Once upon a time, when passing a desolate village, the saint meets “the devil.” He asks him, “Which family are you going to break up now?” The devil says, “I am on my way, I have no intention of doing that”, and enters the village. In the village, he sees a calf that cannot reach its mother because its leash is tied to a stake. He carefully loosens the calf’s stake and looks on to see what will happen. The calf pulls out the stake and runs to its mother. The woman milking the cow gets angry and throws a stone at the calf’s head. Seeing the baby cow die, her husband gets angry and throws a stone at the woman’s head. She dies, too. The woman’s relatives come and begin to slaughter the man and the man’s relatives begin to slaughter them. Having seen all this, the saint looks at the devil and says, “You did it again.” The devil answers “What did I do? I just loosened the stake.” He shrugs his shoulders and goes on his way.

Both AKP, aware that it is performing its final act, and those who disguise their racism towards refugees as anti-AKP sentiment, have been busy loosening the stake for a long time. The stake was further loosened in Ankara-Altındağ on August 11 when, as the police of the regime looked on as “spectators”, a pogrom broke out against Syrians.

Battalgazi is a neighbourhood with a population of 50,000 located in the Altındağ district of Ankara, five or six kilometres from the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and a few bus stops from Kızılay, the centre of the city. Here, on August 10, some young refugees playing on sports equipment at the park were picked on by another group of youths for apparently made-up reasons. 18-year-old Emirhan Yalçın allegedly warned the Syrian youngsters, “don’t damage the equipment,” and was then stabbed and seriously wounded. After he was taken to hospital, the incident was used as justification for an attack on refugees, first in the neighbourhood and later by racist social-media accounts.

Huge photographs of Emirhan Yalçın, who was killed by August 10, were on the streets of Altındağ for weeks. (Photo: İrfan Aktan)

The next day, when the news of Yalçın’s death came out, violent groups looted and set ablaze the houses and workplaces of Syrians. The police not only stood by throughout the night but also prompted the attackers to go to certain places, as seen in videos posted on social media.

 One colleague of ours arrived in the neighbourhood just before the attacks started and has asked to remain anonymous because he could not obtain permission from his organization to make a statement. According to his account, “there were about 500 police officers on duty and they were not letting anyone into the neighbourhood, particularly journalists – I was able to get in by hiding in the muhtar’s, the neighbourhood administrator’s car.” In other words, even though everyone, including the police, knew that a mass attack was about to take place on the evening of August 11, the only precaution taken was to prevent journalists from entering the neighbourhood. “While we were talking to locals during the day, young people said ‘We are waiting for people to finish their shift and come back.’ The groups, who were already prepared when they received the news of the death, mobilized around the early evening, chanting Allahu Akbar.”

“They are the excluded people of Syria”

On the night of the attack, many social media users claiming to live in Battalgazi were posting messages that “the attackers came from outside, they do not live in our neighbourhood,” but witnesses say that is not the case. Two weeks after the incident, on August 27, we met Battalgazi’s neighbourhood administrator, or muhtar, Habip Eroğul. His office, where the doors and windows are protected with iron bars, is located right next to the park where Emirhan Yalçın was murdered. He tells us that “all of them were locals of this neighbourhood.” Noting that there are about “seven or eight thousand” Syrians living in this fifty-thousand population neighbourhood, the muhtar says: “The way things are going, Syrians will become the majority. They might even take over the muhtar’s office in the future.”

A driving-school worker who is visiting the office for residence documents, interrupts, pointing to his red eyes: “I have an eye problem but I can’t go to a doctor. Why can’t I go? I don’t have social security. Why don’t I have it? Because if I request social security, my boss would give me the sack and employ a Syrian instead. They are employed illegally, there is no insurance cost, their salaries are less than half of ours.”

The muhtar continues: “We understand that they are the excluded people of Syria. […] Are there decent ones among them? Of course there are. No one would sleep in the homes where some of them stay. Food conditions are poor, too. By necessity, of course. Where would these people go? They cannot go to Ümitköy, Çankaya, İncek. These are rich neighbourhoods. So they came and settled in this poor neighbourhood. Only the state can solve this issue.”

