Issue 01 / Managing Risk
Turkey is sitting on a complex structure of tectonic collision, causing it to be a highly seismic active area. Because earthquakes are Turkey’s most common natural hazard, it has become a global “risk reduction leader”1 over the last decades, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Following the devastating Marmara earthquake in 1999, which caused the death of ca. 18,000 people and the demolition of ca. 113,000 buildings,2 Turkey introduced major legal changes in order to enhance architectural earthquake resistance. As plausible as these adjustments may sound, “risk” has since become a driving factor of lucrative development projects throughout the country.3
Typically, such real estate projects involve Turkey’s Mass Housing Administration (TOKI), which over the years has become a governmental profit-driven venture despite its positioning as a non-profit organization invested in social housing.4Between 2005 and 2012, various Laws were passed, giving the government, in cooperation with TOKI, the authority to expropriate and transform any area under risk of natural disaster. These gradual changes culminated with the Law No. 6306, which allowed the municipalities to arbitrarily designate any area as a disaster risk area, irrespective of the officially defined risk zones.5 This created a legal basis for the use of “risk” as a pretext to expropriate neighborhoods for real estate development. A striking example of the profit-driven urban transformation justified by a discourse of risk mitigation is the historic city center of Diyarbakir, called Sur.
Due to its geostrategic position in the south-east of Turkey, Diyarbakir has been an important location since ancient times. For around 2,000 years, it has been inhabited by a variety of civilizations and is therefore home to numerous cultural sites and a heterogeneous population.6 In 2015, the old fortified walls of Sur and the adjacent Hevsel Gardens were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Apart from its historical significance, it has also been at the center of ethnic conflict throughout the history of the Turkish Republic.
7 The state violence against Kurdish communities resulted in the displacement and dispersion of nearly half a million people. Many of them were detained and tortured, others completely disappeared. The destruction of up to 3,000 villages, carried out to prevent their residents’ return,8 forced many to settle in cities, such as Diyarbakir.
In Sur, internally displaced people (IDP) created a communal neighborhood culture, shaped by the old city’s traditional narrow streets and multi-family houses.9 They also transformed Sur’s traditional fabric by building additional, unlicensed structures called gecekondu in Turkish.10 Because this built environment existed on the margins of the formal institutions, residents often relied on an informal economy and solidarity networks, which fostered support for radical Kurdish politics.11
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Turkish state initiated rural counterinsurgency campaigns in order to suppress the support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish guerrilla group founded in 1978
The project of urban redevelopment, affecting several neighborhoods in Sur, was initiated in 2008 by the centrally appointed governorship of the Diyarbakir province in partnership with TOKI.12 The proclaimed objective was to turn Sur into a trade and tourism center by replacing the informal housing (gecekondu) with standard TOKI multi-storey buildings and relocating its residents to the outskirts of the city. Faced with local contestation against these plans, the state declared the entire Sur an earthquake risk area13 based on a photographic survey that, according to local practitioners, did not live up to the standards of a technical examination.14 This was followed by an expropriation decision for the neighborhoods to be redeveloped.15 Thus, the conjunction of geological contingency and irregular building stock was instrumentalized to convert the inhabited built environment into a potentially dispossessed object of transformation.
Gecekondus, from the state’s perspective, are “uncivil objects”16 and are therefore extremely vulnerable to the enforcement of expropriation and transformation. Unlicensed and “unplanned,” their legitimate status as property is tenuous and their civilian construction is often cited as risky. In the case of Sur, the gecekondus, mainly built by the displaced Kurds who fled to urban spaces in the 1980s and 90s, are deemed by the state to be unhygienic, unsafe, and noncompliant with the historical texture of Sur.17 These are politically-charged characterizations that tend to be levelled against those built forms that express opposing political histories and form spaces of civic practice unassimilated into projects of national development. The pronouncement of such characterizations claims the bureaucratic right to dispossess and transform the troublesome “irregularity” of the spaces they designate. Similar to the processes described by James Scott in his influential Seeing Like a State (1998), the Turkish state acts to reorganize an asymmetrical landscape into a readily legible and programmatic one.18 The dispossession, demolition, and transformation of Sur’s gecekondu are justified as a service to civil society and the common good, which by definition do not extend to those forms of life on whose erasure they are predicated. Due to the residents’ opposition to being moved to the outskirts of the city, as well as the contestation by local institutional actors, the Turkish authorities were unable to complete the project of urban redevelopment.19 However, the situation of forestalling the demolition of the gecekondu housing changed drastically in 2015.
