Dikmen Valley: A Story of Resistance from Turkey
by Leyla Almufti Karadag and Eren Buglalilar in Monthly Review
Dikmen Valley in Ankara, Turkey was originally Dikmen Village. The village goes back to the 1950s, but it wasn’t settled in the form of a squatter [gecekondu in Turkish] neighborhood till around 1968. The valley has five etapes. The first and second etapes were settled the earliest while the fourth and fifth etapes were first settled in the late 1970s. Before that, the area was used by the villagers for agriculture and grazing.
During the same period, an intense wave of migration from the rural parts of inner Anatolia to big cities took place. Housing was a serious problem for these rural-to-urban migrants. A handful of early migrants to Ankara were involved in leftist political and revolutionary activities. According to the spokesperson of the resistance to “urban transformation,” these migrants came together to discuss what could be done to solve their housing problems. After some research they discovered Dikmen Village and decided that this might be a solution. The valley belonged to the state, and when the migrants saw that the villagers were using the land to their liking, they decided to settle there. After having done so, they began redistributing the land to other rural migrants, especially those who, in the words of the resistance’s spokesperson, were “cheap labor, who had come to the city in search of work but who had the consciousness to participate in the struggle against capital and who were at least social-democrats.” Migrants to Ankara in general and Dikmen Valley in particular came from all parts of Turkey, creating a mosaic of different ethnic cultures and religious beliefs.
In the early 1980s, the construction of slums in Dikmen Valley was still forbidden. The spokesperson of the resistance related one of many demolitions: “In one instance we lost three of our friends during the demolition. The demolition teams came and knocked the houses down on top of these three people. Two were brothers and one was a municipal policeperson. All three of them died. After that, they allowed the construction of slums in the area.” Just as in the rest of Turkey, the degree of slum construction increased significantly after the 1980s, making Vikmen Valley a very concentrated settlement.
A Neo-liberal Turn and a Militant Response
Since Turkey is an underdeveloped and neo-colonized country, the effects of neo-liberalism have been greater here than in advanced capitalist countries. Following the military coup of 1980, an office for privatization was opened in 1983. The military fascist junta banned any kind of progressive politics and systematically jailed and killed members of leftist movements. Projects for privatization of the treasury land under the guise of “urban transformation” (or “urban revitalization”) are part of these neo-liberal attacks, and the residents of Dikmen Valley seem to be well aware of this fact: “In 1979, there were 5 million employed and 2.5 million of them were labor union members and had health insurance,” says the spokesperson of the resistance, “but in 2006, the government says that out of the 21 million employed only 700,000 of them had health insurance.” And the spokesperson continues: “They are not only taking away our right to shelter and housing, but also our right to education, health, water, electricity, transportation.” Since the people living in slums constitute the sector of the urban population who are most negatively affected by neo-liberalism, their degree of awareness has increased thanks to their resistance.
These neo-liberal attacks have caused an increase in rates of unemployment. This, too, had very serious effects on the people in Dikmen Valley. When we asked about the occupations and employment status of the residents, we were told that the economically active population of the neighborhood mostly did day labor jobs such as porterage and house cleaning. Unemployment is very common even among the educated young population. In addition, some eight residents, who had moved out of the valley because they signed up for the “urban transformation” project, couldn’t bear the physical and psychological burden of losing their houses and economic hardship and died of heart attacks.
In the face of oppression and discrimination, a group of people gathered and started to establish links with areas that would be the future victims of “urban transformation” projects. Towards the middle of 2006, before the demolition began in the valley, the organizers of the resistance held meetings together with the residents of the neighborhood. But they had difficulties. At the beginning, people were unwilling to believe them. “Of course, although we said, ‘Do not sign any documents, you will be sorry, these documents are groundless,’ people believed not us but the mayor of Ankara,” said the spokesperson of the resistance. Also the contractor firms prepared deceptive scale models and slide shows about the promised houses that were to be given to the squatters. As a result, a number of households signed the documents and abandoned their slums.
The project developers used many tactics against the remaining residents of the neighborhood, including bribery, “divide and rule,” and open threats. Demolition orders for the houses of resistance leaders were published and they were blackmailed. Also taking advantage of the war between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdish national movement, the contractor firms tried to arrange nationalistic demonstrations against the Kurds in order to divide the residents of the valley. Besides, the Mayor of Ankara, who is very much eager to carry out this “urban transformation” project, donated 50 cars to the Police Headquarters of the city, just before the big attack on Dikmen Valley on February 1, 2007. But the remaining squatters were well organized and loyal to their resistance, so the municipality couldn’t manage to carry out any progress.
On February 1, 2007, early in the morning, the expected attack by the municipality took place. At least 8,000 people, including 5,300 policeman and municipal personnel, 100 ambulances, 84 trucks, 44 demolition graders, and 40 fire engines entered the neighborhood. The plan was to invade the valley in the early hours of the morning with the help of the police, so that the demolition teams could easily destroy the slums. But since the inhabitants were informed about the attack beforehand, they were prepared to confront the police.
After hours of clashes between the police and the remaining residents, it was obvious that the police would not be able to carry out the demolition process, because people were well organized. They also tried to demolish the “Right to Shelter Office,” but they were not successful.
The unity of the valley residents and especially the resistance of the 1st of February changed the lives of the residents significantly. First of all, the residents became more aware and clear about the reality of their situation. Before the resistance, their attitude to the police and the municipality was more moderate. But after the resistance, “they saw that the police are not on their side, they saw that Melih Gökçek and the government-in-power are not on their side,” says the spokesperson. They formed a People’s Assembly in order to make decisions about the neighborhood. One of the important achievements of the People’s Assembly was to open literacy courses. They also built a playground near the “literacy class” building by themselves.
There were important changes not only in their attitude toward the police or the government-in-power, but also in their general understanding. “As you may know, after the 1980s,” says the spokesperson of the resistance, “people were trapped in what we may call ‘culture of charity’ . . . now they clearly see the benefits of acting together, of being organized.” Indeed, while we are interviewing the spokesperson, we met some inhabitants of the valley who were ready to talk about the “invasion of international capitalism.” Furthermomre, the residents of the valley have begun participating in May Day demonstrations, visiting universities, and organizing meetings with other areas which were (and still are) under the same threat of “urban transformation.” Besides raising political consciousness, the experiences of the resistance and the People’s Assembly contributed to a better social environment. Many of the residents of the valley began to establish ties with one another regardless of their religious sects or ethnic origins.
The possibility of future solidarity with other areas slated for “urban transformation” is perhaps the most important aspect of the resistance. With the experience gained during their struggle in hand, the residents of Dikmen Valley are meeting with those of Mamak from time to time to share their knowledge. Also, another Right to Shelter Office has opened in Mamak, which is trying to organize people against this neo-liberal project in disguise.
They Will Win
Lately, the “Right to Shelter Office” in Dikmen Valley was set on fire by unknown individuals. Since the squatters of the neighborhood were experienced in building slums, a new office was quickly constructed in a short period of time. And now the residents of the valley are willing to confront any attacks by the municipality. There is also good news: the Turkish courts decided that the “urban transformation” process in the valley must be halted. Now the local elections are coming forth, and it’s possible that the mayor of Ankara could be “dethroned” after his fourteen years of reign.
Leyla Almufti Karadag and Eren Buglalilar are MA students in the Sociology Department of Middle East Technical University, Ankara.