Hasankeyf: A Story of Resistance

Sign from the Kurdish village Hasenkeyf

For millennia the Tigris River has wound through southeastern Turkey. Near the border of present-day Syria, it carved out limestone cliffs along its broad valley, creating a spectacular canyon ecosystem where migrating birds rest. Several rare species still call the valley home, including the striped hyena and the Euphrates soft-shelled turtle.

Settlement at the site, known as Hasankeyf, has persisted for 12,000 years. Neolithic humans dug caves into the cliffs, the first of thousands, and at least a dozen cultures since then have left their mark: the town was a Roman fortress, a Byzantine bishopric, an Islamic center, and a commercial node on the Silk Road. In 1515 the Ottoman Empire absorbed it. Today, as part of modern Turkey, the fertile lands in the surrounding valley are dotted with almost 200 villages, inhabited by about 55,000 Kurdish subsistence farmers, adhering to ancient lifeways.
The soil they till also holds an estimated 300 archaeological sites, of which only 14 have been excavated. Excavations here have led to rewrites of paleohistory. The town's rich architectural heritage features several hundred medieval buildings, including ornate mosques and other long-preserved monuments, either freestanding or cut into the limestone, while a medieval castle and palace perch on a cliff. It is "one of the best-preserved medieval sites in Turkey," said Zeynep Ahunbay, a professor of architectural history at Istanbul Technical University.
In just a few years, however, those 12,000 years of continuous settlement are scheduled to come to an abrupt end. At a village called Ilisu on the Tigris, the Turkish government is constructing a massive 453-foot-high hydroelectric dam that will hold back the meandering waters and create an enormous reservoir. It will submerge ancient Hasankeyf, with its caves and monuments, beneath a 121-square-mile artificial lake. It will submerge most of the 300 archaeological sites and the rich ecosystem. It will also submerge the Kurdish villages and farms—95 of them will vanish entirely in the flood, while another 104 will be partially affected. The Kurdish villagers will lose not only their homes and communities, but their livelihoods.
The Turkish government says it will take precautions. It has designated a spot about a mile north of the town, on higher ground, to which the architectural heritage could be physically relocated. Some of the buildings and monuments could be dismantled and reconstructed there, it suggested, in a new Archaeology Park.
But the relocation would sever the monuments' relationship to topography and thereby strip them of their dignity and aesthetic value. They would stand on a small inclination, not amid dramatic caves and cliffs. The relocation project would hardly recreate the ambience of the historic town. Rather, the Archaeology Park would be a small open-air museum exhibiting fragments of 12 monuments. The rest of the old structures will be lost forever.
Archaeologists, art historians, architects, environmentalists, human rights organizations, NGOs, and preservationists have all condemned the project. The Kurdish Human Rights Project opposes it. On June 6, 2007, the World Monuments Fund listed Hasankeyf on its 2008 Watch List of the World's 100 Most Endangered Sites.

