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Susam-Sokak in English

Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

Anatolian Tribes 2 - Mighty Aghas and Fallen Chiefs

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 1 Novembre 2020, 09:43am

Catégories : #The War Against the Kurds, #Turkey in the 90's

[This article is the continuation of ”Anatolian Tribes, between Folklore and Politics" (link)]

Some henchmen of the Bucak tribe, posing in the courtyard of Sedat Bucak's villa (Yeni Yüzyıl, November 13, 1996)

Some henchmen of the Bucak tribe, posing in the courtyard of Sedat Bucak's villa (Yeni Yüzyıl, November 13, 1996)

The Bucak tribe of Siverek, a sub-prefecture halfway between Diyarbakır and Urfa, was already known in mid-1996, because of its power, of the authority of its chief Sedat Bucak who had been since 1991 deputy (DYP) of Urfa, and mainly because of his positions in the war against the PKK. In August 1996, Esin Dalay, for Yeni Yüzyıl, had published an investigation on the Bucak tribe (Yeni Yüzyıl, August 23, 1996). According to Sedat Bucak himself, the tribe, whose mother tongue is Zaza Kurdish, was present in Siverek “for at least nine generations”, controlling 120 villages in 1996, 90 of which were defended by the village guards' organization. As a whole, 100,000 people would be members of the Bucak tribe, a dependency never abolished by geographical distance: any Bucak emigrant, whether he has settled in the west of the country, or abroad, must remain loyal to the tribe. "You don't stand out from your tribe", says Sedat. One can easily imagine the control and pressure exerted on those who would forget it. “Honor killings" for alleged adultery, or for "treason", can hit even those who are far from the tribe's own territory (memleket).

According to Sedat Bucak, the tribe always has been "on the side of the state". This assertion should certainly be qualified, since more than “on the side of the state”, the tribe does support the conservative right, the Democrat Party between 1950 and 1960, and the DYP (True Path Party, the ruling party from 1991 to 1996) since 1991, Sedat being then the DYP deputy for Urfa. As for the Kurdish conflict, as we have seen, the Bucak tribe joined "the state" in the war as soon as 1979, and its position in 1996 remains unchanged. The headlines chosen by the editorial staff of Yeni Yüzyıl to announce Esin Dalay's article in August 1996 are eloquent. The tagline on the front page reports: "According to the chief of the Bucak tribe, deputy of Urfa, the solution [to the conflict] is in arms"; and the title of the article on page five recalls the Bucak position: "The State has no business discussing with the Kurds".

The Susurluk case reveals the existence of the tribal world


Such is the context of the Susurluk case.

On November 1, 1996, near Susurluk (department of Balıkesir, 120 miles south of Istanbul), a Mercedes riding at high speed crashes into a truck. Inside the vehicle are found the bodies of Hüseyin Kocadag, a high-ranking police official, of Abdullah Çatlı, leader of one of the main extreme right-wing mafias, wanted by Interpol and involved in several political assassinations, and an escort girl. Only one of the passengers, though seriously injured, is surviving: Sedat Bucak. The simple enumeration of these characters highlights the collusion of the state with the extreme right, the mafias, and the tribes.

The scandal breaks out. Sedat Bucak, becomes a key witness in the affair and attracts the whole country's attention. On November 3, Radikal, a newly issued daily, takes up the affair, going back on the power of the tribe, qualified as a state within the state, whose existence, in itself scandalous, should not be tolerated.

The new daily brings back to mind the roots of the phenomenon: Celal Bucak, Sedat's uncle, is said to have been an important political player in the 1970s, when a near civil war was ravaging Turkey. References to this period are very eloquent to the Turks, who have innumerable assassinations in memory. As early as 1993, Radikal writes, Bucak waged war on the PKK with his "volunteers”. His residence, in Siverek, is said to be a fortress surrounded by a double concrete enclosure capable of resisting the rockets. The tribe, its chief, its militiamen, are said to play a key role in drug trafficking in Turkey. Such is the profile of the deputy of Urfa who was in the crashed Mercedes.

