Waiting for the flood

Cover story The people of Hasankeyf are caught between Turkey's government which wants a dam and activists, who don't.

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For decades, the Ilisu dam project in south-eastern Turkey has been the site of a battle between the Turkish government and environmental and archeological activists. A recent decision by European credit backers to pull out of the project has been hailed as a victory for the small town of Hasankeyf, where ruins dating back at least 10,000 years would have disappeared under the dam's waters. But the battle is not over: Turkey's government has vowed to complete the project, while protesters promise to continue the fight. Caught between the two are the local residents, who have lived the Battle for Hasankeyf for over a generation. Adnan R Khan tells their story.

Framed by the rough-cut walls of a limestone cave, stuffing soft coils of sheep's wool into a coarse canvas sack, Husna is an image ripped out of time. Her hunched figure, deep wrinkles and husky voice, irreverent despite the codes of modesty placed on women in eastern Turkey, are a reminder that people whose lives could have been pulled from a history book still exist in this world. Progress has skipped over them.

In Hasankeyf, 1,000km from the modern metropolises in the west of the country, time has stood still for more than half a century. Husna knows that history well. She's a former kocher, a Kurdish nomad who's spent more than 40 of her 60 years on the move. What's ironic about her story is that she came to Hasankeyf to improve her life, to progress. What she's found instead is a place frozen, ossified, overwhelmed by a history and a future at odds with each other; a place quite literally stuck in a perpetual present.

To understand her predicament, we must travel back to 1954. Turkey is booming under the leadership of Adnan Menderes and his popularly elected Democratic Party. Industrialisation and modernisation, the future of Turkey envisioned by its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, top the government's agenda. With money flowing, grand projects are all the rage. Bigger is better, and huge, by the prevailing logic, is best.

For years, Turkey has struggled to achieve what it considers its manifest destiny: to be the most powerful nation in the region, the brokerage house between Europe and the Muslim world, the go-to country in a region the world's most powerful leaders recognise as a place worth going to. A grand scheme is hatched, one that would put Turkey on the map. It is an engineering Everest, and reaching the summit of it would establish Turkey's place in the modern world: the Ilisu dam.

