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Tuesday, 1 August, 2000, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
Time running out for cultural treasure
The site of the proposed dam
Flooding the Tigris would leave thousands homeless
By Penny Young

When the temperature is hovering around 45C, there is nothing quite like sitting in the cool fish-filled waters of the River Tigris in south-eastern Turkey.

I was actually sitting in a chair in the river at Hasankeyf in one of the many tea houses set up in the river shallows. I sat in the river up to my knees sipping tea, trying to think cool thoughts.

If it were in western Europe, Hasankeyf would be a premier listed site of international importance

It was not just the weather that was hot. An incident the previous evening had also raised my blood pressure.

My visit to the south-east of Turkey had coincided with a fact-finding tour by two British Members of Parliament. Anne Clwyd and Peter Lloyd had come to Turkey to see for themselves the historical town of Hasankeyf. The town is set to be inundated when the Ilisu dam is built.

Ilisu is a word that now sends shudders through the UK Government which has to decide whether to support Balfour Beatty, part of the international consortium which wants to build the dam. The inundation would displace about 20,000 people, mainly ethnic Kurds and the issue has turned into a huge environmental and human rights row.

The Turks are not too fond of British parliamentarians marching into their country, as they see it, to make trouble. So they sent the police at midnight to the hotel where they were staying to "check" their papers. The snag was they sent them to my hotel too.

Would I come down to reception to show them my passport? No, I said. They already had a photocopy of the details. What is more it was a disgrace to bother a lone foreign woman at midnight like this and I would complain in the morning.

Incredibly they gave up at that point and went away. Rather melodramatically, I barricaded my door with a television and a chair and spent the night wondering if there was an easier way to make a living.

Tourist spot

As I drove off to Hasankeyf the next day, I was apprehensive about being stopped along the way. But with the Kurdish PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, now behind bars, there are far fewer security checks in the south-east.

And as I approached Hasankeyf, I forgot all about the shadows of midnight. Nothing had prepared me for such a spectacular sight. The monumental remains of the 12th century Selcuk stone bridge march across the Tigris. A sheer cliff towers up over the southern river bank with a castle like an eagle in an eyrie perched at the top.

Many of the Kurds say that Hasankeyf is their last stand, the last remnant of what is left of any Kurdish identity and dignity.

On the northern river bank is a 15th century tomb of a Turkoman King decorated with blue-glazed bricks, redolent of Samarkand. There are rock caves, bathhouses, water systems, mosques, temples and churches, stairs and passageways.

If it were in western Europe, Hasankeyf would be a premier listed site of international importance. But it is in south-eastern Turkey and for the last decade or so has been practically inaccessible because of vicious Turkish-Kurdish fighting.

The Ilisu dam would inundate much of the area including Hasankeyf. The Turks say it would provide electricity they badly need. The country uses only 15% of the power consumed by other countries in Western Europe. More supplies must be generated, they say, to feed the developing economy.

The Ilisu dam would be the final part of the massive south eastern Anatolian water project to create hydro-electric power and, the Turks say, to improve the economic standard of the people, mainly ethnic Kurds, living in the south east.

High price

Sitting in my cool chair that hot summer Sunday, I watched the day-trippers enjoy Hasankeyf. They come in their hundreds at the weekend, old people, young people, children, sheep, cows and goats. They arrive on bicycles, donkeys and motorbikes, in cars and mini buses and on foot. The barbecues smoke, the kids swim and the sugar spoons tinkle in the tea glasses.

Nobody I spoke to was in favour of the dam. The lives of the Kurds have been severely disrupted by the civil war. Two to three thousand villages have already been destroyed and two to three million people displaced.

Many of the Kurds say that Hasankeyf is their last stand, the last remnant of what is left of any Kurdish identity and dignity. Turkey's critics say the government knows that - which is why they want it obliterated. The Turks of course deny these are their motives in building the Ilisu dam.

A senior official from the Turkish State Water Works told me that Turkey realises there are question marks hanging over the environmental impact of dams. But, he said, Turkey was a poor country and could not afford not to exploit its natural resources.

There is no doubt Turkey needs more electricity and a higher standard of living. But the loss of such a cultural treasure as Hasankeyf seems a high price to pay.

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