‘Oh yes, we’re going to build the dam!’
April 17 2000
The Times (London)

As Western governments, including Britain’s, consider backing the controversial Ilisu dam project in southeast Turkey, Feature Writer of the Year, Ann Treneman – accompanied by up to 41 military ‘escorts’ – discovers that the Kurds whose homes may soon disappear under water have never been consulted.

Esra is nine, and a Kurd who lives in the beautiful and ancient town of Hasankeyf on the Tigris river in southeast Turkey. We meet by chance at the top of the dirt path that leads down to the riverbank. The day has been difficult. I am here to find out what people think of the Ilisu dam project, which will provide electricity for Turkey but will drown this town and dozens of villages, too. In London, Tony Blair is keen on the Ilisu and his Government has said it is “minded” to provide $220 million in export credit for it. But, then again, the Prime Minister has never been to this place and, therefore, does not know what it is like.

If he came, he might change his mind. Freedom of movement and freedom of expression do not seem to exist here, at least for us. No one will let the photographer and me work in peace, despite our shiny accreditation cards from the Turkish Prime Minister’s Office in Ankara. On this day we have been followed since 8am by three policemen clad in black suits, straight out of central casting. It is now 4pm and they have listened in on almost every interview. At one point they chased me round an outdoor café as though we were in a comedy sketch.

So I’ve come to the river to escape and Esra has come to play after a day at school. She is a breath of fresh air, full of grace in an orange Plucky Duck shirt and a long swingy skirt. The river flows strong and green and smells fresh here. I tell Esra, through an interpreter, what I am doing. She tells us what she knows of the dam. It is only an opinion but her face turns to panic when I say that I might want to quote her.

The Men in Black follow at a distance as we walk. Esra picks daisies and says that she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. I think about this. Esra now knows exactly who she is and how she fits into her world. Her family and friends are Kurds whose families have lived here for decades, if not centuries. But the Ilisu will change everything for them and for her. Esra is already vulnerable. She is a Kurd in Turkey, and a girl in a man’s world. The Ilisu puts her in triple jeopardy.

Back in London everyone says the story of the Ilisu is a complicated one, and it is true that the decisions about whether it will be built involve huge sums of money and power politics. These judgments will be made by people in London, Washington, Berne and Ankara. They are experts in the fields of engineering, politics, finance and construction, but none of them has been to this riverbank.

Esra has no clue about what is in store for her. She and her friends seem, for want of a more sophisticated word, happy. They jump and skip and play with a stray lamb that comes down on the sand. They pick petals off a flower and shriek with laughter. Back at the car – the Men in Black still shadowing – I give her a pen and she is thrilled.

The Turks regard the Ilisu dam as something that already exists. They talk of it in this way and the reservoir actually appears on Turkish tourist maps. To them, it is clear that it is just reality that is lagging behind. And maybe it is. Certainly, international politics bode well for the Ilisu. Turkey is a country much in demand, with its huge army and strategic location. Britain wants Turkey to be part of the European Union, and this project could help to pave the way. America is also keen to please: it has used the country as a base from which to bomb Iraq for years. Fighter jets streak the sky here and seem as natural as the clouds themselves.

This explains Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for the Ilisu. Turkey, for its part, is beyond bullish. “Oh yes, we are going to build the dam!” declares an official at the giant energy department. The head of that department is Dogan Altinbilek, the man they call Mr Dam. He is an engineer and sees the Ilisu in terms of electricity produced. It will help to make a brighter and lighter Turkey. Altinbilek makes it sound utterly splendid and, in normal circumstances, very few would have known otherwise.

But these are not normal times for Turkey. For the past 15 years Ankara has fought a war against the Kurdish rebels of the PKK. It has been a bloody and brutal affair on both sides – in total at least 30,000 have died since 1984 – and it has been fought in the villages and hills and valleys of the South East. The Ilisu would flood 300 square kilometres of this land, destroy 80 hamlets and villages and displace up to 36,000 people. Many Kurds see the Ilisu project as part of the strategy to destroy their culture and way of life. Officials in Ankara scoff at such a thing and hint that any opposition is part of a conspiracy.