In the words of Dr Goksennin Eseller, the present-day rector of Batman University, 50km from Hasankeyf, it is a stroke of genius. "In a single project," he says, "Turkey proves to industrialised nations that it has joined the modern world, while at the same time putting a distinctly Turkish stamp on a region populated by a troublesome Kurdish majority, and taking the upper hand over Syria and Iraq by controlling the water flows on the Tigris river." Ilisu would be Turkey's masterpiece, or so the thinking went in Ankara, the Turkish capital. In Hasankeyf and the surrounding region, nomads like Husna and her family paid little attention to all the fuss. They were perfectly content with their herds of sheep, living the "free life" as she puts it. In Hasankeyf, locals continued to live in caves, carved out by their ancestors, in the midst of ruins dating back 10,000 years. The fertile fields flanking the Tigris river were their own personal paradise, providing all the necessities of life. What they didn't realise at the time was that, if completed, the dam project would drive them out of their paradise into the uncertainty of a new world order which had little to do with their traditions and way of life. It would also flood the ruins. In the decades since the dam was first proposed, Turkey's fortunes have oscillated between boom and bust. By the end of the 1950s, the fragile nation was plunged into economic and political turmoil leading to a military coup in 1960 that ousted Menderes, who was executed a year later. Decades of economic instability followed, and by 1984, the Kurdish separatist uprising was in full swing, forcing tens of thousands of Kurds, including kocher nomads like Husna, to flee their traditional pasturelands. But by the mid-1990s, the Ilisu dam was back, this time with European financial backing. This time around, however, dam protesters were ready. Led by Europeans, they appealed to the world community to rise up against the project. Hasankeyf's historical legacy was far too important, they argued. "This is where the first cultures of humanity were cultivated," says Recep Kavus, a member of a Turkish organisation fighting to save Hasankeyf, which is called The Initiative To Keep Hasankeyf Alive. "The historical value here is incredible; you cannot put a price tag on it. Most archeologists agree that it will take 50 years to excavate all of the treasures here." What they hope to find would stoke the fires of the imagination of any historian: ruins dating back to the pre-Roman era, including the Sumerian legacy, and further back still to the dawn of human civilisation. With only a small fraction of the sites visible, including the remains of a massive stone bridge spanning the Tigris dating back at least 900 years and a 14th-century Ayyubid citadel precariously built on a cliff edge, what matters more to many dam protesters is what could be lost, rather than what will be lost. But there is also a dark side to the story: the war against Kurdish separatists. That conflict colours every aspect of life in Turkey's south-east. And Hasankeyf has not been immune to it. "Because of the war, our families were bled dry of their men," Husna's 27-year old daughter, Fatma, recalls, speaking for her mother. "Groups like us shrank, we could no longer care for our herds and were forced to settle in places like Van and here in Hasankeyf." Fatma says her family chose Hasankeyf because its natural features provided for all their needs. The caves could house their animals, the pastures could feed them and there was hope of a better future - when they arrived in the early 1990s, the government had started to relocate Hasankeyf's cave-dwellers into newly built homes. The official reasoning was simple: why should Turkish citizens live in caves when they could have all the luxuries of modern life: running water, electricity, flush toilets? But cynics saw something more sinister. Many saw the relocation of the inhabitants as an interim step that would ultimately lead to them being ejected from the area for good. Outside Husna's storage grotto, on a hilltop overlooking the Tigris river, Hasankeyf's worn and faded houses are a teetering testament to the fears of the cynics. The lives of the residents have not improved much since they were relocated. Many, in fact, wish they had never left the caves. The irony is that if the Ilisu dam is built, everything - the houses and the cave-homes that they replaced - would be underwater. The scale of the flood would be monumental, creating a 300 sq km reservoir stretching 100 km north and west from the Ilisu site, close to the Iraqi and Syrian borders. Hundreds of villages and thousands of acres of farmland would be gone. By coincidence, it was not far from this region that biblical scholars say Noah's flood took place. Mount Ararat, where the more hardcore believers say Noah's Ark came to rest, is just 280km to the north-west. But while Noah made good his promise of the coming catastrophe, the successive line of Noahs in Ankara haven't been nearly as prophetic. So much so that villagers in the region have convinced themselves the dam is little more than a cruel joke. There's a saying in Turkish that roughly translates as: "Up on high, there is the God-father; down below is the State-father". The God-father, Turks say, is never wrong. But the State-father is not infallible. "My father told me that when I was born, the first rumours of the dam started," says Emin Seker, a 48-year-old father of four who lives in Irmak Koy, a ramshackle village in the potential flood zone east of Hasankeyf. "So," he adds. "I am as old as the dam." But at least Emin exists, hard and tangible and present in a rather rotund middle-aged-farmer way. The dam, on the other hand, is still little more than a rumour which, year by year, has lost its power to impress. These days, it is more the brunt of village jokes than anything else, as in: "Hey Mehmet, get a move on; you're taking longer than the dam." The jokes, however, mask a more sobering reality. Over the 50-odd years that the Ilisu project has been on the drawing board, the lives of the villagers have stood still. Homes have crumbled, their orchards stagnated. Over the years, the spectre of the dam has created an almost impossible environment for them: their villages are falling apart, the victims of building codes that, in practice, restrict any development in the area slated to be inundated by the waters. So they wait and wait for a Great Flood that never comes. "The state of mind here resembles the psychology of a dying person," says