The rising tide of destruction

'This is the EU's message:rape your countryside, turnpeople out of their homes,destroy priceless artefacts,so long as we make money'

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The other day, I saw a poster advertising holidays in Turkey. It had all the usual images: Istanbul, the ruins of Ephesus, sunset over the sea. But there were no pictures of the two most unforgettable places I have ever been in Turkey: Hasankeyf and the Zeugma valley. But then that's no surprise, because the Turkish government is busy destroying them both - and the British government wants to bankroll the obliteration of Hasankeyf.

The other day, I saw a poster advertising holidays in Turkey. It had all the usual images: Istanbul, the ruins of Ephesus, sunset over the sea. But there were no pictures of the two most unforgettable places I have ever been in Turkey: Hasankeyf and the Zeugma valley. But then that's no surprise, because the Turkish government is busy destroying them both - and the British government wants to bankroll the obliteration of Hasankeyf.

You would think, now the Kurdish war is over, that the suffering might end in south-east Turkey. But, at this very moment, people are being forced to leave their homes there against their will, their villages are being destroyed, the orchards they tended all their lives are being torn down. All too familiar: only the motivation has changed. The Turkish authorities used to clear villages to starve support for the Kurdish rebels. Now they are doing it to make way for dams.

Dams such as the Ilisu dam, which will force 20,000 people from their homes and destroy Hasankeyf, one of the oldest towns in the world, which has stood for thousands of years. Yet Tony Blair's government wants to give the British company Balfour Beatty export credit guarantees to finance the construction of Ilisu.

The dam is part of the South-East Anatolia Project (Gap), a series of 22 dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, ostensibly to revitalise the impoverished south-east with irrigation and hydroelectric power. They should also provide enough excess electricity for lucrative exports, and will allow Ankara to control the flow of water downstream to Syria and Iraq - neither of which factors officially figured in the decision to go ahead with the project, of course.

Hasankeyf has been in the news a lot recently. But you can't really get a sense of the place from television pictures and photographs. You have to go there, travel through the tense town of Batman to the north, which used to be the Turkish capital of "mystery killings", where day after day prominent Kurds were gunned down in broad daylight and the police never caught the killers. Or through the Christian town of Midyat to the south, where a tiny Syrian Orthodox community hung on through some of the worst fighting of the war, distrusted by both sides and in constant peril.

In the midst of all this, Hasankeyf remained a place of comparative calm. It has survived 15 years of bloody civil war, only to be destroyed now. I remember driving into Hasankeyf, after the endless military road blocks of south-east Turkey. My first view of the place was of a shepherd driving his flock down to drink from the Tigris river, while children splashed in the water alongside. The locals were busy grilling fish caught from the river by the shore. They ate it sitting in the ancient cave houses carved out of the living rock of Hasankeyf. These people had lived in harmony with the river all their lives - as one local put it, "Hasankeyf is the Tigris." Yet soon the Tigris will rise and destroy it.

Driving into the Zeugma valley provided a similar sense of suddenly arriving somewhere special. After mile on mile of barren scenery, suddenly you were in the midst of a luxuriant green valley, the farmers sheltering from the sun under their pistachio trees, in acres of orchards watered by the Euphrates. But that is gone forever now. Even as I write, the waters are rising inexorably in the Zeugma valley, destroying the beautiful carved stone houses of Halfeti and Enes, the huge unexcavated ancient cities of Zeugma and Apameia, and, say archaeologists, probably dozens of priceless ancient mosaics.

They found the first mosaic last year - since then they have excavated a collection they say rivals the finest in the world, and that was only the few they had time for. The archaeologists begged the Turkish authorities to give them more time to properly excavate the area. Magnanimously, the authorities delayed flooding - by one week.

Nobody seems to grasp the scale of cultural destruction that will be wrought by Gap. It is not just a case of one ancient town being flooded. The earliest human civilisations began along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. For centuries after, civilisations flourished there. All left traces - many still unexcavated, like the mosaics of Zeugma. But the remains are not on the high barren ground that will remain dry, but on the river banks that will be flooded. Turkey is wiping out a vast area of cultural importance, of which Hasankeyf and the Zeugma mosaics are just the most visible symbols.

The rising waters are destroying people's homes in the Zeugma valley as well. I remember reading somewhere that people in the valley were pleased to be being moved to new, modern towns. And I remember Ayse Yigit standing before my eyes in the garden she tended for 60 years - a garden that will be gone by now - with tears streaming down her face, saying: "You cannot know how much I don't want to leave."

A lot of nonsense has been said and written about the Turkish dams. Such as the promise from Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the minister responsible for granting export credits, that they would only be granted on condition that "as much as possible" of Hasankeyf is saved. Obviously it slipped Mr Byers's attention that Hasankeyf is carved from soft living rock - so there's little chance of saving much from the waters.

Twenty per cent of "what is culturally valuable" could be saved, according to Professor Olus Arik of Ankara University, the head of the archaeological dig at Hasankeyf.

Mr Byers says export credits will only be granted when Britain is assured that enough is being done for those who are being forced out of their homes. In the Zeugma valley, the people were promised much - but little was delivered. Those who opted for cash compensation were not given all their money at once - "in case they go out and waste it all getting drunk" according to one official. Instead they were given staggered payments. Because of chronic devaluation of the Turkish lira, later payments were worth a fraction of what had been promised. The final payment was made very late in the day, leaving them terrified in their soon-to-be flooded homes as the dam neared completion.

Those who opted to move into villages specially built by the state were left terrified too. Five months before the waters actually started to flow, construction of their new homes hadn't started. No one had told the villagers when the water would come. Still, it was an improvement on the earlier Ataturk dam, which displaced 50,000 people, who were promised nothing and got nothing.

But, provided Turkey makes the right assurances, Mr Byers tells us he is "minded" to grant export credits. The Blair government says the Ilisu dam will be built anyway, whether Britain finances it or not. Probably true - but that doesn't mean we may as well make a profit from it.

What signals are we sending Turkey about the European Union it is so keen to join? EU members now scramble to get a slice of the profits from building the Gap dams, promising export credits and the like, just months after Turkey was accepted as a candidate country.

We tell Turkey human rights are important, but our actions hardly match our words. This is the message of the EU: rape your countryside, turn your people out of their homes, destroy priceless cultural artefacts, so long as we all make money.

When it's all gone, when I am one of those who can say we saw Hasankeyf before it was destroyed, when the people have forgotten how they once lived in harmony with the rivers, I think the politicians in power in Turkey will be come to be remembered most for the destruction they wrought on their country for the sake of the dams.

Does Mr Blair want to be remembered with them?

huggler@volny.cz

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