Poverty magnifies political issues in Southeast

Poverty magnifies 
   political issues in Southeast

August 15, 2010, Sunday/ 12:54:00/ NICOLE POPE
The men sitting in the shade outside the tea house are passing the time playing backgammon and chatting, but they are not consuming much.

 In Benusen, a quarter of Diyarbakır inhabited in large part by former villagers forced out of their hamlets for “security reasons” in the early 1990s, even the cafe owner is not making ends meet. “Daily turnover is usually between TL 20 and TL 25. On a good day, I might make as much as TL 50,

but rent alone is TL 500,” he explains, sitting among his customers. 

Shopping malls and modern fast food joints have sprung up in Diyarbakır like in all Turkish cities. But one doesn’t have to stray far from the main arteries to see a very different aspect of the city, a shocking poverty that is largely a result of 30 years of conflict.

The think tank the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), which has carried out extensive studies of internally displaced communities in the Southeast, estimates that more than a million people were internally displaced during the worst years. Some villagers migrated to İstanbul and other large cities in western Turkey, others stayed in the region. Diyarbakır saw its population jump from 350,000 to over a million as a result of the influx in the 1990s, which put great pressure on an insufficient infrastructure.

Communal laundries run by the Diyarbakır Municipality in the most deprived areas of the city allow women to wash their clothes for free. They also serve as community centers, offering literacy courses for the mothers and activities for their children.

Two smiling little girls, Yonca and Zilan, are playing in the courtyard of the Benusen laundry. Small-bodied, they look like 6-year-olds but they are in fact three years older and attend the fourth grade. Both come from deprived families and their faces display an overly mature weariness that signals insufficient nutrition.

The Sarmaşık Association for the Struggle Against Poverty was set up in 2006 by 32 local groups, including the Diyarbakır Municipality, the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (MÜSAİD), the Southeastern Anatolia Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (GÜNSİAD), the Diyarbakır Chamber of Commerce and Industry, universities and unions. Their members, all city residents, were disturbed by the scenes of mayhem and desperation they witnessed during distributions of free food during bayram and other holidays, and they wanted to develop sustainable ways of helping the population support itself.

The association’s first step was to assess the scope of extreme poverty in the city, with an extensive survey focusing on five neighborhoods where deprivation was evident. “We all live here and thought we knew the city. But what we found was much worse than we had expected,” explains Şerif Camcı, secretary-general of the association. “We identified 5,000 families who, unless they get regular assistance, go to bed hungry. Many of them are broken homes. The father may have left or died, or he could be handicapped. Mothers are alone with five or six children. Some have no income at all.”

In families that averaged 6.3 members, 44.4 percent of the heads of the household were found not to have completed primary school and 27.3 percent were illiterate. Those interviewed were among the most in need, but 70 percent of them received no form of assistance.

According to figures published by the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions (Türk-İş) in July 2010, a minimum of TL 822 is currently needed to feed a family of four adequately. Other needs such as rent, education, transport, health and clothing can be met with TL 2,676.42 a month.

In Benusen, nestled below Diyarbakır’s famous black basalt walls, and in other poor districts of the city, many inhabitants are chronically unemployed or only work sporadically, earning well below the official minimum wage of TL 599. Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) data shows an employment rate of 26 percent in Diyarbakır last year.

“We are always in the red,” explains Hasan, who lives in two small bare rooms and a hallway in Benusen with his wife and their eight children. “I occasionally find work in construction, perhaps four to five months a year. I get credit from the grocer and pay small amounts whenever I can. If I work, I earn about TL 300.” Two of his children had to abandon high school last year because the parents couldn’t meet the costs.

Confronted with this grim reality, Sarmaşık created a food bank with 50-60 partners, which provides basic supplies on a monthly basis to 2,300 families. “We didn’t want to create a dependency and only selected households where no family member can work,” explains Camcı.

More than half of the 5,706 families surveyed carried a green card that gives them access to health services. So do many Benusen residents. But while they can get medical exams, many card holders cannot afford the 20 percent personal contribution on prescriptions and never get the medicine they need. This situation affects the elderly in particular.

Life in small squatter homes with poor sanitation is uncomfortable for the crowded families. Tempers often flare and children spend most of their time outdoors. “When people are unemployed, there are more arguments and violence in the family,” explains Livaze, a 50-year-old mother of eight originally from Silvan who learned to read and write while attending a course at the laundry house. “I used to get on well with my husband, but he has been jobless for 11 years. He is stressed and he takes it out on me, he shouts a lot.” Two of her children, aged 12 and 15, are currently the family’s bread winners. They attend school in the morning and hold jobs in a tailor shop and at a barber’s in the afternoon, bringing in a weekly wage of TL 25 each that barely covers the family’s rent.

Compensation Law No. 5233, enacted in 2004, was one of the first attempts by the state to address the losses incurred by the local population. But it only addresses material damage and the amounts are too small to allow internally displaced people to return to their villages of origin and rebuild their lives, even if they want to. Figures recently published for Batman province, for instance, show that a total of TL 107 million has been paid out to settle 8,000 claims, which amount to TL 13,375 per family.

Village life was not always easy, residents acknowledge, but people grew their own food, no one was going hungry and the community partly compensated for income inequalities. The enforced and sudden migration robbed the villagers of more than just their material possessions: with their livelihoods, their orchards and their animals, they also lost their dignity and their sense of self-worth, as well as their social networks. It is perhaps not surprising that many young people who have grown up in such strained circumstances feel helpless and angry.

“We are knee-deep in injustice here,” says Didar, a 24-year-old business administration student. “We are always seen as backward, ignorant. But we have a culture; we understand what is going on. Kurds don’t rebel because of poverty. The bread issue is not our priority.” Some villagers have returned to their places of origin, but the new generation, brought up in an urban setting, could no longer consider living in rural areas. While Didar has a chance to study, her elder sister, born in a village in the Lice district, never attended school and remains illiterate to this day.

Poverty is not at the root of the Kurdish problem: it is a consequence of the conflict and the overall decline of the agriculture sector in Turkey. But economic hardship clearly compounds many Kurds’ sense of exclusion. Unrecognized for their identity, feeling ignored politically, many of them, particularly the young people who have aspirations, also feel left behind by the consumption trend that is gaining momentum in Turkey.

 “These people didn’t just experience a single trauma. They experienced all the catastrophes that can befall human beings,” explains Camcı, who says the psychological traumas are passed down through the generations. “Our survey shows that hope is decreasing. Eighty percent think the future will be worse.”

When politicians talk of resolving the Kurdish issue, they examine the current situation and plan for the future. In neighborhoods like Benusen, it becomes rapidly evident that understanding today’s reality isn’t possible without examining past policies and their long-term impact. Old scars have not been allowed to heal: new arrests, deaths and years of deprivation continue to feed an explosive pool of indignation. The social, economic and psychological dimensions of the Kurdish problem need to be addressed jointly with its political aspects if a lasting settlement is to be reached.

Life in small squatter homes with poor sanitation is uncomfortable for crowded families. Tempers often flare and children spend most of their time outdoors.


Poverty is not at the root of the Kurdish problem; it is a consequence of the conflict and the overall decline of the agricultural sector in Turkey.

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