Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

Ode to Okmeydanı: Far-left group fights to save Istanbul neighborhood

Communist-dominated area of Turkey's largest city is revolting against government redevelopment plan

ISTANBUL — “The DHKP/C is a part of us,” said Yucel Yildirm, a 40-year-old carpenter over cups of bitter Turkish black tea in a park near the heart of Istanbul. “They are our brothers, sisters and children. The Turkish state is against the Alevi population here. They want our land. And the DHKP/C fights for our rights.”

He was talking about the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, an armed Marxist-Leninist group, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, that seeks the violent overthrow of the Turkish republic. The fact that it can count on the support of Yildirm and many of his neighbors reflects the bizarre politics of Okmeydanı, a blighted neighborhood in the heart of Istanbul facing demolition by city authorities.

Perched on a nondescript bluff overlooking Istanbul’s Golden Horn, adjacent to one of the main thoroughfares on the city’s European side, Okmeydanı was once a playground for Ottoman princes and sultans. Its name translates as “place of arrows,” a reference to the archery range it housed during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire. These days, Okmeydanı is a bastion of resistance to the rising tide of urban renewal in Istanbul.

Since coming to power more than a decade ago — first as prime minister and, since August, as president — Recep Tayyip Erdogan has orchestrated several massive changes to Istanbul’s urban landscape. Entire neighborhoods have been slated for what the government calls urban regeneration as it develops various infrastructure megaprojects such as a five-runway airport, a bridge spanning the Bosporus and a underwater rail link connecting the European and Asian sides of the city. Erdogan, whose ambitions for the city are often labeled neo-Ottoman by his critics, wants Istanbul to re-emerge as a center for global power. But many residents feel the development agenda put the needs of the business elite ahead of theirs.

Ahmet Yabuz, a trim man in his 50s, grew up in the neighborhood and watched it grow from a cluster of informal structures and dirt streets into a hot spot in the city’s fight for urban transformation.

“The government doesn’t help this neighborhood,” Yabuz said, sitting on the balcony of the modest cafe owned by his family since the late 1950s. “There are weapons on the street. There are drug dealers. There are clashes between the armed groups and the police. We, the residents, are essentially stuck in the middle.”

Okmeydanı’s streets are narrow and filled with trash of all sorts. Diligent municipal services that keep the shine on the carefully manicured boulevards of Istanbul’s European downtown just 10 minutes away near Taksim Square are nowhere to be seen in Okmeydanı. This is partly due, many residents claim, to the neighborhood’s high concentration of Shia Alevis — one of the minority sects that have faced decades of discrimination in Sunni-dominated Turkey. 

‘The Turkish state is against the Alevi population here. They want our land. And the DHKP/C fights for our rights.’

Yucel Yildirm

Okmeydanı resident

Whatever its cause, the sense of disenfranchisement is widely shared in the neighborhood. Locals also share a strong sense of solidarity, fending off decades of efforts by the Turkish government to push them off their increasingly prized real estate through schemes ranging from zoning regulations to the denial of municipal services.

The resulting vacuum of authority in the community has, for the past decade, been filled by the DHKP/C. Like other insurgent groups around the world, the DHKP/C delivers charitable services in order to garner grass-roots support. Its members routinely patrol streets and attempt to keep drug dealers out. But locals are divided as to the group’s effectiveness as a substitute local authority.

The DHKP/C is more far more than a municipal insurgency. However, it sees the social movement it has built in neighborhoods like Okmeydanı as bases from which to wage its 25-year low-level war against the Turkish state and its Western allies.

In 2013 the group carried out a suicide bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, killing a Turkish security guard. Many in Turkey blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime or the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is also involved in a decades-old insurgency against the Turkish state and some say has provided funding and logistical support to the DHKP/C.

The Kurdish separatist group's frontline role in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the Erdogan government’s policy of seeking a peace agreement with the PKK has put it back in the spotlight. Sectors of the Turkish press have speculated that a truce between the PKK and the Turkish government would generate a split in the movement, with a more radical breakaway likely to seek support from the DHKP/C, codified in its 1996 cooperation protocol signed with the PKK, in order to continue staging attacks in Turkey.

That’s a chilling prospect, given the DHKP/C’s safe haven in Okmeydanı and its 20-year track record of attacks on Western embassies, consulates and business interests in Turkey.  

Protesters scatter as Turkish riot police use water cannons and tear gas during a demonstration decrying unsafe mining conditions in May 2014.
Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

When Ahmet Yabuz’s family moved to Istanbul in the 1950s, there was no place to live. He was one of throngs of migrants from the Anatolian heartland drawn to major cities by government policies designed to focus resources on urban industrialization rather than rural welfare. Unable to provide formal housing, the government encouraged the new arrivals to establish informal neighborhoods on large tracts of state-owned land. Most of the resulting dwellings — known as gecekondu (“built at night”) — were freestanding single-story structures in low-density neighborhoods.

