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Roman excavations threaten slum life in Turkish port city

By Paul Benjamin Osterlund

IZMIR, Turkey (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Kadifekale - or 'Velvet Castle' neighbourhood - of Turkey's seaside city of Izmir is a picturesque tangle of vividly painted houses perched on an impossibly steep hill.

Blessed with breath-taking views - an urban skyline framed by the Aegean sea beyond - it is also one of Izmir's best known informal settlements and has long been home to the city's most disenfranchised and poor communities.

Known as a 'gecekondu' - which means "built overnight" - the area is populated by waves of migrants: Kurdish, Roma and most recently, Syrians, who began moving to the city from the 1950s onwards in search of work.

Today, however, work is hard to find and the neighbourhood is facing destruction.

Locals blame the excavation of an amphitheatre found in the centre of Kadifekale, which has already seen the displacement of hundreds of families. Many more fear they will be next.

NO HOME, NO JOB

Veysel Acat works in a small market in a six-storey building owned by his uncle, which sits above the gigantic amphitheatre, believed to have had a capacity of 16,000.

The municipality has offered the sum of TL 300,000 ($83,900) to demolish his property. But Acat's uncle says he will be unable to buy a similar building elsewhere in the city for the price, adding that he had taken the matter to court.

"You can't buy an apartment with that money," Acat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To make matters worse, he said, the family's rented home is also in the demolition zone and the owner had already sold.

Acat refuses to leave and said the city responded by cutting off the family's water supply. City authorities could not be reached for immediate comment.

"Where are we going to go this winter? I make TL 1300 ($370) a month, where will we go?" Acat said.

LITTLE OUTCRY

While the decision to replace poor, central neighborhoods with more expensive housing has sparked opposition in Turkey's largest city of Istanbul, the demolition of Kadifekale to unearth a globally important archeological site has produced little public outcry.

However residents argue that while the Aegean region is rich in ancient Hellenistic and Roman ruins, Kadifekale is also a living and unique representative of Izmir's modern, urban history and it is one that is being rapidly erased.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation requested comment from the project's archaeological team who said they were not permitted to speak on the record.

They pointed to the project's website which states that "one section [of the theatre] is demolished while one lies under modern but poor-quality housing currently in use".

Archaeologists have known about the amphitheatre since 1912, but the structure was not officially identified until 2007. The area was then officially protected as an archaeological site, setting the stage for the expropriation process, which has accelerated in recent years.

Davut Tekin, Kadifekale's muhtar, an elected official who represents the neighbourhood, said that at least 600 homes in the area have already been taken over by the city.

Some have been demolished, others remain empty while some families, like Acat the grocer's, have chosen to hang on until they are physically forced to leave.

UNITED THEY STAND

Those who live in the neighbourhood, from whichever of its many disparate quarters, see themselves as a united community.

"When you ask someone from around here where they live, they say 'I live in the 'Kale," Tekin said.

During a chat in his office, Tekin spoke in Turkish, switching to Kurdish when residents dropped in for help. Like the muhtar, most came from the southeastern province of Mardin.

The newest inhabitants are Syrian refugees who have moved into the most precarious buildings, many which look as if they could topple at any moment.

Property that has been expropriated but not yet demolished is rented out informally by their former owners to Syrian refugees for between TL 450-650 ($125-180) a month, residents say.

Though some locals exploit the Syrians, others say they have welcomed the new arrivals.

"We've done everything we can to help the Syrians here," said 35-year-old Huseyin, who did not give his surname.

Dressed head to toe in Adidas gear, he lingered outside a friend's sandwich shop, complaining of no work and no prospects.

"Turkish employers don't like people from the east," he said, using the phrase that once meant 'Kurd' at a time when people barely dared to say the word in public.

Tekin, the muhtar, echoed his complaint, saying the municipality's payments are not enough to begin a new life.

"Everyone's pessimistic and uneasy."

(Reporting by Paul Benjamin Osterlund Editing by Paola Totaro and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

 

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