The Community Mobilizes

The Ilisu Dam Project has actually been contemplated since the 1980s, but social and environmental concerns always held it back. In 2002 the British company Balfour Beatty and the Swedish-based Skanska, once backers, withdrew. But the project resurfaced in January 2006, when the prime minister announced its revival. Outraged, the community mobilized to resist and activists formed the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive (IKHA). "The dam will bring only destruction for us," said one of the organizers, Ercan Ayboga, a former hydrologist at Bauhaus University in Germany, now a local resident. "There will be no benefit for the people of the region."
At the groundbreaking ceremony on August 4, 2006, 10,000 demonstrated against it. The IKHA has gone on to improvise a brilliant campaign by continuing to organize rallies in Hasankeyf, like the one on May 20, 2007, where 2,000 people from the valley protested under banners that read, "The Ilisu dam massacres history," "Don't destroy 10,000 years of history for 50 years of energy," and "No resettlement." But such demonstrations were only the beginning for IKHA.
In March 2007, the governments of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria announced that they would support the Ilisu Dam Project by providing Export Credit Guarantees (ECGs). These financial instruments are guarantees that a bank will receive payment for its loans. They insure financing against, for example, political acts on behalf of workers' rights, human rights, or the environment. They are typically used to finance projects in developing countries.
Three banks—Société Générale (Switzerland), UniCredit/Bank Austria, and DekaBank (Germany)—agreed to loan the Ilisu project approximately 450 million euros. The Turkish government (in the form of the DSI, the water ministry), the banks, and the three governments signed an agreement, but to address the social and ecological concerns, the three governments tried to force the project to meet World Bank standards for environmental and cultural protection. They attached 153 conditions to the ECGs, such as:
•    the Turkish government was to inform area residents about the project and their rights;
•    offer them resettlement on comparable agricultural land;
•    compensate them adequately;
•    and set up a grievance process, in case of violations.
Since the ECGs were sponsored by governments, the taxpayers of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria would be financing the project. So sympathetic Germans, Swiss, and Austrians joined an international campaign to stop Ilisu, including the Berne Declaration, WEED (World Economy, Ecology and Development), ECA-Watch, Counter-Current, and numerous action groups. They and the IKHA wrote letters to the three governments and the three banks, explaining the situation and urging them to reconsider their support. To document their concerns, they undertook fact-finding missions to Ilisu, and Karabayir, the two villages nearest the dam site. They also looked to see whether the DSI was adhering to its promises to meet World Bank standards.
On October 8-9, 2007, Ayboga and a Swiss representative asked the villagers what the Turkish government had told them. The DSI had offered to buy their lands, the villagers said. If they agreed to sell, the DSI said they could get good money for it and good land elsewhere in "New Hasankeyf." Some families had accepted the offer and sold their land. But when they got to "New Hasankeyf," they found it situated on a steep, rocky hill with no water supply and no fertile land. It was uninhabitable. When they suggested other sites, DSI ignored them. Additionally, DSI paid them only about half as much as they would need to buy a new house and land, even in that poor area. They suddenly found themselves homeless and landless.
The fact-finders concluded that the Turkish government was grossly violating the conditions tied to the ECGs. It was expropriating the villagers unfairly, it was shortchanging them, it had set up no grievance mechanism, and it was providing no information about their rights.
In the weeks following the release of their report, angry demonstrations by human rights organizations erupted in Europe at UniCredit/Bank Austria, and outside branches of DekaBank in 11 German towns. In November 2008, Stop Ilisu campaigners tried again to visit the Ilisu and Karabayir villages, but they were denied access. The military, who controlled the area, knew who they were and wouldn't let them in.

Government Fails To Fulfill The Conditions

Still, criticisms of the project had raised enough doubts that on December 2, 2008, the Austrian, German, and Swiss banks put their financing for the project on hold. The Turkish government had failed to fulfill the 153 conditions they concluded, but they gave the authorities 6 months to meet World Bank standards. In the meantime construction was halted.
Ayboga wrote again to the banks. The project, by its very nature, could not meet international standards, could not be made acceptable. In the whole Ilisu/Tigris region there was insufficient agricultural land available for the resettlement of tens of thousands of people. Withdraw from the project entirely, he urged.
On May 28, 2009, campaigners held an international conference in Berlin, the "Ilisu Summit." They invited the developer of the World Bank's social and environmental standards, Robert Goodland, to attend. He told the conference, "The World Bank would reject this project. The impacts are too severe; the preparations by Turkey are by far insufficient.
"Even Europe's conditions for the project are not adequate to protect the affected 60,000 people, unique cultural treasures, and the environment." He recommended that the European participants withdraw.
Güven Eken, president of the Turkish environmental organization Doga Dernegi, pointed out that no environmental impact assessment had been done, as would be the case for even a minor power plant in Europe. Hasan Janabi, a former consultant for the Iraqi Water Ministry, noted that millions of Iraqis live downstream from the dam site, dependent on the Tigris for their livelihood, and that the dam construction would diminish their water supply and the marshes of the Mesopotamian delta would even dry out.
On May 18-24, 2009, two international observers visited more Tigris villages and asked about the dam. The villagers they spoke to were terrified of losing their meager livelihoods. Some of them had been told that if they sold their land, they would get two hectares of land in New Hasankeyf, which could earn them 12,000 Turkish lira each year, but a new house would cost far more than what the government paid them for their existing homes. To earn an income, they would have to convert from subsistence farming to market farming, but two-hectare plots were too small to generate that income, especially once they bought fertilizer. The farmers refused the deal. In January 2009, the government went to the district court in Batman and in June the court forced them to sell, cutting the already-insufficient compensation amount by 40 percent, and transferred the land to the government. The farmers were ruined.
Ayboga wrote another round of letters. There's no other suitable land for these villagers, he emphasized. If they lose their present lands, they'll have to flee to big cities, but lacking skills, they will end up in slums.
More demonstrations ensued, like one on June 6, 2009 in Ankara, where a dozen organizations demonstrated against the many such destructive dams that have been planned for southeastern Turkey. (The Ilisu dam is one of a series of dams planned for southeastern Anatolia.) Artists, like the Turkish pop star Tarkan, openly criticized the dam project and Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk demanded that Hasankeyf be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (It meets nine out of the ten criteria.) The International Council on Monuments and Sites called for its protection.
Then the excavators who had been working on dismantling the old Hasankeyf monuments and moving them to Archaeology Park made a stunning announcement: it couldn't be done. Moving the monuments was technically impossible. They were made out of sand and rubble and unique masonry that would crumble if disembedded from the site. At most three or four could be moved safely, for the rest, to dismantle them would be to destroy them. Even the Turkish specialists had to admit they saw no way to rescue the most important monuments. So the whole cultural heritage would be lost.
Since the construction site was forbidden to the campaigners, Ayboga pointed out to the European bankers and governments, the IKHA could no longer get information. "Where was the vaunted right to information?" he asked them. "Where are your claimed World Bank and OECD criteria?"