“I pay electricity and water bills to the city, but they tell me that my house is illegal and without land documentation,” Yabuz said.

Natural population growth swelled these neighborhoods, and their off-the-grid improvisational construction nurtured an enduring spirit of independence. Bonds of solidarity were reinforced by the fact that many of the founding families of these neighborhoods had migrated to the city from the same villages and regions.

“Gecekondu are, of course, illegal buildings. But in the 1980s they acquired semilegal status, and people began moving to these areas,” said Sila Aklip, an architect at the TAK Design Collective in Istanbul. “The problem is that there was no infrastructure. To be sure, aspects of the quality of life are high, especially regarding the quality of urban space, but because of the lack of infrastructure and proper planning, these areas began to highlight inequality.”

Istanbul, whose population stands at 14 million, has always played an outsize role in Turkish politics, and before he was prime minister, Erdogan was the city’s mayor. He oversaw an ambitious construction program that ranged from bold infrastructure projects to the rapid replacement of older neighborhoods with shopping malls and concrete apartment blocks. Not all of Istanbul’s residents benefited equally. Many saw their neighborhoods demolished under the pretext of earthquake preparedness and other selectively imposed building regulations; some have been forced to move as much as 30 miles from the city center.

“This is already a social disaster,” Mucella Yapici, head of Istanbul’s Chamber of Architecture, told the magazine Vocativ. “Urban transformation has caused social and physical disintegration in Istanbul.”

‘To be sure, aspects of the quality of life are high, especially regarding the quality of urban space, but because of the lack of infrastructure and proper planning, these areas began to highlight inequality.’

Sila Aklip

architect, TAK Design Collective

Turkey’s volatile politics ensure that Istanbul’s urbanism debate is not confined to intellectual exchanges among policy wonks. Weeks of protest and turmoil gripped Istanbul in the summer of 2013 after police used excessive force to disperse a handful of environmentalists who occupied Gezi Park to protest plans to build a shopping mall over it. Okmeydanı became a flashpoint for serious clashes between the DHKP/C and Turkish security forces.

Wearing trademark red masks, activists took to streets filled with young stone-throwing protesters. Almost immediately, their presence drew a violent reaction from security forces and raised fears that the nonviolent Gezi protest movement could spiral out of control. Reports on social media platforms swirled apparently showing DHKP/C activists brandishing guns.

They fought Turkish security forces who entered the neighborhood in armored jeeps. Riot control police used tear gas and rubber bullets in the neighborhood, but when the tension calmed in central Istanbul, protests continued to simmer in Okmeydanı.

Months after the Gezi protests ended, clashes continued in Okmeydanı; the smell of tear gas remains a defining trademark of the neighborhood. Bystanders — such as 15-year-old Berkin Elvan, struck by a tear gas canister while out buying bread — were killed.

Neither the Turkish Foreign Ministry nor Istanbul officials responded to repeated requests for comment regarding the DHKP/C and the urban renewal plans for Okmeydanı

In May, tensions were high across Turkey with the approach of the first anniversary of deadly nationwide anti-government protests.
Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

Government officials have long used the specter of DHKP/C violence to rationalize crackdowns on challenges from the left. During the Gezi Park protests, pro-government media routinely labeled nonviolent middle-class protesters as DHKP/C terrorists. Even Erdogan drew that link. “Members of the terrorist organization [DHKP/C] that earlier attacked the U.S. Embassy are involved in this,” he said at the beginning of the protests.

The authorities have been trying since the 1970s to remove the residents of Okmeydanı, but fears of violent resistance halted plans for mass evictions. In June, Okmeydanı was declared an earthquake risk zone in order to grant the city eminent domain to rebuild housing stock.

“It is important not to mix the various layers of things unfolding in Okmeydanı,” said urban researcher Yasar Adanali, sitting in his office overlooking the Karakoy boat terminal on the Bosporus.

While they reinforce each other, the security crackdown on the radical political elements in the neighborhood and government efforts to enforce top-down urban development are distinct and separate phenomena, he said. The state “wants to control the neighborhood and discipline it.” He argues that the development plans are driven by business interests close the president seeking to develop Okmeydanı’s valuable land. 

‘It is important not to mix the various layers of things unfolding in Okmeydanı … [The state] wants to control the neighborhood and discipline it.’

Yasar Adanali

urban researcher

The DHKP/C, meanwhile, uses the continued instability in the neighborhood to build community support. The group is an offshoot of the radical Devrimci Solo. Dev Sol, as it is generally known in Turkish, is an armed Marxist-Leninist group that became prominent in the late 1970s before it was crushed and many of its members were imprisoned.

