets and down the drains. Meanwhile, kids dressed with their best clothes appeared here and there, happily playing with their new toys, as in a western Christmas Day. Most boys were carrying plastic machine guns, identical to the real ones to me. And they enthusiastically pointed at us as in active urban combat with the pretend-play targets we were. Only kids and a few men where outside as opposed to the previous afternoon. Our morning stroll to find some breakfast was a surreal quest for coffee, needless to say.
Telling the stories of a particular nation and culture is never easy. As journalists we have to respect the beliefs and traditions of everybody and we must document what we see at the very same time, most specially when lives are in danger and human rights peril. Violence in Kurdistan must be documented, reported and discussed.
I would probably not visit Diyarbakir again anytime soon, or the majestic Sanliurfa nearby. But I certainly hope for Vice News' Mohammed Ismael Rasool an expedite liberation, so that the world can see, read and understand the stories and struggles of humans every day in every corner of the planet. Press freedom is a human right. Perhaps is not just a coincidence that this week the harrowing image of Aylan Kurdi, a drowned toddler lying alone, precisely on a Turkish beach, reminded us of the power of information.
***Photos by Alexis Dragoni and Rene de la Cruz