Hasankeyf Caught in the Crossfire: the PKK, the AKP and the End of Civilisations

Hasankeyf is one of the oldest settlements in the world –the cradle of civilisation inhabited by some of the greatest cultures ever known, from the ancient Assyrians to the Romans, Byzantines and the Mongols. However this historical and ecological treasure will be submerged in order to create a-11 billion cubic meter water reservoir –generating just 2 % of Turkey’s electricity, which is by all accounts a generous estimation.

The ancient ruins and cavernous caves surrounding Hasankeyf, which will be submerged as a result of the Ilısu Dam project.

Source: Authors own

Although the world renowned Cappadocia, home of the famous ‘fairy chimneys’ is by far better known, the lesser known yet equally striking Turkish heritage site of Hasankeyf has been reaching international news of late. The crumbling stone towers of its ancient Artuqid Bridge, Neolithic era caves and fertile river bed weaving alongside the banks of the serene waters of the Tigris form a magnificently imposing contrast to the arid hills surrounding the valley, yet risk annihilation due to the Ilısu Dam project –Turkey’s largest ever hydroelectric project.

Unlike Cappadocia, Hasankeyf –arguably the cultural capital of Turkey’s Kurdish population– remains a bustling ecosystem with a small bazaar buried amongst these ancient walls, vibrant with the smells, sounds and tastes found in much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish South-East. Whether awakened by the ezan from Hasankeyf’s unusual yet majestic minaret –said to be inscribed with the 99 names of Allah, or by the cries of the rare species of birds encircling the city–, one can gaze upon the herds of cattle and scores of young children bathing in the river before the scorching sun fully rises above the ruins of the Artukid palace. An arresting scene interrupted only by the conspicuous and unsightly high rise towers under construction across the banks of the Tigris, ready for the forced relocation of Hasankeyf residents after the forthcoming flood.

This controversial dam project was initially conceived of in 1954 but due to funding issues was not launched until 1997 after assuring financial backing of both Britain and European Union. Later widespread public outcry and environmentalist pressure forced EU financial consortiums such as Balfour Beatty and Skanska to adopt stronger “ethical guidelines” and withdraw funding, once again halting construction. The project was revitalised and accelerated in the early 2000s under the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’s (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) –which has staunchly defended their activities against international governmental and civil societal demands.

Water levels are anticipated to rise up to 200ft, across 121 square miles, submerging Hasankeyf and surrounding communities and systematically destroying the cultural and historical value of this ancient city as well as the people who inhabit it, submerging the heritage of these civilisations. Controversy has followed this project since its inception, however despite strong domestic and international criticism, under the AKP’s ruling tenure, construction has been accelerated with escalated violence, marginalisation and conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) following suit.

All EU financing of the project was officially cut in 2009 after the AKP refused to adhere to certain international standards. Although funding issues once again stalled this project temporarily, the AKP’s unilateral position and impunity to critique regarding this project is sparking international outrage and domestic strife. Since construction finally began in 2006, there have been dozens of attacks on military convoys and construction work/ers. Dependent on event interpretation, these attacks have had some success, most recently leading to a halt in construction and the abandonment of the project by over 1000 workers in June this year due to elevated violence faced from both the state and the PKK.

The PKK’s involvement in this issue is not surprising as especially when viewed retrospectively, we can see the systematic, comprehensive and strategic nature of the government’s South-eastern Anatolia Dam Project (GAP). Twenty two proposed dams of the GAP clearly have more than infrastructural development at their core, an issue best demonstrated by noting the unusual involvement of the National Security Council in the decision-making process for dam construction. Alongside the Ilisu Dam, a dozen more have emerged under the AKP’s tenure, accompanied by supporting military outposts. These dams ostensibly aim at social and economic development but so far, have largely resulted in the constriction and destruction of the PKK supply routes and operational activities.

The security-speak and framing of dam construction as an issue of national security is paradoxical however as within the context of the peace-process, such aggressive and unilateral measures are far more likely to exacerbate security threats than contribute to their solution. It was announced in the middle of July 2015 by the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK- an umbrella organisation of the PKK), that the tenuous and long-awaited ceasefire arranged in 2012 has come to an end, declaring that “all the dams will be targeted by guerrillas” as they are a means to “depopulate the region, destroy its cultural heritage and narrow the guerrillas’ room to manoeuvre.”

Clearly the concerning end of the ceasefire was directly related to militarised development projects occurring across the Southeast, particularly those surrounding Tunceli –a crucial safe haven and supply route for PKK guerrillas. Intensified attacks have occurred with increasing frequency in recent months, including ones against soldiers, police and gendarmerie, as well as against roads, construction equipments and water lines. A number of people, civilian and military, have been killed so far, a marked difference from the relative peace of the past 3 years. The impact of these economic-security measures on citizenship is tremendous and highlights both a lack of foresight and a lack of commitment from the Turkish government regarding the peace-process.

A statement from the KCK argued that: “The Turkish state has used the cease-fire not for a democratic political solution but for preparing for a new war and strengthening its hand in this future war, by building dozens of military posts, roads and dams for the use of the military, and committing cultural genocide… We have repeatedly warned the Turkish state to not build military posts, roads and dams for military use and stressed that these would mean the end of the cease-fire and the start of a war,” evidently a threat with substance given the escalation of conflict in the East.

