Turkey’s wall of shame

The mayor of Nusaybin, Ayse Gokkan, is a woman on hunger strike against a wall, and the government that interferes with everything doesn’t utter a word.

al-monitor Major Ayse Gokkan of Nusaybin on hunger strike in the minefield on the border with Syria, Nov. 5, 2013. Photo by Fatih Polat.
Fehim Tastekin

Fehim Tastekin


Topics covered

turkish protests, turkish politics, turkish policy on syria, turkey-syrian border, border security, border crossing

Nov 6, 2013

Lutfiye Gokkan with her white headscarf is worried: "I want to sit beside my daughter, but they don’t let me. Soldiers on one side and the police on the other have put her under blockade. They don’t even let us have a look. Neither Hitler nor Nazis or Ottomans did this. It is Erdogan who is doing [this] to us."

Her daughter Ayse Gokkan is the mayor of Nusaybin. Since Oct. 30 she has been on a "death fast" all by herself in the minefield along the Syrian-Turkish border, surrounded by rows of barbed wire. She just drinks just a half-liter of water a day. She says she won’t end her hunger strike until the construction of the wall being built by the government between Nusaybin in Turkey and its Syrian twin city, Qamishli, stops. Security forces only allow one visit by a medical team every day. They put up a canvas screen to prevent Rojava Kurds from coming to express support and from seeing Gokkan. There is an ambulance on standby.

'She had enough'

A group of 56 people, including 10 mayors from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP] and members of provincial and municipal councils, also began a hunger strike nearby in support of Gokkan. Salih Tekin, one of the hunger strikers and a member of the Mardin Provincial Council, told Al-Monitor: "For months, Ayse Gokkan tried to learn from the Ministry of Interior and the Mardin governor why the wall was being built. She got no information nor could she stop the construction. Then she had had enough. She started on this death fast saying the only thing she had left to offer to the people who had elected her was her life."

The wall is being put up on a 7-kilometer (4.3-mile) stretch between Nusaybin and Qamishli. There will be barbed wire 1.5 meters (5 feet) high on the wall that will be 50 centimeters (19.6 inches) thick and 1.5 meters high. Tekin said so far 200 meters (656 feet) of the wall have been completed. The government’s pretext: “This is a wall with humanitarian purpose. It will protect the lives and properties of our citizens from the minefield." Nobody believes it.

Mines and security are excuses

The reality Tekin was underlining was this: The border with Syria is not 7, but 910 kilometers (565 miles). Building a wall on a tiny segment means nothing. Also, there are four or five parallel rows of barbed wire. People have been crossing the minefield and barbed wire since the 1950s. Despite all the fatalities and injuries, the mines and barbed wire could not stop people from crossing, because Nusaybin-Qamishli is one of many towns divided between Turkey and Syria. The border split families. Two towns were divided only by a railway track. That is why the people still describe the area as serhat [above the track] and binhat [below the track]. People will still continue to cross the border to visit their relatives. People can’t understand why the AKP government, which has been declaring the Sykes-Picot borders as artificial, has regressed to putting up a wall precisely on that border.

If it is about mines, they have been there for 60 years. Not that the government was much concerned with their victims — if you walk around 10 minutes in Nusaybin, you will see people with missing hands and feet. If it is about smugglers, they have always been around and will continue to be around. If it is illegal crossings by Syrian refugees, at the moment they are using the Senyurt-Derbesiye crossing 60 kilometers (37 miles) away. Some days 400 to 500 people use that crossing to go to Turkey. The vast majority of them are Kurds. As long as that crossing is open, why would the refugees choose the dangerous way through a minefield?

Rojava discomfort and Kurdish dilemma

What is the real issue for the government? Ferhan Turk, the mayor of Kiziltepe who spoke to Al-Monitor by phone from where he is participating in the hunger strike, said: "The government is extremely disturbed by the Kurds taking over control of Rojava. The wall is a manifestation of that discomfort. When the PYD took over, they even closed down the Nusaybin customs office and cut off contacts. It should be the other way around. They should be closer to Kurds who did not join Assad’s forces. They have imposed an embargo on Kurds. They can’t even tolerate people going back and forth to Rojava. They simply don’t understand that the people here don’t recognize borders.

"On the other hand, al-Qaeda freely crosses the border. Why don’t they take measures against them? Another possibility was the futility of the AKP reform package that didn’t respond to Kurdish demands. The government might be putting up this wall to divert attention. They were predicting that Qamishli would be in turmoil. That is why they even put up a refugee camp here. But the Aleppo scenario will not play in Qamishli."

Fatih Polat of the daily Evrensel, who toured the border, shared his impressions with Al-Monitor: "This is a situation arising from Turkey’s inability to solve its Kurdish issue. Obviously, the way Syrian Kurds took the initiative has bothered Turkey. If Ankara had achieved some results from the negotiations with the PKK in Turkey, it would not have perceived an indirect threat from Rojava. I see this wall as an extension of the wall against the Kurds inside Turkey. The explanation for the wall is meaningless. Mines have been a problem for decades. They even had a plan to clear the mines. Moreover, Nusaybin is the safest part of the border. There has been never been a security problem or a clash there."

What will happen if the wall construction continues? BDP officials who warned that their protest actions will be expanded unless the problem is solved by Nov. 7 are discussing it with the government. There is hope for a solution. Ferhan Turk thinks the government will take a step back because of growing reaction of the people. “People won’t allow this. People are determined. Every evening thousands of them visit us, despite the pepper gas sprayed by the police."

Gokkan’s mother has total confidence in the people: “For them, what Ayse doing is monumental. Her action will spread, Inshallah." On the night of Nov. 5, people of the Yesilyurt neighborhood displayed their reactions by flicking their lights on and off and clanging pots and pans. At that moment, Mardin MP Ahmet Turk was telling Gokkan that her action was achieving results. The pepper gas the police sprayed actually affected Turk and Gokkan.

People of the region are not dreaming of a wall of shame, but a border without barriers and mines. This is what Salih Tekin says: "Before the clashes started in Syria, modernization of the Nusaybin crossing had started. A wide area was cleared of mines for a new customs office. This crossing has to be reopened. Mines should be cleared. Children of poverty dig out mines and sell them as scrap. Many are killed or injured. What we want is not this wall, but the closure of this black page."

The last word is Ayse Gokkan's: "This wall is a black page. People are split. The wall was a product of a Hitler mindset in the 20th century and it was knocked down in the 20th century. Is somebody trying to resurrect that mindset?"

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