U.S. planes, proximity to Iraq empty Turkish town Hussein commands admiration, fear WAR IN THE GULF

February 10, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

BATMAN, Turkey -- The streets of Batman are sharp with tension. Young men huddle in groups. Turkish soldiers stand watch every few steps, machine guns at their sides. The women and children have disappeared.

Eighty percent of Batman's population has fled the city, according to Nizamettin Izgi, editor of the Batman Gazette. City officials estimate the exodus at 50 percent. By any account, it is enormous.

Most people started leaving shortly before Jan. 15, the date they were certain war would erupt in the Persian Gulf. Bus tickets to cities away from the Iraqi border shot up 10 times their normal price. But people still went.

"People are freaked in this country," a United Nations official said. "They're scared, and they don't know what to expect."

Four out of five people here are Kurds, who carry the memory of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds of Iraq two years ago. Now, Turkish Kurds fear the same fate.

Although military analysts in Washington and Ankara dismiss an Iraqi attack on Turkey as folly, people in Batman and Diyarbakir, the provincial capital, do not.

If Mr. Hussein retaliates against Turkey for opening its southern bases to U.S. warplanes, then the people of this mountain region bordering Iraq believe they will be the first ones hit.

Batman is home to an air base U.S. forces use to launch search-and-rescue missions into Iraq. That is all U.S. or Turkish officials acknowledge publicly.

But residents say they see fighter-bombers take off daily and know this is the country's second most important base after Incirlik. They figure the base would make a good target for Iraq.

The government wants to avoid fueling panic and so has not told people in this volatile region exactly what is going on. Ankara has played down the risk of chemical attack by not mentioning it. It has forbidden civil servants to take days or weeks off.

Americans keep a low profile. The 660 of them believed to be living in tents at the Batman air base seldom venture off its grounds, for fear of attack by the local population. When Americans do leave the base, two armed Turkish officers are at their side.

The people of Batman seem overwhelmingly to be against U.S. involvement in what they consider a Muslim problem. They take a quiet pride in Mr. Hussein's exploits, for example, that he actually attacked the coalition forces on Saudi territory.

But admiration and sympathy aside, they also want protection from the Iraqi leader.

There are no Patriot rockets shielding the base or residents from Iraqi missile attacks. Scud missiles would have an easier time reaching Batman -- 150 miles from Iraq -- than they would getting to Incirlik, 500 miles from the border.

The people, like the air base, go unprotected.

They have received neither advice on what to do in case of chemical attack nor protective gear such as gas masks. After watching television news reports from Israel, some people sealed off a room of their houses with plastic sheets and strips. The mayor of Silvan said residents should run to caves in the surrounding mountains for shelter.

About 300 gas masks were given to Batman for a prewar population of 50,000. The masks have not been distributed. They are being held by the civil defense office here.

Diyarbakir, about 50 miles to the west, has received 5,000 gas masks for a population of 500,000. These, too, have not been distributed.

Remci Boku owns a pastry shop in Diyarbakir. On Jan. 15, he took his wife and son far north to Ankara. He believed they would be safer there.

He said he returned because he had to reopen his cafe.

"Of course, we're still afraid," he said. "We don't know what to do."

Kemal Tapan, a photographer, also sent his wife and children to Ankara. He does not know when it will be safe enough to bring them home.

Well west of Batman, at Incirlik, residents grew worried only when they saw the wives and children of U.S. servicemen at the air base move back home.

Many of those who could afford to sent their wives and children away, but others felt reassured by the presence of Patriot missiles and by their distance from Baghdad.

The biggest problem for the street of businesses that serve the base -- carrying such names as Rambo's Carpets and Big John's -- is that the Americans are working 16-hour days. They have no time to shop.

"They're busy with the war, and they're afraid of terrorism," said Timur Cetin, who hammers souvenir copper plates for the Americans.

Among the recent additions to his repertoire, Mr. Cetin now makes plates showing a map of the area with jets flying from Turkey to Iraq. He proposes legends such as "Stormbringer," "Baghdad Bomber" and "Hussein's Worst Nightmare" for his plates.

"Each plane that takes off, I get another idea," he said.

Gisela Perez, whose husband was serving at Incirlik, bemoaned the sudden quiet on the street.

About to leave for Florida, she stopped to get a Turkish carpet for a friend.

"Normally, you'd have to sit down and have tea for an hour, and bargain them down," Mrs. Perez said. "Now, they're so happy for the business that they give you a fair price right off. It's so depressing."

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