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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 October 2007, 06:04 GMT 07:04 UK
Istanbul's Roma face upheaval
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Houses in the Roma settlement of Sulukule
First records of the settlement date back to 1054
A run-down district behind a decaying stretch of Istanbul's Byzantine city walls, Sulukule has been home to the Roma (Gypsies) for 10 centuries.

It is thought to be the oldest Roma settlement in the world.

But the area has been earmarked for a regeneration project the Roma fear will force them out.

The local authorities plan to buy all the buildings and replace them with Ottoman-style villas, transforming the neighbourhood.

They are offering current residents credit to buy the new houses or apartments to rent across town. But many Roma are extremely poor, and they call that unrealistic.

Eviction fears

A narrow passageway beside one lopsided house leads to a typical Sulukule scene. Tiny wooden huts line a small concrete yard. Damp washing hangs looped between the trees.

A street scene in Sulukule
The area is rapidly turning into a slum

The cramped space is home to eight families, who say it is all they can afford.

"We couldn't pay even half the rent the council wants for the new places," Kadriye says.

She has just learned that their landlord has sold his house to the authorities. The families in the yard will be also evicted.

"I've hardly slept since we heard our homes would be knocked down. By winter I'm worried we'll be out on the streets," she says.

Acrobats and jugglers

The earliest records of Roma settling in Sulukule date back to 1054.

A woman in Sulukule
Many Roma are refusing to sell up

"The whole westwards migration of Gypsies into Europe began here," says researcher Adrian Marsh. He believes this crucial piece of Roma history should be protected.

"The Gypsies practised fortune-telling then and all sorts of entertainment. They were acrobats, bear leaders, jugglers. They settled here near the city walls where it was dangerous. The walls are always where marginalised groups would be."

For centuries, the Roma continued to make a living through music and dance. Until recently Sulukule was home to nearly 40 entertainment houses.

Hugely popular with Turks and tourists, they were the heart of the local economy and community.

But the bawdy clubs were closed down in the 1990s. Unemployment now is high, the crime rate has climbed - and the area is descending into a slum.

'Great opportunity'

The local council says the motive behind its urban renewal project is providing safe, hygienic housing for the 21st Century.

A child bathes in Sulukule
The mayor says he wants to give Roma safe and hygienic housing

"We have held meetings with local house owners and tenants and this project will fulfil all their needs. It is the most social project there is," says Mayor Mustafa Demir.

"We have no intention of getting rid of the Roma. But we have to do something about this slum. I believe this project is a great opportunity for the residents."

Nine houses have already been sold and torn down in Sulukule. Heaps of shattered tiles and plastic pipes now lie in their place.

Door-to-door campaign

But many Roma are refusing to sell up.

"They're plucking people from their ancestors' land and sending us far from here," says local resident Sukru. "Who's to guarantee they won't do it again in the future?"

Other Roma say they do not want to be forced into remote apartment blocks, which will restrict their freedoms and traditional way of life.

So activists are now going door-to-door, gathering information for an alternative proposal. They believe reviving the local entertainment houses is crucial to that.

"Many musicians, many artists live here. This is Roma culture, it is very important," explains activist Hacer Foggo.

"But in this project they never think (about) their culture. They just want them to go another place, and here will be rich people. The municipality just wants profit."

The mayor believes his project will be appreciated once it is finished, offering locals the kind of lifestyle they never dreamt possible.

But the residents' protests have already stalled progress. And so long as the Roma do not truly feel part of the vision they seem determined to derail it altogether.

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