Plots aside, however, no one denies the war has been expensive and in the 1990s Turkey found that it simply could not afford to build the Ilisu by itself. It is this one fact that explains my presence on that riverbank. Turkey had to find its $2 billion elsewhere, and these days international money for a dam does not come without strings attached. The Swiss-led consortium that stepped forward in 1998 pulled in companies from America, Britain, Italy and Germany and they, in turn, have all sought export credit from their governments. The leviathans that are governments swung into action and, as they did, human rights organisations and environmentalists raised their voices in opposition. Clearly, nothing was going to happen quickly now.

And so, in at least five countries, hearings have been held and reports organised. There have been many questions. Why did Turkey want to dam the Tigris just 40 miles from the Iraqi border? Why would anyone want to build a dam in a war zone anyway? What did the people on the ground think? The companies in question, including Balfour Beatty in the UK, turned to Turkey for the answers. But some questions, and particularly the last one, could not be answered. For, it seems, the people on the ground had never been asked what they thought. The Ilisu has been on the drawing board since 1954 but no one in the area had ever received so much as a postcard about it. Altinbilek says this is the way it works in Turkey: first you sign the dam contract and then figure out what to do with the people.

Not so for the rest of the world. International standards are clear that people must be consulted as soon as possible. The fact that these particular people are Kurds makes it worse. The Swiss moved first, refusing to approve the money until an international expert and a panel on resettlement was appointed. Other countries expressed worries, too, and on December 21 the UK announced that it was “minded” to grant the export credit but that a resettlement plan must be in place first. Turkey duly hired a local company, Semor, which, from its website, looked to be a seminar and travel agency (motto: Your Happiness is Our Success). Meanwhile, on the ground, there were consistent reports that nothing much was happening. The only real way to find out was to go there. Altinbilek says Turkey has nothing to hide and that, of course, I must go there and see for myself.

If that sounds simple, think again. The sprawling city of Diyarbakir is 600 miles from Ankara. I’m sure there are worse places in the world but it’s hard to think of one just now. It is crowded, dirty and noisy. We are followed from the airport by a man in a blue suit and a turquoise car. He tries to hide by ducking in a doorway. I feel as if I am in a particularly bad Starsky & Hutch episode. Diyarbakir is a Kurdish city, swollen to three times its normal size of half a million by refugees from the war. We stop only long enough to find a Kurdish interpreter (the language is banned but it is what the villagers speak) before heading off to a town called Batman.   It is a two-hour drive. Our interpreter, Ibrahim, studies his English on the way and, while translating a Newsweek article, asks us about the words “spectre” and “subliminal”. These turn out to be perfect keywords for our trip. In Batman we have barely checked into the hotel when three policemen arrive and ask what the photographer, Peter Nicholls, and I will be doing. They say they need to know for our own protection. I shake my head. They say I’m not to make a move without them. I laugh and then leave. The police then interrogate the interpreter about what that laugh meant.

At this point I had no idea how ludicrous it would become. I knew that journalists had been followed in the past. “But they were followed because they did not tell us they were going,” said the press counsellor in the Turkish Embassy in London. We would not give them that excuse. We applied for accreditation and went all the way to Ankara to pick it up. “This means that we have given you permission to make an investigation,” said the woman in the information office. “You should have no problems.”

The next morning we (and our “escorts”) drive south along the Tigris and, after 15 minutes, the hills start to soar. They are brown and lavender and dotted with the pink blossom of almond trees. The South East is a dry area – only 7 per cent is irrigated – but the land along the river is the exception and the stone houses are flanked by green fields and fruit trees. The source of the Tigris is north of Diyarbakir; it flows for 280 miles in Turkey and then into Iraq. The Ilisu would be built 40 miles north of the border and would create a long, thin reservoir for 135 miles to the north. This is the country we are driving through now, and everything would be submerged except the top of the lavender hills.   The town of Hasankeyf appears from across the river as something out of another time. The cliffs and hills around the town are riddled with 5,000 caves, some of which have doors and numbers. A few have become tea gardens, though only a handful are still homes. Hasankeyf is part town, part ruin and all archaeological wonder. The only equivalent I can think of is the cliff villages of the Native Americans in the South West of the United States. It has been inhabited since Assyrian and Urartu times and just about everyone who was anyone in the area – the Omayyads, Abbasids, Hamdanids, Mervanids, Eyyubides and Mongols – has been here. It was annexed by the Ottoman Empire in 1516. The population is now 5,500 and it is by far the largest single town that would be flooded by the Ilisu.

