Turkey’s 12,000-year-old town about to be engulfed

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A resident of Hasankeyf, in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, stands on a road leading to historical caves on December 13, 2018, during the construction of the Ilisu dam. (AFP)
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One of last residents of historical caves overlooking the Hasankeyf valley sits at his house in Hasankeyf, in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, on December 13, 2018. (AFP)
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Workers stand at the construction site of the Ilisu dam near Hasankeyf, in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, on December 13, 2018. (AFP)
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Ridvan Ayhan, a 58-year-old activist who fights against the Ilisi hydroelectric dam project, walks at a historical site in Hasankeyf, in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, on December 13, 2018. (AFP)
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Trucks are seen on the banks of the Tigris river near Hasankeyf, in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, on December 13, 2018, during the construction of the Ilisu dam. (AFP)
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One of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's pharaonic projects is the construction of Turkey's largest hydroelectric dam on the Tigris River in the southern-eastern part of Turkey. (AFP)
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A resident stands on the roof of her house located on the bank of the Tigris river in Hasankeyf, in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast, on December 13, 2018, during the construction of the Ilisu dam. (AFP)
Updated 08 January 2019
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Turkey’s 12,000-year-old town about to be engulfed

  • The small town of Hasankeyf, in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast, inhabited for 12,000 years, is doomed to disappear in the coming months
  • The dam, which will be Turkey’s second largest, has been built further downstream the Tigris

HASANKEYF, Turkey: From the ancient citadel overlooking the valley, Ridvan Ayhan looks at the Tigris with a furrowed brow. The river that supported his family’s town for generations will soon destroy it.
“My grandchildren will not see where I grew up, where I lived. They will ask me, ‘Grandpa, where do you come from? Where did you live?’ What will I do? Show them the lake?” asks Ayhan, readjusting the scarf over his face.
The small town of Hasankeyf, in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast, inhabited for 12,000 years, is doomed to disappear in the coming months.
An artificial lake, part of the Ilisu hydroelectric dam project, will swallow it up.
The dam, which will be Turkey’s second largest, has been built further downstream the Tigris.
Ilisu is a central element of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), a land development plan to boost the economy of the long-neglected region, through hydroelectric energy and irrigation.
Confronted with the imminent flooding of their town and a hundred villages, the 3,000 habitants of Hasankeyf are divided.
While some are angry at the sacrifice being imposed on them, others are impatient for the economic benefits promised by Ankara.

Ayhan, who is retired, is steadfast in his opposition.
He dedicates all his time and energy to fighting against the dam as part of the “Keep Hasankeyf Alive” collective, which brings together campaigning groups and locally elected representatives.
Assyrians, Romans, Seljuks... the empires that washed over this region have left an exceptional heritage, not least the thousands of caves that were inhabited as recently as the 1970s and are a major tourist draw.
“There is such history here,” says Ayhan.
“Every time you dig, you come across something from a different civilization. Destroying Hasankeyf is to commit a major crime.”
But the Turkish government dismisses the criticism, arguing that everything has been done to save the monuments.
In one lengthy operation last August, the 1,600-ton Artuklu Hamam bath house was loaded onto a wheeled platform and moved down a specially constructed road to its new home.
Workers also recently moved the remnants of a 14th-century Ayyubid mosque, transporting it three kilometers (1.8 miles) to a site that will become a “cultural park.”
Such relocation operations have transformed Hasankeyf into a construction site.
Busloads of tourists have been replaced by swarms of dump trucks and a crane that sits at the town’s entrance.
In what is left of the old bazaar, the butcher, Zeki, sits among the morose-looking traders.
“There are no more tourists,” he laments. “Who would like to come to see this? Every step you take you’re liable to fall into a hole in the ground,” he says.