Bucak is taken to the Cerrahpasha University Hospital Center (Istanbul), where journalists and tribe members flock. On television and through newspaper reports, astonished Istanbul residents discover another world that has erupted in the central districts of their city: the tribal world, but the mafia as well, and this time with its face uncovered. And the scenes described in the media, which are, strictly speaking, out of place, bring to light the existing links between both worlds.

For around two hundred members of the Bucak tribe serve on duty in front of the hospital where their reis is treated, "to protect Sedat from the PKK and journalists”. The daily Cumhuriyet adopts a rather scornful tone towards these "Orientals" who bring to the heart of Istanbul the ways of being of Siverek or of Urfa. Yet they are not the first: the suburbs of Istanbul, and even some neighborhoods in the heart of the city, are inhabited by migrants from the southeast: Tarlabası, a stone's throw from Taksim Square, is then populated by Kurds and Syriacs, while the neighborhood located between the Palais de France and Tophane is home, by the time, to people from the Kilis region.

In front of the hospital, the Bucak tribe occupies the stage and maintain its own conception of order. "The Bucak tribe likes Istanbul", headlines Cumhuriyet on November 12, condescendingly adding: "Most of them would never have seen Istanbul in their lives without this accident”. The newspaper describes "interesting scenes": some of the Bucak people are so bored that they lend a hand in the neighborhood's public works. They settle down for a long time, camp out, cook döner and çigköfte, hinder the comings and goings of staff, doctors and visitors. These people "wear crumpled jackets and constantly pull their pants up to their waist...” In Radikal of the same day, Celal Baslangıç describes the scenes: the incessant ballet of Mercedes, guards in front of the entrance, men in faction around the hospital, plainclothes policemen; a little further away, a unit of the rapid intervention forces (çevik kuvvet) is posted. Deputies and ministers follow one another.


Members of the Bucak tribe picnicking in front of the hospital (Muhammed Özcan, Radikal, November 12, 1996)

Members of the Bucak tribe picnicking in front of the hospital (Muhammed Özcan, Radikal, November 12, 1996)

In the eyes of Nuriye Akman of Sabah, the area around the hospital has become a "republic of village guards” (korucu cumhuriyeti), a kind of autonomous territory. One thinks of the "liberated territories" of the 1970s, so important in the collective memory of the 1990s (see "The revolt is (in) a foreign country"). On November 16, 1996, Sabah ironically writes on its front-page: “Siverek moved in the middle of Istanbul". "The Bucaks, writes Nuriye Akman, are directing, shooting and performing a film entitled "A Tale of a Tribe (Bir asiret öyküsü)". "The name of the movie theater? It is the Istanbul Faculty of Surgery. The spectators are scattered in the garden, their eyes fixed on the door. There is no director, we are watching a film whose actors change at every moment. The dialogues are a mixture of Zaza and Turkish. Almost everyone has in hand the little 'tespih' rosary and a telephone [which still denotes at that time certain importance]. They inquire about those who enter the hospital, they wear wrinkled chalvars, they continuously smoke cigarettes. They all have mustaches. The spectators take part in the scenario, they are also actors between the garden and the door of the hospital”.

It's whole folklore that journalists enjoy, but the laughter turns sour. Because everything is under the tribe's control. "Weapons are hidden... but still visible", Nuriye Akman notes. "These people, who are “village guards” paid and armed by the state, also demand that the police provide them with weapons detectors and artificers”. The police, for its part, do not approach.

Newspaper reactions range from astonishment to concern. But astonishment is likely to be feigned; more accurately, it is a matter of provoking feigned astonishment in readers. Why should they be astonished indeed, since the "Orientals" of Anatolia have been there, in Istanbul, for a long time? It is above all a question, for the journalist as well as for the reader, of posing as different from these astonishing people - as urban "Westerners".

