Frontline: Dogubayazit - Trade dies in the land of lost Ark

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The Independent Online
AT NIGHT the streets of Dogubayazit are patrolled by police in armoured troop carriers. As they thunder around the dirt streets, it's hard to believe this tiny frontier town is one of the main tourist centres of eastern Turkey. By day Dogubayazit is dominated by the view of Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah's Ark and the main attraction. But the mountain is strictly off-limits to foreigners.

It is a base for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is a source of tension between Turkey and Syria.

Mustafa Sanman makes his living by driving tourists to the region's sights. He is a young man, dark-haired, with a stubbly beard.

Like almost everyone in Dogubayazit, he is Kurdish. "Ten years ago Dogubayazit was full of tourists. There were so many that hotels outside the town were full. Now those hotels have closed. The village schools have been closed too."

The war between the Turkish state and the PKK hit Dogubayazit badly. In late 1993 and early 1994, a taxi- driver told me, the fighting got so bad he abandoned work and fled to Istanbul for six months. Mr Sanman points out the scenes of clashes as he drives past.

He is not a PKK supporter, but he does not entirely regret its arrival. "Before the PKK came, if you spoke Kurdish or played Kurdish music in Dogubayazit, the police beat you up. Now it's not so bad. We've no problem with the soldiers. I did my own compulsory military service. The police make the problems." Mustafa Sanman is not his real name: "If I told you my real name the police might come round for me.

"The terrorists don't come to the town any more; it's safe now," he says. A few tourists have begun to drift back, but not in the numbers that used to come. "For the last three years it's been better than it was. Twenty bus groups have come this year." An en-suite hotel-room still costs just over pounds 3, an indication of how little demand there is.

Although Mount Ararat is closed to visitors, there is plenty to see. Archaeologists claim to have found Noah's Ark, not on Ararat, but on a nearby mountain.

The Ishak Pasha Saray, a beautiful Kurdish palace on a desolate hillside near the town, is one of the postcard images of eastern Turkey. But today the road to it leads past a parking area for tanks.

Dogubayazit is only 35km from the border with Iran. Many tourists come here to start overland trails across Asia. "I'm a bit worried about being mistaken for an American in Pakistan after they bombed Osama bin Laden," says Koichi Sato, a Japanese student on his way to China.

Near the border post is a crater made by a meteor, claimed to be the second-largest in the world. By day the frontier, visible from here, is quiet.

There is plenty going on that the tourists don't see. "At night the PKK cross the border," says Mr Sanman. "They spend the day sheltering in villages on the Iranian side, then cross to Ararat in the dark. The soldiers here are too scared to do much about it. They're just ordinary guys from Istanbul or Izmir doing their military service." The Turkish Foreign Ministry confirms "there are security problems on that border. We hope the Iranians will address those problems."

Mr Sanman says Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban regime also cross the border by night. "They're given shelter in the villages, then transported to Istanbul, from where they try and go on to Europe."

He says there are still casualties on Mount Ararat. "Two teenage kids were blown up in a village on the mountain this year. We don't know who did it."

The Turkish Tourism Ministry says Dogubayazit is safe for tourists, although it advises visitors to be careful. "A lot of English people come, most of them young," says Mr Sanman. "We also get Germans, Americans, Dutch, Chinese." Tourists in the area seemed unconcerned. "If you travel by day there is no problem at all," says Eric Saignol, from France. "In this area, you have to respect the people. But even if you're stupid, the most dangerous places are closed to tourists." Shigeo Kano, from Tokyo agrees. "I think it's all exaggerated."

Mr Sanman says: "I don't want a Kurdish state. The village chiefs would get all the power: it would be bad for the rest of us. All I want is a Kurdish identity, Kurdish schools, Kurdish television. And I want the war to end now. A lot of us want it to end. There are families where one brother is a soldier and another a PKK guerrilla. Why should they fight a war?"