Not everyone is unhappy.
Former shepherd Ahmet Akdeniz prefers to look to the future.
He presides over the Hasankeyf cultural association dedicated to promoting what the town has to offer and he cannot wait “to finally start (his) new life.”
During the inauguration of the Ilisu construction site in 2006, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, promised the dam would bring “the greatest benefit” to local people.
Part of this promise involves building a “new Hasankeyf” on the other side of the river, with spacious flats and an ultra-modern hospital.
But the construction work drags on. Currently it is a succession of small buildings separated by muddy roads, most of them unpaved.
Akdeniz, originally scheduled to move in December, now thinks it will be summer at the earliest.
“Look how we live today,” he says, pointing to the cracked walls of his 45-square-meter (484-square-foot) house.
Heated by just a wood stove, he lives there with six family members. “All we want is to live with dignity,” he says.
Akdeniz is also convinced that the dam will boost tourism, thanks to the renovation of the citadel and some caves escaping the rising waters.
“There will be boats, a cable car. We will have hotels,” he says. “Some of our young people are already starting to learn to dive. Diving into Hasankeyf, can you imagine?“

Engineers are still awaiting the green light from Erdogan to close a third floodgate and complete the retention of the water, a process launched last summer.
After that, a three-month countdown will begin for Hasankeyf before it disappears beneath the Tigris.
Contacted by AFP, the DSI organization responsible for Turkey’s dams declined to give a planned date for completion. Turkish media report that it will be finished this year.
But the project has already had a considerable impact on residents, says Suleyman Agalday, owner of a small, makeshift cafe.
Delays and financial issues have plagued the dam’s construction — a project first conceived in the 1960s — “causing a lot of uncertainty in our life,” he says.
In 1981, Hasankeyf was classified as a special conservation zone with a ban on construction that kept investors away.
That lack of investment meant fewer jobs and many residents chose to move away for work or larger homes.
A few weeks ago, Agalday went to the neighboring province of Sanliurfa to see Halfeti village, submerged for 20 years because of a dam on the Euphrates.
“There I saw what my future would look like and it hurt me,” he says.
“I sat down in a corner and cried.”


No politics please for Baghdad bikers aiming to unite Iraq

Updated 20 January 2019
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No politics please for Baghdad bikers aiming to unite Iraq

  • That is why the first rule of his bikers club is: you do not talk about politics
  • The Iraq Bikers — who now number 380 — are men of all ages, social classes and various faiths

BAGHDAD: Roaring along Baghdad’s highways, the “Iraq Bikers” are doing more than showing off their love of outsized motorcycles and black leather: they want their shared enthusiasm to help heal Iraq’s deep sectarian rifts.
Weaving in and out of traffic, only the lucky few ride Harley Davidsons — a rare and expensive brand in Iraq — while others make do with bikes pimped-up to look something like the “Easy Rider” dream machines.
“Our goal is to build a brotherhood,” said Bilal Al-Bayati, 42, a government employee who founded the club in 2012 with the aim of improving the image of biker gangs and to promote unity after years of sectarian conflict.
That is why the first rule of his bikers club is: you do not talk about politics.
“It is absolutely prohibited to talk politics among members,” Bayati told Reuters as he sat with fellow bikers in a shisha cafe, a regular hangout for members.
“Whenever politics is mentioned, the members are warned once or twice and then expelled. We no longer have the strength to endure these tragedies or to repeat them,” he said, referring to sectarian violence.
With his black bandana and goatee, the leader of the Baghdad pack, known as “Captain,” looks the epitome of the American biker-outlaw.
But while their style is unmistakably US-inspired — at least one of Bayati’s cohorts wears a helmet emblazoned with the stars and stripes — these bikers fly the Iraqi flag from the panniers of their machines.
The Iraq Bikers — who now number 380 — are men of all ages, social classes and various faiths. One of their most recent events was taking party in Army Day celebrations.
Some are in the military, the police and even the Popular Mobilization Forces, a grouping of mostly Shiite militias which have taken part in the fight to oust Islamic State from Iraq in the last three years.
“It is a miniature Iraq,” said member Ahmed Haidar, 36, who works with an international relief agency.
But riding a chopper through Baghdad is quite different from Route 101. The bikers have to slow down at the many military checkpoints set up around the city to deter suicide and car bomb attacks.
And very few can afford a top bike.
“We don’t have a Harley Davidson franchise here,” said Kadhim Naji, a mechanic who specializes in turning ordinary motorbikes into something special.
“So what we do is we alter the motorbike, so it looks similar ... and it is cheaper.”