I don’t know who Koyun Baba was – some kind of local holy man perhaps, or maybe a shepherd with some forgotten claim to fame. Whoever he was, his name is preserved in that small corner of the Bodrum Peninsula where we like to spend our summer holiday, Koyunbaba Mahallesi. Bodrum township lies on a narrow isthmus leading to a roughly circular peninsula maybe a hundred kilometres in circumference, but laced with innumerable bays, coves, inlets and natural harbours, some of which are crowded with holiday-makers while others are virtually deserted, accessible only by sea.
Around 7 o’clock yesterday morning a gendarme patrol, noticing a large group of people gathered on a secluded beach in the cove of Koyunbaba, drove down to investigate. What they found was a cluster of Syrians including thirty-eight men, seventeen women and nine children. According to one of the women, Saywan Said, a primary school teacher in her own country, she and her companions had paid $1500 each to two organisers, also Syrian, who had instructed them to go to this beach where they would be picked up by a boat at 2 am and taken to the Greek island of Tilos. Five hours later, the ‘arranged’ boat had not arrived, and all 64 refugees were taken into custody.
What will happen to them now? Bodrum is a long way from the Syrian border – and anyway you can’t send these people back where they came from. Ms Said says, ‘Everywhere there is blood and tears. Like us, anyone who can is selling all their possessions and trying to get to Europe. There is no alternative. We can’t go back. We don’t know what group of terrorists will be waiting for us if we return. Whoever confronts us in our own country denies us the right to live. We are trying every way to save our families and children. We gave thousands of dollars to two Syrian organisers, but the boat they promised didn’t show up. In the midst of our suffering we have experienced the additional pain of being cheated by our own countrymen.’
No doubt the Gümüşlük police station will not be able to house these people for long – and they are only a small sample of the uncountable multitudes that have been fleeing into Turkey from Syria since civil war broke out there in 2011. Two days ago I read a news report of angry protests in the southeastern city of Gaziantep. Local residents are literally up in arms about asylum-seekers from Syria who have swarmed into their city – the current count is somewhere between two and three hundred thousand. These new arrivals, desperate for work, are being exploited by unscrupulous employers who hire them at meagre wages, avoiding tax and social security payments. Bona fide citizens are being pushed out of work, housing rents are going sky high, destitute refugees are begging on the streets and sleeping in parks, empty buildings, or anywhere they can find to lay their heads. There is a natural fear among local citizens that some will turn to crime to survive – and already some Syrians have been attacked, beaten and stabbed. Police used gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters – but clearly that is not going to solve the problem in the long term.
Three years ago, when the Syrian troubles first broke out, Turkey had a visit from United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie. She and her UN boss at the time were full of praise for the Turkish Government’s efforts to house and shelter asylum-seekers from across the border, in those days numbering around 50,000. From time to time a UN spokesperson issues a statement calling on richer countries to help out with the Syrian refugee problem. To be fair, a few countries have offered to accept some of the displaced people. England and New Zealand at least have said they will take several hundred. Unfortunately, such numbers are a drop in the ocean of an estimated one million who have now flooded into Turkey – with similar numbers also fleeing into Jordan and Lebanon. You just can’t move that many people to the UK or distant New Zealand, even if those countries were prepared to accept them, which I doubt very much.
What’s needed is money, guys, I have to tell you. These people need housing, electricity and running water, health services and education for their children, legitimate ways to earn a living . . . They can’t go back to Syria, there aren’t enough refugee camps in Turkey to house them, even if that were a long-term solution, and despite Turkey’s growing economy, the country simply cannot absorb that number of immigrants. Turkish people are renowned for their hospitality, but sooner or later there will be a major backlash – it seems to be starting already.
The sad thing is, money seems to be available for less humanitarian enterprises. Once again, the United States armed forces are bombing Iraq. George the Father did it, followed by George the Son. Now America’s erstwhile saviour, Barack Obama seems intent on completing an unholy trinity. How much is the current operation costing the US government? Of course we all feel sorry for persecuted minority groups – but I’m not sure how much knowledge the average American – or even educated lay American – has of the Yazidi religion practised mostly by Kurdish groups in Iraq, Iran and Syria. One assumes they know a good deal more about their own African American minority, yet persecution appears to be ongoing in the state of Missouri, and possibly elsewhere.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that lives of Muslims in the world are perceived as having less value by policy-makers in the United States. Sources differ about how many girls were kidnapped by ‘Boko Haram Islamic militants’ in northern Nigeria three months ago – numbers range from 100 to 300. As Gordon Brown, former British PM turned UN expert on education said recently, these girls are being denied their right to education and the world has not forgotten them. I certainly haven’t forgotten them, and still I wonder whether they would have aroused such sympathy in western media if they hadn’t come from a ‘Christian’ village. There must be quite a number of school-age girls among those one million Syrian refugees in Turkey in whom Mr Brown could take an interest.
A recent article in the New York Times discussed the differing estimates of civilian casualties caused by Israeli military action in Gaza. In a very balanced piece, the Times columnist Jodi Rudoren carefully analyses the conflicting views of Palestinian and Israeli sources. One thing she doesn’t discuss is the vast disparity between Palestinian casualties in Gaza and Israeli causalities in Israel – the latter being conspicuously low as a result of the so-called ‘Iron Dome’ air defense system. There may be no significance in it, but the Times’s own staff profile notes that, ‘in November 2012, Jodi was included in the ‘Forward 50,’ a list of the world’s 50 most influential Jews.’ Another thing that Ms Rudoren’s article fails to mention is that a large chunk of funding for installation and arming of the Iron Dome system has been supplied by the United States government at the request of President Obama. It strikes me you could educate quite a number of Syrian girls for the $205 million Mr Obama asked Congress to approve in his 2011 budget – the most recent figure I could find.
As for Iraq – I have neither the knowledge nor the time to enter into an analysis of the current situation in that unfortunate country. Just yesterday the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resigned, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the move ‘sets the stage for a historic and peaceful transition of power in Iraq.’ I’m not sure exactly what part US bombs will play in that peaceful transition; or the advanced weaponry European governments are allegedly supplying to (Muslim) peshmerge fighters opposing the ISIS lot. Sources tell me that Iraq’s population is 97% Muslim, and probably a goodly number of them are suffering; some of them possibly school-age girls. I suspect that twenty-plus years of bombing and interference by the United States have created a chaotic power vacuum that local strongmen are rushing to fill – and it will take more than Mr Kerry’s pious hopes and Mr Obama’s bombs to restore order.
White House national security adviser Susan Rice apparently sees al-Maliki’s resignation as a positive and hopes that it ‘can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people’ against the threat from Islamic militants. Sad to say, despite the apparent demise of Al Qaeda, we seem to have more militant Islamic groups in the world than ever before: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Salafist Islamic State in Iraq to name just a few. To what extent this increase can be attributed to scare-mongering and aggression by the United States and its allies is debatable – but it does seem that Muslims have conveniently filled the gap left by the collapse of Soviet Communism. Muslims also have the advantage (or at least the ones the media like to portray do) of dressing in conspicuous uniforms, thus allowing themselves to be easily identified – unlike Communists, who gave authorities endless difficulties in the early days of the Cold War by posing as ordinary citizens.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Turkey has been unpopular with the Western alliance since its citizens elected a supposedly ‘Islamist-rooted’ government back in 2002 – too many of its people obstinately refuse to wear the ‘uniform’, thus creating confusion in identifying the enemy.