Aside from PKK attacks, there have been a number of non-violent endeavours to halt construction, including protests from local authorities, preservationists and archaeologists, as well as attempts to establish the area as a world heritage site, however to no avail. Since the retraction of EU funding in 2009 due to successful international and domestic lobbying, the AKP has acquired new, largely private domestic funding and free of prohibitive EU regulations, continued construction unilaterally in 2010. Undeterred, the government has easily defied court orders in 2003 and 2011 to halt construction as well as ignoring the 2005 environmental impact assessment.

Rather than implementing changes to their construction projects, they have chosen to alter regulations in order to counteract the results of the environmental impact assessments.  Furthermore they have not responded to alternative development plans suggested by a variety of Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) working in the region or to those presented by a team from the Middle East Technical University (METU). METU’s proposal was seemingly a viable one, suggesting the construction of five smaller hydroelectric dams which would massively reduce destruction to environmental, cultural and historical heritage. However despite these pockets of resistance in the area and widespread mobilisation of local unions, NGOs and community leaders, no cohesive grassroots movement has emerged to counteract the militarisation of this issue and the growing conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK.

There are further strategic and geopolitical reasons for the construction of this dam. Turkey has long lauded its control over the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters (known as the Fertile Crescent) over its neighbours; Syria and Iraq. In fact, these disputed rivers nearly catalysed war in 1998, intersecting once again with the PKK issue as Syria was harbouring the movement’s rebel leader Abdullah Öcalan during this period of tense military engagement until Turkish threats to water supplies forced the Syrian regime to give up him up. During the negotiations over water security and terrorism, the Syrian regime ensured agreements for 500 cubic meters a second water supply. However since the signing of this agreement in 1987, successive Turkish governments and particularly the AKP have taken unilateral decisions to pursue projects which would inhibit this flow, exacerbating Turco-Syrian relations on multiple occasions. Arguably the Ilısu Dam aims at further reducing water supply to Syria and Iraq as part of a larger strategy to exert control over the region, endowing the Turkish government with greater political leverage –a strategy employed since ancient Mesopotamia.

Since the chaotic events of the Arab Spring in Syria and subsequent and alarming rise of the so called Islamic State (IS) across the border, harnessing the power and potential of the Fertile Crescent is critical for Turkey to maintain some semblance of control over this protracted war. The potential impact of these projects are well known by IS leadership who have made a series of threats due to falling water reserves in IS controlled areas in Syria and Iraq. This is a particularly salient issue in their self-proclaimed capital Raqqa, which is facing a potential humanitarian catastrophe as water levels plummet in Lake Assad. IS press officer Abu Mosa was enraged in his interview last year with Vice news on the topic, stating that “I pray to God that the apostate [Turkish] government reconsiders its decisions because if they do not reconsider it now, we will reconsider it by liberating Istanbul.”

In the context of multiple attacks on Turkish soil of late, particularly the devastating bombings of Suruç, Istanbul and Ankara, such grandiose threats warrants careful consideration of the viability of Turkey’s ‘water wars.’ Given the potentially crippling effect of Turkey’s massive South-eastern Anatolian Project (GAP) on agriculture and development in Iraq and Syria, further tragic attacks from within and without are inevitable unless the project is halted. As the AKP Deputy Muhsin Kızılkaya argued, “If it is Daesh [IS], it will not stay in Suruç. Very soon we could end up like Syria.”

Children play in the river Tigris, which is a source of life for communities in this arid region.

Source: Authors own

Not only histories but peoples will vanish due to the impact of this project. Villagers –who have resided in the shelter provided by the valleys’ cavernous limestone cliffs for over 12,000 years, and particularly nomadic communities such as Marsh Arabs living downstream of the dam in northern Iraq–, will be unsustainable due to a lack of arable land caused by massive dehydration and increasing salinisation. There has already been widespread depopulation of these areas creating ‘water refugees’ due to previous dam projects, contributing to increasing urban to rural migration, –one of the consequences of which is social unrest and ethnic conflict– already prevalent across the South-East of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and worsening every year.

In Turkey, many will be forced to evacuate their historic lands due to the prohibitive price of new homes, which currently stands at around 180,000 TL. Villagers’ options are limited. The government has offered loans to those wishing to stay, however the past and future impact of the ongoing conflict with the PKK has crippled the economy in the region, indebting locals to the state and forcing even those opposed to the dam to participate in its construction: giving them little chance to stay once the dam is completed, Hasankeyf is flooded and tourism subsides. Limitations in education and social development have arguable prevented the emergence of any strong community resistance to this project as locals are reliant on the economic benefits provided (temporarily) by such projects, thus silencing any opposition.

Although these dam projects have been represented by the AKP as beneficial for socio-economic development in Turkey’s southeast, in practice they have shown to be an impressive attempt at assimilation and marginalisation of the Kurdish population and represent a dangerous threat to Kurdish identity and culture. Given the recent and concerning escalation of conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants since the Suruç tragedy and subsequent end of the peace-process, the continuation and current acceleration of the Southeast Anatolia Project will likely exacerbate further clashes and represents a highly detrimental road-block to peace.

The future displacement of over 25,000 people residing in communities along the Tigris due to these dam projects will further fuel escalating tensions between Kurdish and Arab communities and the Turkish state due to the massive and systematic destruction of these people’s homes, history and culture, an act which has been labelled as “ethnic cleansing” by the World Archaeological Congress and “cultural genocide” by the KCK. The destruction of the mystery and charm of Hasankeyf is tragic, as is the destruction of the cultures and peoples whose lives and livelihoods have made this ancient town “one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world,” yet with the increasing militarisation of this issue and the growing conflict in the Southeast, Hasankeyf is likely to be eclipsed and eventually sunk as the AKP struggle to maintain their control over the communities and territories of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast.

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