Under the Turkish cosh

In their own different ways, Diyarbakir, Hasankeyf and Hakkari are trying to cope with events that have become more than a regional struggle between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority.

The run-down city of Diyarbakir remains the regional hub and political centre of the Kurdish rights movement, where the city’s crumbling infrastructure is testimony to decades of economic neglect.

But Diyarbakir also acts as regional headquarters for the Turkish military with its airport providing the base for missions against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the Iraqi border region.

Further east lies the ancient town of Hasankeyf, considered one of the oldest still-inhabited settlements on earth. But Hasankeyf now faces doom within a decade from the demands of modern energy supply.

And deep in the Taurus Mountains, close to the border with Iraq, lies Hakkari, a city that witnessed some of the heaviest fighting during the Kurdish uprising of the 1980s and 1990s but which now hopes to continue its recent resurgence fuelled by cross-border trade.

However, like all towns in the region, its future is jeopardised by the escalating conflict between diehard PKK members and the Turkish military along the Iraqi border, a short drive to Hakkari’s south.

The upswing  in violence stoked by renewed PKK attacks has turned what was an internal Turkish problem into an international flashpoint, threatening to reverse recent improvements within Turkish Kurdistan.

Adding to political conflict, the issue of energy supplies is propelling Turkey’s southeast onto the international stage. The proposed Nabucco pipeline which aims to bring Caspian gas into Europe would run through the region while the Turkey’s massive hydroelectric Southeast Anatolia project (GAP) is already affecting the lives of millions.

Diyarbakir does not benefit from either of these projects. Nabucco will bypass the city to the north, while the economic impact of GAP will only affect the region close to the Syrian border in the southwest, where irrigation has created vast stretches of fertile land in the Mesopotamian desert.

Many in Diyarbakir suspect the Turkish government is willingly excluding the Kurdish heartlands from economic development and expect Diyarbakir, with its population of over 500,000, to drop further into poverty.

“It is no surprise that recent bomb attacks here focused on official Turkish installations and that the PKK receives many of its recruits from the city’s many street kids,” one Kurdish activist told us.

Further to the east, along the shores of the Tigris, the beautiful town of Hasankeyf does not have to battle urban poverty in the ways that Diyarbakir does. Home to some 5,000 inhabitants, it is peaceful and a dazzling testimony to human civilisation. There are Assyrian, Byzantine, Roman, Seljuk Turk and Ottoman archaeological sites, including castles, bridges, troglodyte caves, tombs, churches and mosques.

But the town that survived invasion by Alexander the Great, the Romans and the Crusaders now faces destruction. By the middle of next decade a dam of the GAP project is to flood the area, submerging up to 70 villages and disrupting nomadic routes for thousands of herdsmen.

According to the Kurdish Human Rights Project, an independent NGO, at least 19 villages in the area have been evacuated at gunpoint and in many cases houses have been burnt to the ground, with only a few families being compensated. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the project “demonstrates that the south-east is no longer neglected,” suggesting the new lake could become a tourist resort for the region while promising to relocate all artefacts.

The proposals have been met with scorn by locals like Idris Kartal: “We are angry. Our families have lived here for generations. Some were even born in the caves. We don’t want a water park – do they think we want to jet-ski on our ancestors’ graves?”

Further east, ringed by the 4,000 metre Cilo-Sat mountains on the Iraqi border, Hakkari looks like a city trying to defy its reputation as a war-torn rebel hideout as it comes to terms with fragile peace. Pock-marked buildings and armoured police cars are reminders of the city’s violent history yet an influx of trade from Iraq and Iran has created some hope of improvement.

In this once conservative region, young, fashionably-dressed couples now openly flirt in the tearooms and gardens. But as the closest major town to the Iraqi border, Hakkari remains at risk of being sucked back into conflict.

The resignation, anger and hope of Diyarbakir, Hasankeyf and Hakkari are all part of the emotions that make up today’s Kurdistan. Embroiled in what has become a geopolitical struggle for energy and power beyond local control, the people here can only hope for a better future.