Call of the Valley – Returning to Destroyed Village Life in Eastern Turkey

Call of the Valley – Returning to Destroyed Village Life in Eastern Turkey

Alex Kemman, 2024 Finalist

"Call of the Valley – Returning to destroyed village life in Eastern Turkey" is about the small space of choice that the villagers of Qurdîsê had when forced to leave their land and the subtle resistance that lies in the process of their return. This project is also about reclaiming agency and showing daily life in its simplicity and beauty. It tries to answer what drives people to return to their destroyed home after being displaced for decades.

The entrance to the valley of Qurdîsê. 04-06-2023

A flock of sheep on the road to the village of Xurs. Until recently it was not allowed to travel into this area. Local village guards (an armed paramilitary force established by the Turkish state) would stop and question people. 03-03-2021

One of the destroyed villages in Xurs. During the nineties many villages were given a choice; either join the village guards to fight the PKK, or the Turkish military would destroy the village. Xurs is a mixed area where some villages have been destroyed and some still exist. Tension still runs within the village, as some people are anti-government and some are pro-government. 03-03-2021

The remains of a house in Qurdîsê from the destruction of the nineties. The last time Qurdîsê was under full conflict was in 2017 where the Turkish state forces declared curfew, blocked all access and reportedly tortured inhabitants. Qurdîsê is still observed by unmanned drones during the evenings, and the story goes that the lantern lights had hidden cameras. Parts of the mountains are still forbidden, and not too long ago a shepherd was killed, although the authorities claimed he was a fighter. 09-06-2023

Yusuf (63 years) is looking out from his door towards the valley of Qurdîsê. Yusuf prefers living in Qurdîsê where he works the land with his cousins, but for job opportunities he still returns to Istanbul. 10-06-2023

A woman cleans her terrace in Qurdîsê. The blue structure, a ‘taht’, is a bed that is used in the hot summer months. 04-06-2023

A shepherd boy follows his flock in Kûrka Çeto. 09-11-2023

Haci Hassan and his wife are working their land on Xurs. 08-06-2023

Kemal, 80, is working his land and walking with his sheep in Qurdîsê. Since he returned, he lost weight and feels healthier than ever. Even his doctor recommended that he return to his village for the fresh air. 06-11-2023

A woman looking at the view while making ‘pestil’ from dried grapes in Kûrka Çeto. This is a local sweet, something like fruit leather. 09-11-2023

Gazi sits in front of his house Qurdîsê. He lives alone, while is kids still live in Istanbul, he lost his wife many years ago. He built his new house on top of his old house as renovation would be too expensive. 28-04-2021

Abdullah cuts trees to feeds his goats in Kûrka Çeto.. Abdullah lived all over Turkey, but says, “They give us twenty lira there, while we earn ten lira here. Still, it is better for us here. It’s better to earn by yourself than getting paid by strangers. Our village is like heaven, my ancestors fought for this village.” Abdullah was one of the first people to return to his village after being displaced. He believes that the village is kept undeveloped un purpose, there is no internet or phone signal, which makes it very unattractive to youngsters. 09-06-2023

Wedding photography amongst the ruins of Dara. This is the entrance of the Valley of Qurdîsê. This area was saved from destruction because it was mostly the valleys where the war took place. 08-03-2021

Aysun holds her cow in front of the stable in Qurdîsê. While many of her age don’t want to stay in Qurdîsê because of no internet and lacking social live, Aysun loves it here and says it’s like a hidden paradise. 06-09-2023

Children play hide and seek in Hecîya. 06-06-2023

Carize opens up pomegranates in Kûrka Çeto while talking with her friend. Carize and her husband had successful businesses all over Turkey but after a change of fortune they lost everything. They returned to Kûrka Çeto and started a small tea place. 09-11-2023

A cargo of pomegranates on a donkey in Qurdîsê. Pomegranates are an essential staple in Kurdish culture. 06-11-2021

A couple transports tobacco leaves in Xurs village. 12-08-2021

A house in Hecîya. 09-11-2023

Shovels and chickens at the house of Abdullah in Qurdîsê. 03-11-2023

A motorbike in Bunisra. Bunisra was one of the villages that was spared from destruction probably because it’s location on the mountaintop, as the guerilla would mostly hide in the valleys, while Turkish military would establish bases on mountaintops. Nevertheless it’s population has been dwindling from 400 people at the end of the nineties, while now there are less than 13 families left. 29-08-2021

Seyfettin (35 years) poses with his pigeon. He loves keeping pigeons as a hobby and does it both in Kûrka Çeto and in Istanbul. He lives in both places. In Istanbul he works as a mussel diver, but in Kûrka Çeto he is herding the goats. 09-11-2023

The interior of house in Qurdîsê. 10-06-2023

Hakki shows the mattresses in his house. In Kurdish culture hospitality is essential, and even the simplest house will make sure to have space and mattresses for unexpected guests. 10-06-2023

