Remembering a hero

Remembering a hero

After two months of intense inner-city fights and bombardments, Ankara has decided to take steps that will make life a little easier in Turkey’s southeast – steps that are one too many: 303 of them, to be precise. You could have named the master plan after the popular song “50 Ways to Leave your Lover” and that could have been easier. As one diplomat would say, “if you can’t solve a problem, make it bigger.” That is what the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is doing these days, as there is no endgame in sight.

Knocking down villages, moving municipalities, enforcing never-ending curfews won’t help. Winning hearts and minds will. But for that, you need really dedicated government officials and civil servants. In fact, there is a very good example that could be repeated.

The former police chief of Diyarbakır, the late Gaffar Okkan, is still a legend in Diyarbakır. In fact, he is a legend for the people of Diyarbakir who live in Istanbul as well. Last week, a taxi driver in the well-off district of Besiktaş recalled the days of Okkan as peaceful.

One intelligence official who has worked with Okkan told me this about him: 

“He would dress sharp as a knife, walk the streets and alleys of Diyarbakır without carrying his own gun. Chief Okkan was a hero among Kurds of Diyarbakır. He would play backgammon in coffee shops, share his mobile phone number with everyone. When he died, the funeral was the biggest in the city’s history. You would be amazed to hear that his coffin was carried by a group of PKK sympathizers as well.”

Okkan had worked in cities like Kars and Erzurum where there was creeping Islamic radicalism in the late 1990s. He was known to be the mastermind behind the anti-Hizbullah raids in Istanbul in 2000. He was the first police chief to employ women officers in Diyarbakır. His success against radical Islamic groups made him an open target in Diyarbakır and Batman where Hizbullah still had ties to some government officials.

“Okkan is a symbol,” said one high level intelligence source. “He was the best the government had in Diyarbakır. He showed everyone that the state can become compassionate and warm as well. That is why people in Diyarbakır named so many kids after him even long after his death.”

Fifteen years ago, this past week, on Jan. 24, 2001, precisely one year after the Hizbullah raids, Okkan was shot and killed by unknown attackers during a cruise through the city with a group of police officers. Five officers were also killed in the same attack. Many call that assassination “an incredible murder.” For many in Diyarbakır, he was killed by Hizbullah-related groups. That is why, 15 years after his death, he is still a target on Hizbullah-related Twitter accounts.

Ask Diyarbakır citizens. “He cared for us,” they would say, “He would make us feel important. He would listen, ask, really care for us.” His loss became a turning point in the region. So when the AKP is searching for a way to mend broken hearts, it should look no further than Gaffar Okkan.

May he rest in peace. He was the good in all of us.