A brief history of modern Newroz in Turkey

A brief history of modern Newroz in Turkey
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A massacre in 1992 was a turning point in the recent tradition of Newroz demonstrations, rendering the former ban on demonstrations pointless and useless.

Newroz, or "the new day," marks the arrival of the new year on the spring equinox for Kurds, and in a more recent context, the day the fire of resistance against tyrants is rekindled. According to the legend, Kawa the Blacksmith killed tyrant king Dehak (also known as Zahak) on this day, and the legend has been emblematic for the Kurdish freedom struggle in near history.

Newroz celebrations with a political nature in Turkey have a history of over half a century.

The first Newroz festival, organized by Kurdish political groups, was staged in 1970 in the Silvan district of Turkey's Kurdish-majority province of Diyarbakir, and the first Newroz in Istanbul was organized in 1979.

In 1982, Mazlum Dogan, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), took his own life on the day of Newroz in protest against the cruel treatment of political prisoners in the notorious Diyarbakir Prison.

Cizre massacre

The Newroz demonstration in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority city of Cizre in 1992 marks a historical turning point in the Kurdish struggle to have Newroz recognized, even unofficially, as a national day of celebration.

According to official figures, 57 people (close to 100 according to other sources) were killed in Cizre on 21-22 March 1992, as state forces started shooting indiscriminately at demonstrators after the crowd refused to stop at a barricade on the main street of the city.


It reportedly started with shots fired from an armored vehicle. In the ensuing carnage dozens of demonstrators were killed and hundreds wounded within a matter of hours.

People were not able to take the wounded to the hospital because they knew they would instantly be arrested.

On the second day, a small group of journalists tried to leave the hotel they were staying in to report on the situation. Although they visibly carried cameras and white flags, they were fired upon by state forces when they stepped out, and a journalist named Izzet Keser was fatally shot.

In 2015, months to the historical elections victory of the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the Newroz demonstrations in Diyarbakir and other Kurdistan-majority cities, as well as in Istanbul and other major western and southern cities of Turkey with large Kurdish populations.

In the following years Newroz demonstrations have continued to attract large masses across Turkey despite intimidation attempts by the police.

Murder of Kemal Kurkut

Kemal Kurkut, a 23-year-old university student, was killed by the police during the Newroz celebration in Diyarbakir on 21 March 2017.

Kurkut was shot near a checkpoint, and a statement by the governors's office followed, claiming that the police had "intervened" upon suspicion that the man could be a "suicide bomber." It was claimed that Kurkut ran towards the celebration area knife in hand, crying, "I’ve got a bomb in my bag, I’m going to kill you all."


However on the following day, photographs taken by journalist Abdurrahman Gok emerged, which showed clearly that the governor's claims were unfounded, that not only was the young man carrying no more than a bottle of water in his hands, but also he was fully naked on top and there was apparently nothing fastened to his body.

Background: Kurdish freedom struggle

With the fall of the multi ethnic Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, Kurdish culture, language, and rituals were suppressed in the process of building a new "Turkish nation."

By 1924, all Kurdish schools were shut down and publications banned. The words Kurd and Kurdistan were removed from history books and instantly censored in the media. The following year, a "Report for Reform" extended the bans. Consequently, the names of Kurdish settlements were replaced with invented Turkish ones in par with the 1934 "Resettlement Act."

Bans on Kurdish names for individuals, on traditional Kurdish dresses and colors, and even on the celebration of Newroz followed.

Political parties have been banned since 1972 over accusations of separatism and being linked with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), designated a "terrorist group" by Ankara.

The Workers' Party of Turkey (TIP), a socialist party, was closed by the Constitutional Court in 1972 over "separatism" charges, because it had, during a party congress in October 1970, recognized the existence of a Kurdish people who had been subjected to policies of forced assimilation in Turkey.

The Democratic Society Party (DTP), the People's Democracy Party (HADEP), the Democracy Party (DEP), the Freedom and Democracy Party (OZDEP), and the People's Labor Party (HEP) are among the pro-Kurdish political parties that were closed by the Constitutional Court in the last three decades, over charges of "terrorism" and "separatism."

It is now HDP who faces a closure case and a possible ban days to the coming elections on 14 May.

Official "Nevruz" celebrations


As Kurds have associated the spring equinox with an uprising for emancipation, and since Turkey's official policy has come to focus on the denial of diverse social or ethnic identities, this manifests itself in the official Turkish "Nevruz" celebrations, usually in suit-and-tie by government officials.