Women bid farewell to their submerged homes in Turkey’s ancient city

Habibe Sacik sat on the banks of the Tigris and cried.

“I came to see my village one last time,” she said days before the waters of the controversial Ilisu Dam flooded her village along with dozens of others. “Wherever you go, how far you walk, home is home. You feel his loss.

Sacik is one of two women who tell the story of the region through the eyes of women, in a new documentary called “Siya Ave”, which means “Shadow of water” in Kurdish. Traveling along the banks of the Tigris, the two women recount their lives impacted by the Turkish government’s pet project in southeastern Anatolia, the Ilisu Dam. Ilisu is Turkey’s largest hydroelectric dam and the crown jewel of the Southeastern Anatolian project. But it also overwhelms Hasankeyf, a 12,000-year-old town in the southeastern province of Batman and home to many of Mesopotamia’s civilizations. Some 80,000 people have already left the lands of their ancestors and reluctantly moved to the proposed new settlements, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) away.

The village of Sacik, Celtikbasi, is not in Hasankeyf of international renown but further east, in the district of Kurtalan in Siirt. Located in the Tigris Valley, Celtikbasi, along with half a dozen neighboring villages, were also freed last year.

Sacik, who moved to Batman, visited his village one last time, along with his childhood best friend, Firyaz Yoksu, who had moved to Istanbul decades ago. Yoksu is also the mother of the documentary’s director, journalist Metin Yoksu.

The 25-minute documentary shows how the women travel one last time to their village and other parts of the region, sharing memories and telling their family stories. “We will not forget our village – never,” Yoksu said on camera. “But our grandchildren won’t see it.”

Sacik added: “It was our great-grandfather who settled here, my parents were born here. I was cooking when I heard that the rising waters had reached the neighboring village. So I came straight away, I knew I had little time to see him one last time.

As Sacik took a bus from the nearby town, Yoksu asked his son to drive her from Istanbul, which took a whole day. “I had to see him one last time,” she said. “I know I will carry my hometown longing to my grave.”

The history of the controversial Southeast Dam dates back to the 1950s and more than 60 years of campaigning against its construction, despite the benefits it would bring to the water-scarce region. After many zigzags of consecutive governments, construction began with a ceremony in 2006 attended by then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Eleven years later, in May 2017, authorities moved the mausoleum of 15th-century warrior Zeynel Bey in a staged show designed to silence critics by supposedly showing the government respects historical heritage.

For locals, moving the tomb was the last nail in the coffin. “I knew that once the grave was moved, nothing, no one could stay in Hasankeyf,” said Sacide Yagan, who watched the move from the terrace of his old house, now underwater. “I knew we had to move very, very soon – both the living and the dead,” she told Al-Monitor.

Other artifacts were moved, although some remained and residents were gradually moved to their own homes. The slowly rising waters began to engulf the valleys, then the neighboring villages and finally the historic district.

Many women say they were the ones who cared the most about leaving their homes, where they have spent most of their lives. “I lived in the same house for 50 years, raised all my children there,” Emine Demirkan, a 70-year-old resident of Hasankeyf, told Al-Monitor. “We built this house ourselves, making improvements whenever we had a little cash. Then we stopped because we realized we had to leave the house. We will get 230,000 Turkish lira [$37,800] for this house. We didn’t want it at first but we would have to take it, what else can we do? The new house is way too small, we have spent a lot to make it habitable.

Another woman was crying, “I have so much to say, but no words, only pain. I don’t want to leave my house, but what can I do? she sobbed, but shook her head when asked her name, reluctant to give it.

Not all Hasankeyf residents have been offered a new home in the new town, ten kilometers away. Those who did not submit their application on time were rejected on the grounds that there was no longer a home for them.

Nilufer Iridil, 34, whose husband is unemployed, told Al-Monitor she did not know what to do because they applied late and did not have accommodation in the new town. “This is my house and this is all I have. We have no jobs, no employers. We have three children. Where will we go? We will go live in caves if we have no choice.

Her mother, Remziye Celik, lived in the cave dwellings that surrounded the town and gave birth to her first child in the cave before moving to a house in old Hasankeyf, Iridil said. The Celik family now have a house in the new Hasankeyf. “But my mother is not happy,” added Iridil. “She misses the old town, the old quarter and she misses me.

Kadriye Atmaca, 67, mother of eight, was packing when Al-Monitor spoke to her. “We love our homes very much and it is with tears that we leave. We only do it because we have to. We grew up here, we love it here. We are not going there voluntarily. I will not forget Hasankey – my paradise – until I die. I will tell my grandchildren about it and show the photos, ”she said.

About John A. Provost

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