After a long history of violence, peace talks between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish government began in 2013. However, when two years later the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) surpassed the 10% parliamentary election threshold, the Turkish state shifted its discourse of ending the armed conflict back to the designation of the Kurdish opposition as a national security threat.20 As the clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army resumed, the armed Kurdish youth declared autonomy across the predominantly Kurdish cities of the south-east.21 This was met with a large-scale urban campaign by the Turkish military. In contrast to the past conflicts, which led to the displacement of rural communities, the 2015 operations affected the urban sites that housed many of the same population who had fled to Diyarbakir and other cities in the 1980s and 90s. As a result, urban landscapes were destroyed and turned into war zones. Diyarbakir’s Sur was one of the most severely affected sites.
The 2015 military campaign came on the heels of Turkey’s tightening of its National and Public Security Laws. Just a few months before the operations, the controversial Package Laws No. 6638 and 6639 were implemented, extensively enhancing police powers and governmental media regulation.22 Some argue these new laws were prepared in response to the 2014 Kurdish protests against Turkey’s refusal to protect the Kurds in the Syrian city of Kobani against the Islamic State and were intended to prevent such protests in the future.23 The so-called “Legal Package to Protect Freedoms” has been severely criticized by human rights organizations24 as marking a further development towards a police state in Turkey.25
With the declaration of autonomy by the Kurdish youth, the state used the long-standing discourse of terrorist threat26 and declared curfews in the majority-Kurdish cities of the south-east, which sometimes lasted months. With the cities under a virtual blockade from the outside world, the military operations involved the use of heavy artillery and tanks. Despite the claims of “neutralizing” the terrorist threat and restoring public safety, the state forces deemed all residents a potential security risk and committed severe human rights violations against civilians.27 Ultimately, the curfew-evacuation dyad functioned as an instrument of forced displacement and dispossession, resulting in the eviction of 40,000 residents in Sur alone.28
In Sur, the mass displacement set the stage for the erasure of the built environment once the operations were over. While the state blamed the “terrorists” for the destruction inflicted during the blockade,29 a new line of justification was produced for the continuation of demolitions afterwards.30 The post-war destruction was justified by the presence of explosives, allegedly planted in the buildings by “terrorists”; yet, the demolitions were also carried out in the neighborhoods far beyond the conflict zone.31
In order to give the dispossession of the displaced residents an appearance of legality, the state issued another “urgent expropriation decision” for the entire city center after the end of the operation, based on the same natural disaster law that served as the legal basis for the previous expropriation of the gecekondu housing.32
The post-war risk narrative also underlies the ongoing process of reconstruction, unilaterally implemented by the centrally appointed state institutions. Guided by security considerations, the new urban design functions as a defense tool against any potential political resistance in the future.33 The widening of Sur’s traditional narrow streets has been, for example, justified by the need to enable the passage of security services, fire department trucks, and ambulances. This new discourse is strikingly reminiscent of the period of urban regeneration before the operations; the state is securitizing the city, while at the same time restoring its historical features to turn it into an “attraction center.”34 Seizing the opportunity presented by the military incursion, the state also completed the unfinished urban transformation plan from the pre-operations period that had begun in 2008, even though those neighborhoods were not affected by the military operations.35 Besides serving the state’s political agenda, the reconstruction of new houses also satisfies its profit motive; the market price of new houses, owned by TOKI, is estimated to be several times higher than the cost of the destroyed housing.36 The case of Sur is thus a striking example of both politically and economically-driven urban transformation, centrally imposed and justified through several intersecting discourses of risk.
Under these circumstances, the irony of Turkey’s designation as “International Risk Reduction Leader” becomes clear. As we sought to show in this article, the state instrumentalized two discourses of risk to carry out a large-scale urban redevelopment that would leave thousands of people displaced, expropriated and traumatized. The way safety and security risks are being politicized and instrumentalized suggests an underlying strategy to legitimize the reinforcement of national institutions. Intertwined with the Turkish state’s long-standing policies of ethnic marginalization and oppression, profit-driven projects of urban regeneration have particularly affected communities already exposed to systemic violence.37 Thus, risk narratives have contributed significantly to an increasingly authoritarian system capable of arbitrarily dispossessing any land and criminalizing any person.
The aftermath of this 2015 conflict is still ongoing as the process of displacement and urban transformation continues to threaten more neighborhoods in Sur, and the displaced residents have not been allowed to return to their neighborhoods. There is, therefore, an urgent need to bring to light the counternarratives that challenge and undermine the risk narratives produced and instrumentalized by the state. Toward that end, our team is developing an open-source web platform that will counter the information provided by the state and visualize the link between urban planning and military destruction, demonstrating how various risk narratives converged to enable real estate marketization at a massive and otherwise unachievable scale. We seek to reveal the contradictions in the state’s discourse by visualizing in space and time the interactions between the narratives of the state, opposition actors, and victims. Working between visual journalism and research, we are developing a set of methods and procedures to enable new ways of approaching the interrelated dynamics of contemporary urban warfare, population displacement, and urban planning.