When the driving-school worker asks, “You say the state will solve this, mayor, but how?” he receives the answer, “That is a matter for the state to figure out.” According to the muhtar, some Syrians left the neighbourhood after the August 11 attack. He adds that “this issue will settle down in time, they will get used to us, and we will get used to them.” The driving-school worker, again: “Your talk is fine but if these people are opposed to Assad, they should go and fight and replace the man. If they are not opposed to Assad, then they still should go back and settle in their country. These guys do not come to the mosque; they do not stand behind our imam to pray. How will it work?” The muhtar replies, “This is because of the difference of sects – we are Hanafi, they are probably Shafi’i”. He repeats, “Neither we nor Syrians can solve this issue, this can only be solved by the state.”

We walk towards Gürpınar Mosque, down Muhtar Arif Turan Street – which had been closed by hundreds of police on the night of August 11 and was still under a police blockade even though two weeks had passed. At least two watchmen were on guard in all the neighbourhood parks. When we ask directions to the mosque, one of the watchmen pointed to a group of hundreds of people, saying “follow them, they are all going to Friday prayer.” Using their prayer rugs as protection from the sun, the people walking downhill toward the mosque were silent.

Racist attackers arsoned workplaces and homes belonging to Syrians and hung Turkish flags on the windows. (Photo: Serkan Alan)

“Racism is the basis of discord”

Battalgazi is a former shantytown, adjacent to the Siteler area, home to hundreds of furniture workshops. Dilapidated gecekondu, shanty houses and hovel housing dating to the 1970s, have not yet been overshadowed by newly-constructed high-rises. The stalls of mostly old hawkers, sheltered in the shadow of unfinished buildings, are not visited by anyone. Syrians have been prohibited from opening their workplaces since August 11. A Syrian in his seventies tells us that he cannot sell anything at the stall he set up to sell his wares in his shop. He opens his hands in a prayer motion and looks up at the scorching sun, sitting on the edge of a briquette in the shade.

At noon, with the temperature at 37 degrees, children chatting with the police tuck their prayer rugs under their arms and run into the mosque amid the voice of the muezzin and the admonishments of adults. While we wait for Friday prayers to end under the suspicious eyes of the police, an old man on his way to the mosque tells us that since August 11, Syrians have been locked in their homes and that they no longer visit the mosque. After the congregation walks away, we chat with the Syrian muezzin who is sipping tea in the shed hut in the mosque courtyard.

Muhammed, who is in his fifties, says that he has been both working as a muezzin and cleaning the mosque for five years. He tells us that things have settled down and these issues will be fixed “if god allows.” How? “Racism and tribalism are the basis of discord and forbidden by our religion. If we keep away from them, we can live together as an ummah” (Muslim community). According to the muezzin, the incidents had calmed down without getting worse because most of the Turks had not become a party to the “discord.” Looking at the tension in the neighbourhood, which has all but been turned into a police station, the muezzin is either too optimistic or is afraid of getting into trouble.

Near the street-facing façade of the mosque, there are two shops, one of which was destroyed during the attacks. The repairman, who is also a refugee, is repairing the shutters of the destroyed shop. Next to this, in a second-hand domestic appliances shop, a Syrian boy says in broken Turkish that their shop was not damaged. The Syrians we approached did not want to talk to us.

We slowly walk past the photographs of Emirhan Yalçın, printed on giant cloth banners hanging from the ropes tied to upper floors of the buildings on both sides of the streets, and enter the park next to the muhtar’s office. Two young people welcome us on the bench where they are sitting. They offer us their half-full 2,5-litre-bottle of warm Coke and hand out cigarettes. Tayfun Y. and İsmail E., in their 20s, are friends both from the neighbourhood and from Kırıkkale University. Tayfun is a graduate of Public Administration, and works in a furniture store in nearby Siteler, where his salary is “almost four thousand lira.” İsmail, on the other hand, is unemployed. He is hoping that Tayfun will marry one of his relative’s daughters and move to Frankfurt and take him too. Tayfun replies, “That didn’t work out, friend. […] Getting married just to leave this country, I don’t know about that… But we want to go, no matter how.” İsmail cuts in: “If I somehow managed to get to Germany, I would accept to be treated by Germans the way we treat the Syrians.”

Four aspects of the night of August 11

The two friends said they had previously hung out at this park with a group of ten or fifteen friends, but that they had now stopped contact with everyone. Tayfun comments, “Because what we actually did that night was to throw stones at our own windows, we broke our own windows. Some people called us racist, others applauded us on social media. But in the end, we were left alone as the locals of the neighbourhood. Alone with our embarrassment, with our anger. Now police are deployed everywhere, but there is a tenser atmosphere than August 11. It is all a matter of a single spark, a single word.” İsmail interrupts: “We did actually throw stones at our own window, in both senses of the word. The district governor’s office replaced the broken windows. How, again with our taxes. Our situation is an example of pure ignorance.”

According to Tayfun, there were four different groups on the street on the evening of August 11: “Radical racists, who are a large presence in our neighbourhood. Those influenced and provoked by them. Looters, who plundered the shops. And those suffering from refugees. In other words, people like us. Our state caused disorder in their country, and they came here and we were left alone with them. Now, Syrians are much more anxious than we are. To be honest, we made an attempt on these people’s lives. Now, our people are organized, they act in unison, but what if the Syrians, too, get organized and act together soon? We cannot tolerate the Syrians, but now I and İsmail cannot tolerate the Turks either anymore. In fact, we have lost patience with everyone. We don’t like people anymore. This is perhaps because of our age, but we have no hope for humanity.”

İsmail says some who took part in the attack had rented their homes to Syrians and moved to the Hüseyingazi and Karapürçek neighbourhoods. He adds that the license plates given to Syrians start with the letter “M”, that everyone knows this, and that countless vehicles were attacked that night. “District markets have not been set up here for two weeks. I wonder if these cops are going to stand over us forever. They are leaving it to time, but this matter will only get worse as time passes. Those who are opposed to Syrians are manipulating us from afar and provoking us. Then they lean back in their seats and watch what happens. They cannot say anything about Tayyip Erdoğan, but they come and create trouble in our neighbourhood.”

Tayfun says “Friend, there are two different worlds in our neighbourhood. The Syrians’ world and our world. We neither make friends nor say hello to each other. But there is another world outside here, too. The world of Çankaya, Ümitköy etc. We cannot even go to Çankaya, let alone another city or country. We are stuck here, and we’ve fallen out with each other. Sometimes my uncle and his family come here from Germany, all of them have Erdoğan’s photo on their phones. And they say to us, ‘Appreciate Turkey, our homeland is so great, etc.’ Of course they do. One thousand euros equals ten thousand lira today. They come for a holiday to the most beautiful places in the country, then they go back. How about staying in Battalgazi for a few days? Then we will see how you delete those photos of Erdoğan.”

İsmail says that Syrians and Turks avoid shopping at each other’s stores in the neighbourhood. İsmail adds, “There were even people who rented their homes to Syrians among those throwing stones, such double-dealing.” He talks about the attitude of police: “Very interesting, the only street closed by police was here, Muhtar Arif Turan Street. The only place where no Syrians live in the neighbourhood!” Tayfun adds: “Even we were surprised, wondering why the police chose only to close this street. There is surely one more thing: the police do not know the Syrians’ homes, but we know. So on the other hand, they did not know what to do.”

“Both an end and a beginning”

A week after the attack, one of the bath attendants we chat with at the historical Şengül Public Bath says, “There is no need to bring in outsiders, the neighbourhood has been like a ticking time-bomb for years anyway. Those who carried out this attack already knew the neighbourhood back to front. That’s why the police could not cope with it”. One of the bath attendants is rubbing down an English customer. Wiping the sweat off his forehead, he begins to talk: “Look, Süleyman Soylu [the Interior Minister] is my client. When he comes here, he has the bath totally closed and stays here for four or five hours. Then he leaves a 600-lira tip. He has not come for a while because of the coronavirus. Soylu has only one problem, the PKK. He does not care about anything else. The man is obsessed with that matter. Think about it, a man who does not stop talking about it, even in the bath! As if the country has no other problem. His only concern is the PKK.”

In fact, what the bath attendant says about Soylu brings to mind another possibility. According to the exiled Kurdish politician Hatip Dicle, who talked to the Yeni Özgür Politika newspaper on August 16, racist anti-refugee attacks are carried out in a planned way according to a certain concept of the state, and the basis of this is actually the “Collapse Plan” introduced in 2014. The Collapse Plan, also known as the “Sri Lanka model,” was a “local and national” version of the horrific attack against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and the political and military war initiated after the ending of the solution process was part of this plan.

According to Dicle, the Altındağ attack is both an end and a beginning: “These are all trials, rehearsals. They are firstly started against refugees, then directed against the Kurds. The people who are actually under the threat of pogroms are Kurds. The attacks against refugees are designed as an early rehearsal.

The attacks on the Kurds in Konya in recent months alone are enough to support Dicle’s assessment. A racist group of 60 people attacked the Dedeoğulları family, living in Konya, on May 12. Seven family members were injured. The majority of the ten arrested attackers were swiftly set free. No precautions were taken despite the family’s pleas, who stated that, “Our lives are in danger.” On July 21, 43 year-old Hâkim Dal, from Diyarbakır and living in Konya, was murdered in a racist attack. Then, on July 30, the Dedeoğulları family was attacked in the courtyard of their house by a racist named Mehmet Altun, who was apparently a skilled gunman. Seven members of the family were murdered. The family’s attorney, Abdurrahman Karabulut, said “The massacre was planned very professionally. The murderer is not alone.”

A group called the “Children of Fire” was indicated as the perpetrator of forest fires that started in late July and burned away forests in Antalya and Muğla. Based on the connection with this group, the fires were associated with the PKK and more generally with the Kurds, although there was no evidence whatsoever. While the fires continued, armed gangs descended onto the streets, forming checkpoints, openly hunting for Kurds, and the government acted as a mere spectator during the whole episode.

A veil of uncertainty, cracks appear

On July 31, the day after the racist attack in Konya, Erdoğan went to Marmaris and drew a veil of uncertainty over the fires: “Like you, we have the question in our minds, of ‘whether the terrorist organization is behind this.’ It is our duty to wrench out the heart of those who have torn out our hearts. If we detect such a link, and we have already found some indications, then we will do what is necessary.

The government, which failed to cope with the fires, was clearly misdirecting and feeding the racist perception that the Kurds were behind the disaster, but was unable to offer any evidence whatsoever. Perhaps it considered that when the stake was loosened, the rest would simply follow.

The government made no statement during the attack in Altındağ. It did not try to address the uncertainty that deepened anti-refugee sentiment. According to the director of the Association for Migration Research, Didem Danış, this was an extension of the government’s policy of gaining power from uncertainty: “The government uses the power of uncertainty when it comes to refugees. It is said that ‘There is no immigration policy in Turkey’. But, in fact, there is: The immigration policy is governed by uncertainty. Asylum-seekers are not given permanent status, for example. Syrians are given temporary-protection status, trapped into a state of transition, uncertain about when and how it will end, so they are left condemned to the government.

However, statements from the interior ministry and the Directorate General of Security, which partially lifted the veil of uncertainty, have created the impression that there was no unity within the government. For example, CHP Group Deputy Chairman Engin Özkoç stated on July 29 that he asked the interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, about the reason for the forest fires. Soylu told him there was no evidence of sabotage and that extreme temperatures were the primary cause of the fires. This statement, made two days before Erdoğan’s speech in Marmaris, weakened the stance of the government and its media, which had wanted to create a new anti-Kurdish wave of feeling via these forest fires. It looks like Soylu did this as a precaution against the possibility of being held responsible.

On the other hand, the Directorate General of Security, accountable to Soylu, made a statement on August 12: “After the sad event that took place in our Altındağ district, 76 people were arrested, who were found to be involved in the incidents of prejudice in the locality and who shared untrue posts on social media in order to provoke our citizens and create a certain perception.” It added that 38 of the arrestees had criminal records for offences like looting, wilful injury, robbery, and drug possession and trafficking.

On the one side, there was the gendarmerie that had remained a mere spectator while lynch mobs, who saw the Kurds as responsible for the forest fires, performed identity checks, and the police that had turned a blind eye to people attacking Syrians’ homes and workplaces. On the other side, Soylu was saying that there was no evidence of sabotage behind the forest fires, and the Directorate General of Security was making a statement about the arrestees in Altındağ, denying allegations of “Afghan refugees lowering the Turkish flag” on social media. It was clear there was similar discord regarding the Konya massacre.

