Turkish Crackdown A German Football Player Stands Up to Erdogan
German footballer Deniz Naki played in the Bundesliga before joining Turkey's unofficial Kurdish national squad, becoming a hero for many Kurds struggling under President Erdogan's violent repression. But now his political statements have attracted the attention of Turkish authorities.
People back home are worried about Deniz Naki. His mother begs him over the phone: "Please, come back to Germany." His friends ask him: "Do you want to die in a Turkish prison?"
It's a Friday in October and Naki, 27, a football player from Düren in North Rhine-Westphalia, is sitting on a scuffed leather couch in the Amed Sportif Faaliyetler Kulübü clubhouse in Diyarbakir, a city in southeastern Turkey. He has a full beard, is wearing a blue jogging suit and tennis shoes, and has a likeness of Che Guevara tattooed on the back of his left hand and the word Azadi, Kurdish for freedom, emblazoned across his forearm. Naki shakes his head. "If I left now, it would amount to an admission of guilt," he says.
As a youngster, Naki played for Bayer Leverkusen and then made the jump to Germany's top league, the Bundesliga, when he signed with Hamburg's FC St. Pauli. Three years ago, he transferred to Turkey, his parents' country of origin, and since last summer, he has been on the roster of third-league Turkish team Amedspor, the unofficial Kurdish national squad, based in Diyarbakir.
In January, his club scored a surprise victory over former Turkish champion Bursaspor in the round of 16 of the Ziraat Turkish Cup. Naki, a German with Kurdish roots, dedicated the victory to the victims of the Turkish military operation against Kurdish rebels, "to the people who were killed or injured during the 50 days of oppression," as he wrote on Facebook. The post made him a hero among his fellow Kurds -- and an enemy of the state in the eyes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.
The public prosecutor's office in Diyarbakir is pressing charges against Naki, accusing him of spreading propaganda for the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). On November 8, Naki is appearing before a court in Diyarbakir. These days, it's impossible to predict the outcome of these kinds of political trials in Turkey and Naki could face up to five years in prison. He says that he is not afraid of the verdict: "I know that I've done nothing wrong."
Naki shuffles through the Amedspor clubhouse, a multi-level concrete building painted purple. The club's president greets him with a handshake, staff members bow to him and youngsters ask for a selfie.
A Role Model for Kurds
Here, relatively close to the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq, Naki is no ordinary professional soccer player. Southeastern Turkey is one of those parts of the world where football truly is more than just a game. With a population of some 15 million people, the Kurds are the largest minority in the country and they view Amedspor's players as representatives of their people, and the team, which has been owned by the municipality of Diyarbakir since 1990, as part of their history -- a history marked by the search for a Kurdish identity and the struggle for recognition in Turkey.
The name Amedspor alone is a provocation for Turkish nationalists, Amed being the Kurdish name for Diyarbakir. The military regime banned the Kurdish language in 1983, and ever since the 1930s a number of Kurdish towns and regions in southeastern Turkey have been renamed. Dersim, for example, the home province of Naki's parents, is now called Tunceli.
After Erdogan took office as prime minister 13 years ago, he eased the bans on the Kurdish language and the team from Diyarbakir has gone by the name Amed Sportif Kulübü for the past year. The players' uniforms are red, white and green -- the colors of Kurdistan.
It takes Naki 20 minutes by taxi to travel from the training grounds to downtown Diyarbakir. When he was still playing for St. Pauli, Naki used to squeal his tires as he drove his red Mercedes convertible in front of Hamburg's Jolly Roger, a left-wing fan bar. Even the punks would cheer him on. These days his route takes him past abandoned construction sites and burned-out cars. Troops with assault rifles patrol the streets in search of terror suspects.
Naki grew up in Germany's Rhineland region. Before he moved to Diyarbakir, the only things he knew about his parents' homeland came from relatives' stories and reports on TV. He had no idea what devastating impact the Turkish-Kurdish conflict had had on the local population.
Some 40,000 people have been killed in fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists since the PKK launched a violent insurgency in 1984. As prime minister, Erdogan initially strove to achieve a political solution to the conflict and allowed Kurdish language radio and TV stations. His government conducted peace negotiations with the PKK and invested billions in the impoverished economy of southeastern Turkey.
Then, in June 2015, the pro-Kurdish HDP party entered the Turkish parliament for the first time, following a landmark election that was hailed by many Kurds as the dawn of a new era.
Erdogan, though, apparently felt threatened by the success of the Kurds, suddenly reversing course and returning to the 1990s policy of military engagement. After the assassination of Turkish police officers by extremists in July 2015, the government broke off talks with the PKK. Since then, Turkish fighter jets have conducted almost weekly air raids against the organization's positions in the mountains of northern Iraq. The military and the PKK have also extended the war to Kurdish cities in Turkey, and to make matters worse, Ankara has stepped up its repressive measures against the Kurds in the wake of the failed coup of July 15, 2016. Only two weeks ago, the government had the co-mayors of Diyarbakir detained and replaced by hand-picked administrators.
His Path to Turkey
Naki walks through the historic Sur district, the old city of Diyarbakir, with its ancient churches and mosques, street markets and the town wall made of black basalt. Children are playing in the dust. The walls of the buildings are smeared with graffiti: "Down with Erdogan!" and "Freedom for Kurdistan!"