Men play Okey (a popular game in Turkey) in a tea garden in Kûrka Çeto.  They all have a connection to Istanbul, they either lived there or are still mostly living there. 06-06-2023

A herd of sheep in the valley of Qurdîsê. Sheepherding is one of the main livelihoods in this region. 06-06-2023

A boy rides a horse in Savur. 12-04-2021

Tobacco fields and abandoned village in the valley of Xurs. The valley of Xurs is one of the key tobacco producing regions in Turkey. During the nineties many villages were given a choice; either join the village guards to fight the PKK, or the Turkish military would destroy the village. Xurs is a mixed area where some villages have been destroyed and some still exist. Tension still runs within the valley, as some people are anti-government and some are pro-government. 21-08-2021

The nighttime view of Kelehê Bunisra. Historically it was a Syriac Christian (Suryoyo) village, but after being abandoned during massacres of Ottoman times, in the 70s Kurdish people moved in. Nowadays the population is slowly dwindling with the official number being over 400 at the end of the nineties, and now there are less than 13 families left. 29-08-2021

Photographer's Statement: 

The valley of Qurdîsê lays in the dry lands of South-eastern Turkey, a stone-throw away from the Syrian border. The small village which has been inhabited for centuries is a little piece of paradise. In 1993, Turkish soldiers came and gave the villagers two hours by gunpoint to pack their stuff and leave – afterwards they destroyed the village. The fields, the animals and even the trees in the mountains were burned. Anything that could provide cover to the Kurdish guerillas.

Similar stories happened in over 3000 villages. The conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces has led to ten thousands of deaths, enforced disappearances, millions of internally displaced people and uncountable human rights abuses. Primarily Kurds but also other minorities such as Assyrians and Yezidis were displaced.

You could stay if you would take up arms against the PKK guerillas (often consisting of acquaintances or family members) and collaborate with the Turkish forces. In the valley of Qurdîsê, no one stayed. They call themselves ‘honorables’ – because leaving was the only right thing to do. They left with all they or their donkeys could carry, and became the cheap working force in the big cities.

In the past years those ‘honorables’ have slowly started to return as the armed conflict moved beyond Turkish borders. Although we are used to seeing the Kurds struggling as victims and refugees — and rightly so if we look at history — and repression is still present, in daily life the villagers reclaim the land and their identity intertwined with it. Against the backdrop of a vast landscape, thousands of years old, their efforts to rebuild grow like little sprouts of hope in this conflict-ridden territory.

The physical war has mostly moved beyond the borders, to the Kurdish villages in Syria and Iraq, but inside Turkey the mind war of reclaiming land and identity is as important as ever. This barren region is a place of tremendous hospitality, of old histories and natural beauty. The harsh landscape holds a promise, the promise of a home, of a belonging.

Together with my Kurdish partner Yekbun Melez we have been visiting the villages and connecting with local people since 2021. Through her own displacement we understand the situation profoundly. We’ve spent extended time, especially in the valley of Qurdîsê, witnessing the beauty and the tension on the background as drones still monitor this land and shepherds sometimes get killed mistakenly — or not. We try to create an imaginary that is partly from the inside.

We were taken by the softness and kindness of the people we met. They want this story to be shared. Not just the story of their traumas and troubles, but to share the beauty and hope within their lands and maybe show the loneliness in their soft struggle. Somehow I try to take their experience in the visual imaginary.

My attraction to this region is partly due to the strength I have experienced with the people enduring attempts to control. I want to understand what autonomy means in daily life in the context of the Kurdish mountains. This story hopes to provide a fresh view on a place we mostly know because of conflict and tragedy and inspire towards a peaceful solution.

Alex Kemman
AlexKemman's picture

Alex Kemman is a photographer, cultural anthropologist and criminologist interested in showing invisible and underlying processes of power. His long-term photography projects relate to development issues, water politics, human rights and ecology.

He is a member of Inland Stories Collective. His work has been published in major newspapers such as de Trouw, de Volkskrant, NRC Handelsblad and Internazionale, and exhibited throughout Europe. He has participated in several masterclasses, including the Noor Nikon masterclass of 2017. His self-initiated projects have been supported by numerous journalistic grants such as European Journalism Fund, and exhibited and awarded in several photo festivals throughout Europe including Arles in 2018.

Kemman has conducted research in the Kurdish regions since 2011 and is interested in a deeper, more academic approach to understand processes of power at play. His 2016 book ‘Whispers of War’ is about the approaching war in southeastern Turkey and (attempts to) control. This photobook dummy was nominated for the MACK first book award, Unseen photofestival, Kassel dummy award, Fiebre and Luma Recontres d’Arles in 2017. It was projected at the Night of Photography at Photofestival Arles in 2018.

His project: ‘The Greater Zab – The Last Free River of Mesopotamia’ about the last undammed river of the region and the friction between Freedom and Control, was exhibited at Photo:Israel in 2020, received a third place at Verzasca photo festival in 2020 and received a second place at Encontros de Imagem in Braga in 2020.