We climb up to look at the caves and the old palaces that the Kurds claim as part of their culture. It is a mad scene – especially when our three dark-suited Followers are joined by a man who is crazy and trying to do cartwheels. Halfway down the cliff we stop for tea, served to us in tiny curvaceous clear glasses by Ramazan Ayhan. The 51-year-old, who is married with nine children, built this tea garden in these caves 12 years ago. “But I have been living here for 300 years,” he says.   He says he knows nothing officially about the dam. “We were not informed about anything. Nobody has told us anything.” But he does know that his tea garden and home will be submerged (only the ruins near the top will escape). I ask if he has the deeds for his house and caves. It is estimated that 40 per cent of people in this area do not, and deeds are essential for compensation. Ramazan does not like my question: “I was born here and grew up here. I don’t need to buy it because it is my ancestors’.”

We sit in his tea garden, surrounded by ruined splendour and soaring views. Where will the people of Hasankeyf go? If they choose compensation – and in previous schemes in this area about 87 per cent of people did – they will probably end up living in a city and perhaps a slum. They should receive enough to buy the equivalent of what they have now but, often, this has not been the case. Most end up taking the Government to court and 90 per cent win, eventually.   The other option is to be resettled. Again, international guidelines say exactly what should occur: people should receive housing and land, jobs and training, help and advice. But Turkey has failed on these counts many times before. For example, any new houses must be bought by the people being resettled and paid back with a 25-year, interest-free loan. Ramazan does not want to think about this. “Because there is no definite decision about when the dam will be built, we have not decided what to do. We don’t know what to do. When the Government comes and tells us, then we will try to do something.”

It is hard to overestimate the fatalism of the Kurds in this part of Turkey. When it comes to the dam and its consequences, they do not believe they have a choice. We might see this as apathy but it seems merely to reflect the way things work here. The first and only public meeting to date on the Ilisu was held by Semor in Hasankeyf on December 22 and that was only because the Swiss, UK and other governments insisted that some kind of consultation begin. People who attended say it was not held to ask their opinion but to tell them what would be.   We walk up the rocky path to a cave near the top. It stands out from the others because it has glass-paned windows. A family of six live in this one room. The woman is 28 and has four living children and one who died at the age of 18 months. There is a framed picture of this baby on the wall. The mother wears the Kurdish woman’s delicate white lace-edged headscarf. The cave is spotless; the walls are white and its recesses are covered by embroidered cloths. There are rugs on the floor, a fridge in the corner and a television that is tuned to what sounds like a Turkish version of Celebrity Squares.

The woman (she refuses to give her name) is involved in an intricate four-needle knitting job and says she knows nothing of the dam. I ask if she and her husband own the cave. She does not know but explains that, years ago, her husband was away when the Government came to move the people in the caves to houses. As a woman, of course, she could not speak for her family. And so there was no new house, no move, no anything. Faced with a story like this, asking about deeds and resettlement options seems pointless. “Nobody has come. We don’t know what to do. We heard that they would come but still they didn’t.”   The mayor of Hasankeyf says that 100 per cent of the people in the town are against the dam. This is borne out by interviews with men in other tea gardens. Here the number of police following us has swelled to 12 and they interrupt the interpreter and ask him to speak in Turkish. The townsmen say that if the dam must be built, the level of the water should be lower to spare Hasankeyf. There is a plan to “save” the town by putting it onto CD-Rom but no one is much impressed by this. The police scurry round behind me and, as they do, my interviewees become markedly more careful. One man, old beyond his years and wearing a fuzzy red plaid shirt, says he is against the dam but adds: “Of course, the Government knows best.”

Our next plan is to go to some of the small villages along the Tigris. Personally, I do not view this as such an ambitious idea but there are clues to the contrary. First, all attempts to buy a detailed map of the area fail. I have cadged a photocopy of a map in Ankara and decide that it will just have to do. Then our “escorts” arrive for the day dressed not in suits but in full yomping gear. They are no longer the Men in Black; we call them the Followers. They view my photocopy with suspicion. We would later discover that they do not like going off the main road.   Just beyond Hasankeyf the road heads south, leaving the river. So we head off on a paved track and, within minutes, are driving through the tiny village of Ucyol. A man with a Kalashnikov jumps into the road. He is short and strange-looking and looks like a Smurf with a gun. He is a village guard and infuriated by the idea that we should be driving through his town. He becomes even more agitated when we say we want to interview people and take photographs. He refuses to look at our accreditation cards and orders us back to the military barracks in Hasankeyf.