Last winter and spring, fighters from the YDG-H, the youth movement of the PKK, holed up in Sur and the Turkish military moved in with tanks and snipers. The ensuing house-to-house combat lasted for months, destroying much of the old city and claiming hundreds of lives.
Naki points to bombed-out buildings and soldiers who are still cordoning off entire city blocks. "It's hardly surprising that the young people are joining the guerrillas in the mountains," he says.
On Friday afternoon, the Amedspor players gather for their final training session before the match against Ankara's Keciörengücü, the top-ranking team in the league. The sun is still sweltering hot in the late autumn sky. The coach yells over the roar of the fighter jets that take off from Diyarbakir on missions to Syria and Iraq. With a slightly bored expression on his face, Naki trots across the pitch, redirects passes with his heels and smiles wearily when his teammates flub a trap.
Naki won the U19 European championship on a team that included players like Ron-Robert Zieler and the Bender twins. He played alongside Jérome Boateng and Mats Hummels on the German U21 national squad, and he is still revered as a hero in St. Pauli because he rammed a team flag into the pitch after an away win in Rostock. But because he was undermotivated, or perhaps because he didn't work hard enough, Naki ultimately didn't make the grade.
Now he is playing against amateur teams in towns like Nazilli and Konya, in stadiums with only a few hundred fans. Still, Naki says he doesn't regret transferring to Turkey, adding: "I'm needed more in Diyarbakir than in Germany."
Naki's father, a Kurdish communist, was tortured in prison by the Turkish military and fled to Germany after he was released in the 1970s. "My parents taught me not to remain silent in the face of injustice," Naki says.
When Islamic State (IS) besieged the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani two years ago, Naki made impassioned appeals on Facebook and urged solidarity with the Kurds. At the time, he was still playing for Genclerbirligi Ankara in the Turkish Süper Lig and, following his online comments, Islamists attacked him on the streets. After that, he terminated his contract and spent several months at his parents' house in Düren before signing with Amedspor a little over a year ago.
Since then, he has repeatedly commented on Turkish policies, criticizing the military operation in southeastern Turkey and collecting donations for the victims. Last fall he traveled to the city of Cizre, which had been largely destroyed by the Turkish army, to meet with grieving parents who had been unable to bury their dead daughter because of the curfew. The parents had been forced to keep the body in a freezer for several days.
His activism has made Naki one of the best-known soccer players in Turkey -- and one of the most controversial. In the stadium in Diyarbakir, his jubilant fans chant their support for him for minutes on end, but at away games, he is reviled as a "PKK bastard" and a "traitor to the nation." The public prosecutor in Diyarbakir views Naki's criticism of the government's Kurdish policy as terror propaganda.
Messages of solidarity for Naki are flowing in from across Turkey and from abroad. During a preseason game against Werder Bremen in early October, the players of FC St. Pauli wore T-shirts with Naki's former uniform number of 23 and his name. Journalists and members of parliament from Germany have announced that they will attend the trial on November 8.
'A Club of Outsiders'
Nurullah Edemen, the president of Amedspor, is sitting in his office in the clubhouse. Behind him, a pennant with the team emblem hangs on the wall, the double-headed eagle of Babylon. Amedspor consciously sets itself apart from other teams in Turkey. Decisions are made not by a male leader, but by a committee of men and women. "We are a club of outsiders, nonconformists and democrats," the president says.
The competition views Amedspor with suspicion. At away games, rival fans shout slogans like: "The martyrs are immortal, the nation is indivisible" and "Allahu akbar." Stadium announcers and commentators refuse to even mention the name Amedspor.
The Turkish Football Federation is also trying to rein in the club. Last season Amedspor had to pay €150,000 ($167,000) in fines for political chants by its supporters, the equivalent of one-quarter of the team's annual budget. This season, the fans are no longer allowed to travel to away games.
This makes Naki's dedication all the more important for the people in Southeast Anatolia, says Edemen, who points out that "Deniz is a model, an ambassador for the club."
On Saturday, hours before the game against Keciörengücü, the streets of Diyarbakir are packed with Amedspor fans. Young people, families and women with and without headscarves are milling about everywhere. Many of them are wearing the Amedspor jersey emblazoned with Naki's number 62. The stadium, which has been assembled out of wood and corrugated sheet metal, has a capacity of 2,000 spectators. Folk music is blaring from the loudspeakers. The crowd on the bleachers shouts: "Red! Green! Red! Green!" And over and over: "Deniz! Naki!"
Amedspor dominates the match against Ankara. Virtually every attack is orchestrated by Naki, who plays midfield behind the strikers. Naki dribbles the ball across large stretches of the pitch, often taking on a number of opposing players at once. In the 17th minute, he drives home a long shot to make it 1:0. During injury time, Amedspor increases their lead to 2:0.
After the final whistle, Naki runs toward the fan section. Together with the spectators, he chants the rallying cry of Kurdish opponents of the government: "Amed is everywhere! Resistance is everywhere!"
Update: The trial of Deniz Naki ended after one day with a verdict of not guilty for spreading terrorist propaganda. "I am happy and relieved," he said after the decision, "because the way things are going in Turkey, I really couldn't assume that I would be found not-guilty." He was accompanied after the trial by two politicians from Germany, Left Party lawmakers Cansu Özdemir and Jan van Aken.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen