In August, 2015, Abdullah Demirbas sat in a cramped, eight-by-ten-foot cell in southeast Turkey, his heart condition worsening by the day. Able to take only two to three steps in his cell, the fifty-year-old feared his deep vein thrombosis would form blood clots in his legs, which can be deadly.

“Because I couldn’t move, there was no blood circulation,” said Demirbas recently. “I have to move, I need to move.”

He had faced the same medical threat before—the last time he was arrested, in 2008.

But this time felt different. An elder statesman of the Kurdish political movement, Demirbas had been rounded up in late July after the unraveling of a fragile ceasefire between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish state.

Two miles east of his cell block was the old city of Diyarbakir, where Demirbas had been mayor for a decade, and where gunfire now returned to the streets after years of peace. It was the beginning of months of artillery shelling and tank fire that would nearly level the 3,000-year old city, a UNESCO heritage site on the banks of the Tigris River. Over the next six months, 23,000 residents of the old city would flee their homes. Across the region, at least 350,000 had been displaced by March, according to human rights groups.

For two and a half months, Demirbas waited. Outside, his daughter campaigned for his release, calling on a roster of international political figures—among them John Kerry and Pope Francis—who knew her father. Inside, blood clots slowed his pulse twice, and he was rushed to the prison’s medical wing.

By early October, the campaign paid off. Demirbas was released from Diyarbakir Prison, an infamous high security complex where inmates had died from torture in the 1980s. But instead of being freed, he was spirited away to Istanbul, under heavy parole and surveillance, and forbidden to leave the city.

“Even with medical reports, I can’t go abroad for treatment,” he said in an interview in Istanbul. “I got medical files saying that I should be receiving treatment in Frankfurt or the U.S., but I can’t leave the country.”

Demirbas now watched from afar as Diyarbakir, where he had spent his political career, fell under round-the-clock curfews. Youth loyal to the PKK, the militant wing of the Kurdish separatist movement, had set up barricades to stop tanks from entering their neighborhoods—a provocation met with brute force by the Turkish gendarmerie.

To Demirbas, it was as if his city’s pulse was weakening along with his own.

“Diyarbakir is the heart of the Middle East. And the heart is the most important organ in the body,” he said. “If it is in good condition, there will be good blood circulation that reaches the brain and all other parts. They want to destroy the heart, but we want to let the heart live again.”

Much of Demirbas’ political career was spent trying to strengthen the more marginal and diverse communities of Diyarbakir—the minority appendages that often didn’t get enough blood. Starting in 2008, he and his administration began to rebuild Armenian churches, Yezidi temples and a Jewish synagogue. Demirbas promoted the Kurdish language—repressed for many years in Turkey—on signs, in children’s books and during wedding ceremonies.

“In order to let these cultures live, we made the streets hospitable to these cultures,” he recalled. “The heart was pumping blood only to one place. We wanted to change the heart to pump blood to all the organs, bring life to all areas.”

Demirbas’ refusal to toe the line of the Turkish government made him a bogeyman for nationalist Turks. Hardline Islamists targeted him as well—as recently as last year, he received threats in the mail from ISIS sympathizers because of his work on the synagogue in Diyarbakir. But the renewed conflict also led many secular, leftist Turks to criticize Kurdish politicians such as Demirbas for not distancing themselves enough from the PKK.

A section of the threatening letter sent to Demirbas by an ISIS sympathizer.

Demirbas is a member of the Peoples’ Democratic Party—the national party subsuming local Kurdish groups—that hesitated to condemn PKK attacks in Istanbul and Ankara. Its rallies often praise Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder of the PKK.

Demirbas himself is a good example of this split allegiance: While he condemns violence, his own son is a member of the PKK.

Regardless of his political loyalties, much of Demirbas’ mayoral legacy has now been destroyed. Many of the structures his team restored were ruined in the fighting. By December, fire damaged the 16th century Fatih Pasa mosque, and artillery fire demolished the steeple of the Armenian Catholic Church, according to the International Crisis Group.

Martine Assenat, a French historian monitoring the architectural damage, reported that most of the city’s historic shopping district was gutted by fire. Writing in May, she compared the damage to that of another ancient site, in neighboring Syria: “Will it be just another listed UNESCO world heritage site destroyed in the conflict that has flared across the Middle East—like Palmyra?”

As winter wore on, Demirbas bided his time in Istanbul, checking in with parole officers three times a week. When he saw pictures of his old city, he felt sick. Once, he said, it caused him to go to the emergency room.

One Friday, as he signed in at the station, he was arrested again. He hadn’t yet given his statement in another, unrelated corruption case—one of the dozens of ongoing charges he still faces. Prosecutors demanded he give a statement in Diyarbakir, so the former mayor was finally flown back to his city, at least for a few days. But he couldn’t bring himself to go to the old city, where he had spent his life.

“I didn’t have the heart to face it,” he said. “I couldn’t go to the place where I was mayor for a decade. I didn’t dare to go and look with my own eyes.”

A year after his arrest, Demirbas sat in a bar in Istanbul—a cop bar, it seemed, filled with dozens of Turkish police, their assault rifles swinging at their sides. He wasn’t the least bit fazed. It had been a week since the botched coup attempt, and he remarked on the curious—even comical—cycles of justice in Turkey.

“The cops who arrested me, and the prosecutors who gave me sentence, they are all arrested right now,” he said.

Those who had targeted Demirbas a year ago were now sitting in prisons themselves, accused of having a hand in the abortive coup. To Demirbas, the situations were related: They were both the result of an undemocratic Turkey that reflexively locked up perceived enemies.

“These dark forces feed on anti-democracy,” he said, “If there had been transparency, liberties and complete democracy, these dark forces couldn’t have lived.”

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