Kurds caught in undertow of progress

Dam would flood town in Turkey that was home to 4 ancient civilizations

War in Iraq

April 07, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HASANKEYF, Turkey - Here in the stony mountains of southeastern Turkey, in a region where Noah's ark is supposed to have landed, sits an ancient city waiting for another epic flood.

Downstream from this town of cave dwellings and ruined castles, the Turkish government hopes to build a mammoth dam on the broad and murky Tigris River, which slips southwest through a maze of narrow valleys toward the plains of northern Iraq.

If and when the Ilisu Dam is built, many of Hasankeyf's monuments will gradually be covered by the Tigris' captured waters. A city overlaid with the history of the Assyrian, Sumerian, Roman and Byzantine cultures will vanish. And thousands of ethnic Kurds in the region will face displacement.

Two-thirds of Hasankeyf's people have left their doomed city in the past decade. Some of the 3,500 who remain, whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years, say the dam threatens to rob them of their past as well as their future.

"We are fully against the dam project," said Hikmet Ayhan, 43, an accountant for the city government. "We were born here. We grew up here. Our children were born here. We mourned and danced here. We do not want to leave our lands."

100 sites in peril

As planned, the dam's waters would cover 200 square miles of agricultural bottomland and more than 100 villages along the Upper Tigris. Much of the region is populated by ethnic Kurds, who endured a 15-year civil war in which they were squeezed between separatist guerillas and Turkish army forces.

Hasankeyf is far from the only site threatened. The Ilisu Dam would flood scores of settlements, including archaeologically important sites at places such as Kenan Tepe, which has been the home of successive human settlements for 6,500 years.

The dam would also drown the ancient village of Boztepe, one of thousands of Kurdish settlements burned and bulldozed by Turkish troops as part of their war against Kurdish separatists, which ended in a truce in 1999.

The Ilisu is just one of 22 dams the government hopes to build in southeast Turkey at a total cost of $32 billion. Supporters say the projects will bring electricity and irrigation to one of the nation's poorest regions. Foes say the dams will drown the heritage of four civilizations and eventually drive as many as 72,000 Turkish Kurds from their homes.

Dams have flooded villages here that once greeted caravans and battled conquerors. Zeugma, an old Roman Silk Road garrison town, is submerged. Archaeologists found 14 priceless mosaics there, then reburied them to protect them from being washed away by the rising waters.

Forty years ago, visiting government officials found most of the city's people living in the caves that honeycomb the cliffs above town. Archaeologists say Hasankeyf's residents began excavating them 2,600 years ago.

Caves were considered an embarrassment to a modern, westernizing nation.

Authorities said they threatened Hasankeyf's archaeological riches. So boxy concrete homes and apartment blocks were built along the river bank.

Gradually, most of the families were persuaded to move out of their traditional homes. Ayhan's parents moved from a cave into a house in 1974.

Not long after the homes were built, the government unveiled plans for the Ilisu Dam, which will flood all of Hasankeyf's new homes and many of the thousands of caves. All further construction in the city was banned.

Hasankeyf is built in a bend of the Tigris, where the river cuts into a cliff face several hundred feet high. Atop the cliff sits a crumbling Roman-era castle, Fortress Cephe - or Fortress Rock - that sits on top of the cliff, accessible from below only by a series of staircases and paths carved out of rock.

Fortress Cephe, which is crumbling into the river below, once defended Roman trade routes from the attacks by the Persian empire. Later, it served as the capital for the Kurdish Ayyubid kings, who ruled over an independent nation until the Ottomans overwhelmed them about six centuries ago.

Tourism a key

Hasankeyf has long been a center for the weavers of carpets, especially the intricately designed kilims, produced by the region's Kurdish tribes. But in recent times, tourism has become a key part of the economy.

Ayhan's oldest son, Udur, a seventh-grader, earns money guiding visitors up the steep, twisting paths cut into the mountain rock.

Turkey's economic crisis threatens to accomplish what international protests could not: the halt of the dam project. But the government seems determined to build the dams.

"The government tells us nothing about the final situation, what they have decided," Ayham said. "This brings uncertainty. There is no investment. No one cares for the town."

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