the mayor of Hasankeyf, Abdulvahab Kusen. "He knows that he is going to die but just not when." The madness of Hasankeyf is deep and dark. It infects everyone, from the local barber who adopts a fatalistic outlook ("If the dam is built, fine. At least we can get on with our lives"), to the baker who has succumbed to despair ("It's not much of a loss this town. Only those without any hope are left"). After so many years of waiting, the people really don't care very much whether the dam is built or not. For them, it is the uncertainty that has been their greatest burden. The ruins, so much the raison d'être of the anti-dam movement, mean little to them. "We didn't move here because of the monuments," says Husna. "We moved here because we thought it would be a nice place to settle." In fact, many locals wonder what is more important: the monuments or the people who live in and around them. The over-arching fact of the anti-dam protest movement is that it is an urban phenomenon. For Hasankeyf's townspeople, abstract issues such as historical relevance and environmental impacts mean little in the face of daily hardships. For them, the issues are much more prosaic: putting food on the table and maintaining a quality of life. Rather than addressing those issues in a meaningful way, the anti-dam movement has tended to remain fixated on the abstract, arguing that losing Hasankeyf would be a significant loss to the world's heritage. As valid as this argument is, what it ignores are the very real and tangible issues the locals face, every day, every week and every painfully glacial year this drama carries on. Most of Hasankeyf's locals complain that no one has ever asked them what they want. In the rather elitist tendencies of protest movements around the world, the protesters swoop in from the far-flung corners of the globe and dictate to the people bearing the real burden of controversy what it is they should or should not do. The subtext is insulting: the poor, ignorant yokels can't really think for themselves, so we'll have to do the thinking for them. What the activists don't tell the people is that even if the dam project is permanently scrapped, they would not necessarily be better off. The unspoken irony of Hasankeyf is that the town is itself built on the ruins. Unearthing and preserving that history, a process that experts say would take more than a decade, would mean relocating the people anyway. The pro-dam movement is equally self-serving. Its representative in Hasankeyf, Ahmet Azdeniz, a diminutive, firebrand preacher of progress belts out the standard gospel: Hasankeyf, as it stands now, is dead. It has burned under the scorching summer for far too long. The Ilisu dam would mean a new phoenix rising, a shimmering Iram in the barren desert. "There will be a new 800m-long bridge across the reservoir," he says, leaning over the government-approved plans for the new Hasankeyf, to be built across the Tigris from the current town, "just like an Istanbul bridge. There will be open-air museums and theatres. The reservoir will be magnificent: it will have a marina, and water sports for tourists." It will be, in short, a new paradise. Ahmet makes a strong case for scrapping the current Hasankeyf, touching on the same issues that have plagued local people for the past five decades. He points out the poor state of his home, one of the replacement houses built for the former cave-dwellers. "Can a person live like this in dignity?" he demands, pointing to the kitchen which doubles as the bathroom. "The government has promised us beautiful, modern homes with all of the proper facilities. Why should we live like animals?" He is right, of course. But there's something he refuses to admit that completes the picture. Not long ago, locals say, Ahmet was the most virulent opponent of the dam. Many see his transformation as self-serving. He's a man, they say, who can be easily bought. His current employer, the Nurol construction company, is now at the forefront of the Ilisu project, set to win the new tenders that the Turkish government will inevitably have to offer as it seeks to complete the project on its own. But, equally, to say Ahmet does not believe in the vision he's selling would be unfair. He does, and he's sold many people already, largely due to the very fact that life in Hasankeyf has become so unbearable. And dam reservoirs do have a certain aesthetic appeal - not unlike a golf course, a place where natural beauty has been supplanted by man's own peculiar vision of it. "It's the water," says Naci, a translator who has often taken foreigners on tours of eastern Turkey's dams, gazing over the reservoir of the Batman dam near Hasankeyf. "We humans love water too much." What he actually means is "a lot". Turks often mix up "too much" with "a lot" when speaking in English: in Turkish one word - cok - suffices to represent both; it's the context that implies meaning. In eastern Turkey, context is similarly crucial when attempting to extract fact from fiction. Take Ahmet's vision: the government has promised to build an oasis for the people of Hasankeyf. They made the same promise to villagers forcibly relocated by the Batman dam. And yet, their "better place" is a scorpion-infested outpost of the city. Men who once prided themselves on farming the land, on being the agents of their own success or failure now venture into the city every day, hoping that someone will pick them out from a group of dozens for a day of paid labour. Is that the fate awaiting the people of Hasankeyf? The Turkish authorities say the Ilisu dam will be built, with or without outside help. Its original purpose is still relevant here in the 21st century. The greatness of Turkey is still at stake. "In 50 years, oil will mean nothing to the world," says Ahmet. "But water? water will be power. Turkey is on the verge of dominating this region. By controlling the Tigris, it controls the region; we dominate." Out on Hasankeyf's dusty lanes, a freak wind storm has suddenly overwhelmed the locals. It comes without warning, blowing piles of shorn wool into the air like summer snowflakes. People dash to secure loose belongings, overwhelmed by the wind's ferocity. After the storm passes, everyone stands around, commenting on what they have just seen. Everyone except Husna. For her, there is work to be done and the two journalists trailing her for one last quote, one last photograph, have started to become something of a pest. "Why do you keep following me?" she demands, barely able to contain a salacious smile. "Can't you see I'm busy?"