Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
Another letter from Turkey. In which, again, are noted some observations on the situation the south-east.
Turkey, April 2016
I am back in Turkey’s southeast, again. And, to be honest, this time a lot more people were concerned, more than ever before, about me leaving – even friends from Turkey were asking if it really was a good idea to go there, now. Yet here I am, and while indeed a lot has happened in the meantime, the situation looks a bit more differentiated from the inside.
Of course, things were getting more tense recently. Civil war and uncivilised conflict still are shattering the East, casting a long shadow even beyond. Terror made a comeback to the news – even if it only seemed to gain much attention when closing on us here in western Europe. Repeated bombings and attacks took place in Paris and Brussels in the last months, blasts hitting Ankara and Istanbul as well. And with these, media attention was focussing again onto those conflicts further south and east, covering regions which almost seemed to have lost ‘headline value’ since it became so common to hear these names and places linked to fighting, terror, and destruction.
Yet returning to fieldwork, returning to Turkey and to the Syrian border region again means to answer the worries of those left behind. Curious friends and anxious family kept asking the same questions again: Is it safe there? Isn’t that a bit too close to all the fighting we’ve seen on TV? And of course, the answers basically did not change much from what could have been said two years ago already. Or four years even. Yes, my friend, this conflict is a lasting one …
But what did change since my last letter written from here just about six months ago? You may remember that I mentioned general elections in Turkey left a ‘hung parliament’, the governing party losing its majority and a new elections having called for. Well, of course, these new elections took place long since … and the social conservative ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP) regained parliamentary majority in the wake of rapidly declining internal security. Since then the situation seems not even improving, I’m afraid – at least that’s what news reports seem to imply. Meanwhile the political relationship between Turkey and the EU, with Germany in particular has been cooling down quite a bit due to apparently different views regarding internal security laws, the extent of free speech, and a few other issues circling around a ‘deal’ regarding Syrian refugees and Turkey’s bid for EU membership. Conflict in the country’s southeast seems to be reaching new heights as well – inside as well as beyond the border.
So, basically, that was the situation I was returning to. ‘And’, I can hear you asking, ‘what is it like?’ Well, coming back to Urfa, coming back to these russet mountains and dusty plains … somehow also feels like returning home a bit. A second home so to say, far from family and friends. No, wait … ‘other friends’ would be a more fitting term, actually. I never really thought about it that way, but maybe somehow feeling at home here significantly may have changed my perception of the whole situation. While the German Foreign Office now officially advises to better skip any journeys which are not “absolutely necessary” to the south-eastern Turkish provinces, our research still seems to count as essential enough. – So, here I am. Back again. And as strange as you might find it with all these pictures on TV and competent analyses in mind: people are just living their lives. Go figure. We may follow the situation in newspaper and TV, shaking heads and forming opinions – but they arrange with it. They simply have to. Because: this is everyday life. Their everyday life, and for the time being, mine as well.
I’ve got to admit, however, that I was a bit surprised upon my arrival. Like already in Istanbul, the Turkish flag was literally omnipresent here too. Every official building was flagged in red without exception; streets, places, and apartment buildings were following suit. Maybe I’m too German about this, but first I simply thought of it as visible expression of a growing Turkish self-confidence or nationalism in the light of recent EU membership negotiations (and, honestly, would you blame them?). Yet, it just turned out that apparently I arrived during some local holidays or anniversaries – and the both of us know that this, of course!, asks for some decent flagging without question.
But there were other subtle nuances. A vague shadow hinting at these bigger events in the background we’ve seen in the media. First thing I noticed was a significant decrease in people, visitors and tourists I mean. Western tourists in particular. I somewhere read, arrivals visiting Turkey dropped by almost 30% lately – and I’m quite believing these numbers based on my own experience. Already en route to Istanbul this was most certainly noticeable: the huge aircraft was operating way below capacity and where usually long lines of people are waiting at airport security and passport control, only slowly moving towards officers behind counter windows checking and stamping passports, we could progress rather quickly this time (which, I’m honest here, was quite welcome).
The streets of old Urfa itself and its picturesque old bazaar were of course still buzzing with bustling activity, yet again European tourists not exactly standing out. Rarely would one encounter western travellers in the region now. Too close seems the border to war-torn Syria, too bad seems the region’s standing as of late. Also, at our excavation site – now all equipped by Turkish authorities with newly established visitor centre and shuttle busses – guests have become an exception. Where just two years ago coaches blocked the small dusty parking lot almost every day, releasing up to 1,000 visitors upon the site at times, now rarely tourists dropped by, foreign tourists practically not at all anymore.
Yet, something I didn’t really notice until my local friends pointed it out to me during a stroll was the presence of Syrian refugees in town. The number of about half up to a million Syrians just in the Urfa region sounds a bit exaggerated, but it is true that lot more street merchants, vendors, and waiters seem to have come from across the border. I still remember the 100,000 people crossing the border back then we were here in 2014; a lot of them then embarking on some incredible trek full of deprivation through Europe, reaching Germany and the news only about a year later or so. This so-called Balkan route is permanently closed now, Turkey becoming some kind of gate keeper, taking in a large, an ever-growing number of refugees itself. Among them the people we meet in the streets of Urfa. People who abandoned their houses and former lives, now trying to make ends meet here – so close to home that they could even see it … but still worlds away.
So, yes, change is starting to become visible – even beyond the reinforced walls of local armed forces bases …