Up on the roof on the eighth floor, the acrid smell of tear gas was beginning to waft up – not enough to incapacitate a person’s respiratory functions as is commonplace, but just enough to add some spice to the proceedings. “Police shoot tear gas here for fun,” a boy, aged about 15, said nonchalantly from his delicate perch on top of a water tower at the very top of the apartment building. About 40 metres below, the day’s main event was occurring; the local side, Cizrespor, from Turkey’s southeastern Kurdish region, was taking on second-division Giresunspor, from the country’s Black Sea region, in a critical Turkish Cup match at the club’s ground on the banks of the Tigris River.
Cizrespor, who ply their in the fifth tier of Turkey’s football system, had already exceeded all expectations by making it to the group stage of the Turkish Cup (the competition features eight, four-team groups in the fourth round of the cup). There, the team was given little chance of scoring, let alone qualifying for the last 16, but a victory in its matchday six clash on Feb. 4 against Giresunspor would likely put Cizrespor into the next round and set up an epic tie with national heavyweight Galatasaray.
The prospect of progression had excited many in the city, allowing some to express their biggest dreams. “We want to be among the best; we want to play Bayern Munich one day,” said one supporter, long-haul truck driver Orhan Suat. “This is the biggest match for Cizrespor in 10 years,” said Faruk, a night watchman outside the town’s ramshackle bus station. Others were more circumspect in their hopes, yet positive nonetheless. “We’re not going to win the cup, but it’s important to always go that one more step,” said Abdi, a shopkeeper.
The hopes pinned to the fixture with Giresunspor, however, far superseded mere sporting concerns. “If we advance to the next round, the bad image that people have of Cizre will be eliminated,” said Abdullah, a receptionist at the town’s teachers’ lodging. “Cizre is even on the agenda of the president.”
The anxiousness to succeed was well-founded, for Cizre is no ordinary city. Situated where Syria, Turkey and Iraq meet, Cizre is a stronghold for the Kurdish national movement, embodied by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged a 30-year struggle for national rights and social revolution in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. Successive governments have opted to stamp out the insurgency with draconian measures, including summary executions of captured PKK fighters, facilitating deep-state actors to engage in extrajudicial killings, destroying villages to cut off support networks for the guerillas and placing severe restrictions on the usage of Kurdish, an Indo-European language that shares more with English than with Turkish, whose roots lie in Central Asia.
In addition to its draconian security measures, however, the state also sought to provide an opiate to the masses, promoting football in the region in the 1990s. Several Kurdish clubs succeeded in reaching the country’s top division during the period – irritating many rivals who felt the clubs received the benefit of referees’ calls, all in the interests of national harmony. The heavy state involvement, however, was overt to many in the area, and supporters offered only wary support to clubs like Cizrespor, said Abdurrahim Uğan, an official at the Cizre branch of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), the primary legal party representing Kurdish interests in the region. “People are starting to go again now that it’s not so associated with the state,” he said. The state subsequently ceased providing such support to area clubs, and today, there are no Kurdish clubs in the country’s top flight; in the fourth round of the cup, third-division Amedspor from the large city of Diyarbakır was the only other Kurdish club in the competition.
Ostensibly recognizing the futility of continuing to seek a military solution to the issue, the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been pursuing a slow-moving peace process with the PKK to end the “Kurdish problem.” During the 2013 celebrations of Newroz, a holiday that marks the beginning of spring but which has become a forum to express Kurdish identity over the course of the struggle, jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan called for a ceasefire and a withdrawal of his fighters as a goodwill gesture.
Two years on, the truce has continued to hold – but only tenuously; Kurds accuse the government, and particularly the increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of stalling in an effort to win a bigger electoral majority in June 2015 elections. Additionally, they accuse the government of abusing their goodwill by constructing a series of heavily fortified police stations throughout the southeast and of supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in its battle against Kurds in Kobane in Rojava, the region of northern Syria in which groups ideologically tied to the PKK have established autonomous cantons. Indeed, close to 50 people were killed between Oct. 6 and 8, 2014, around Turkey when protesters took to the streets to denounce the AKP’s ostensible support for ISIL in its assault on Kobane.
