issue 256 - June 1994
The Mafia and Mrs Ciller
The Turkish Mafia is in cahoots with the Government,
claims Ivy Anderson. And peasants are first in the firing line.
Protecting the business interests of the powerful is the most pervasive form of press censorship in today’s post-Cold War world. Governments, their friends and large corporations can have a powerful influence in determining which stories get told. Large corporations can withdraw advertising or, increasingly, buy up media outlets. For media who dare to criticize corporate giants there is always the fear of libel action. Big business has the resources to invest in a posse of wily libel lawyers – the smaller media, action groups and individual whistle-blowers do not. Journalists or civil servants who expose dubious links between government and business may find themselves facing criminal proceedings for disclosing information deemed to be harmful to ‘national security’ – especially when the government in question gets mixed up in arms deals.
Cevat Yildirim drove his old red Massey Ferguson tractor, his wife and daughter sitting on the mudguards, to their field beside the stream known as Uzun Dere. A large red Dodge lorry was already there. Men were standing by with shotguns, while others set concrete posts into the ground and strung barbed wire between them.
‘The land Mafia,’ said his wife. ‘Don’t go near them. They’ll kill you.’
Cevat was around 40 years old, with the broad chest and muscular arms of a Turkish villager.
‘This is our land,’ he told the men. ‘We have been here since Ottoman times. We have the title at home.’ He stepped forward and tried to pull one of the posts from the ground.
One of the men hit him across the skull with a steel bar.
‘The land is ours now,’ the gangsters laughed. ‘Here, come and take your man. And don’t come back again.’ Cevat’s family took him back to the village. They laid his body on the trestle in the courtyard of the mosque. His mother and brother came and buried him in the cemetery beneath the oak trees, overlooking the lake and the land the Mafia had seized – land to quarry aggregate for the new E80 motorway and an airport.
I visited the family in their home. They gave me cakes and ayran (yogurt drink). Cevat’s brother showed me the title to their land. They were the descendants of Ismael, the son of Haci Arif of Kurna village. The pieces of land, with their boundaries and area, their use and value, were all listed in Ottoman script.
‘Ours was a mixed village. We are Turks and Muslims, ordinary people, but there were Greeks and Armenians, Kurds and Laz all living happily side by side. No-one bothered about another person’s religion. Even after 1922, when the minority groups were driven out, we respected the old titles. We said we were keeping the land for our neighbours when they returned.’
In 1956 there was a move to translate the old titles into modern Turkish – but it was never properly completed. Many holdings got missed out, for simple reasons, such as peasants being away from their land the day the surveyor called. The end result was that many who had legal Ottoman titles never got the modern pink certificates and their land was put in the name of the Treasury.
This did not matter too much – until 1987 when the Government passed a new law making it possible for groups or individuals to occupy land and pay for a government surveyor to issue a new title. The Mafia – looking out for new opportunities – was quick to move into action.
According to villagers and journalists they are now everywhere – and are well-connected. The names of prominent business people and politicians crop up time and again in connection with land grabs.
Long stretches of coastline from Istanbul in the north to Izmir in the south are reckoned to have been occupied. Agricultural land is being ‘sold’ to business interests, including multinational companies such as Ford, Bayer and Mazda or, increasingly, the tourism industry.
Cevat’s family show me more land titles and tell me more stories about peasants in the region who are losing their holdings in this way. Their agricultural land is seized to provide sites for businesses ranging from driving schools to battery fact-ories. The man who seized the land in Tepeoren village where the Mutlu battery factory is built now owns a fleet of new lorries. Meanwhile the rightful owners of the land live in poverty.
‘Let’s do something about it,’ I say. We go to Kartal, to the office of the government surveyor.
‘I have orders from Ankara,’ he says, ‘from the Prime Minister, to put the land into the names of the occupiers. I am putting the owners’ letters into the cupboard. I retire in two years. My successor will answer them.’
He opens a grey metal cupboard. Inside are the villagers’ letters and copies of their titles. In the corner of the room is a highly- polished wooden staff, and a short silk robe with gold embroidery indicating membership of some society. I mention them to his secretary as I am leaving. She smiles knowingly.
In the same building is a store room holding the old Ottoman records. We find a translator, an old man educated before Ataturk introduced the modern script. He translates the old records and we take copies to the Governor.
‘I have been told that I am not to prevent people occupying the land if the owner hasn’t got a modern pink title. There are millions of pounds at stake. Ministers themselves have occupied land. Here we deal with small things. How can I stop the Mafia?’
We go to the Kartal office of Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, Sabah or ‘Morning’. The office has four desks. Two are empty. The surviving reporter and photographer tell us the story:
ABC AJANSI / CAMERA PRESS
‘The telephone rang here at seven o’clock in the evening. Our two colleagues were doing a story on the Mafia. The caller told them there was a fire at Gocbeyli village on the border with Ballica. They went in the office car. Next day the car was found burned out. They have never been seen since. The newspaper offered a reward. But there was no information. People are afraid of the Mafia.’
Aydinlik – or ‘Brightness’– is another smaller and newer newspaper which obtained a list of the Prime Minister’s own land holdings at Kurtkoy and Kilyos. The offices of the newspaper were attacked and set on fire. The crowd were told that the editor had translated The Satanic Verses into Turkish; 36 people died in the fire.
According to the Sabah reporter (who for obvious reasons does not want to be named): ‘The Government is faced with huge economic problems. Annual inflation is at 75 per cent and there was a 15 per cent currency devaluation earlier this year. The Government needs money. It wants to sell the land of anyone who has only an Ottoman title. This means not only the Greeks and Armenians and other minorities who fled in 1922, but also those ordinary Turks who simply were not given pink title certificates in 1956.’
Turkey is a signatory of the European Human Rights Convention. ‘But people disappear,’ the reporter continues. ‘We try to do our best. But we put our lives at risk when we do so.
‘Nowhere else in the world could the government sell people’s land to the Mafia or politicians or company proprietors and get away with it. But that is what the Turkish Government is doing: it’s taking people’s land and putting it into the names of members of the Mafia. When ordinary people go to the Title Office and ask to see the old records they are driven away. Some enterprising Mafia figures and politicians are then offering the land to the World Bank as security for loans for tourist development or for industrial expansion.’
All roads seem to lead back to Prime Minister Ciller, the former economics professor from the Bosphorus University. She likens herself to Margaret Thatcher. Some say a closer comparison might be with Imelda Marcos. It is Tansu Ciller who is behind the new land-titles legislation.
Unable to control the economy, indifferent to human rights and compliant with the Mafia, the Government is also afraid of the violence of an organization called Ulkucu whose slogan is: ‘Turkey for the Turks’. Ulkucu is an offshoot of the National Socialist Party. Its activities include political intimidation and attacks on minorities and foreigners.
Their emblem is a red crescent with a wolf baying at the sky. It was founded by Alpaslan Turkey, an army officer who served in Germany and the United States. Members of Ulkucu drill in paramilitary style, wearing black arm bands and chanting the name of their leader.
The danger is that land seizures legitimized by the present Government and the political violence of extremists whom the Government is loath to control, may increasingly destabilize a country whose neighbours have already shown what may happen if some of these forces are unleashed.
By destroying a stable society whose land titles go back to Ottoman times, a weak government is – for the sake of personal gain and office – likely to push the country into the abyss.
Ivy Anderson is an expert on Turkey and campaigns for human rights there.