Groundhem Initiative is an independent collective of eight members working between research and visual journalism to examine the correlation of asymmetrical warfare and planned urban regeneration. In response to the 2015 military conflict in Diyarbakir, Turkey they have developed a set of methods, which are designed to enable new ways of approaching the dynamics of war and its aftermath.
1 United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - Regional Office for Europe. “Turkey tackles earthquake risk”, 6 April 2017, https://www.undrr.org/news/turkey-tackles-earthquake-risk: „Underscoring the political importance Turkey gives risk reduction, AFAD [National Disaster Management Authority], formed in 2009, is part of the prime minister’s office. […] In 2000, Turkey launched a sweeping retrofitting program for schools. It has vowed to make all 80,000 of the country’s schools – 4,000 in Istanbul – disaster-proof by 2018. It is also a driver of the Worldwide Initiative for Safe Schools, unveiled in 2014. […] Istanbul also has a 15-year program launched in 2006 with two billion euros of funding from international development banks. Known as the Istanbul Seismic Risk Mitigation and Emergency Preparedness Project, or ISMEP, it focuses on enhancing the capacity of rescue services, reducing risks to public buildings, and enforcing building codes through public awareness-raising and expert training. Underscoring the megacity’s efforts, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Directorate of Earthquake and Ground Research last week won the Damir Cemerin Award for Local Change, a pan-European honor for innovative approaches to reducing disaster risk.”
3 Lovering, John, and Hade Türkmen. “Bulldozer Neo-liberalism in Istanbul: The State-led Construction of Property Markets, and the Displacement of the Urban Poor.” International Planning Studies 16, no. 1 (2011): 73-96.
4 Isikkaya, Ali Devrim. “Housing Policies in Turkey: Evolution of TOKI (Governmental Mass Housing Administration) as an Urban Design Tool.” Journal of Civil Engineering and Architecture 10 (2016): 316-326.
5 According to the NGO Beyond Istanbul, the newly designated Risk Areas in Istanbul differ significantly from those identified in „The Study on A Disaster Prevention / Mitigation Basic Plan in Istanbul including Seismic Microzonation in the Republic of Turkey,” which was conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM) in 2002. Beyond Istanbul. “The Disaster Before the Disaster: Building Resilience in Istanbul”, 17 Aug 2017. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://beyond.istanbul/the-disaster-before-the-disaster-building-resilience-in-istanbul-41e74b61bf5f#_edn6.6 Ercan Ayboga. Destruction of the old city (Suriçi) of Diyarbakır since fall 2015. June 2017. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via http://ercanayboga.blogspot.com/2018/01/destruction-of-old-city-surici-of.html7 For an analysis of the PKK, see Mesut Yegen’s “Armed Struggle to Peace Negotiations: Independent Kurdistan to Democratic Autonomy, or The PKK in Context.” Middle East Critique, 25:4, 365-383. For the counterinsurgency campaigns, see Proceedings of İç Göçün Kentlere Etkilerine Yönelik Çözüm Önerileri Konferansı, Ankara, Turkey.” https://www.tepav.org.tr/upload/files/haber/1262790144r7786.Fahrettin_Cagdas___Yerinden_Edilme_Sorunu.pdf
8 Human Rights Watch. Still Critical. Prospects in 2005 for Internally Displaced Kurds in Turkey. 2005. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/turkey0305/turkey0305text.pdf
9 Ronay Bakan argues that “the physical characteristics of the place are another important socio-spatial dynamic which both is the ‘concrete’ reason for the strong communal ties and also an important facilitator of the urban warfare. Courtyard-type houses which were made of basalt contributed to formation of strong ties among different families, and also protected the young Kurdish militias from bullets as well” (2018, 123). Bakan, Ronay. Rethinking Urban Transformation and Contested Spaces: The case of Diyarbakir. Dissertation. Bogazici University, 2018.
10 Gecekondu is the word in Turkish which literally can be translated as “built overnight.” It refers to shanty houses which are put up quickly without proper permissions and infrastructure, usually by rural migrants in cities who then become de facto, and sometimes de jure, owners of the property (Lovering and Turkmen, 2011).