But the group’s impact was felt behind bars. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Turkey’s prisons became virtually ungovernable, as the remnants of Dev Sol turned them into strongholds. In 1994 the DHKP/C was formed and began a campaign against Western targets and the Turkish state.

The group assassinated two U.S. military contractors in retaliation for the 1991 Gulf War and launched a rocket at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul in the early 1990s — earning it a State Department designation as an international terrorist organization in 1997.

With an extensive network of activists and fighters, the DHKP/C created bases of community support in Istanbul’s gecekondu neighborhoods, where local constituencies were already alienated from the state. The group continued to wage its struggle behind bars. A mass hunger strike in 2000 prompted the military to storm a prison. All told, more than 90 people died, mostly inmates from the DHKP/C.

Al Jazeera’s efforts to meet with members of the group were rebuffed. “Come back as an individual, and we will gladly accept an interview,” a curt but friendly press representative said. “But [to] a journalist for the Western media, we have nothing to say.”

Some observers see the group’s reticence to speak with the media as a symptom of its use by major power centers to pursue their own agendas. “The DHKP/C is used as a sleeping cell for many different groups like the Turkish deep state and the Assad regime. That is for sure,” said veteran Turkish journalist Ceren Kenar, who has been following the DHKP/C for years, in a quaint Istanbul cafe. “Deep state” refers to a network of high-level figures in various branches of the government and security services, established in the era of secularist military dictatorships, that are believed to function as a state within a state.

‘The DHKP/C is used as a sleeping cell for many different groups like the Turkish deep state and the Assad regime. That is for sure.’

Ceren Kenar


Still, the group isn’t entirely publicity shy. One of the DHKP/C’s main outreach vehicles is the popular Turkish rock band Grup Yorum. Composed of Okmeydanı residents, the band regularly performs in front of various banners supporting socialist revolution. Last year the group played a massive concert in front a large Assad banner.

While the group is careful not to explicitly connect itself with the DHKP/C, it is openly supportive of its Marxist ideology. In early 2014 two members of Grup Yorum were arrested and charged with having links to the DHKP/C. They are currently barred from leaving Turkey to perform concerts abroad because of the ongoing trial.

Since the 2013 American Embassy bombing, the Turkish media has been awash in reports connecting the DHKP/C to the Assad regime. Several pro-government dailies have run long reports alleging the existence of DHKP/C bases in Syria, along with detailed claims about a partnership between the DHKP/C and the PKK. Several lawyers connected with group have reportedly fled Turkey for Damascus to avoid arrest.

“The DHKP/C is a big nuisance,” said Soli Ozel, a columnist for the newspaper HaberTurk and a lecturer at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. “They always appear when there is trouble, and then the government is quick to blame them for a myriad of problems because of their history of violence.”

The group’s significance could change, of course, if the current government achieves its priority goal of concluding peace with the PKK. Analysts fear that in such a scenario, the DHKP/C could be enlisted to play the role of spoiler.

“Given the Turkish government efforts to achieve a peace agreement with the PKK,” said Kenar, “we could see the organization split, resulting in a more militant wing that allies itself with the DHKP/C, perhaps with funding from the Assad regime, to continue fighting the Turkish government in Turkey.”

Thus the national and regional tides swirling around the rezoning battle over Okmeydanı.

A woman flees tear gas during clashes between protesters and riot police after the funeral of an anti-government demonstrator.
Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty Images

The geopolitical battle among Turkey, Assad and the Kurds feels far away from Okmeydanı. Graffiti, normally tightly controlled in Istanbul, covers the walls of the neighborhood’s narrow streets. In a last-minute decision, Istanbul reversed its earthquake-preparedness decision for Okmeydanı. It is a small victory in a long battle, said Korhan Gumus, a sociology professor at Mimar Sinan University and the chairman of the Human Settlements Association, a coalition of architects and other specialists working on urban issues in Istanbul.

“The city said that it understands how the earthquake label would destroy the community, but it can easily adopt an old tactic [coercing locals through small financial gain] for taking the land of Okmeydanı. This is an ongoing story,” he said.

Sitting in the neighborhood’s main park, named after a DHKP/C fighter killed by Turkish security forces just two blocks away in the mid-1990s, Yucel Yildirm adopted a conciliatory tone about the future.

“Often we feel like we are fighting everyone,” he said, before asking if I wanted another coffee. “The DHKP/C fights for our rights, but we know they have other battles as well. The city will succeed in taking our land at some point. But for the time being, we are here and remain steadfast in protecting our neighborhood, the only one that most of us know.”

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