“The dam is not being built to generate electricity, as the government says. It is being built to wipe out all memory of us, our identity.” Rojan (invented name) is not the only one who, teeth clenched and asking to remain anonymous, explains the Turkish State’s real objective to us. In Turkish Kurdistan nearly everyone is afraid to say what they think about the authorities. They are used to arbitrary arrests and threats on the part of law enforcement. It only takes a split second for a Kurd to end up in prison in this part of the world.
“I was imprisoned for a year and a half in 2012 because I was protesting against the dam,” Ridvan tells us. “When I found myself face to face with the judge I asked him whether he thought it was fair that I should be punished for defending a land and a history that belongs to everyone. He told me that it was not, but I was convicted all the same. Throughout the years many activists and regular citizens have been arrested by the police during rallies, until the government decided to prohibit any kind of protest in the area of Hasankeyf. “We did everything possible, however now we can’t even openly express our dissent. All we can do is express our opinion through the press. It is the only way we can be heard.“
From the top of a low dusty hill overlooking Hasankeyf, Ridavan utters three words which evoke scenarios of death: war over water. “The Tigris crosses through Syria and Iraq, this is the reason why the Turkish State wants to control it. Thanks to the dam and in general to the GAP project, it will be able to stop the flow of water to neighbouring countries whenever it wants. It will use the river as a weapon to threaten them.”. The construction of the Ilisu dam has not only provoked reactions from inhabitants in the area: in Iraq also, a network of associations contrasts the realization of the Turkish mammoth project and advocates a fair distribution of water. Their voices, like those of Hasankeyf, fall on deaf ears.
Control of water resources is not the Government’s only objective. The construction of the Ilisu dam and other similar facilities along the border with Syria acts as an actual barrier, thereby limiting cross-border movement by Turkey’s historic enemy: the Pkk. The Workers Party has a strong presence in Turkish Kurdistan and for decades Ankara has used all means available to try and supress it and undermine its consensus amongst the local population. “Terrorist, terrorist,” is the only word we understand as we listen to a man telling us that his friends were arrested overnight for no particular reason. The English translation makes his discourse no less surreal: if you are an activist and you are a Kurd, you must be a terrorist. If you are involved in politics and a Kurd, you must certainly be a Kurd. If you are a mere shepherd, but you are a Kurd, you might be a terrorist, so it’s best to keep an eye on you. In short, if you are a Kurd you must be a terrorist. End of story.
According to the Government one of the reasons why the inhabitants of the Bakur region support the Pkk can be found in the extreme poverty characterizing the area and which the state policies have helped to generate. Moreover, uncertainty on the times of construction of the dam has hindered any form of investment in the territory: “Many had thought of starting a business in Hasankeyf,” explains the owner of a restaurant, “ But they would always back down, not knowing when and if the village was going to be submerged. If they had invested in tourism, we would be rich by now. According to the inhabitants of Hasankeyf, revitalization of the area should have been carried out through the promotion of its historical and cultural heritage as well as the safeguard of the territory and its traditions. However, the Government is planning something quite different. “They want to wipe out our memory and our identity,” many people tell us, with a mixture of resignation and anger in their voice. By submerging 199 villages and not only uprooting their inhabitants but also to changing their style of life, the State hopes to homogenise the population, transforming the Kurds into Turks. “In war it is customary to target monuments and places of historical importance in order to destroy a people and their memory. They are doing the same with Hasankeyf”.
On 8 October the village was evacuated and put off limits to the public. The sounds of the market no longer echo through the streets, the voices of men sitting in cafés no longer alternate with the tingling of teaspoons, there is no more laughter of children running along the river banks ringing through the air, nor the sound of sheep bleating in the countryside. Every morning, roosters crow to wake up a village condemned to everlasting sleep, destined to vanish for ever in order to satisfy the dreams and ambitions of its Sultan.
© Photographs by Fabio Conti