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The price of oil has hit rock bottom and the dollar has skyrocketed against the Turkish lira, and in the meantime a war is raging just across the border and the Yazidis have been displaced for something like the 74th time in their history. Indeed, isn’t this how things stand?
When commenting on Turkish history, we tend to say that history repeats itself and we complain about the lack of memory in our society. It appears that, as globalization increases pace, we are destined to go on living with such a short-lived memory in this so-called global village. In countries like Turkey, the drop in the price of oil led to excitement, but this was quickly replaced by consternation as the dollar rose as the result of the economic crisis in Russia and the Turkish lira depreciated. In that environment, the unpopular war in Syria and its victims were forgotten both in Turkey and abroad. In the meantime, people and governments who have supported and encouraged the war busied themselves with the new issues that have arisen. Yet again, are we going to pass it all off by saying that history simply repeats itself? Are we going to lament that war has reared its head, this time in Syria, leading to the same suffering that occurred a hundred years ago in the same region, a suffering with different faces that we have been enduring for years here in our country? I hope that’s not the case. I hope that we make the best of the peace process currently underway and that both in civil and official discourses we can bring about genuine peace with the core origins of our homeland. Of course, Turkey and the Middle East as a whole are peopled by members of various religious and ethnic groups. And prioritizing any one group over another and stoking conflicts among them leads to nothing but death and suffering. Those who manage to survive are expected to just shoulder their suffering and continue along. This has been going on for years, from the Balkans and the Caucasus to Mesopotamia. International powers that have had an impact on the Middle East, including the United States, Europe, Russia, and the Arab world, have persistently meddled in the region despite the negative consequences of their actions.
After visiting the camps in Urfa-Suruç, I visited the two Yazidi refugee camps in Diyarbakır and Mardin together with Nilgün and Fırat. Güler, who we’d met in Istanbul, joined us in Diyarbakır. Pooling our resources, we made donations so that the residents of one of the camps could purchase food for at least a few more days. We were told that food is still their most pressing need.
The Yazidis return to their original homeland
On the 9th of August, nearly 36,000 Yazidis began fleeing into Turkey to escape advancing ISIS forces. Before that, however, Turkish military personnel made them wait for nine days on Shengal Mountain on the pretext of passport control issues and matters of legality. In the meantime, 4,000 children died of starvation and thirst. Soon they began making their way across the border near Roboski, where 35 youths were killed by bombs dropped by F-16s in 2011 during an operation carried out by the Turkish military. The refugees then made their way through villages that had been razed in the 1990s by the Turkish government in operations carried out against the local Kurds. They were “temporarily settled” in villages and “temporary” camps in the area, particularly in the village of Bacini in Midyat, which is originally a Yazidi village but had been razed in the 1990s as well. Even though they were intended to be temporary, the tent camp of Çınar in Diyarbakır and the bus terminal in Mardin, the opening of which was postponed so that the refugees could stay there, were transformed into more permanent camps due to the massive influx of refugees (nearly 400,000) from Kobané in September as the result of further assaults by ISIS. While some of the refugees from Kobané had relatives in the region with whom they could stay, the Yazidis did not have that comfort, and they were not enthusiastic about the idea of staying in a Muslim country where their forebears had once been massacred, nor did they want to be separated from one another. The majority of the Yazidis are consulting with representatives from the UN so that they can migrate to the United States and countries in Europe. Some of them have returned to Zaho, while those experiencing health issues are trying to get to the state-run camp in Nusaybin so they can receive health care. Still others are in other provinces in Turkey after having been swindled by human traffickers who promised they would get them into Europe illegally. Although the figures are constantly changing, it is estimated that the number of Yazidi refugees in the region has dropped to around 15,600. At the Çınar camp, there are around 3,835 refugees, 1,350 of whom are children, and at the bus terminal camp in Mardin, there are around 300 refugees, half of whom are children. It is estimated that the number of refugees around Mardin has dropped to around 1,600. One pressing issue is the fact that fundamentalist and separatist groups in Diyarbakır and Mardin, including ISIS sympathizers, pose a threat to Yazidis staying in the camps, and they have even attempted to attack them. Whenever a tip is received or there are suspicions that an attack might be carried out, local residents take turns holding watch over the camps to prevent killings from taking place. Based on what we were told, this system is still in place. Complaints and information have come in about traffickers in women and children and black market organ dealers in the region, and we were told that efforts have been made to prevent refugees from becoming involved in such schemes.
The Çınar Camp in Diyarbakır.
How can sustainability be created?
