Thousands of activists from across the UK took to the streets of London on Sunday to protest against the ongoing conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey's southeast.
The first large-scale national demonstration in solidarity with the Kurdish people held in the UK, the march was attended by both Kurds and non-Kurds, UK trade unions, as well as human rights activist Peter Tatchell, and British Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and other public figures.
"I'm here to show my support to all the Kurdish people — we are one family," Abdul Aga, an Iraqi-Kurd from Wolverhampton, told VICE News before the march began in front of the BBC Broadcasting House. "We saw the Turkish military assaults that were being carried out on Kurdish civilians in bakur [the region in southeast Turkey historically known by Kurds as North Kurdistan] and it made us feel awful."
Turkey's three-decade-old Kurdish insurgency reignited last summer after a suspected Islamic State bombing that killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists near the Turkish-Syrian border. The PKK accused Turkey's government of aiding the bombers and murdered two Turkish policemen in retaliation, shattering a ceasefire that had lasted for two years.
Since August 2015, the Turkish government has imposed 58 open-ended and round-the-clock curfews on 19 districts in seven cities in the country's southeast. In recent months, there has been a spike in violence in the predominantly Kurdish areas of Sur, Silopi, and Cizre, where the Turkish military has used tanks and heavy artillery to pound urban residential areas suspected of harboring PKK militants. As of January 2016, there have reportedly been 198 civilian casualties. In February 2016, Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of Turkey's leftist HDP party, characterized an incident where up to 60 civilians were reportedly killed while sheltering in a basement in Cizre as "mass murder."
"I want the world to know that there is a massacre going on in southeast Turkey right now," Kaya Mar, a political artist and Turkish Kurd told VICE News, as he gestured emphatically at a canvas that he'd brought with him, depicting scenes of death.
Despite reports on the conflict and casualties, the Turkish government has denied harming civilians during its urban military operations.
"The terrorist group is opening fire on our security forces — that is why the clashes have broken out," Huseyin Aksoy, the governor of Diyarbakir, told the BBC in an interview in January 2016, referencing military operations in the city's historic Sur district. "We are protecting our citizens, it was our responsibility to intervene."
Mar, who has been living in London for the past 40 years, expressed disbelief at the international community's indifference toward the plight of Kurdish civilians caught in the crossfire of the violence, and spoke of the British government's "double-standards."
Protesters marched to Trafalgar Square for a rally, carrying banners bearing statements calling for the international community to "break their silence" on recent violence against Kurdish civilians. Others carried flags in the Kurdish national colors of green, red, and yellow, some bearing the face of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.
While the majority came to denounce the curfews and the escalation of violence, others harbored hopes for an independent Kurdistan in the future. They emphasised the necessity for Kurds to be able to nurture their cultures and languages in a democratic, violence-free environment.
"Kurds in Turkey don't want to be seen as second-class citizens," Muhammad Zareei, an Iranian-Kurd told VICE News. "We want Kurds to unite. Kurds don't want war, they just want freedom and peace. During the recent violence in Cizre, people couldn't even get to ambulances or hospitals because of the curfews."
At the rally, Tatchell, a British human rights campaigner, called for Turkey to be suspended from NATO, and for the European Union to implement sanctions. Tatchell said Turkey's recent clampdown on the media was tantamount to a "war" on civil liberties, human rights, and press freedom.
"Turkey is a rogue state, fast slipping into fascism… It has torn up the peace deal with the PKK and resumed a policy of open warfare, attacking Kurdish towns and villages across the southeast of Turkey, and attacking PKK forces and bases," he said.
"By attacking the Kurdish resistance, the Turkish state is aiding ISIS," he added, referring to the success Kurdish groups have had fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Mark Campbell, an Irish pro-Kurdish rights campaigner and one of the organizers of the march, said the demonstration was just the "tip of the iceberg."
"We want to build a solidarity movement in this country for the Kurds," he said. "We want to widen solidarity campaigns all around the country, and possibly internationally."
As the rally drew to a close, Kurdish activists, who hadn't yet been driven away by the intermittent hail, started performing Kurdish halay dances in Trafalgar square. On the sidelines, Roza Salih, an Iraqi-Kurd and speaker at the rally from the Scottish Solidarity in Kurdistan group in Glasgow, said the recent developments in Turkey were disappointing after what had been a peaceful stretch during the ceasefire with the PKK.
"During the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government, we thought that the Turkish state was going toward democracy and would join the European Union — it was a hope that we were looking forward to," said Salih. "Unfortunately, now, the Kurdish question is still to be answered."
All photos by Emiko Jozuka. Follow her on Twitter: @emijozuka