Indiana Jones created a popular image of archaeological fieldwork wildly out of whack with the usual reality. Every once in a while, however, we archaeologists find ourselves in unusual circumstances. That's what happened to me during my field trip in southeastern Turkey in the summer of 1993.
I began work on an archaeological salvage project there in 1989, mapping and excavating sites along the Tigris drainage basin that will be flooded by the soon-to-be completed Batman Dam and the planned construction of the Ilisu Dam of the Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP). This area, Batman Province, as well as parts of Siirt, Mardin, and Diyarbakir Provinces, is the portion of Turkey that Kurds call Kurdistan.
THE KURDISH PREDICAMENT
Kurdistan represents the dream of independence that Kurds have sought for decades. According to the outlook of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, all peoples living in Turkey are Turks. By this definition, Kurds (whose language is more like Persian than Turkish) are not a separate people but "mountain Turks." Over the decades, however, it became clear that this approach would not work. The late President Turgat Özal eventually eased this policy by, for example, legalizing the use of Kurdish in public. As a result, Kurdish language publications and Kurdish music tapes are freely sold (and in the case of the latter, loudly played) in cities like Diyarbakir. Before the Kuwait war of 1991, the general easing of Turkish attitudes seemed to auger for a less confrontational and distressing relationship making me guardedly optimistic.
But the Kuwait war gave Kurds in northern Iraq a large measure of autonomy. The existence of a rump Kurdish state in northern Iraq, one that has held elections and established its own functioning administration, has had a galvanizing effect on the Kurds in eastern Turkey and given them a new sense of their own possibilities. Add to this that the mullahs now make their frontier useful for Kurdish insurgents, providing a haven for the Kurdish Worker's Party (Partiya Karkerana Kurdistan--PKK), as well as giving it funds, arms, direction, and encouragement, and you see that a new crisis has erupted.
Another factor may be at work, too: the PKK is utterly ruthless in its dealings with individuals and villages it singles out for retribution. For example, it commonly places mines on roads to blow up tractors hauling trailers laden with villagers on their way to work the fields. The net result is that while the Kurdish villagers tend to mistrust and often even fear the Turkish military (which is often accused of heavy-handed tactics in dealing with villages suspected of PKK sympathies), they fear the PKK even more.
My annual visits lasting ten to twelve weeks to southeastern Turkey began in 1989. These visits gave me an opportunity to observe firsthand the continuing deterioration of the Kurdish political situation in this area. Things used to be merely bad; now they're downright terrible.
In 1989, the area was already far from peaceful. The news media frequently reported clashes between the PKK and government troops, as well as PKK attacks on other targets. Soldiers were highly visible in Diyarbakir, Mardin, and western Siirt (now Batman) Provinces. Violent incidents, however, were largely confined to the eastern portions of Mardin and Siirt Provinces and the more easterly provinces (for example, Bitlis and Hakari). In 1989 and 1990, unless work took my team into these actively contested areas, we did not experience the conflict directly (other than brief delays at occasional military checkpoints). Nor did we feel palpable danger. As late as the summer of 1990, tour groups still stopped regularly in Batman after visiting the nearby ruins at Hasankayf, on their way to Van or Diyarbakir.
In June 1991, I began a salvage excavation at a site about fifty kilometers north of the city of Batman, near the border of Batman and Mus Provinces at the base of the mountains that dominate the latter province. The site is situated adjacent to the Shelmo oil field, which is being worked by Mobil Exploration Mediterranean, Inc. It has proven to be the remains of the oldest known settled village community in Turkey and may possibly be the oldest known settled village site in the entire Taurus-Zagros zone (stretching from Turkey through Iraq and into Iran). It is a very important site relating to the abandonment of mobile hunting and gathering and the beginnings of agriculture and settled village life in the Near East. Unfortunately, it is due to be flooded by the Batman Dam in 1994 or 1995, which explains why I have continued to work in eastern Turkey despite a deteriorating situation.
In 1991, the situation was essentially unchanged from previous years except for a sharp drop in tourism—light fallout from the Gulf war. I had no qualms about dragging a full excavation team of fourteen people into the field with me. No one suggested that what I was doing was imprudent, either, as my Turkish colleagues were doing more or less the same things. Mobil was actively drilling at Shelmo—and when our refrigeration system failed in the July heat, the Mobil engineers and geologists, all highly educated, urbane Turks, took pity on our plight and regularly dropped off truly cold soft drinks and beer at our camp.
Before our return to the field in the summer of 1992, four events convinced me that the situation had much worsened: two archaeology graduate students from Ankara University died in 1991 when their vehicle exploded near Mardin (from a land mine or a bomb placed under the vehicle); a series of very violent riots rocked several southeastern cities in March 1992; the Mobil production/storage facilities at the Shelmo oil field were hit by a rocket; and the PKK paid a nocturnal visit to the village where we had stayed, lectured the gathered villagers on political matters, and burned a tractor for emphasis.
