CULTURAL and natural heritage are frequent casualties of war – often deliberately so. Sometimes, as in the predominantly Kurdish areas of south-east Turkey, the “war” may not be officially recognised as such, but that can make the cultural war even more intense.

With so many human casualties, it can seem an indulgence to concern oneself with other losses, but, especially for those who daily risk their lives, culture and nature matter. And it is hard to envisage a greater deliberate attack on both culture and nature than the Ilisu Dam, which, when it is filled – and Turkey is threatening to start this at any moment – will drown the 12,000-year-old town of Hasankeyf and surrounding archaeology, disrupt the ecology of the Tigris valley and affect the water supply of everywhere downstream, including the Iraqi marshes.

The dam has displaced approaching 80,000 people – including those forcibly evacuated earlier and nomadic communities who don’t appear in official counts.

This is Upper Mesopotamia, an area often described as the cradle of civilisation. Hasankeyf caves were first used in the Neolithic period, 12,000 years ago. Later, it became an important stop on the Silk Road, and the hugely picturesque town, until the forced displacements, was still a living community of Kurds and Arabs. It is an architectural record of developments through the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods. Hundreds of known archaeological sites will vanish under the water – along with many more yet undiscovered – and the history they could tell will vanish with them.

All that will be left above the surface will be a small part of Hasankeyf fortress, with new tourist landing stage, and seven monuments that have been relocated to sit together, out of context, in a sterile “cultural park”.

When the waters rise, 136km of unique river ecosystem will be lost forever, with unpredictable consequences; 313 square kilometres of land will be flooded, and there are fears for the viability of adjacent farms as salination levels alter.

Like so many unwanted developments, the Ilisu Dam is being promoted through green-washing and promises of economic growth. It is expected to produce 1200 megawatts of electricity, but, as numerous ecological organisations have pointed out, power can be produced without approaching this level of environmental destruction, especially with recent progress in solar technology.

Turkish ethnic nationalism has ensured that Kurdish areas have generally seen little by way of investment. A massive project for 22 dams (now increased to 29) was first proposed for south-east Turkey in the 1970s.

But, although it was promoted as bringing development to an undeveloped region, many Kurds see this as an example of exploitation by the Turkish government in Ankara.

Like most of the electricity, the great majority of the economic gains are predicted to flow out of the area, with the only local beneficiaries being a few larger businesses and big landowners.

Compensation for those losing their homes is inadequate, particularly when compared with the cost of homes in the purpose-built new town, and for those who own no land there is nothing to help them restart their lives.

Protesters have come from Iraq and Syria, downstream from the dams, as well as from a wide range of local and international organisations.

Even hard-nosed European credit agencies have taken notice of the widespread opposition, and of Turkey’s failure to meet environmental, social and cultural conditions, and have withdrawn funding from the Ilisu Dam. The Turkish government has been left to organise construction and support the close to €2 billion cost almost on its own.

The area is heavily guarded and protest is severely restricted, as has become normal in Turkey, especially in the Kurdish south-east.

This is about more than electricity. The Ilisu Dam is also a mechanism for political power, both within and outwith Turkey’s borders.

Control over the water supply gives Turkey political leverage over its downstream neighbours.

For the Kurds in Turkey, the devastation of the region’s culture and ecology, and the uprooting of settled communities, are clearly seen not as incidental casualties of development, but as part of a decades-long attack on Kurdish identity. Ethnic nationalism is a foundational ideology of the modern Turkish republic, and Kurdish resistance to attempts at forced assimilation has been met by harsh measures.

Kurds have described the situation in south-east Turkey as internal colonisation, and their struggle for freedom from this colonial control has seen guerrilla fighters take on the forces of the state, as well as – repeatedly crushed – attempts to defend Kurdish culture and existence through political means.

Forced clearances of Kurdish villages have been a recurrent instrument of state control, and Turkey has also demonstrated its readiness to destroy historical monuments in Kurdish areas, as well as outlawing and attacking less material forms of Kurdish cultural expression.

Suppression of minority culture – from language to buildings – is, of course, a standard form of political control.

Turkish government destruction in the Kurdish region goes way beyond their more general readiness to sacrifice historical areas to the property speculators, as demonstrated by the fate of the 4000-year-old walled city of Sur.

Here, support for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and attempts at creating a level of autonomous organisation, have been punished by government appropriation and forced evacuation of the entire old city, and by the physical destruction of some 40% of its built fabric.

Part of the destruction was the result of brutal military crackdown, but most postdates this, and has been accompanied by ethnic cleansing of the inhabitants, as well as real-estate speculation.

One of the casualties of the Turkish invasion of Afrin, in early 2018, was Ain Dara temple. Although it was surrounded by countryside and of no military significance, Turkish bombs reduced its 3000-year-old lion statues to rubble.

Kurdish sources have also documented how the Turkish government has resorted to a scorched-earth policy in its attempt to make Kurdish areas unsustainable. Trees and crops have been deliberately burnt in both south-east Turkey and north-east Syria.

While Daesh sleeper cells have claimed responsibility for the majority of the Syrian fires, and some suspicion has also fallen on supporters of Assad’s Syrian regime, video evidence shows Turkey contributing to this deliberate economic sabotage.

But the Kurds are far from giving up hope. Even at this 11th hour, the defenders of Hasankeyf are continuing to make their case. There have been international protests, including one in London that was met with some heavy-handed policing. And today, an international gathering of activists will be drawing attention to what is at stake by taking a protest jump into the waters of the still unflooded Tigris.

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