11. SAMER documents a high rate of support among Sur’s residents for the pro-Kurdish party People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and the Kurdish movement in general, especially in two neighborhoods where redevelopment was supposed to initially take place (2017). SAMER. Sur i̇çi̇ Ali̇ Paşa ve Lale Bey mahalleleri̇nde başlayan kentsel dönüşüm projesi̇ne i̇li̇şki̇n gözlem ve araştirma raporu. 2017. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://hakikatadalethafiza.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2017.06.01_SAMER_Sur_Kentsel_Donusum_Raporu.pdfRonay Bakan argues that the unique “socio-spatial mechanisms which were reproduced through everyday life practices also contributed to the emergence of the urban warfare in 2015.” See p. 152ff, 2018.
12 Bakan, 2018. The municipality, governed by a party connected to the Kurdish movement, also entered the project, allegedly to minimize the detrimental effects of dislocation for affected residents and to ensure that the construction complies with Sur’s traditional architecture (Bakan 95ff, 2018). At the same time, activists from the movement working in different organizations as well as local people continued to criticize the project (98).
13 As Bakan argues, “the engagement of the Kurdish national movement and their contestations through institutional politics over the methods and implementation of the project unintentionally slowed down the project. Therefore, the central state took another step and declared Suriçi as a whole a risk area, thus accelerating the implementation of large-scale projects in Suriçi faster than before” (101, 2018). See the official declaration of Sur as a risk area: https://www.resmigazete.gov.tr/eskiler/2012/11/20121104-8.htm./
14 Our team’s interview with a representative of TMMOB, July 2019. See also SAMER’s Sur içi ali paşa ve lale bey mahallelerinde başlayan kentsel dönüşüm projesi̇ne ilişkin gözlem ve araştirma raporu: “In the Suriçi [Sur] Disaster Risk Area Master Plan prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization in 2013, after the announcement of the city as a risk area, the number of buildings with high earthquake risk was determined as 464 and the ratio was 6.04%. Although it is stated that only 6.04% of the buildings in the region are risky, the entire region is declared a risky area.” Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://hakikatadalethafiza.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/2017.06.01_SAMER_Sur_Kentsel_Donusum_Raporu.pdf
15 See the expropriation decision: https://www.resmigazete.gov.tr/eskiler/2013/01/20130126-10.htm
16 We use the term (un)civil object to mean urban fabric that blocks and undermines the stabilizing historical space of the state with an irregular, politically charged and living urban memory. See more in William Scarfone’s Civic War: Sur, Diyarbakir [unpublished].
17 See the official response of the Prime Ministry to questions posed by Selahattin Demirtaş regarding the collaboration between TOKi and the Diyarbakir Governorate on the Alipasa and Lalabey transformation project, prior to the Municipality’s involvement. https://www2.tbmm.gov.tr/d23/7/7-7880c.pdf
18 Scott, James. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
19 As local actors suggest, the reason why the project was thwarted lied in the difference between the state’s and municipality’s visions and methods regarding the project of urban renewal; at the same time, people’s reaction to the displacement played a crucial role in halting the project and alerting the municipal actors to the detrimental effects of the process (the team’s interviews with representatives from Sur Platform and TMMOB; see also Bakan 2018, 98). Bakan suggests that “infrastructural problems such as not having enough TOKİ houses for the residents and uneasiness among them, coupled with the escalation of the tension between the central state and movement in the national scale, stalled the project” (2018, 169; also 103-104).
20 See for example Martin 2018; Yuksel-Pecen 2018.
21 https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/kurdish-neighbourhoods-take-arms-they-declare-autonomy-turkey. For an analysis, see Harun Ercan’s “Is Hope More Precious than Victory?: The Failed Peace Process and Urban Warfare in the Kurdish Region of Turkey”.
22 Zeldin, Wendy. „Turkey: Recent Developments in National and Public Security Law“. The Law Library of Congress, Global Legal Research Center. November 2015. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://www.loc.gov/law/help/national-security-law/turkey-recent-developments-2015.pdf.
23 Özcan, Gülden. “Neoliberalism, national security and academic knowledge production in Turkey.” In The University and Social Justice: Struggles Across the Globe, edited by Aziz Choudry and Salim Vally. London: Pluto Press, 2020.
24 Human Rights Watch. Turkey: Security Bill Undermines Rights. December 11, 2014. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/12/11/turkey-security-bill-undermines-rights
25 Idiz, Semih. Is Turkey becoming a police state? Al-Monitor, 2015. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/turkey-becoming-police-state.html.
