DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — In December 2015, armed clashes raged inside the ancient walls of the district of Sur, the historic heart of Diyarbakir in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey. Using heavy weapons and even tanks, the security forces battled to regain control of residential neighborhoods, where young militants loyal to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) entrenched themselves behind ditches and barricades. A group of journalists, including this reporter, were touring areas exempt from the round-the-clock curfew imposed on the district when a local resident approached and asked a strange question: “When will the urban transformation finish?” The question made no sense at the time, but the man insisted the clashes had to do with an urban transformation plan.
The topic popped up again a few days later as journalists conversed with a group of people who were forced to flee their homes amid the mass exodus from Sur. The locals were convinced the security operations were more about emptying Sur ahead of an urban transformation drive rather than battling the PKK. As implausible as it sounded, the government’s alleged intention to empty and rebuild Sur in its own way was soon the talk of the town.