On July 7, 2009, the six-month freeze ended. The governments of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland withdrew entirely from the project. They canceled the export credit guarantees. A day later the three European banks withdrew.
For the first time in the history of export finance, ECGs had been cancelled due to humanitarian, cultural, and environmental concerns. The unprecedented step was a huge victory for dam opponents. The Turkish government, they hoped, without financing and without European technical expertise, could not possibly build the dam. In September the Turkish finance minister Mahmet Simsek visited China and tried to obtain financing there but failed.
A few months later, witnesses who managed to sneak into the Ilisu village observed that dam construction had begun without DSI authorization. The IKHA asked the minister for environment, Veysel Eroglu, "What's going on? How is it possible that companies may build without authorization?"
The answer, evidently, was that it was indeed possible. Then in January 2010, two Turkish banks, Akbank and Garantibank, announced they would finance the dam construction. A week later the Turkish government arrested the mayors of Batman and Diyarbakir for opposing the dam. Twenty more local mayors joined the IKHA in a press conference, demanding that the two banks cancel their planned credit. The IKHA threatened a petition and boycott campaign against the banks if they proceeded.
Protests continued in 2010 at branches of Akbank and Garantibank in Amsterdam, London, Frankfurt, Essen, and Hannover. In April, scientists from Bogazici University in Istanbul called on the banks to withdraw their support and called on the Turkish government to apply to UNESCO for World Heritage Site status for Hasankeyf. On March 14, at the International Day of Action Against Dams, for Rivers and Livelihoods, dam opponents in more than 20 countries protested dam projects including Ilisu.
Nevertheless, in defiance of even Turkish law, dam construction continues, slated for completion in 2013. Village farms are still being expropriated for paltry compensation. The Archaeology Park will hold only simulacra of the old monuments. At least one important archaeological site has already been demolished.

Ongoing Resistance

The IKHA will continue its struggle "against all actions and attempts to destroy the historical, cultural, and natural beauties of this country," Ayboga said. "This is our basic legal, democratic, and human right, and we will exercise it. It is not a criminal act.
"The government accuses [us] of breaking the law by opposing a state project," he continued, "but Turkish law also says that 'protecting the cultural and natural assets is the task of the state' (2863th law code). So who is the guilty party here?.... We support the protection of cultural and historical heritage. Our fertile lands should not be destroyed by the dam lakes. We don't want our people to be displaced. If this is a crime, then we are criminals, and our initiative invites everyone who is sensitive about this issue to commit this crime."


Editorial Comment

First published on Z Magazine in May 2011.