In response to the riots and student deaths, all Turkish-sponsored excavations in eastern Turkey planned for 1992 were cancelled. Remembering the impending flooding, I felt it imperative to keep working my site in 1992. To protect the team, I decided to reduce substantially its size to only eight individuals and no longer to live in the nearby village but to stay in the city of Batman and commute to the site during daylight hours. The new arrangement, however, raised new problems as well. Traveling back and forth raised concerns about possible PKK mines in the dirt roads leading to the site, inasmuch as the military patrols regularly used the same roads. We therefore scrupulously avoided potholes and generally kept our vehicle's wheels only in ruts showing undisturbed tire tread marks.
In Batman, too, the conflict between fundamentalist Muslim and leftist Kurdish groups became more openly violent, with frequent assassinations. We asked Mobil if we could stay in the security of their walled and guarded compound in Batman. To our immense gratitude, the company readily agreed.
Though it was clear that the situation had deteriorated significantly, the 1992 season passed uneventfully. On many nights, we convinced ourselves that the distant sound of gunfire was just someone shooting into the air to celebrate a wedding, but we didn't really believe it. At the site, we frequently saw the equivalent of platoon-to-company strength units returning from night patrols (apparently in the mountains to the north) along the road running by the site. We encountered more and more military checkpoints traveling to and from the site.
Even so, judging from news reports and word-of-mouth information, PKK activity seemed on the increase, particularly in the form of roadblocks after dark. In the early fall of 1992, nighttime PKK roadblocks on the main Diyarbakir-Batman road in the area of the dam resulted in the execution of several local officials unfortunate enough to be caught in them. In November, a small PKK group attacked the Mobil drilling team at the Shelmo field. The three Mobile engineers on duty that night, all Turks, were segregated from the Kurdish workers and murdered in cold blood. One of them, Mustafa, was a personal friend. It turned out, too, that one of the killers was a sixteen-year old boy from a local village that had often been helped by the Mobil teams.
By the time we returned to the field in June 1993, the unilateral truce declared by the PKK in the spring had just collapsed. (And it collapsed with a vengeance: between May and October 1993, over 1,600 people, including many civilians, lost their lives.) Mobil had again offered us the use of their secure facilities in the city of Batman as a base of operations and we decided to work on a day-to-day basis, prepared to leave on short notice if the situation warranted a hasty retreat. We immediately saw that we were working in the middle of a war zone.
We devoted the first day of the 1993 field season to visiting the military outpost situated a few kilometers from the site to apprise it of our presence and plans, making arrangements for workers at the village near the site, and other errands. Along the route, our Kurdish driver treated us to a running commentary, pointing out such new grisly points of interest as the telephone poles where the muktar (had) of a village had been recently hanged by the PKK, the place on the road where so-and-so's friend had been executed at a PKK roadblock, and so forth.
The military told us in no uncertain terms not to be at the site before 7:00 a.m. and not to remain at the site past mid-afternoon. This virtual admission that Turkish forces had lost control of the area at times other than full daylight came as a rude surprise. We politely declined the offer of a full-time military escort on the grounds that it would make us an even more inviting target than we already were, as well as create tension between us and the local Kurdish villagers. Instead, we agreed to maintain hand-held radio contact with the military outpost, and Mobil once again came through for us by providing radios of the type their teams used for the same purpose.
The only positive note that day came from the Kurdish villagers among whom we had previously lived and who continued to work for us. "Don't worry, we will protect you," they told us. They still considered us their guests, and hospitality required them to protect us. Though I doubted their ability to physically protect us, I assumed our workers included PKK sympathizers and probably even some individuals with close contacts to the PKK. In other words, we found ourselves promised protection simultaneously by two groups at war with one another.
The second work day at the site generated my single most vivid memory from the summer of 1993. It began with the sound of planes passing low overhead, a common enough occurrence except for the low altitude. This time, however, we heard the muffled sound of bomb explosions just a few miles away. Needless to say, we had trouble keeping our minds on our work, and a number of the team discovered an urgent need for alcoholic beverages. We continued to work as Turkish air force planes swooped down on bombing runs for the next two hours. We occasionally watched as smoke rose to form a low, dark, cirrostratus-like cloud over a valley to the northwest. The villagers, for whom this seemed barely out of the ordinary, explained that the bombing was in the area of a large cave known to have become a local PKK base of operations.
The events of that day were hardly unique. A week later, we had a ringside seat for another protracted bombing run, this time directed at targets on the other side of the hills a few miles to the north. Helicopter overflights, by both reconnaissance and, occasionally, attack craft, became routine, as did the sounds of distant gunfire. I was surprised by how quiet a Cobra attack helicopter is. In contract to the reconnaissance helicopters that could be heard coming from more than five kilometers away, we were shocked one day to hear a low, rhythmic whooshing sound and find a Cobra passing low and menacingly past the site, not one hundred meters up and two hundred meters away. Units passing the site on their way back from night patrols and larger operations also became virtually a daily occurrence. Moreover, in 1993, such units had occasionally reached the equivalent of battalion strength and were accompanied by light armored vehicles. The open-sided trucks containing troops holding their weapons at the ready and pointed out in all directions had the vague appearance of short-spined porcupines on wheels. Spaced several hundred meters apart, the trucks would roll by the site in clouds of dust, often for hours at a time. After a while, we stopped looking up at their passage; our Kurdish workers never did.