The fact that, following the first attack on the Dedeoğulları family, the perpetrators were gradually released, and that the attacker’s family was given protection instead of the attacked, shows that the massacre had not only been tolerated but also permitted. The lawyer of the Dedeoğulları family said: “Even though we warned the officials, at every instance they said, ‘these are not racist attacks, whoever says that is carrying out a provocation’. Having said the incident is not related to racism, the governor and the attorney general did not even visit my clients’ relatives until the higher officials came.”

The only common feeling is “abandonment”

It was seen in Altındağ that the government was taking care not to appear to be in a position of protecting the refugees, and not even mentioning them. However, the arrival of millions of refugees escaping the Syrian war that started in 2011 was a part of the ruling AKP’s strategy of undercutting Assad. AKP aggravated the war by supporting jihadist groups in Syria, while it greeted millions escaping to Turkey with an “open-door policy”. The point was not only to increase the number of refugees for political reasons but also to provide cheap labour for capital.

As a matter of fact, referring to the anti-refugee campaigns of the main opposition CHP, AKP Chairperson Advisor Yasin Aktay said, “If the Syrians leave, the economy will collapse.” AKP Vice Chairperson Mehmet Özhaseki emphasized the refugees’ “contribution in the economy” with the following words: “In some cities, the industry is kept alive by the Syrians. If you go to Gaziantep, you will see thousands of people working in the toughest and most difficult jobs. The case is the same in the Kayseri industry. Employers cannot find workers, but these men are willing to work.

Refugees were useful not only as cheap labour but as an instrument for blackmailing the EU. European leaders, particularly Merkel, were happy to come and visit Erdoğan, while EU institutions did not go beyond expressing their “concern” about serious human-rights violations in Turkey, acting as mere spectators to Turkey’s occupation of Jarablus, Azez, Manbij and Afrin, and financed “efforts” for refugees.

On the other hand, AKP does not share with society certain truths that would invalidate racist grumbling that claims, “Syrians are living off our back” and avoids mentioning that the EU is meeting the costs for refugees. In addition to this, almost no mutual “harmony” programs are developed in the regions where refugees live. For example, our colleague who witnessed the racist attacks in Altındağ said: “Six or seven years have passed, but there is still not the slightest social contact in the neighbourhood. Turks and Syrians do not even sit in the same café. No integration policy has been implemented. No steps have been taken to ensure people have more familiarity and contact with each other. Therefore, each group keeps up its guard against the other. Turks and Syrians in Battalgazi have only one common feeling: abandonment.”

CHP is making some attempts to use this “feeling of abandonment” in its own favour, by loosening the stake. Two weeks before the Altındağ attack, the CHP mayor of Bolu, Tanju Özcan, targeted refugees with these words: “They do not go even if you stop the aid. They do not go even if you say ‘I won’t give you a workplace license.’ We will increase water prices and solid waste fees tenfold for any subscriber of foreign nationality. Turkish citizens and foreign nationals will no longer use water at the same price.”

Very aware of what he is doing, Özcan does not hide his racism: “Some people will talk about human rights, they will call me ‘fascist’. I don’t care.” He was neither referred to a disciplinary committee nor reprimanded by his party. In fact, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, on a TV show on August 6, commented that Özcan’s practice was “not correct,” but added: “He may have said something like that in the political climate of his region.” Well, what was that “political climate”, and whose work was it?

Syrians were still prohibited from opening their workplaces although two weeks had passed. The neighbourhood remains under police blockade. (Photo: Serkan Alan)

Excellent observation

Abraham, a 25-year-old Syrian university student who has been in Turkey for 11 years, sums it up: “If people struggling to earn a living are told that ‘the refugees are the reason for your trouble,’ then we are turned into a hate figure. However, there is no material basis for this rhetoric. Is there any concrete statistical data indicating that we are the reason for the economic crisis in Turkey? As far as I understand, racism, the sense of ‘we are superior to them’ plays a compensatory role for oppressed people. And the politicians are exploiting this.

