Turkey’s Kyrgyz colony struggles to keep traditional lifestyle alive

In eastern Anatolia, a village of Kyrgyz resettled from Afghanistan has become an unlikely tourism hub and a fortress of Turkish nationalism.

al-monitor A Kyrgyz man lines up a shot while playing "asik oyunu" in Ulupamir, Turkey, in this image posted July 6, 2013. Photo by Facebook/Ulupamirim.

Dec 3, 2018

ULUPAMIR, Turkey — Amid snow-capped mountains and sweeping valleys, a group of men watch their friend hurl a bone into the distance. They are playing "asik oyunu," a game originating from the steppes of Central Asia that involves tossing a sheep’s ankle bones, called "chuko." But these men are far from home and only a two-hour drive from the eastern Turkish city of Van.

In the mountain village of Ulupamir (literally “Great Pamir”), a handful of Kyrgyz people hold on to their traditional lifestyle. “In the summer we play a lot of Buzkashi,” says Yusuf Alp, one of the participants, referring to another Central Asian sport in which horse-mounted players seek to place the headless carcass of a goat into a goal. The game, depicted in the book “The Horsemen” by French novelist Joseph Kessel, is also known for being the national sport of Afghanistan. 

Originally from the Afghan region of Pamir, the Kyrgyz of Ulupamir were resettled in Turkey more than 30 years ago. Foreseeing a Soviet takeover of Kabul after the communist coup of 1978, a charismatic leader named Haji Rahman Kul led a few thousand of his people to neighboring Pakistan. Unable to adapt to the hot climate there, the group applied for asylum at the US Embassy in Islamabad, asking to be moved to Alaska. But upon rejection from Washington, the Pamiri Kyrgyz were offered a place in Turkey by Gen. Kenan Evren, who became president after carrying out a coup in 1980. The Kyrgyz were brought to this far-flung part of Anatolia on charter planes in 1982. 

Their coming was extolled as an expression of Pan-Turkic solidarity. The beleaguered Kyrgyz were portrayed as ethno-linguistic cousins with a natural place in Turkey. Officials drew on a notion championed by Turkish nationalists according to which all people of Turkic lineage, whether Uighur, Kazakh or Azeri, are Turkey’s ethnic brethren. Particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Turkish foreign policy focused on the Turkic republics of Central Asia. In 1992, the Turkish International Development and Cooperation Agency was established to boost trade and cooperation with the newly independent countries. Former President Suleyman Demirel famously captured this idea with his repeated references to "the Turkish world from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.”

Since then, the village has attracted throngs of tourists from all parts of the country. “We share the same race and culture,” Musa, a native of Antalya, contends to Al-Monitor as he tours the village’s small gift shop that also serves as a makeshift cultural center. Inside it is a hodgepodge of the traditional kalpak hats and diverse leather accessories embroidered with Turkish ultra-nationalist insignia. Musa came with a group of friends who explain they are Yoruk, an ethnic subgroup known as Turkey’s last nomads.

In recent years, film crews have shot “Dirilis Ertugrul,” one of Turkey’s many Ottomanist TV series, in Ulupamir. The show is unabashedly patriotic and has received the approval of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. In addition to providing folkloric costumes for the cast, the villagers also serve as extras in the role of Mongol warriors.

While the authorities greeted the distant Kyrgyz as their brothers, the locals did not feel the same way. The Pamiri Kyrgyz soon learned they had been placed in a predominantly Kurdish region. The picturesque land that was given to them turned out to be the site of the Zilan massacre, an attempt at a Kurdish uprising that was crushed by Turkish forces in 1930.

“We were rejected by the locals when we first moved here,” explains Amanullah, a stockbreeder sporting a fur hat and an Islamic ring. “The surrounding villages are all Kurdish and saw us as Turkish invaders.”

When a conflict erupted between the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish state, the Kyrgyz of Ulupamir got caught up in yet another war instead of finding peace away from Afghanistan. Still, many of them took up jobs as militiamen on behalf of the government. Such cooperation with Turkey’s armed forces drew the PKK to fire a rocket at the village in 1992.

Abdullah, a 38-year-old village guard watching the bone game, makes no secret of the role played by Ulupamir in the counter-insurgency. “Sure we had trouble with the PKK. But that was until we slaughtered them,” he boasts to Al-Monitor, clenching his fists. “They never dared to come back.” Those efforts earned the Kyrgyz village a reputation in pro-government media as a bulwark against the PKK.

Most of the villagers insist tensions with the neighbors have abated by now. Yet the ubiquitous three-crescent flags, symbols of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party, are all around the village as stark reminders of their stance in the conflict. 

From their arrival in 1982, the Pamiri Kyrgyz have shown an unflinching loyalty to their adoptive homeland. They had come as "Turks" and have been celebrated for being both exotic and familiar. But for all the showcasing of their folkloric traditions, some fear their identity is threatened by assimilation.

Abdulveli is another stockbreeder sitting with group of elders against the dramatic mountain backdrop. While sipping a cup of tea, he bemoans the disappearance of his community’s language. “We teach our kinds the Kyrgyz language at home but because of school education, they speak Turkish between themselves.” Much of the youth also leave for larger cities to find work. “When they come back to the village, they have lost their acquaintance with our way of life,” Abdulveli told Al-Monitor.

As for ties with Kyrgyzstan itself, Bishkek does send a couple of musicians per year to help keep komuz-based music traditions alive. Some of the villagers have also traveled to Kyrgyzstan for education, though most opt for Istanbul or Ankara.

On this late winter afternoon, the sun is setting on Ulupamir. A teenager is riding a horse around the village mosque. Such sights are among the few visible traces of the Kyrgyz’s nomadic heritage. Yurts, the traditional hide tents, have long made way for the housing blocs made by TOKI, Turkey’s infamous housing administration. As time passes, the settlement is at risk of becoming just another Anatolian village.

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