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Middle East Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 14:39 GMT
Turkey's paradoxical welcome
Julian Pettifer with Iliriana Kachaniku (right) and other Kosovan refugees at the Gazi Osman Pasha camp
By Lucy Ash

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When we saw a man planting petunias and pansies by the front gate, we weren't sure whether we were in the right place. But he assured us this was indeed the Gazi Osman Pasha camp, which during the conflict in Kosovo was housing up to 8000 refugees from Kosovo.

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Near the town of Kirklarelli in northwestern Turkey, the camp is a showpiece for Turkey's aid efforts. With its shady oak trees, large children's playground and purpose-built mosque, it looks nothing like the squalid camps in Albania and Macedonia.

Once a translator for OSCE, Iliriana now teaches English in the camp under Ataturk's watchful eye
There we met 24 year old Iliriana Kachaniku, who fled from her home town of Mitrovica in Kosovo after the second night of the NATO bombing. As someone who had once worked for the OSCE's observers in the province, she felt especially at risk. After a narrow escape at the border and a gruelling two-day car journey, she had reached the camp on March 28th with her parents and younger sister.

Among the first to arrive, they were given a small room in a concrete block. Those who came later are sleeping in tents hurriedly erected by the Turkish army. Conditions are far from luxurious, but a United Nations employee told us the camp is efficiently run and one of the best he has worked in.

Turkish politicians certainly see it as an asset and a source of national pride. President Suleyman Demirel recently dropped in to distribute radios and other gifts. Before Turks went to the polls in April, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit also paid a visit after telling an election rally that "no country has done as much as Turkey to help the people of the region."

Even the Turkish football team was bussed in to be filmed handing out flags and toys to refugee children.

Turkish refugee camps have been well funded and equipped
This is not the first time Turkey has provided generous humanitarian aid to refugees. The camp, named after an Ottoman war hero, was first established in 1989 to receive some of the 300,000 Bulgarian Turks who fled the Zhivkov regime. Then came the Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s. About 200 of them are still at the camp seven year later, as the post-Dayton carve-up of Bosnia has left their villages under Serb control.

Yet the tradition of welcoming persecuted fellow Muslims from the Balkans has an even longer history. The migrations began in the 19th century when the Balkans were part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1878 the Ottomans lost a war against Russia and consequently some parts of Serbia became independent. Since then, successive waves of Muslims have left the Balkans and resettled in Turkey.

Turkey not only sees the Balkans as its backyard, but is itself home to an estimated 5 million ethnic Albanians. According to sociologist Nukhet Sirman of the Bosphorous University in Istanbul, many Turks are only now beginning to discover their Balkan roots.

She says there has been "an explosion of migration stories in the press" and people are starting to take great interest and pride in their origins.

But many Turks are still wary of discussing their backgrounds. Political scientist Professor Gun Kut says that when the Republic was founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, much of the population was made up of migrants from former parts of the Ottoman Empire.

"There were 13 million people in Turkey and the majority were not ethnic Turks, so how do you make a nation out of everybody? The solution was that the new Turkish state would not be an ethnic state - it would be blind to the ethnicity of its people."

Since Ataturk was a hardline secularist, religion could not be used to bind Turkish subjects in this "unitary state", so language became the all- important glue.

After the peace deal, Kosovan Albanians in the camp demonstrate their gratitude to Turkey
That's one reason why Turkey's Kurds, who now make up a fifth of the population, are denied the basic right of education in their own language. Most of the Turks we spoke to saw nothing paradoxical or contradictory about supporting autonomy for the Kosovars but denying those same rights to the Kurds within Turkey's own borders. And most Kosovars were equally untroubled - for them, Turkey has simply been a haven and an ally.

In the camp, the morning after we heard of the peace deal in Kosovo, the refugees erupted with joy. A huge crowd gathered to listen to Albanian folk music, read impassioned speeches and express their thanks to NATO, Turkey - and the KLA.

Turkey persistently refuses to acknowledge that it has a Kurdish problem. It admits only to problems caused by "terrorists" from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) led by Abdullah Ocalan, who any day now is likely to receive the death sentence for terrorism.

As his trial drew to a close, we asked men at opposite ends of the political spectrum what effect hanging Ocalan would have in Turkey's troubled southeast.

Altimor Killic, a columnist, retired diplomat and supporter of the ultranationalist MHP party, argues that Ocalan deserves to die for causing more than 30,000 deaths over the past two decades. But Murat Belge, a prominent liberal, feels the death penalty is not only morally wrong but would contribute to the "vendetta culture" and lead to yet more violence.

Also in this programme, we spoke to Tarkan - Turkey's favourite pop star. Known as the "Prince of the Bosphorous", the emerald-eyed, sultry 26 year-old has sold more than 5 million records in Turkey as well as topping the charts across much of Western Europe. But now he's embroiled in a national controversy: he may soon lose his citizenship because he refuses to do his 18 months of military service.

Kosovo peace celebration, Kirklarelli camp, Turkey
on the camp's Kosovar celebrations of the peace deal ...
Iliriana, Kirklareli refugee camp, June 1999
describes how the Turkish welcome raised refugees' spirits
Nukhet Sirman, Bosphorus University, June 1999
sheltering refugees is central to Turkish self-image
Simarik by Tarkan - Turkish pop (c) 1997
smash hit "Simarik"
See also:

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