Discovering Siverek

The Susurluk affair and the Bucak show in the heart of Istanbul whetted curiosity. Sedat Bucak left the hospital after twelve days and returned to his stronghold of Siverek. For the press, Siverek soon becomes an obligatory destination. Journalists are struck by the tribal patriotism, the peculiarity of these places in eastern Anatolia, which are often unknown to them. By the way, the "other" is always more boorish and more oriental than oneself: the people of Urfa, notes Senay Kalkan of Radikal, like mocking those of Siverek; if something goes wrong, they say: "This is the grind of some guy of Siverek". As for those of Siverek, they are too proud to say "I'm from Urfa", as it is used to say in Turkey, where one identifies oneself by referring to the chief town of the department where one resides (Radikal, November 22, 1996).

What is discovered then is the richness of the tribal world. The tribes of the Urfa region are listed like a picturesque litany: the Izol, Karakeçi, Paydas, Denas and Ceddadi of Halfeti; the Seyhanlioglu and Milli of Viransehir; the Binizzet, Cırcıs and the Cümeyli of Akçakale and Harran. Belonging to a tribe is so natural that people identify themselves to it, and those who do not belong to this system, such as civil servants assigned in the east, are referred to as "ordinary citizens" (düz vatandaslar). Tribes are spontaneously classified into two categories: those who are "on the side of the state" and those who are not.

As for Sedat Bucak, he likes, it seems, to be photographed surrounded by his bodyguards. The pictures are fun. In fact, Sedat Bucak does not match with usual stereotypes of a tribe's reis, a rude man with a mustache, wearing a chalvar and a turban on his head. He has an open face, with a rather friendly, youthful appearance, a “Grand Duduche” look with his round glasses. But the contrast is sharp with the henchmen who surround him in the photographs: one of them, wearing a chalvar and a baseball cap, seems delighted to appear in these images. Inseparable from Bucak, their physiognomy has become as familiar as that of the tribe's reis.

Sedat Bucak with some of his bodyguards (Radikal, Novembre 5 and 11, 1996) - click to enlargeSedat Bucak with some of his bodyguards (Radikal, Novembre 5 and 11, 1996) - click to enlarge

Sedat Bucak with some of his bodyguards (Radikal, Novembre 5 and 11, 1996) - click to enlarge

Siverek is a medium-sized city whose evolution reflects the vicissitudes of the southeast: 40,000 inhabitants in 1975 but 29,000 in 1980, 63,000 in 1990, 126,000 in 2000 and 167,000 in 2008! The explanation of the decline from 1970-1980 is given by the official site of the municipality of Siverek: given the situation of a nearly civil war, normal life was almost impossible, and a good part of the population emigrated. In particular, according to the same source, "the rich" and "the educated". The city thus experienced a brain drain and capital flight, which led to a decline in activity, employment, and population. The same source acknowledges that inter-tribal conflicts have been a bane which made the city a hell. As a matter of fact, other tribes, in addition to the Bucak, are established in the surroundings: the Fettah, Segan, Seyhan, Izol, Karakeçili, Tırkan Badilli, and Karavelyan tribes. It is certainly too much for sharing the territory, the population, the economy of a single town. As for the population explosion that followed, from the 1980s onwards, it is due to the war between the state and the PKK, which caused an influx of rural population into every city of the region as well as into the major centers of the west. Thus, Siverek typically is a city in a state of war.

In spite of the plurality of the tribes established there, the "foreigners" arriving in Siverek at that time are very impressed by the local omnipotence of the Bucak: "In Siverek, everything is Bucak", as Sabah headlines on January 3, 1997. "The Bucak Empire", as journalists call it, is illustrated by a photograph, again, of Sedat Bucak surrounded by his bodyguards (see photograph above). The first sentence of this article betrays the astonishment of the authors: "The tribal phenomenon still lasts"; the "still" inferring the idea of an outdated, abnormal duration; the adverb applies to a phenomenon considered anachronistic, medieval, which should no longer be. Yet the phenomenon, at least in its scope and in its political and social role, is recent.