And so back we (and our Followers) go. At the barracks there is a great kerfuffle. For about 15 minutes, everything is impossible. Then we see the commander. In his office, over more cups of tea, we all peruse my photocopy. He asks where we want to go. I name five villages along the river, all within a few miles of each other. He says we can go to three of them but forbids us from two, Koyunlu and Palamut, saying they have been “emptied”.   He will not elaborate. The silence says a lot. The Turkish authorities have emptied dozens of villages in this area as part of their war against the Kurdish rebels. This is a big complication for any Ilisu resettlement plan. No one knows how many people lived in the emptied villages, though the Government now puts the figure at 12,000. All should still receive compensation of some sort for the Ilisu, though there seems to be no way of tracing them. In Ankara I had asked about this and was told that everything would be fine. “They will contact us when they hear they might get some money,” said an official.

On the ground it seems even more haphazard. Palamut is on my list of populated villages and no one seems to know when it was emptied. As we drive along we see villages that do not seem to be on the map at all. This tallies with the comments made in a report on the Ilisu “stakeholders” compiled for the British Government late last year. “The number of people affected changes from one estimation to another. Lists of villages affected should be treated carefully,” says the report, whose author adds: “In the field I observed three villages that are going to be under water but are not included in the lists.”   There is great difficulty in finding out even basic facts about the Ilisu. A few months ago it was accepted that 36,000 people were involved (16,000 in villages, 20,000 who have left). That figure has been continually revised. Semor now says the real figure is about 25,000 (12,739 in villages and towns, 12,000 who have left). The real answer? No one knows.

But, whatever the number, Salih Taymur knows that he will be included. Salih is 39 and we find him in a just ploughed field. The river is over the hill behind his field and, after that, the mountains soar. Salih and his five brothers own 850 hectares, more than half of which is irrigated and used for growing vegetables, cereal and cotton. Their extended family numbers about 100 and, all together, they make up a village that is not on the map. No officials have been here about the dam. “If it is up to us, we do not want it. We do not want to move. We earn much more than they will compensate us for,” says Salih. “But the Government is stubborn. It does do what it decides. It is not up to us.”   There is a scent of almonds in the air as we walk towards his huge greenhouse for him to show us the rows of baby cucumbers and lettuce. We are invited for a cup of tea. Plastic chairs are produced and we all sit down, including the Followers. Their presence makes it impossible to discuss anything to do with the war. The villagers do not want the dam. They do not know if they will be resettled or just take the money. Two visitors from the next village say that many of the people they know do not have land at all (this is true of 35 per cent of people here) and they themselves do not have deeds for their land. They shrug. Do they know how much their land is worth? They shrug again.

A few miles along the path, and closer to the river, is the village of Incirli. It is built on a steep hill and surrounded by green hills and fields. It is dramatic and very beautiful here. The son of the headman, Sukru Toy, welcomes us and brings out the white plastic chairs. It is a strange interview: there are three villagers, four Followers, two village guards, one Kalashnikov, one walkie-talkie and me. Sukru says 80 people live here now. There used to be more but then it was emptied, and only half of the people returned. Emptied? “Because of the terror,” he says. Nothing more will be said on that subject, not in this company at least. The war is in an uncertain phase: the PKK has declared a ceasefire, the Turks have not accepted it. But the rebels have much support in these villages and, as we drove up, we saw hundreds of caves in the hills.   The men of Incirli know nothing of any substance about Ilisu. One older man volunteers that he was told that they would start building the dam this month. There has been no official information and no one knows about resettlement options, compensation or choices. The very idea that these men are stakeholders beggars belief. After our tea, we get up to leave and the old man speaks again. “Well, I do not believe it will be built in month.”

