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This time, there's nowhere to go

If war was launched on Iraq, most residents of the nearby town of Silopi, Turkey, would want to make a repeat of 1991, and flee. Now few could afford that.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2003


SILOPI, Turkey -- Looking for a nice home in a friendly community?

Gulf Real Estate has a deal for you: Large villa with garden and spectacular view of the mountain on which Noah's Ark might have come to rest. A steal at $32,000.

But when it comes to location, location, location, there's a downside. This small Turkish city is just 10 miles from Iraq. With the prospect of a second war in 12 years, the only people in the property market are journalists and U.N. officials preparing for a possible crush of refugees.

"There are many foreigners who want to rent," says Agit Ozdemir, Gulf Real Estate's owner. "Otherwise, there is no business because nobody knows what's going on with the situation. They don't want to take risks. Nobody wants to buy."

Like the rest of Silopi's 55,000 or so residents, Ozdemir can only wait and watch. Until Saturday, it looked as if the city would be a prime staging area for the United States to launch a northern attack against Iraq. Now those plans are in jeopardy because of the parliament's stunning refusal to approve basing 62,000 American troops on Turkish soil.

Nonetheless, there is a definite air of war. In the past few weeks, Turkish soldiers and military vehicles have appeared on Silopi's dusty, rutted streets.

The highway to the border is closed just outside of town; soldiers wave away motorists, then return to their sand-bagged posts. A bit to the south, the Turkish Red Crescent Society is unloading 28 trucks with enough tents and blankets for 50,000 refugees.

As thousands of Iraqis straggled across the mountains in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, more than than half of Silopi's own residents fled to other parts of Turkey. This time, almost everyone will stay.

"It's a very critical situation because people don't have any money to leave," Ozdemir says.

Silopi is just a dot on the map, far from the resorts of Turkey's Mediterranean coast and the cosmopolitan bustle of Istanbul. Its main claim to fame is tenuous: Locals say Noah's Ark settled on nearby Cudi Mountain, not on Mount Ararat in northeastern Turkey, as most biblical scholars think. Noah himself is said to be buried in the snowy mountains a few miles east of Silopi.

In the past few decades, Silopi's remote location has been both a blessing and a curse. The city straddles the highway leading to Habur gate, the only crossing point between Turkey and Iraq. Though Silopi is in an ideal spot to benefit from trade between the countries, it often suffers because of geopolitical forces beyond its control.

"Before the Gulf War, it was good here," says Ozedmir, whose family migrated to Silopi when the crossborder trade was strong. "The whole population from here to Adana" -- 450 miles away -- "depended on the border gate."

Then in 1991, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Turkey joined the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein and closed the border. Silopi's fortunes dropped, only to rebound a few years later when Habur gate reopened.

By the late '90s, Silopi was thriving as local truckers went into Iraq and returned with cheap diesel oil, sold on the black market. But the trade violated economic sanctions against Iraq, and Turkey pulled the plug in 2000.

Silopi went into a slump and hasn't recovered. Hundreds of unemployed truckers now spend their days drinking tea outside deserted stores.

"Business is extremely, extremely bad," says Kamil Ozbay, who owns a jewelry shop. The only good day he had was Valentine's; even then, customers bought cheap silver rings instead of gold.

A 24-year-old father of three, Ozbay is among the tiny minority of Turks who support an attack on Iraq.

"God help America get rid of this person," he says of Saddam Hussein. "I'm not against war. Right now this is the biggest war, that I cannot take bread to my children."

Ozbay left Silopi during the Gulf War but says he doesn't have enough money to go if another conflict starts. Neither does Mehet Tumas, one of the very few women in this conservative Muslim city who has her own business.

Tumas, unmarried and 25, decided to leave the house she shares with 17 relatives. So two months ago, her sisters sold their gold bracelets and gave her the money to open a tuhafiye, a small shop that caters to women.

Brassieres cost 4.5-million Turkish lira or about $2.80; lipsticks are just 1.5-million. But days go by when Tumas doesn't sell a thing.

"I hope there's no war or we're dead," she says as one old woman wanders in, looks around and wanders out. "We have nowhere to go. We prefer to die here."

Tumas' head scarf and flowing flowered skirt identify her as a Kurd. Almost everyone in Silopi is Kurdish, a group with its own language, customs and colorful dress.

The presence of Turkish soldiers unsettles residents here not just because of war but also because of longtime ethnic tensions. For most of the '80s and '90s, the Turkish army battled Kurdish rebels seeking their own state; thousands of Kurds moved to Silopi to escape savage fighting in outlying villages.

Turkey lifted a 15-year state of emergency in the region in November. But many Kurds fear the government might use war as an excuse to again repress them; so sensitive is the issue that no one will talk about it publicly.

For its part, the Turkish government worries that Kurdish guerrillas who escaped to northern Iraq might sneak back into Turkey in a wave of refugees. Determined to avoid that, Turkey plans to set up refugee camps inside Iraq; any refugees who make it across the border will be under heavy guard at a camp just south of Silopi.

No one wants a repeat of what happened during the Gulf War. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were stranded in the mountains until CNN showed their plight, and Turkey succumbed to huge international pressure and let them in.

"Turkish authorities and the humanitarian community are terrified anything as uncontrolled could happen again," says Marion Hoffman, head of the Silopi office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Some preparations have to be made so we won't be overrun by events if a refugee crisis were to happen."

Preparations are better this time, but heavy snow has fallen in the mountains. That would make it even harder than it was in 1991 to get help to refugees.

Then, "it was raining, muddy, freezing cold, but it was inaccessible because of the terrain," says Fuat Ozdogru, a U.N. official in Silopi. "Now it's inaccessible because of both terrain and climate."

As a measure of how the refugee agency is gearing up for another potential crisis, its Silopi headquarters already has outgrown its space.

Ozdemir, who runs Silopi's only real estate company, just rented a 10-unit apartment building to house U.N. staff and offices.

Plenty of other listings are still available; homes that once went for 55-billion lira -- about $34,000 -- can now be had for 40-billion lira. Their owners borrowed money when times were good and now they can't pay it back.

Ozdogru sees a grim future for Silopi until Habur gate reopens and Turkey resumes trade with Iraq. And he doesn't see those things happening without a war.

"There's no escape from war," he says as yet another Turkish army jeep drives past his window. "If war starts, we will be the first people to be hit. But even if there is not a war, we're already hit. In any case, we are the losers."

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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