Turkey Kurds: The bitter politics of the football pitch

Amedspor supporters are lucky to see their team play

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If the ethnic tensions in Turkey are reflected in the football field, then Amedspor and his Kurdish supporters are in the middle of the field.

The club represents the Kurdish majority of the city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, about 120 km (75 miles) from the Syrian border, with a population of around one million.

Mahsum Kazikci, a passionate member of the “Resistance” group from Amedspor, reflects the feelings that many of his supporters share when he speaks about the “racism” that the club faces.

“There is a saying:” We will win by resisting, “he says.

“As the Turks say, there is no problem, but Amedspor fans can’t even write it down, but despite this we will never change our personality, our path, we will continue to follow this path. Legal football team.”

The club was founded in 1990, but in 2014 they changed their name: “Amed” comes from the Kurdish name Diyarbakir and the surrounding region.

This new name is just one of the reasons behind the pressure that has arisen in recent years.

They are far from the top of Turkish football and do not even compete for the best places in the country’s third highest division, but their games are often overshadowed by the conflict and the confrontation between fans.

That is, when their fans are not forbidden to attend competitions.

I visited Diyarbakir on a sunny spring Sunday when Amedspor had a home game against Sancaktepe, a team from Istanbul.

None of the Amedspor supporters could participate. The reason for the ban was due to a mysterious incident in early March.

Mansur Calar, a player from Amedspor, was accused of cutting rival players with a razor during a home game with Sakaryaspor, an Adapazari team, on March 2.

Sakaryaspor said his players were also attacked during the field inspection and again during the warm-up.

After the game, on social networks, the players shared photos of their battered neck. The pro-government media called Calar a “terrorist with a razor.”

The Turkish Football Association banned him for life and imposed a fine of Lit 25,000 (£ 3,500, $ 4,550). The sanction was later reduced to a suspension of 20 games, but still stands for a legal trial.

Calar says he is the victim of “a political campaign against Amedspor.”

“It makes no sense,” he tells the BBC in Turkish. “How can a football player perhaps bring a razor and hurt his opponent? It is impossible.

“It was like a derby for us, so yes, I was a bit aggressive, but those scars were made by my nails, not by a razor, I took guitar lessons and my nails were a bit long.”

“Things I didn’t do went viral, out of control on social networks,” he says, blaming “fake news” for the bans imposed.

“When we go to an outdoor competition, the supporters of the rival team sing racist slogans to us,” he adds.

“This is hard to take psychologically, Amedspor is under enormous pressure and we are fighting in these circumstances.”

It is common to see gray wolves in the away games of Amedspor, it is a symbol that has been taken over by the Turkish nationalists. Turkish giant flags also wave and shout slogans such as “The Kurds, terrorists” and “This is Turkey, not Kurdistan.”

In 2016, Amedspor’s executives were defeated by a mafia in the capital, Ankara, after a game against Ankaragucu.

In 2017, the German-Kurdish player amedspor, Deniz Naki, who had previously been convicted of supporting the illegal militant group the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK), was banned for life and accused of “spreading separatist and ideological propaganda” through his publications on social media.

The president of Amedspor, Ali Karakas, makes a parallel between such reactions and the “polarized political atmosphere” in Turkey.

“Football is central to politics in Turkey,” he says.

“Some circles use it as a means to express their political opinion, because it attracts large crowds and youth. And in today’s Turkey, where politicians use discriminatory tone, this is reflected in the field.”

Turkey has a long history of struggle and violence dating back to the 1980s between the PKK and the Turkish security forces. Around 40,000 people have died since the PKK took up arms against the Turkish state.

While the current AKP government made efforts to bring about reconciliation after it came to power, the Turkish Kurdish region southeast of 2012 enjoyed a few years of peace between 2012 and 2015.

Since 2015, Diyarbakir and his wider region have been at the center of a new phase of urban warfare between Kurdish militants and the security forces.

Turkey Kurds: The bitter politics of the football pitch
Turkey Kurds: The bitter politics of the football pitch

Between July 2015 and December 2016, Turkey imposed the restraining bans and enhanced security in the region amid political unrest. The PKK militants declared autonomy in many areas, digging trenches and building barricades in the streets. Turkish security forces were rewarded with military operations.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, around 2,000 people died in the conflict and more than 355,000 people were internally displaced and escaped fighting at the door.

In February 2016, when violence in the region peaked, players from Amedspor walked to the field with a giant flag that said, “Children should not die, they should come to the game.”

With this motto, fans and the team were accused of “doing terrorist propaganda” and received a series of sanctions. Supporters have been banned in more than 60 away games in the last three years. The “security reasons” were given as justification.

Since then, many of his slogans and banners have been considered “ideological propaganda.”

When I visited the fans in the Resistance club, they painted a banner to support Mansur Calar for his next game at home against Sancaktepe.

It said: “Mansur Calar is not the only one”. They hoped to get it to the stands where they were not allowed.

But on the day of the match, when I entered the abandoned stadium, neither the banner nor the fans were anywhere.

The supporters later told me that the representatives of the football federation had prevented them from showing it.

“We are legal fans of a legal club that plays in the Turkish league,” says Mahsum Kazikci.

“We support our team in the same way as other team fans, and we will continue to do so.”

“What shall we do?” asks the leader of the fan club Ramazan Tugay. “If it is a crime to say,” Mothers should not cry, but watch their children play football, “what should we say? We want to cry for peace in football.”

Erdal Akdemir, the leader of the Barikat fan club (Barricade) of Amedspor, expresses similar feelings.

“We are citizens of this country, but we also have a different language, culture and identity, we are Kurds and we are Kurdish fanatics of Amedspor, nobody can ignore us,” he says.

The region and its Kurdish identity are seen as “the main reasons for the hostile attitude” that the club faces, according to the leader of the female Amedespor fan club Beritan Akyol.

She adds: “We are used to prohibitions and punishments, because these countries are considered a potentially criminal region.”

This feeling is also present in the matches of the Amedspor ladies team, which plays in the first division of Turkey. Fans who are not allowed to view the home games of the Amedspor men’s team are often grouped behind the ladies’ team.

Complaining about the strong presence of security in a match against the other Kurdish majority team in the region, Hakkarigucu, the players of Amedspor come out of the dressing room and are told: “What is this, let’s go to war or to the field of football? ”

Just a few days later, on March 23, Amedspor managed to get permission for their fans to attend a visitor match in Istanbul against Eyupspor. It is only the second game away from home in more than three years, where supporters of Amedspor can come to the stands.

Once again there is a strong presence of the police, the security services are quite intimidating. But with the eyes of the fans on the field, and the eyes of the police on the fans, songs are heard from Amedspor’s stands in support of both teams, gathering behind a message of unity.

“Amedspor – Eyupspor! From the hand, the arm, both teams come together! Peace in the stadium! Hey, government media, can you hear us? Do you see us singing for peace?”

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