In Turkey's Kurdish Southeast, an Incendiary Celebration

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Demonstrators, holding a portrait of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, walk past a burning mobile telephone relay station in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, March 18, 2012.

On Sunday morning on the outskirts of Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, a pair of boys, no older than 12, took a break from throwing stones at a burning carcass of a truck to set the record straight. "We were the ones who set fire to it, and also to the others," one of them proudly told me, pointing to a row of nearby vehicles swallowed by flames. The trucks had belonged to Turkcell, Turkey's biggest mobile phone operator. Before I could ask what had made the vehicles a legitimate target — perhaps the widespread rumor that the company had colluded with Turkish authorities to wiretap Kurdish activists — a police car approached. The boys scampered off.

Thousands of men and women streamed past the burning trucks en route to an open field where the celebrations of Newroz, the Kurdish new year, were due to take place. Many had spent the morning battling squadrons of riot police who had attempted to block access to the area. Molotov cocktails and stones had been met with water cannons, tear gas, batons and, in some instances, live ammunition. (A few policemen had fired warning shots into the air.)

Even before the government's decision to deny the Kurds' request to organize Newroz on March 18 — the authorities in Diyarbakir and Istanbul insisted that it be held on the traditional date, March 21, a weekday — the stage was set for some sort of showdown. In late December, a botched airstrike by the Turkish army had killed 34 Kurdish smugglers near the border with Iraq. And in the days preceding Newroz, dozens of Kurds became the latest in a wave of some 5,000 activists — including members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — detained on terrorism-related charges since 2009. Weapons and explosives were seized during some of the arrests, according to Turkish media.

Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has taken some steps to give new cultural rights to Turkey's 12 million to 15 million Kurds (as much as 20% of the country's population), Ankara has made it clear that political autonomy is not up for discussion. In the face of a backlash by Turkish nationalists, a series of proposed reforms packaged as a "Kurdish opening" has come to naught.

Muhittin Ozel, a pensioner, stopped to take photos of the burning trucks — the mountains on one side and half-built apartment blocs on the other appeared to make for a good background. "Erdogan suspended dialogue, that's why we're at war again," he said, referring to renewed clashes between the Turkish army and the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). "We want to live alongside the Turks, but with autonomy and language rights."

From a stage set up at the edge of the field, Abdullah Demirbas, the BDP mayor of central Diyarbakir, took in the view — crowds of tens of thousands who had arrived in defiance of the government ban, smoke from the bonfires lit to celebrate Newroz, and smoke from the burning cars — and warned of things to come. "We're the last generation that wants a peaceful end to this conflict," he told me, our conversation occasionally drowned by chants, music and applause. "If there is no solution, the Kurdish politicians will no longer have any authority, and the young people will go to the mountains [to join the PKK]." Unless the government puts a stop to the arrests, Demirbas said, the Kurdish southeast will explode. "What people are saying this Newroz is that this is the last chance for peace."

Standing below the stage, Yildiz, an elderly housewife decked out in her Newroz finest, her head wrapped in a green-yellow-and-red headscarf, said she would rather dance and celebrate than politic. But because the authorities cut electricity to the stage, she complained, there was no musical program to speak of. "We'll still come, even if the state doesn't allow it, and even if there's no music."

From atop a party bus in the middle of the field, Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the BDP, cursed the police helicopters hovering overhead. As he announced that Turkish police had tried to break up Newroz demonstrations in Istanbul — a BDP politician was killed in the resulting clashes — the surrounding crowd broke into chants of "Erdogan murderer" and "PKK is the people, and the people are here."

"When there are protests in Egypt or in Syria, Erdogan tells their leaders to listen to the voice of the people," Demirtas said. "If he doesn't want to be like the dictators in the Middle East, he has to do the same."

Three young men, having made their way onto the roof of another bus parked less than a hundred yards away, interrupted Demirtas' speech, yelling the text of a prepared statement into a microphone. The armed struggle must be kept alive, they insisted. For lack of a mask, one had wrapped a banner with the image of the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan around his face. "Without the leader, there'll be no freedom," the men shouted, intoning Ocalan's name. The crowds around me, turning their back to Demirtas, repeated the chant.

Standing next to me, Rahima, a young Kurd living in Sweden, rolled her eyes. "These guys, they make it hard for the politicians," she said. In the 1980s and 90s, "when no one listened to the Kurds, the PKK was necessary. Not now." Over 30 years, the conflict has claimed 40,000 lives, victims of armed clashes, brutal reprisals by Turkish security forces and terrorist attacks by the PKK. Today, says Rahima, violence no longer makes sense. "Ocalan may have been the first to speak up for the Kurds, but no one has ever elected him. I want Kurds to listen to their politicians, not him."

Easier said than done. Even if the PKK tries to keep the BDP on the same wavelength, Kurdish politicians "don't have to be told to do anything," Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University, told me. "Most of them really buy into the PKK line. The PKK's great success is that it has crystalized Kurdish identity around [itself]."

As the festivities died down and the crowds trickled back to the city center, I spotted another pair of GSM trucks to the left of the stage, burnt-out, disfigured, belching clouds of ash. Groups of children surrounded them. The girls, wearing bright sequined dresses, watched as the boys set about gutting the vehicles' remains for scrap metal.