In 1997, the region is at war, and it shows; when coming there, the same journalist counts ten ruined villages between Diyarbakır Airport and Siverek (85 km). In reality, there are many more in this area. There are armed people all along the road, he writes, "half-military, half-hunter”. The city itself is surprising with its new, multi-story buildings; it looks then very different from other cities of comparable size in the southeast, a rich aspect, but no one answers the reporter about the origin of this opulence. Anyway, the journalists find it difficult to work: it is impossible to talk to people because they are constantly accompanied by soldiers or policemen “protecting” them. Nobody refers to Bucak without honoring him with the title of agha. What kind of trafficking enriches this city? In a report published on August 23, 1996, Yeni Yüzyıl's special envoy noted that almost everyone is armed, "and the young people sell ammunition as quietly as if it were cigarettes”.

Thus the Bucak quickly has become the most famous tribe in Turkey. The Susurluk affair whetted curiosity about this sociological phenomenon. Sabah's journalists continued their investigation. When they visit the Metinan tribe, in the surrounds of the small town of Derik (Mardin prefecture), they are fascinated, there too, by the omnipresence of weapons. "The 'guards', they write, are behind every stone, like mushrooms”. At the home of the tribe's reis, Adil Subatan, part of the reception room is full of weapons.

Today's Siverek (official site of the city of Siverek)

Today's Siverek (official site of the city of Siverek)

Those who refuse to choose

On January 6, 1997, the journalists of Sabah report a visit to another tribe, the Medina, whose reis was then Mehmet Kaya. The tribe originally was centered on the village of Arısu, in the sub-prefecture of Mazıdagı (Mardin prefecture).

Some years ago, a web user had placed a photograph of the ruins of a church at the location of the village on Google Earth [unfortunately the image has been later removed]: it might be, therefore, a village once inhabited by Armenians or Syriacs – although I couldn't find any trace or ruin of a church on the satellite image. In 2004, about twenty small buildings – houses or sheds - still seemed to be in good condition, but all the other constructions had lost their roofs [Nowadays, in 2020, there is neither roofs nor other sign of human presence in the satellite images of Arısu].

Yet the Medina tribe, according to its chief, has had its hour of glory. In order to measure its own might, the tribal world uses specific statistics: the duration of weddings and the number of animals sacrificed during celebrations. Thus, the marriage of this chief is said to have lasted forty days and forty nights, a feast for which fifty sheep would have been sacrificed.

Initially, the decadence was due to a vendetta with a neighboring village, Balpınar, which is hardly two miles away. But it was worsened by the tipping of Balpınar into the government's side in accepting the “village guards” system. For their part, the Medina refused to enlist, as, according to their reis, they did not need money, nor protection: "With our fields, our sheep, the fruits of our trees, we did not need money, the fruit of our own work was enough". Though they refused to enlist in the corps of "village guards", they didn't join the PKK. But a neutral posture is not admitted in such a war, and their rivals and neighbors from Balpınar have repeatedly attacked them. Then the "State" compelled them to leave the village; the herds were sold, and the tribe dispersed. Some went to Diyarbakır. At the time of the article, the agha lived in a shantytown set up in an ancient Armenian church in ruins. Sometimes, members of the tribe had to feed on garbage. The state has allowed them to return to the village, but it is impossible, because of the persisting vendetta imposed by the rivals of Balpınar.

The fallen chief, surrounded by children of his tribe, poses for the  journalists (Sabah, January 6, 1997)

The fallen chief, surrounded by children of his tribe, poses for the journalists (Sabah, January 6, 1997)

The topic of the tribes leads us, step by step, to other topics. Inevitably, I had to mention issues like the “village guards”, the migrations, the miseries of war. I'll carry on this series of sketches in a spiral leading from the periphery to the center, from “superficial” and “unimportant” facts to the core of the never-ending war against the Kurdish movement.

Google Earth screenshots of the village of Arısu (Mazıdagı, Mardin). On the left, in 2004; on the right, covered with snow, in February 2020Google Earth screenshots of the village of Arısu (Mazıdagı, Mardin). On the left, in 2004; on the right, covered with snow, in February 2020

Google Earth screenshots of the village of Arısu (Mazıdagı, Mardin). On the left, in 2004; on the right, covered with snow, in February 2020

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