A poor internal migrant from Hakkari, who lives in Akdere, close to Altındağ, and collects paper from refuse containers in Ayrancı, says: “The poor cast out the poor. Those racists used to attack us in the past. Then the Syrians came and they set us aside and began to go for them. The smell of hunger emanates from some houses around Akdere. Those people think that when the Syrians leave, they will have kebab to eat day and night. Yet I am Kurdish, you are Turkish, he is Syrian; neither you are hungry because I exist nor am I hungry because you exist. While we are quarrelling with each other, it is the ones at the top who feast on all the kebabs.”

When we tell Tayfun and İsmail about their statements, they say they are an “excellent observation”. İsmail: “Once, people did not like Kurds here. Now the separation between us has ended, our common enemy has become the Syrians. Anytime soon, we will be friends with Syrians and see Afghans as the common enemy. While we fight among ourselves, the ones at the top feast on all the kebabs.” According to Tayfun, there is a greater risk: “We used to talk about this with each other. You drag someone’s kid behind a panzer, and the other kids see this. What will they do? They have no other option left than to become a terrorist. Now we are doing the same thing to Syrians and probably their children will grow up with this grudge and do the same thing tomorrow…

As we leave, they ask us not to write their surnames. İsmail says, “It seems we will be left with no other choice, we will apply to become police officers. Tayfun thinks we should do our military service and stay in the army as specialist sergeants. So we will either become soldiers or police. They shouldn’t have the chance to use what we have told you against us.

While “the ones at the top feast on all the kebabs,” the lower class has reached boiling point. There is an increasing possibility that one wing of the government – splitting into more factions as it weakens – might make various moves by turning anti-refugee or anti-Kurdish campaigns into a new “shock doctrine” before the elections. It is not for nothing that mafia boss and whistle-blower Sedat Peker, occasionally used as an irregular warfare figure by the government until recently, has drawn attention to such “provocations”, calling for “moderation” by nationalist groups and warning, “They will want you to pour out into the streets.” The stake is being loosened, and it is clear that there is not only one hand behind it.

On the night of the Altındağ attack, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was warning of “provocation” on Twitter, as if he and his party had not contributed to this climate: “It is clear that what has been carried out via Afghan and Syrian refugees in recent days is a provocation. Raising the Afghan flag, the messages of a so-called journalist provocateur, a Syrian youngster’s calls to ‘unite against CHP,’ attacks and deaths… I can see what these incidents may lead to, I will not allow the Palace government to set the country on fire. We will solve this asylum-seeker problem and of course, we will do it with common sense. We will bid farewell to our guests with our traditional instruments playing to send them on their way.”

It is not hard to predict that Kılıçdaroğlu’s musical farewell will be similar to what happened in Altındağ. Certain nationalist and fascist groups are injecting a new microbe into society by stirring together anti-refugee feelings and xenophobia with the anti-AKP sentiment. In his book Story of a German: Observations in Germany 1914-1933, Sebastian Haffner describes the preparatory phase of the racist climate, the loosening of the stake, and the microbe injected into society as follows:

“Once you become ready to kill people you live alongside – in principle and on a permanent basis and even adopting it as a duty – the changing individual targets will only become an insignificant detail. It is clearly seen from today that replacing ‘Jewish’ with ‘Czech’ or ‘Polish’ or any other figure will not be a problem at all. The issue is the systematic injection of a microbe into German people. This microbe is causing those who fall into its clutches to behave like a wild wolf to the people they live with, or, in other words, the sadistic instincts – that have been put under control or destroyed as a result of thousands of years of civilization process – break their chains, grow and become stronger.”

Until now, AKP has been able to instil this microbe in society by playing its religion and nationalism cards. CHP and the Nation Alliance, on the other hand, are responding to the germ with another, by fuelling the hostility against refugees and tending toward sexist, neo-nationalist, fascist rhetoric with slogans such as, “The border is an honour.” In this way, they are directing the hate and anger against AKP that already exists in society onto refugees. They are stealing people’s anger and destroying the possibility of a democratic Turkey. When terrifying attacks like those in Altındağ occur, they sit back and watch the disaster, saying “I did nothing, I just loosened the stake,” just like AKP has done for so many years.