26 See for example the state’s claims in an official statement issued by Ministry of Interior in response to Amnesty International’s report on displacement and dispossession in Sur: https://www.icisleri.gov.tr/uluslararasi-af-orgutunun-raporuna-iliskin-basin-aciklamasi
27 “Civilians who stepped outside or even leaned from their windows could be legitimately fired on or gassed. This was done in the interest of “public safety” to clear the streets of civilian life, opening them up for the all-out intensification of military operations. In occasional temporary evacuation corridors, the surrendering civilians were treated as potential combatants, invasively searched and questioned, often detained and arrested for their remaining within the realm of terrorists. ... Those who remained saw their basic services cut. Ambulances and healthcare providers were denied access to the curfew areas under the pretext that they would be unable to work safely due to terrorist presence. If they tried to enter, they would come under fire from the security forces and occasionally lose their license to practice for ‘treating terrorists.’” (Scarfone 2019). Killings of civilians was documented by various institutions. See Amnesty International, Turkey: displaced and dispossessed: Sur residents’ right to return home, 2016, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur44/5213/2016/en/; OHCHR, Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey: July 2015 to December 2016, 2017:https://www.ohchr.org/documents/countries/tr/ohchr_south-east_turkeyreport_10march2017.pdf; HDP’s Sur Raporu: https://www.hdp.org.tr/images/UserFiles/Documents/Editor/Surraporu.pdf; Göç Izleme Derneği’s Report on human rights violations against women and their experiences during the curfews and forced migration https://www.academia.edu/41266354/REPORT_ON_HUMAN_RIGHTS_VIOLATIONS_AGAINST_WOMEN_AND_THEIR_EXPERIENCES_DURING_THE_CURFEWS_AND_FORCED_MIGRATION; and https://stockholmcf.org/chuv-report-people-sheltering-cizre-basement-first-killed-burned/.
28 A similar process took place in other cities where the military operations took place. In total around 200,000 residents were internally displaced in 2015-2016. See on dispossession Amnesty International’s Turkey: displaced and dispossessed: Sur residents’ right to return home, 2016. See also OHCHR’s Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey: July 2015 to December 2016: “OHCHR sources claim that families who were compelled to abandon their destroyed homes during the period of the security operations in late 2015 and early 2016 were also forced to sign away ownership of their dwellings without being allowed to take their personal belongings or to return to their homes after the security operations.”
29 “On 4 September 2016, the Government announced a reconstruction and economic development package for south-east Turkey. According to the plan, Turkey would spend USD 21 billion in the regions ‘destroyed by the PKK since July 2015’… OHCHR is concerned that the Government’s development plan may be implemented in the absence of any investigations and accountability measures for the allegations pointing to the massive and unnecessary destructions. … According to human rights organizations from South-East Turkey, the Government has conditioned financial compensation for destroyed housing upon the signature of a declaration by owners that their property was destroyed by ‘terrorist activities’. Families who have reportedly been forced to sign such declarations see this as an effort to falsify the historic record of the 2015-16 events, which could impede future efforts for accountability” (OHCHR, Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey: July 2015 to December 2016).
30 See for example the press statement by Diyarbakir governor from February 15, 2016: http://www.diyarbakir.gov.tr/vali-aksoy-basin-mensuplarina-onemli-aciklamalarda-bulundu
31 Ayboga, Ercan. SUR: The Turkish state’s systematic destruction and commercialization of a World Heritage Site. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://komun-academy.com/2019/03/25/sur-the-turkish-states-systematic-destruction-andcommercialization-of-a-unesco-world-heritage-site/
32 TMMOB, Destroyed Cities Report: 2015-2016, 2019. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via http://www.dimod.org.tr/sur/english.pdf
34 See Firat Genç’s Suriçi in destruction-regeneration dialectic. Retrieved on 10 November 2020 via https://tr.boell.org/en/2016/04/15/surici-destruction-regeneration-dialectic
35 More specifically, urban redevelopment resumed in Ali Pasa and Lala Bey, two neighborhoods where eviction and demolitions were thwarted before the operations. See more in SAMER’s Sur i̇çi̇ Ali̇ Paşa ve Lale Bey mahalleleri̇nde başlayan kentsel dönüşüm projesi̇ne i̇li̇şki̇n gözlem ve araştirma raporu.
36 The market price of the new homes is assessed as 500,000 TL (Turkish Lira), while the compensation given to former residents averaged at 30,000 TL, with the highest being 150,000 TL (the team’s interview with a representative of TMMOB).
37 See for example Ergun, Cem and Gül, Hüseyin. “Urban Regeneration and Social Segregation: The Case of İstanbul.” Toplum ve Demokrasi 5, no. 11, (2011): 155-172.