These significantly higher levels of military activity had no visible impact on the level of PKK activity. Nighttime PKK visits to the villages surrounding the site were commonplace. About the end of the Turkish academic year, we gave the schoolteacher of our village (who lived in the schoolhouse) a lift into Batman city on our way back at the end of the day. On leaving, he whispered that he was not returning to the village because of the danger, and that we, too, should be careful. We caught up to him later when we could talk privately. He said that PKK groups passed the schoolhouse nightly on their way to ford the river that passes just below the schoolhouse. The strain of being a public employee in such circumstances was more than he could bear.
On another occasion, one of our workers surreptitiously told us that the PKK had been to our village the night before, intending to dissuade men of draft age from joining the Turkish military. Families with sons of draft age were notified that "if they allowed their sons to be drafted, they would be fined 25 million Turkish lira" (about $2,500, a fortune). To avoid arrest, draft dodgers would have little choice but to join local PKK groups—which seems to have been the point of the entire exercise. Another of our workers, a young man, told us that he had spent time in the mountains with the PKK until his family had "rescued" him. This young man was no revolutionary firebrand, and his confession only made sense retrospectively, after I learned the methods of PKK revolutionary recruitment.
PKK roadblock executions, attacks on the homes of government-armed village guards, and bombings of outlying government facilities were also commonplace. These included a particularly brazen rocket attack early one evening on the Türk Petrol (the government-run oil company) facilities at the outskirts of Batman City. That particular attack was memorable for the many stop-and-search roadblocks within the city and on surrounding roads set up immediately thereafter in an effort to catch the perpetrators. We had to negotiate several of these (with a van full of suspicious-looking excavation equipment) upon returning to the Mobil compound in Batman. Our papers, personally signed by the provincial governor, had been enough to get us waved blithely past military checkpoints. Not this time.
As a result of the PKK violence, economic activity fell off in a number of ways. Following the murder of its people the previous fall, for example, Mobil evacuated the resident Turkish staff's families from the Batman compound and restricted its activities to production from existing wells with only a skeleton staff. Also, as a result of PKK intimidation, Kurdish villagers themselves started to lose heart. Many fields near our site lay unfarmed in 1993. When asked why, Kurdish villagers explained that many people had simply opted to leave the area, presumably for the comparative safety of urban areas, such as Batman.
Not that they found safety in the city. For example, two Kurdish friends living in Batman fled to Germany earlier in 1993, owing to unspecified death threats (presumably from fundamentalist groups). They left their families behind and their restaurant in the hands of a relative. While the circumstances of their departure were never fully explained to me, I gathered it had to do with the death of one of the restaurant staff (a young man whom we had also known), who was shot and killed on the streets of Batman.
In contrast, work on public projects, such as the Batman Dam, were, if anything, stepped up. Presumably, this was in the expectation that economic growth would help alleviate the poverty that authorities believe contributes to Kurdish nationalism. Rumor also had it that government payments for grains and cash crops (tobacco and cotton) have been inordinately generous in recent years. If true, such a policy presumably derives from the same strategy. In that vein, there are many new cars on the streets of Batman. This strategy is not without risk, however, for Turks, increasingly resentful of Kurds, have little patience for subsidizing southeastern Anatolia. I was shocked to hear at least some of my Turkish friends in Istanbul and Ankara speak for the first time of letting the east go, with about as little regret as—but a lot more seriousness than some Americans speak about the possibility of California floating into the Pacific.
We left Batman at the end of July on short notice—real short. We heard recurrent rumors all along that the PKK, which obviously knew of our presence in the area, would soon demand protection money from us or even do worse. A vaguely threatening extortion note had been posted anonymously one night in late June, addressed to the owner of the land on which the site sits. It denounced him for having received a wildly inflated sum as rental for the land being excavated. It clearly implied that because he was getting rich as a result of our enterprise, he should pay off unspecified others.
Serious trouble began in late July. A military patrol stopped at the site and informed us that the district commander wanted to see us. When we showed up just past dawn the next morning, he told us that our movements were being tracked by the PKK. I replied that we would be gone in three days.
The process of drawing and photographing the site, packing up equipment, and back-filing the site to protect it for future use did take three very hectic days. The first day we worked with a squad-size Turkish force ringing the site around us, watching warily, protecting us and themselves from the PKK. That, however, caused more than a few problems with the villagers, so it was decided that for the remaining two days, they would guard us from a distance. I am pleased to report that we finished and left the site without mishap.
I still hope to be able to work near Batman, in the summer of 1994. The truth is, however, that barring a political settlement, which is nowhere in view, that prospect seems increasingly unlikely. Just after we left, the PKK intensified their activities in Siirt and Batman Provinces, killing thirty-seven civilians in one day. The PKK is also more into the kidnapping-extortion business these days, notably with foreigners as the targets. The research project being thus jeopardized, I'm thinking maybe this is now a job for Indiana Jones himself. Better him than me.
Michael Rosenberg is professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware. He excavated in Turkey in 1993 courtesy of the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation.