A murder, hatred and discrimination in unregulated Gaziantep

By Doğu Eroğlu – Sep 8 2014

Mahmoud, a 10-year-old boy who used to live in Aleppo before the civil war in Syria, asks me why the locals of Gaziantep, where he now lives, attacked him the night before. He points at his fractured arm and collarbone, then some stiches below the bandages. His two brothers were also hurt. Luckily, there were friendly neighbors around to protect them, and they all pulled through angry mobs cruising the streets of Gaziantep looking for refugees to batter rather lightly.

Gaziantep – a southeastern town of Turkey, which shares a land border with Syria – has been a safe haven for the Syrians fleeing from the long-lasting civil war in that modern-day exodus for 3 years now. Controlled by FSA (Free Syrian Army) for a long time, Northern Syria witnessed the destruction caused by each and every party involved, including but not limited to the armed action of FSA factions, al-Assad’s bombardments, aggression of Al-Nusra Front, and most recently, the atrocities of the ISIS. Gaziantep and neighboring cities are full of people who can tell their own reminiscences of war, but these days another story is being told: Following a Turkish landlord’s murder by his tenants on the evening of August 12, the city went through chaos for a week. Angry mobs went out to hunt refugees at nights, eventually leaving hundreds of refugees beaten up, and setting thousands living in the city on the move to be relocated to refugee camps.

Turkey’s economic slowdown following the global financial crisis in 2009, and its construction fueled development strategies pressure upon poor through imposed urban renewal projects do not help with the overall anti-Syrian sentiments in Gaziantep. At neighborhoods subject to government-sanctioned gentrification projects, urban poor remind that they were treated dishonorably, whereas millions have been spent on refugees. That distant and rhetorical hostility in metropolitan areas become materialized as you travel closer to the Syrian border.

“Decline in wages and increase in rents.” In Gaziantep, those are the first words come out of locals’ mouths when their opinion on refugee crisis is asked. First grievances come out, then follows the hate speech and discrimination. Indeed, one does not require sophisticated toolboxes of economics, but simple algebra – without the presence of price quotas and reserved minimum wages, or protective government measures over job and real estate markets, the introduction of about 250,000 new customers and potential laborers dictated new equilibriums in both ends. Long story short, it meant further impoverishment for both the locals and refugees.

Business circles in the town abstain from admitting refugees being widely employed in heavy industries. Yet, the well-known grey-economy keeps channeling refugees to unregistered, under-the-table jobs, and even the whole network is off the books, statistics still do not agree with the big shots of the industry. At one particular accident, 2 out of 7 workers killed at the galvanizing plant explosion on January 2013 were refugees. As it was expected, a leading businessman in Gaziantep denied 2 Syrians, killed at the explosion were workers, and claimed Muhammad Ashour (18) and Hassan Ahmad Asaad (22), both able bodied young men, were present at the scene for merely collecting humanitarian aid. As I would find out later, 5 of those of who were killed at work-place accidents in Gaziantep within last 20 months were in fact refugees. “We suspect that death rates at workplace are at least threefold greater than official figures,” says an officer of Turkish work safety watchdog ISIG (Worker and Work Safety Assembly), an Istanbul-based monitoring organization. Intrinsically, it is much harder to keep track of work-place accidents when workers are unregistered.

While job markets greet under-the-table workers with joy, as 250,000 refugees started seeking shelter, the rents in the city had reached sky-high. 3-room flats or old-fashioned, two-story Gaziantep houses built for a single family, are nowadays habituated by more than five or six refugee families at once. Testimonies of locals point out once the demand for rental houses increased drastically, landlords found themselves capable of asking for exorbitant prices. Since the refugee families were willingly accept living together in vast numbers, eventually prices doubled. However, the misfortune was not solely to be bore by refugees – refugees were able to afford steep prices as half of the households make a buck or two, but local tenants overwhelmed by the markup started to moan. What started as mere complaints about 3 years ago, have grown into restlessness in the following years – and eventually a riot, sparked by a murder.

On the evening of August 12, Hidir Calar – a 62-year-old pensioner – was murdered by his Syrian tenants at his two-story house in Unaldi, a suburban area neighboring the small industrial part of the town. Allegedly, the quarrel between Calar and refugees living in the same house with him as tenants began due to a long-overdue rent debt. Within an hour of the murder, the street in front of Calar’s house was swarming with angry protestors. Calar had been brutally slaughtered, stabbed in torso tens of times.  Several days later another rumor spread; proposing Hidir wanted to have sexual intercourse with one of the female tenants, in exchange of her family’s debt – justifying the cause of murder as an ‘honor killing.’

