The German-Kurdish footballer Deniz Naki was driving on a motorway close to his hometown of Duren, Germany, late on Sunday evening when his car came under gunfire.
Naki claimed that shots were fired from a black van, forcing him to duck down and pull over onto the hard shoulder while the assailants sped off. Two bullets were found lodged in his SUV but Naki escaped unhurt and is now reportedly in a "safe house" under police protection. The attack is being investigated by the German police as attempted murder – and Naki believes the motive to be political.
"I am a walking target in Turkey because of my pro-Kurdish stance," he told the online news portal Bento. But he never imagined something like this would happen in Germany.
The apparent assassination attempt is the latest in a series of escalating flashpoints involving the talented, outspoken, political footballer, who plays for Amedspor – a team from Turkey's largest Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir.
Naki is a lightning rod for nationalist passions: a hero to many Kurds, but a villain to many Turkish nationalists.
Who is Deniz Naki?
Although Amedspor's 28-year-old playmaker was born and brought up in Germany, his family are Alevi Kurds originating from Dersim.
Naki's body is a billboard for his left-wing, pro-Kurdish identity.He wears the number 62 on his shirt (Dersim's licence plate number). On his left hand is a tattoo of Alberto Kordo's Che Guevara image. He has tattoos on both forearms: "Azadi" ("freedom" in Kurdish) inked on the left, "Dersim 62" on the right – which he can hold up and display in pride, defiance, or provocation as necessary. Blue letters on his knuckles spell "Naki".
Naki has a knack for controversy; he sends many conservatives, Turkish nationalists, and Islamists into spasms of rage.
Naki began his career at Bayer Leverkusen and played for the German under-19 national side. He transferred to the Hamburg club St Pauli, whose fans are famously left-wing. Naki was banned for three matches while playing for St Pauli after celebrating a goal against Hansa Rostock – whose fans are mostly right-wing – by facing their supporters and drawing his finger across his throat.
Naki came to Turkey in 2013 when he was signed by the Ankara-based Super League club Genclerbirligi, but the following year he was attacked on the street after he had declared his support on social media for Kurds fighting against the so-called 'Islamic State' in the Syrian city of Kobane. Naki no longer felt safe in Ankara after the attack and returned to Germany.
Naki had offers from teams in Belgium, Holland, and Germany – but when Amedspor and some of its politicised supporters reached out to him, he opted to return to Turkey and join the club: pledging to help take Amedspor to the Super League and to use the power of football to shine a light on the Kurdish struggle for rights and justice in Turkey.
'The Kurdistan team'
"We are perceived as the Kurdistan team here, that's the reality," Naki told me when I met him in February 2016.
Amedspor has players from a range of ethnic, religious and political backgrounds but, as Diyarbakir has become the de facto capital of 'Turkish Kurdistan', so Amedspor – the city's best team, linked to a municipality that was, until recently, run by a pro-Kurdish party – has come to be regarded as the standard-bearer for Kurdish nationalism, rights and autonomy within Turkish football.
'Amed' is the Kurdish name for the city of Diyarbakir and the club's badge features the Kurdish tricolour of red, yellow, and green. The very name 'Amedspor' is a grave affront to many Turkish nationalists, who see it as signalling separatism and undermining Turkish unity.
Some of Amedspor's fan groups espouse a form of non-violent Kurdish nationalism, that calls for autonomy rather than independence from Turkey, and say they want Amedspor to play the role for Kurdish identity that Barcelona plays for Catalans.
But some Amedspor fans have also voiced support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), that has fought a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state in which more than 40,000 people have died.
Kurdish militants were building barricades and battling the security forces in cities under curfew and bombardment across the southeast of Turkey. The renewed violence was among the worst in three decades; with hundreds of civilians killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, entire neighbourhoods pounded into rubble by the Turkish military, hundreds of soldiers and over 1,000 Kurdish militants killed, and bombings by PKK-related groups in major Turkish cities.
Naki repeatedly called for peace on social media and criticised the Turkish military's operations. While celebrating Amedspor's shock cup victory over Bursaspor in February 2016 he displayed a 'V' sign: 'V' for peace, or 'V' for victory – depending on your reading.
After the match he took to social media: "We dedicate this victory as a gift to those who have lost their lives and those wounded in the repression in our land which has lasted for more than 50 days."
He claims he was referring to civilian victims of the violence; others saw it as a message of support for Kurdish militants.
The Turkish Football Federation subsequently fined Naki and banned him for 12 matches for spreading "ideological propaganda" and conducting "unsporting" behaviour. It appears to be the lengthiest ban ever given to a footballer in Turkey.
For Tarik Capci – a journalist, Bursaspor fan, and supporter of the Turkish ultranationalist MHP – the punishment was fair. He didn't believe Naki's homilies to peace for a moment.
"If there was an active terrorist group in England today and they were killing people, and at the same time people supporting them said they were asking for peace – do you think you would find that peace sincere?" he asked when I interviewed him following the ban.
Naki told me he did not want to comment on the PKK, because he said it was dangerous to give an opinion one way or the other, but insisted he was only calling for peace.
"But the problem is – when I do [the 'v' sign] I’m a 'terrorist', but when you make this sign then it means 'peace', because I’m a Kurd and you are from England," he said.
Taking a toll
Amedspor's political stances and heightened profile in Turkey's fraught political climate have taken a toll on the club.
The club has been fined repeatedly for the political slogans and banners of its fans. The players and staff face harassment and violence on away trips. Several Amedspor officials were hospitalised after being attacked by their Ankaragucu counterparts during a league match in April 2016.
Amedspor's financial support from the municipality was cut after Diyarbakir's pro-Kurdish mayor was removed from his post and replaced by a government appointee as part of a wider government crackdown against the Kurdish nationalist movement.
The club is facing mounting financial problems, with some players leaving after going unpaid for several months. Amedspor's talented team is now struggling in the league – although Naki had scored eight goals in 12 appearances this season.
In April 2017, Naki was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence for "promoting terrorist propaganda" over social media. Naki denied the allegations and pledged to keep calling for peace: "I am read to pay the price whatever it is."
Naki regularly receives threats of violence over social media. In August 2017, a Mersin Idmanyurdu fan ran onto the pitch and attacked Naki as he prepared to take a free kick.
Naki responded to the attack via social media after the match: "Let them behave badly to us, we will continue giving them flowers," he wrote, adding: "But, this time we will along [with] the flowers give them plenty of goals," (Amedspor had beaten Mersin 7-0).
But he also made a defiant reference to words attributed to a Kurdish leader who led a rebellion in Dersim Province against the early Turkish Republic:
"I couldn't handle your lies and deceitfulness, and this became a grievance on my part. But, I never knelt down in front of you, let it be a trouble for you," he quoted.
Bans, fines, threats, physical assaults, and prosecution had failed to silence Naki.
The attack in Germany
When I met Naki he had mentioned Tahir Elci, the lawyer and president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, who was shot in the head and killed in Diyarbakir in November 2015, moments after making a televised call for peace with the PKK.
Naki said he knew that he was also a potential target, but pledged to keep playing for Amedspor and to keep speaking out.
Some opposition politicians have recently raised fears that Turkish operatives could target dissidents abroad. Analysts have also raised concerns over the growing power of loyalist, paramilitary-like groups that support Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP government.
Naki reportedly believes that an ultranationalist Turkish group in Germany are most likely behind Sunday's shooting.
Naki was right to fear violence, but mistakenly believed that, while he had to be ever-vigilant in Turkey, he would be safe in Germany.
Naki’s political beliefs have shaped his football career, and they may now be endangering his life.