Turkmen businessmen have been the silent victims of the war in northern Iraq. They have become targets in efforts to intimidate the Turkmen people, in the hope of driving them out of historically and ethnically mixed Kirkuk.
Turkmen businessman Halil A.'s son İsmail was abducted by an unidentified group a year ago. His ransom was set at $100,000 and four brand new cars. It was paid. Hicran Kadr, who is in the import-export business, experienced a similar misfortune. The Turkmen businessman's 3-year-old son was abducted from in front of their home, to be returned to his parents for $60,000. Imad Aydın's daughter was abducted from her university campus and released for $50,000. Ali M. Sıddık, who operates a chain of bakeries in Kirkuk, also had to pay $40,000 in ransom money to have his 28-year-old son released.
On average 80 to 100 people lose their lives in Iraq everyday. Incidents like those listed above are just a few examples of abductions in Kirkuk, northern Iraq -- a region deemed to be "safe." The Kirkuk region is in the international spotlight as much as for the rich oil reserves in the area as it is for a referendum on the city's status with the Kurdish regional government, scheduled for the end of 2007. The latter issue is closely tied to crimes that have forced Turkmens to leave the region. As many as 60 percent of Turkmen businessmen have fled the country as a result of bad experiences like the ones mentioned above. Syria, Jordan and Turkey are the most preferred havens because there is no need for a visa. Syria and Jordan are a first stop for the Turkmens of Kirkuk who escape to Beirut and Egypt. Turkey, though, has become the second home of the Turkmens of Kirkuk.
Honor is more important than assets
One of Kirkuk's richest families, the "S" family owned a construction equipment factory as well as a grain and flour factory. The company, owned by a father and his three sons, has experienced many difficulties in the past year. First one of the brothers was abducted, followed by a cousin. The family paid a $50,000 ransom for their son and an $80,000 ransom for the cousin. Fears that their daughter could have been abducted as well forced the family to settle in Turkey. Some went to Mersin, some to İstanbul and yet others to Ankara.
The oldest of the siblings, İ.S., is 40 and has been living in Ankara with his five children for the past five months. The businessman, who is the proud father of four daughters, explained his decision to relocate to Turkey saying, "A person's dignity is more important than their assets; we came here to protect our honor."
He says he has not been able to find what he was looking for here. He could not get a working residency permit from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. The ambitious businessman, who is on the executive board of the Kirkuk Businessmen Association, explains that he has been living in Turkey with a six-month residency permit, making work difficult. "Turkey must quickly resolve its residency permit problems," he says.
Another Turkmen family that has fled the country is the Ensar family, who came to Ankara 10 days ago. In addition to be being a dentist, father Ahmet Ensar was a prominent businessman in Kirkuk. He speaks about the threats he has received over the past year, adding that even his office was looted. The greatest sorrow, however, occurred when he lost his older brother in an explosion. After that incident he gathered everything he had and came to Ankara. He is not sure what he would like to do at this point. His daughter Esin, who settled in Turkey's capital four months before her father did, says she could not leave her home in Kirkuk for one year for of fears of being abducted.
Others forced to abandon their homeland are former military officers of Saddam Hussein's army. The policy for them is somewhat different. Ali Y., who is 46-years-old, has sought refuge in Turkey and left his wife and children in the care of his mother-in-law. He is in Ankara now. He is a graduate of the Tikrit School of Aviation and served his country as a colonel and a pilot in Saddam's army for 20 years. He insists he was "a colonel for his country, not for Saddam." Following the occupation his home was frequently raided, followed by never-ending threats. He barely survived two raids on his home by Kurdish groups. When the threats became overwhelming, he fled the country across the border to Turkey. Ali has been staying with the Iraqi Turkmen Association for eight months. "If I hadn't come here, they would have killed me."
According to Ali, in Kirkuk if you are businessperson, wealthy or in the military, you are an automatic target. You can continue, however, to live in the city if you can handle the risk of being abducted or killed. The only way to completely rid yourself of the risk is to leave the country. "I chose the most difficult path and came to Turkey," said Ali. For now, he does not know what he wants to do or where to go from here. His only desire is for Turkey to truly open its doors and be welcoming.
A military officer during Saddam Hussein's regime, Raid, also abandoned his country seven months ago. Kurdish groups threatened him saying, "Either you cooperate with us or we kill you." He saw fleeing Kirkuk as the only solution. His escape was not an easy one. He was abducted, blindfolded and held hostage by a Kurdish group for two weeks. Somehow he was able to find his way to Ankara, but his brother who remained in Kirkuk was shot in the foot after it was discovered that Raid had fled. He now works as a web-designer for a computer company in Ankara and has applied to the UN in order to obtain residency in Turkey.
Kemal Beyatlı, the chairman of the Iraqi Turks Culture and Solidarity Association, asserts that a planned policy is in effect with aims to change the demographic structure of Kirkuk. While noting that explicit coercion, which was not present in the past, is being frequently practiced now, Beyatlı said this recent period targeting Turkmen businessmen is an extension of this effort to alter the demographics of the city.
Iraqi Turkmen Cooperation and Solidarity Association Ankara branch Chairman Mahmut Kasapoğlu says businessmen in the region are becoming poorer while Kurds are becoming wealthier. Kasapoğlu says that the greatest reason for this is unsupportive Turkish policies, saying: "The Mersin harbor and the Habur-Silopi crossing point on the Turkey-Iraq border are practically [northern Iraqi region authority leader] Massoud Barzani's property. The main suppliers of many stores are Kurds." He further asserts that Turkmen technicians are being threatened and forced to leave their jobs, and their jobs are then given to Kurds.
Professor Mahir Nakip of Erciyes University, an instructor and chairman of the Kirkuk Foundation, asserts that attacks directed at businessmen are efforts to intimidate the populace and abolish the Turkmen capital. "Turkey raising its voice on the topic of Kirkuk really spurred them on," says Nakip, adding that Turkmens have been politically and financially cornered. However he does not anticipate conflict in Kirkuk. "The fact that 600,000 Kurds living in the region have access to weapons while Turkmens don't have any weapons diminishes the chances of armed conflict."
Opening doors to Turkmens
Turkmens who flee Kirkuk and come to this country can only stay in Turkey for three months on their entry visa. Those who chose to involve themselves in commerce are more fortunate, this is the only way to acquire a working residency permit. Unfortunately the permit is not very easy to obtain and Mahir Nakip believes if this residency permit problem were resolved, more Turkmens would settle in Turkey.
However Nakip says they still have concerns, bearing in mind that Turkey has followed different policies at different times regarding Kirkuk -- the inconsistencies in Turkey's foreign policy worry them. Nakip says that unless Iraq is stabilized, Turkmens will stay away from the country. "It appears as though Turkey has opened its doors and is welcoming Turkmens, however it must raise its voice regarding Kirkuk in 2007."
Kasapoğlu also says that Turkey's indecisive policies regarding Kirkuk are not just issues pertaining to Turkmens in Kirkuk and Mosul, they also concern Turkey's southeast. There are currently 5,000 Turkmens living in Ankara. The only desire of those moving to the Turkish capital is for Turkey to open its doors to them. However every Turkmen family that enters Turkey translates into another political and demographic loss in Kirkuk. Turkmens who have fled their country out of fear are painfully aware of this: Yet they have no other option.
NURSEL DİLEK ANKARA