Rioting crowds in front of Calar’s house. Photo: DHA

Riot police dispersed the crowd of hundreds by using water cannons and tear gas, and managed to safely evacuate murder suspects. Nevertheless, the protests erupted in several other parts of the city the next day; thousands of young people from poor neighborhoods attacked refugees in sight, and vandalized shops owned by Syrians. Violent protestors holding clubs and knives marched the city at nights for almost a week, shouting anti-Syrian slogans. At least two dozens of refugees were injured during the week of mayhem as far as officials reveal; yet the unofficial figures are believed to be much steeper.

A week after the murder, Amira – mother to Mahmoud and his two brothers – tells her family is now afraid to leave the house after sunset, or speaking to each other in their native languages Kurdish or Arabic in public. “I restrain myself from talking Arabic. And if a passer-by hears me speaking Kurdish, I tell them we are native Kurds from Urfa,” (another southeastern city in Turkey with a large Kurdish population) says Amira. Yet, the 38-year-old woman fears most for the wellbeing of her children. As the wave of xenophobia spread to the city, so began the family’s struggle to receive health services. While some physicians refused to attend to her son because he was not registered, Amira witnessed another Syrian man wounded by shell fragments from an explosion in Aleppo get denied from service by the doctors at the same hospital. A neighbor of the family tells me he could hardly persuade the doctors to treat Mahmoud. “They thought I was a refugee too and looked aside first. I had to beg them until they unwillingly started to look after the boy,” he says. Amira took her children and her sister’s family to Gaziantep from Aleppo 15 months ago and despite the rage-ridden crowds cruising the city, she has no intention of going back, especially after she heard what happened on the journey her distant relatives took from Azaz in Syria to Gaziantep recently: They witnessed IS jihadists decapitate whomever was left behind in small villages close to Azaz.

When I stop by the grocery store in the neighborhood on my way to Unaldi, the owner of the shop describes how terrified Syrian children are after the weeklong waves of aggression. Kids who usually start strolling the streets as early as 4 AM to collect scrap metal, paper, and bottles to sell to junk dealers are nowhere to be found until noon according to shopkeeper Hasan Tiskaya, who spent his entire life running his grocery in the Bey District. As we speak, kids between the ages of 4 to 8 run into the store, asking for soda and potato chips. Hasan lays down a condition and tells them he is willing to give each a bottle of coke only if they let me take their photos. Though I feel bad being a part of that exchange, I unwillingly take photos of one of them, for the sake of letting them feel a fair bargain was struck between parties. Hasan also shows me the Turkish flags hung upon the doorsteps of desolated, half-ruined houses refugees found shelter in. He says the flags might be perceived as a self-defense mechanism: “Despite the neighborhood is at least 5 kilometers away from Unaldi – the epicenter of the protests– Syrians hang Turkish flags to their houses, perhaps to receive some sympathy, and to avoid assaults,” he explained.

As I arrive at the crime scene, the blood stains on the iron gate of now deserted Calar Family house are the first thing that cathes the eye. There are paint marks on the wall next to gate; the dye apparently covers some sort of graffiti in Arabic but there’s no way of reading it now. Broken windows and pieces of shattered glass also tell the stories of previous nights. Former neighbors of Calar Family mention they have been staying up until 5 am in the morning for a week now, standing guard, as other neighbors and Turkmens living in the area also do. For the Unaldi residents, murder suspects are among ex-fighters of FSA, prone to violence –several months ago Hidir’s tenants had threatened some other residents as well, according to the elders. Government and especially PM Erdogan have been publicly criticized for opening borders to al-Assad opposition forces since the beginning of the civil war, for this very reason.

It is stunning to see the anxiety of a whole community: A wide Turkish majority in Unaldi believes refugees provoked by protests sabotaged the city water supply network by using vast amounts of poison; some even claim 20 people were poisoned to death. Teenagers I meet on the street insist that Syrians butchered another Turkish man recently. They swear parts of his corpse were found hidden in the drainpipe of an apartment block, discovered after the tap water began flowing crimson red. A short investigation and a few phone calls prove those claims untrue, yet the rumors themselves are worth thinking about, exposing the restlessness and horror of the locals. Perhaps it was the same mood of paranoia and anxiety that led locals to report refugees living in the district to the police. While violent anti-refugee protests carried out for the rest of that week, local government ordered police to evacuate refugees living in the city. Now one can spend days without running into a single Syrian in Unaldi, which used to host at least 3,000 refugees only a couple of weeks ago. According to the Mayor of Gaziantep Fatma Sahin, during the first three days of the unrest, government agencies evacuated 7,800 Syrians from their residences in the city and resettled them into refugee camps, the closest being 50 kilometers from Gaziantep.