Our final goal is to visit the actual village of Ilisu. The map does not record this because, of course, it now says “Ilisu Dam”. The situation is made more surreal by the fact that no one else seems to believe it exists either. When they concede that it might, they then say it will be impossible to visit. The area is in the “emergency zone” and under military rule. The Followers, who clearly think our pace frenetic, are glum about the trip. Five hours later it is our turn to be glum. We have sat in two military commanders’ offices and drunk far too much tea. The second commander is officious. Evidently, we cannot go without a military escort and he needs 48 hours to arrange that. After many calls to Ankara, he settles for 24 hours.   We set off the next morning at 8am. The Followers are not pleased. Their behaviour has been getting stranger and stranger. At one point the day before they had refused to let us carry on, saying they have run out of petrol. We pointed to a petrol station just up the road. This was out of the question. They were not authorised to buy any more petrol. Instead the plan was to siphon some from our car. It was only when Peter Nicholls told them exactly what we thought of this that they scurried off to the petrol station.

Today the Followers have organised an intricate rota system. The result is that, in total, 41 different men follow us that day. Fourteen are soldiers, and we set off from their barracks from the frontier town of Dargecit with one small tank in front and a truck holding eight soldiers behind. It all seems very elaborate and, really, there is little doubt that we would be safer without having any soldiers at all. But there is no point in arguing with a man wearing camouflage.   The terrain here is far more mountainous than before. At times the landscape becomes almost lunar, with bare grey hills of sand stretching away from the road. It takes an hour to get to the village, home to some 140 Kurds. Ilisu means “hot spring” and there is a hot sulphur pool here. Across the river we see a spa. Today young boys jump in the water and play. Tomorrow the Ilisu looms.

This village will be buried under the dam itself, which will stand 135 metres high and, with six turbines and generators, be the largest hydroelectric project on the Tigris. The Ilisu is one of 13 dams being built under an ambitious scheme called GAP. Its aim is to increase irrigated land by 50 per cent and to double the country’s electricity production. Critics note that Turkey’s energy programme is inefficient at the best of times but the country itself sees the Ilisu as a patriotic enterprise.   The village headman is welcoming, although there is none of the friendliness of other villages. Of course, our 14-soldier escort cannot have helped, but the head man has a walkie-talkie and the whole village seems to be “on message”. “We want the dam. We are unemployed. It will help fishing and there will be jobs,” says the headman. The soldiers say we can talk only in Turkish. We do this, discussing compensation. The soldiers chime in, stressing that everyone will be VERY well compensated. “The dam is for our benefit,” says one villager. “It is for all of our benefit,” corrects one of the soldiers.

I ask if I can speak to the women. “The ladies will say what we have already said,” says one man. “Bring only the women who speak Turkish,” adds a soldier. A villager answers: “There are no women who speak Turkish.”   No interview is arranged. The women are there, though, in the background. One is in a doorway talking on a mobile phone, another is washing dishes at a stone water fountain. They bake the big, round, doughnut-shaped tandir bread for our lunch. Everything spread out on the floorcloth is made in the village: yoghurt, goat’s cheese, butter, boiled eggs, tomato and pepper salad and fresh caraway greens. It is delicious but the atmosphere is stilted. There is no way to avoid the conclusion that this is a village under occupation. What do they really think of the Ilisu? We will never know.

Before going to Turkey, I was told by Kerim Yildiz, of the Kurdish Human Rights Project in London, that it would require a revolution for the Ilisu resettlement project to be implemented properly. For starters, says Yildiz, there must be freedom of expression and basic human rights for the Kurds. Surely, I said, that is possible. Why cannot the Government find out how many people live there and start the process of giving them choices about their future? There could be an information blitz of meetings, individual consultations, leaflets, charts, classes.   On the ground, this seems extremely unlikely. Semor is relatively inexperienced and its survey cannot address many of the huge practical problems to do with resettlement here. It is also unclear how much control the international expert will have. But all of the difficulties are exacerbated by a basic lack of human rights and a real lack of understanding of what those rights might even be. There seems to be no comprehension of what we are trying to do, for instance. The Followers have been intrusive and intimidating. The interpreter says they are just doing their jobs. I’m not sure what that job is exactly – spy, irritant, intimidator, protector – but it is no way to behave in a country that wants to become a member of the European Union.

And what about Esra? She, you may remember, is the little girl from Hasankeyf who made me think that this story was about people, not politics. I now know that we will never know what Esra thinks because, in this part of Turkey, even a nine-year-old girl knows that the truth is a dangerous thing.