While street battles between security services and local youth are a commonplace occurrence in Turkey’s Kurdish region, events threatened to spiral out of control in Cizre before the match as police were accused of randomly opening fire on children in some neighbourhoods, resulting in the deaths of half a dozen youths, the youngest of whom was 12. “The police are killing are children,” said one taxi driver, gesturing to the town’s Cudi neighborhood, whose residents had dug trenches at the entrances to the quarter to prevent the police’s armored vehicles – known as 'akrep' (scorpions) – from infiltrating the area. While Turkey’s government initially denied accusations that police were responsible for the shooting deaths, the local bar association issued a report, noting that in one case, 14-year-old shoeshiner Ümit Kurt was deliberately targeted and killed by officers. Faced with evidence of police culpability from its own inspectors, the state was ultimately forced to recall several officers who were accused of involvement in the deadly shootings. “I experienced once more that terrible atmosphere of the 1990s in Cizre [during the shootings in December and January],” said a school teacher who did not want her name published for fear of possible repercussions. “There was a difficult, heavy air here. I really developed a hate for everything, the military and the police.” No one has been charged so far in the killings.
Against such a backdrop, Cizre’s amateurs prepared to face their Black Sea rivals – themselves no great power, but still three tiers above them in the league. Even in football, however, supporters lamented interference from the long arm of the state. “We got this far [in the cup], and then the police provoked incidents so that there would be stadium bans,” Suat said. Apart from battles with the police, supporters had previously raised the ire of Turkey’s footballing authorities by singing the 'Herne Peş' (Forwards), a Kurdish revolutionary song that calls, among other things, for Kurds to rally behind the red flag of socialism.
Undeterred by the police’s alleged attempt to spoil their parade, Cizrespor supporters ignored the legions of 'akreps' and water cannon encircling the football ground to head for improvised tribunes – the roofs of surrounding apartment blocks. Come kick-off, upwards of 3,000 supporters had grabbed a perch atop roofs, walls and water depots to catch a glimpse of the pitch below. Oscillating between a warm welcome for their opponents and further looking to poke the eye of the football federation, supporters atop the roofs first chanted for the 'Brotherhood of Peoples' in honor of Giresun – a noted bastion of anti-Kurdish sentiment – before promptly booing the playing of the Turkish national anthem – perhaps in the comfort of knowing that is impossible to impose an additional stadium ban when everyone is more than content to watch the action from atop a high building.
As in many big games, the match action failed to live up to the anticipation; befitting an amateur side, Cizrespor lacked a killer instinct in front of goal, while it was also fortunate to see an effort by Giresunspor in the first half rebound off its bar in what ultimately turned out to be a 0-0 draw. While upset at the failure to find a crucial strike against Giresunspor, supporters maintained guarded optimism that the biggest team in the group, Gençlerbirliği – a team from Turkey’s capital that once made the fourth round of the UEFA Cup in 2004 – would dispatch Konyaspor in the group’s last match and permit Cizrespor their dream matchup against Galatasaray. Recalling the state’s support for Kurdish clubs in the 1990s, some even suggested that the state would work to ensure Cizrespor qualified the next round. “The state might tell Gençlerbirliği to win as part of the peace process,” said Faruk, the watchman.
Predictably, the side from Ankara went through the motions against Konya, drawing 0-0 – much to the chagrin of some of Gençlerbirliği’s own supporters, who had expressed their sympathies for Cizrespor. “When it’s Cizrespor, they don’t try,” Suat said, watching with exasperation as Gençlerbirliği aimlessly knocked the ball around in injury time, rather than seek a winner against Konyaspor. The sentiment of aggrievement was shared by many, prompting the club’s official Facebook site – Cizrespor is devoid of an official website – to call for restraint. “Please, no one should say Gençlerbirliği fixed the match or that it could have beaten Konya if it had wanted to,” it said. “For all cup matches, [Gençlerbirliği] played with young players; Gençlerbirliği didn’t care whether it was Konya or Cizre that made the next round. First we had to win the game against Giresun, then we could have talked. Please, let’s be reasonable.”
Cizrespor’s fairytale ended early, but the club’s brief run provided an opportunity for the city of Cizre to be associated with something other than violence and death. And is if underscoring the club’s modest success in building bridges with the rest of the country’s society, the club added: “In our Turkish Cup adventure, we won two friends: Gençlerbirliği and Giresunspor.”