Diyarbakir — Holding a loft the Iraqi Kurdistan flag he smuggled past police in his underwear, Ayhan Turkmen stands out in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Kurds celebrating Nowruz in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. “The police took one flag from me, but I had this other one hidden just in case,” Turkmen says with a grin, as people stop to ask him if they can pose for a picture.
More than 4,000 police officers are securing the festival, forming multiple perimeters around an open park with space in the center for the giant bonfire that will be lit to mark the Persian New Year and the beginning of spring. Women in colorful Kurdish Nowruz dresses press against others in olive jumpsuits styled after Kurdish separatist fighters as they queue to pass through the checkpoints. With hundreds of Kurds killed by ISIS bombers in Turkey over the last few years, Nowruz is a prime target, so police carefully check for weapons, at one point even shooting and killing a man who was found with a knife.
But the police aren’t just there for security. Flags and banners supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the myriad of other Kurdish militias in the region – once a ubiquitous sight at Nowruz – have been banned this year. “Even last year, we were free to bring whatever we wanted, and you would see pictures of Ocalan all over this park,” says Turkmen, referring to the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan.
For Kurds, Nowruz has come to symbolize political resistance. In the 1990s, at the height of the last PKK insurgency, tanks rolled into villages outside Diyarbakir, where they confronted Kurds trying to gather to celebrate Nowruz. At least 100 people were killed in 1992 by soldiers trying to enforce a ban on the festival.
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