At present, the refugees’ winter needs are being met and a food distribution system is in place, but it is not currently able to ensure that their dietary needs are met in a sustainable manner. NGOs and individuals regularly step in to provide aid, and a team consisting of Yazidis is responsible for distributing the aid that comes in. The camps have equipment and personnel for first aid, the local municipalities have set aside finances and workforces for the camps, pharmaceutical associations are providing medicine, and further help is being provided by citizens living abroad, civil society organizations, the Faculty of Theology at Dicle University, local chapters of the Olive Branch Aid Association, human rights associations in Turkey, and the Diyarbakır Chamber of Commerce. These groups also visit the camps to make assessments. Mehdi Eker, a parliamentarian from the AKP (Justice and Development Party), has personally covered part of the expense of meeting the winter needs of the residents at the Çınar camp. Businessmen in the region are also providing assistance and local residents are helping as well, but in their case, it is a matter of the impoverished helping the impoverished. Civil solidarity is very important but the number of people in need of help is quite high, so it is questionable how long this situation can remain sustainable. The minimum amount of funds needed to cover the weekly needs of the Çınar camp is estimated to be 60,000 TL (roughly 20,000 Euro). In the eastern regions of Turkey alone there are approximately one million refugees, and the cost of meeting their needs is consequently high. It has become quite clear that refugees fleeing from the war should be integrated into Turkish society as citizens and opportunities for employment should be opened up for them. Additionally, steps should be made to normalize their lives and their children should be able to attend school. Despite the fact that this is a pressing issue in terms of the Turkish economy, the government has largely remained silent. Aside from setting up a tent city capable of housing 10,000 people, for all practical purposes the government is nonexistent in the region. Municipalities headed by the Kurdish-led HDP (People’s Democratic Party) are deeply in debt. It appears that this situation is being exacerbated by the AKP, which probably hopes to win votes in the general elections to be held in August later this year. This is one possible scenario in that regard: Funds will not be provided to municipalities in the region during this period of turmoil, refugees’ needs in the camps will not be met, local residents will sink deeper into poverty (the economy is becoming increasingly uncertain), and problems will arise with the refugees – and, in the meantime, everyone will struggle to get through the winter. In this situation, the AKP will come along in August and say, “Look, you voted for these people but they haven’t done anything for you, so vote for us.” It thus appears that the AKP will use this state of affairs to their own advantage. How else can it be explained? When people are living in such poverty, how else can you explain this lack of effort, this refusal to reach out for international aid? It is my hope that we are mistaken and that steps will be taken in that direction.
“Our forefathers massacred the Yazidis, but now we will look after them”
The inhabitants of the region are considerate when it comes to the camps. The reason for this is again about history. We were told that the region is the original homeland of the Yazidis and that fifty to sixty percent of the Yazidis who moved to the area of Shengal were originally from there. A hundred years ago, their lands were confiscated solely for economic reasons during the upheaval of the times. We were told that the Yazidis, as with the Assyrians and Armenians, were victims of genocide, and we were told that the local Kurds, whose forefathers carried out that genocide, felt that they had to look after the Yazidi refugees out of a sense of moral responsibility. The locals told us that the Yazidis had returned to their true homeland and that they should stay.
The peace process is being experienced very differently in the east and west of Turkey. In the west, the official conclusion of the “Kurdish conflict,” along with the fact that soldiers are no longer being killed and the budget allocated for the conflict has now been set aside for other purposes, has led many to feel pleased and relieved. However, people living in the west of Turkey did not feel the effects of the conflict and wartime migration as harshly as people living in the east, and as a result, discussions of the peace process have remained limited. It is my hope that debates can be raised that will lead to positive results so that a different Turkey can emerge in both the west and east through the initiative of individuals, companies, associations, and civil society organizations. Perhaps the best approach would be one that simplifies the problem rather than proposing complicated analyses. Even though the notions may seem worn-out, maybe our foundational criteria should be our self-defining conscience and the importance of human life. It is easy to find justifications to not live together in peace, but it is just as easy to invoke our humanity. By changing our perspective, we just may find that it is easier than we ever thought to lead honorable lives.
As we were walking the streets of Diyarbakır, we came across a bookstore in Sülüklü Han. Güler bought me a copy of Hagop Mintzuri’s book Crane, From Where Do You Come? which was released by Aras Publishing. I had never read his work before. When I was in Diyarbakır, I didn’t have a chance to read it, but on the plane to Istanbul, I started reading the back cover. As I set out on my journey back home, nothing could have described my state of mind at that moment as well as the words of Hagop Mintzuri:
“For us, it didn’t matter if we suckled from our own mother’s breast or not. If she wasn’t around in the village, they would take us to any woman who happened to be lactating. That’s how it was in the fields as well. It didn’t matter if the woman was Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, or Kızılbaş, they would put us in their lap so we could suckle. They were happy to do it. And they were afraid of God. If they were to withhold their milk, God would punish and never forgive them.”
Mintzuri’s life was filed with suffering, but I was deeply struck by his words. We may take shelter in any belief or worldview, religious or otherwise, but the critical issue is that we have a point of reference that stops us from committing, and approving of, malignant acts. I wish that our ranks were filled with more people who held to tenets like that.
Aysan Sonmez is a journalist in Istanbul.