The last goodbye: Turkish village prepares to sink under dam waters

Hasankeyf and 198 other villages will be submerged when the waters of the Ilisu dam flood the area

View from the top of the village of Hasankeyf towards the river and the surroundings. Mathias Depardon for The National
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The last rays of sunshine are falling across  the waters of the Tigris as it runs through Hasankeyf, a 12,000-year-old village in  south-eastern Turkey, a region also known as Bakur or Turkish Kurdistan. Although the night is drawing in, a little square in the centre of the village is alive with people taking photographs, laughing and drinking tea.

In just a few months, the square will be submerged when the waters of the Ilisu dam flood the area.

The project, once completed, will be the fourth-biggest dam in Turkey; its hydroelectric plant will generate 4,200 gigawatt-hours of electricity a year. However, its energy-generating capacity comes at a cost – Hasankeyf and 198 other villages will be flooded, displacing 80,000 people.

This little village now has no residents. On October 8, the Turkish government forced its 3,000 inhabitants to move to New Hasankeyf, a village built to house those displaced by the dam. But there is not enough room for everyone.

FILE PHOTO: The Tigris river flows through the ancient town of Hasankeyf, which will be submerged by the Ilisu dam in southeastern Turkey, September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
The Tigris flows through the ancient village of Hasankeyf, which will be submerged by the Ilisu dam's waters. Reuters

"You can have a new house and get paid for your previous possessions if you can show propriety certification, but a lot of people don't have it. They just built their own houses and started to farm," said one of the inhabitants, who  did not want to be identified. "We all know each other; we've never needed a paper to know which land belongs to whom."

Even when residents are lucky enough to be assigned one of the new houses, there are further problems. Many of Hasankeyf's former residents made their living from growing crops and keeping sheep, but breeding animals is banned in the new village.

Residents complain that New Hasankeyf lacks the character of its predecessor.  It is an anonymous collection of grey houses, without a soul, built on a sunny hill that looks more like a punishment than a solution for people forced to leave their homes.

The dam project may  provide clean electricity to the nation, but the real goal of the Turkish state is to secure its water supply, said local campaigner Ridvan Ayhan.

"The Tigris River passes from Turkey to Syria and Iraq; eventually the state will stop the water and will let it go as they please. Then, when the water war begins, the Tigris will play a great role and Turkey will use it against those countries," he says.

Turkish government officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Ridvan Ayhan, a 58-year-old activist who fights against the Ilisi hydroelectric dam project, looks at the "new Hasankeyf" which is seen on the other side of Tigris river, on December 13, 2018, near the historical town of Hasankeyf in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast. The small town of Hasankeyf, inhabited for 12,000 years, is doomed to disappear in the months ahead under an artificial lake, as a result of the dam project. The dam will be Turkey's second largest and has been built downstream of the Tigris. / AFP / BULENT KILIC
Ridvan Ayhan looks at New Hasankeyf. AFP

Another motivation for the construction of a dam – the idea for which was first floated in 1956 – is as a tool to be used against Kurdish insurgents.

"The  South-eastern Anatolia Project was conceived as part of a counter-insurgency strategy against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), therefore the dams are used for military and political means", said Joost Jongerden, an assistant professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

"First of all, the control over the Tigris was used by Turkey to make Syria stop PKK activities within its borders in exchange for a minimum annual flow of 500 cubic meters per second from the Euphrates basin," he says.

The construction of dams along Turkey's borders with Syria and Iraq can then be used as a physical barrier against insurgent activity.

Secondly, "the Turkish state thought that the economic development of the area would put an end to the popular support for the PKK and turn Kurds into Turks", Mr Jongerden says. This was to be done by reducing the importance of tribal and family relationships and increasing the dependency on state institutions.

Mr Ayhan, who was jailed for more than four years  in 2012 for taking part in a protest against the dam, is a member of the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, an international coalition of activists and organisations that campaign to stop the project.

Their efforts, including flash mobs in some European capitals, were unsuccessful and the destruction of thousands of artificial caves and hundreds of historical and religious sites dating from the Bronze Age to the Ottoman Empire, is just months away. Protesting against the project has been  banned – during the last demonstration several people were detained for three or four days before being released.

"I was born here," says Mr Ayhan, gesturing at the yellow-ochre caves carved into the surrounding rock, their ceilings blackened by smoke and their floors covered in dust. But between 1971 and 1975 things changed. "The former prime minister, Suleyman Demirel, built new houses and people moved from the caves to the city centre. That was the first migration and now we are facing a second one," Mr Ayhan says.

Hasankeyf - Turkey - August 20th, 2009:  The caves of Hasankeyf's hillside used to provide its residents with shelter before the more modern facilities were built closer to the river.  (Galen Clark/The National) for water  *** Local Caption ***  GC085_08202009_Water.jpg
The caves of Hasankeyf's hillside used to provide its residents with shelter before the more modern facilities were built closer to the river. Galen Clark / The National

Mr Ayhan is not the only one who feels displaced in his own country. "We are refugees. We lost our houses; we lost our villages. We are so sad", says a woman from another village that has already been submerged by the dam's waters.

Even animals have been forced to flee their natural habitat, as the project will  change the environment and damage the biodiversity of the area,  further threatening already-endangered species. Activists tried to focus international attention on the environmental problems the GAP project is going to cause and they initially won: in 2009, German, Swiss and Austrian export credit agencies officially cut their $610 million (Dh2.2m) funding for the project.

The group also tried to save Hasankeyf by campaigning for Unesco World Heritage status, as the village fulfils nine out of ten UN criteria. "But they didn't do anything", says Mr Ayhan. "A member of Unesco said that Hasankeyf deserves to be on their list, but the Turkish minister of tourism has to apply for it and he never did. The government wants to erase our history and our memories."

"Only a fool can be happy for the dam. They are destroying our history and our life", said one man living in a village nearby. "We will stay here until the last day".

In a cemetery outside Hasankeyf, there is a hole in the ground where there was once a grave. "Some people are taking their loved ones with them,” says an onlooker. “Not even the dead can rest in peace here."