Calar Family house is now deserted, and neighbors try to avoid leaving their houses.

As I enter Calar Family’s new house – family moved to a new address for safety reasons – Hidir’s wife Sevim Calar and her three children greet me. Sevim tells her husband – an easy-going old man as far as his neighbors are concerned – was 62-years-old and suffering from cardiovascular diseases, in no condition for physical intercourse. The rest of the family, Calar’s son and two daughters, fervently refuse the allegations of honor killing. Sevim Calar’s account for the course of events is as follows: “For almost 2 years, Hidir and I were living in the same two-story house with those refugees, but quarrel began after some cash worth 5,000 liras that was stolen last month. As the tension climbed up, Hidir collected signatures from the neighbors for a court-ordered eviction of refugees but he didn’t find it in his heart to hand it in to the officials. At the day of the event, tenants told Hidir they would be leaving at the end of the month and invited him for a cup of tea. Later, when I sneaked a peak I counted 9 of them, Hidir sitting in the middle. I then went upstairs for a nap. It was past 8 PM when I woke up, and Hidir wasn’t responding to me when I called his name. Tenants started scampering around in haste, talking amongst each other, and I understood something was wrong. I stood in front of the door to the room where they were having tea an hour ago, and asked the guy, Youssef to open the door. There I found Hidir’s dead body, wrapped in 3 layers of blankets. Youssef closed my mouth to prevent me from screaming but I managed to break myself loose. It all started then.” Still fearful for her family’s safety, she kindly requests me to not to take any photos, scared of becoming an open target for a potential new attack. “I thought they were going to kill me as well. Had my neighbors not intervened, they probably would,” recounts Sevim.

Some of the details in the autopsy report increase the plausibility of Sevim Calar’s statement and make the honor-killing claims less likely: The autopsy report run at the forensics institute (Gaziantep Otopsi Merkezi) underlines Hidir was either stabbed or pounded 42 times with at least 3 different murder weapons, 11 of them being fatal blows. Despite the series of blows, Hidir only took a minor cut on his hand, suggesting he was unable to defend himself. Vast number of stabbings, and wounds caused by different murder weapons, combined with the absence of self-defense wounds on Hidir’s limbs indicate a collective act of murder. A planned act of violence makes more sense than murder out of rage, caused by Hidir’s alleged ill-suited proposition.

The source that voiced the honor-killing allegations for the first time is also controversial, if not suspicious: The honor-killing plot to the murder was first mentioned on the Turkish news portal T24. According to the reporter, the intelligence was passed on to him by a Syrian reporter Suleiman Hassun, a man nowhere to be found on the Internet search engines. Furthermore, sources from Gaziantep Police tell me the authorities will most likely stick to the honor-killing account for the murder case. Murderers allegedly being ex-fighters from FSA, which used to be overtly supported by Turkey makes some local officials (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) think steering public to another explanation might relieve the government from the responsibility of bringing in militias prone to violence.

Down the line, conversations with local government officers and executives of Islamic charity societies introduce a word unfamiliar to me: Each officer prefers to imply that Hidir and his family are of Abdal ethnic/religious origin. For one of the officer’s account, Abdals – an ethnicity of nomadic culture, mainly dominated by Shiite religious belief – “usually spend their days playing shawm-and-drum, and dancing, are not to be relied on.” One even goes as far as saying Hidir’s being an Abdal tells a lot about the murder – “The murder being an honor-killing sounds much plausible when you take Hidir Calar’s identity into account.”

EU authorities and those in charge of Frontex, EU’s external border control body, know that once the buffer zones – such as Gaziantep – are left behind, no measure will be able to stand guard against the inflow of refugees. If Gaziantep fails, the local crisis will turn into an international one. According to the UNHCR, 815,000 Syrians have fled the scattering country to become refugees in Turkey. The ethical implications of erecting barriers to vulnerable refugees aside; EU is about to trust Turkey with its external borders by increasing Frontex’s practical cooperation with Turkish authorities, yet it appears that Turkey has already lost count of the refugees it has accepted so far. “Syrian refugees should have been registered as soon as they had entered the country. No state authority possesses the knowledge of exact number of refugees currently residing in the country,” says Volkan Gorendag, Refugee Rights Coordinator at Amnesty International’s Turkey office. Though consequences of the crisis are capable of affecting the whole region, and several countries including EU member states, for now, Governorship of Gaziantep acts alone. Without a legislation for refugee rights in force, how long can local authorities cover up the national government’s bad policy calls in the past?

Edited by: Busra Erkara
All photo credits and graphics belong to Dogu Eroglu unless stated otherwise.