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Istanbul slums are razed to make way for high-end developments

ISTANBUL, Turkey — For the second time, Zemine Demir is fighting for her home.
“We were forced from our village and came here,” said Demir, an animated, Kurdish woman with eyeliner smudged beneath tired eyes.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — For the second time, Zemine Demir is fighting for her home.

“We were forced from our village and came here,” said Demir, an animated, Kurdish woman with eyeliner smudged beneath tired eyes. “Now we are being kicked out again.”

Forced evictions of dozens of low-income families from the heart of Istanbul is part of an ongoing “urban transformation” project that has been criticized by Amnesty International for violating international law and the resident’s rights.

“Such forced evictions are prohibited under international law,” said Andrew Gardner, a researcher on Amnesty International’s Turkey Team. “There has been no meaningful dialogue with the residents, no explanation of their rights, and no offer of realistic compensation.”

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“It’s not acceptable to make people homeless to create space for high value housing,” he said.

The ambitious venture aims to clear the way for upscale hotels, a glossy shopping center and office lofts. But the project is taking place in Tarlabasi, one of Istanbul’s most notorious slums. A densely populated maze of narrow streets that wind between crumbling Levantine buildings, Tarlabasi lies just downhill from the commercial and cultural heart of Istanbul. And it’s one of the last remaining spaces in the city’s center where the urban poor can afford to live.

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Citing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Turkey ratified in 2003, Amnesty International has demanded a halt to the evictions and an investigation into their procedures. Meanwhile, the pace of evictions continues unabated. Already more than half of those living in the project area have left their homes.

Demir was just eleven when her village was burned by Turkish security forces who have battled Kurdish separatists off and on since the 1980s.

Her brother, accused of aiding “the terrorists,” was strung up by his feet for a week. Pieces of his hand were cut off and he remains handicapped. Her older sister was stripped naked — allegedly “to check for the marks of rifle straps” — and molested. Other family members were forced to lie naked in the middle of the village street as a truck ran over their limbs.

With nowhere else to go, they came to Istanbul in 1992 and settled, like so many others, in Tarlabasi. Zemine and her father sold water and tissues on the street, eventually saving the just over $5,000 needed to buy the flat they now share.

Zemine’s brother works in a local textile workshop where he makes minimum wage, barely enough to support his eight-member household.

Location is key to affordable housing. The alternative housing being offered to residents of Tarblabasi is a two-hour bus ride away and more expensive than many residents can afford.

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“Because transportation to and fro is so expensive, it’s not only denying them affordable housing but also their right to work,” Gardner said.

“We’ll just have to pitch a tent,” said Demir’s husband, Zazgin Ozmen, laughing. Turning suddenly somber, he shrugged: “We really have nowhere else to go.”

With tensions increasingly high between Turks and Kurds, Demir and her family worry about how they would be accepted were they to leave their community in Tarlabasi, where more than half the residents are ethnic Kurds.

Three Turkish soldiers were killed in the southeastern province of Mardin last weekend in an ambush blamed on Kurdish nationalists, while in Istanbul police detained some 70 people following days of inter-communal violence.

“At least they chase the Turks from here too,” said Demir’s sister Sabrha, with a raised eyebrow. Of course, impartial injustice is not the answer either group is looking for.

Ahmet Yazici, a timid, older man who left his home in Turkey’s Black Sea region 40 years ago is also facing eviction.

Yazici owns four buildings in Tarlabasi — all within the limits of the project area. In 2008 he began a court case against the city asking for adequate compensation for the loss of his property. To date the case has been postponed seven times.

“They should give us our rights,” he said, resigned that he would probably have to leave or be thrown out by the police.

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“This is Turkey,” said his nephew Osman cynically.

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Tarlabasi is one of multiple projects like this one taking place across Istanbul, as well as other Turkish cities, leading Gardner to deem the situation “a wide-spread violation of the right to housing.”

Just last year a similar project took place in Sulukule, the most ancient Roma neighborhood in the world. Hundreds of people were relocated to Tasoluk, 40 kilometers away from the city. Within six months more than half of those who had relocated had left Tasoluk, unable to afford their debts or to find work so far from their community.

It’s not that change is not needed. The buildings in Tarlabasi are largely rundown, and often overcrowded and unsanitary. Crime has long been a problem here. But the issue, activists say, is that the method the municipality has employed in these evictions has made urban transformation synonymous with homelessness and dislocation.

“Why they choose this way of doing it?” asked Constanze Letsch, an anthropologist studying Tarlibasi as part of her doctorate thesis through the European University Viadrina Frankfurt and co-founder of a popular blog on Tarlabasi. “One answer: money.”

After a sharp contraction in 2009, Turkey’s economy recorded the third-fastest rate of growth in the G20 last year. Not a single Turkish bank failed in the financial crisis. And flying on the wings of rising economic prosperity is a boom in the housing sector, making property in areas like Tarlabasi all the more lucrative.

But here’s the crux.

“The project they’re planning is going to be a high-security, high-end gated community that lands like a UFO in a slum,” said Letsch, painting a picture of the very poor living wall to wall with the very rich, and the serious security measures that will be taken to protect the new development from “the riff raff” outside.

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“Is that really the type of city you want to live in? Because they are creating this city right now.”