Ercüment Çelik, a Turkish scholar doing a PHD in Sociology at Freiburg University in Germany, and working on informal workers and new social movements, recently returned to Turkey and visited two communities in Ankara that are under threat of eviction and demolition.
Squatters there are being offered a truly Faustian bargain: pay more than they can afford for a small flat in their redeveloped communities or accept forced removal to a new community on the outskirts of town, where they will also have to pay too much for the right to live.
Ercüment was kind enough to send this brief dispatch from the front lines:
Since June 27th, people who live in slums (gecekondu) in the Çöplük and İlker quarters of Ankara have been running an anti-eviction campaign against the urban transition project of the central municipality. They are saying: "We want neither palaces nor villas; we only want houses in which we can live as human beings." The municipality is demolishing all slums and constructing luxurious flats and villas instead. The city's urban planning scheme puts forward the image of a city without slums. Does this mean a city without poor people? Of course not!
Most of the people who live in the gecekondu communities survive on minimum wage or pensions. Their families are quite large and unemployment is high. Their priority is to survive, and only secondarily to live in well-planned communities. Otherwise, who doesn’t want to have well-conditioned housing? These people are actually not against the idea of the transition of urban areas, but they are against being unjustly treated.
Most of the residents don’t have deeds to their parcels. When they built their houses, they were a voting block for the politicians. That’s why they were tolerated for many years. Many politicians promised to provide legal title deeds, particularly when they were running to become a member of parliament or a mayor in these districts. Now the poor people are being kicked out of their homes. The municipality offers them the opportunity to buy these new flats, but how can they afford it?
The municipality gives them two options: people who have deeds and more than 400 m² of land are going to get a 100 m² flat. The ones who have less than 400 m² have to pay approximately $300 per m² in four years to the municipality to own a flat. The people who do not have a deed will be removed to Doğu Kent, a new settlement very far from the city centre. They are being offered the opportunity to buy plots in this area, which are 200-250 m², and the debt can be paid in ten years. The reality is that most of the people don’t have deeds and have very small pieces of land. Moreover, if a person has an income (whether minimum wage or pension) of approximately $250, how can he or she pay $500 monthly to own a flat on the same land on which they have been living. It is obvious that they will be unjustly indebted.
The poor people are responding by organising themselves under community organisations called Halkevleri (People’s Houses), and campaigning for their housing rights. They demand that the government modify the requirements by reducing the 400 m² land requirement to 200 m² and the $300 fee to $35. In addition, they want demolitions to cease and new homes to be built on the same land where they have been living.
Of 3,000 houses in these communities, 500 have already been destroyed. The people who accepted the municipality's conditions and left their homes already regret that decision, since they have difficulties paying their debts. The ones who are resisting the push to get them out meet more problems day by day. Instead of listening to their demands, Melih Gökçek, the mayor of the central municipality, cut people’s water, sent gangsters to these areas, and attempted to force the residents to sign the agreements. People see strangers in their neighbourhood at night, hear gun shuts, and receive telephone threats from unknown people.
In Turkey, anti-eviction protests have taken place very often. But this may be the first time that the poor people in the gecekondu communities are building an organised movement and expressing their demands in a long-run campaign. These movements also give new functions to community organisations like Halkevleri, which have been voiceless for years. New social movements are born at the heart of the gecekondu communities. The marginalised people are coming together and calling for justice, a better life. It seems that this time they are not ready to give up easily.
During the protests in front of the Municipal Building, a woman joined the protest with her little son. It was very hot, they had walked quite a long way, and the little boy became tired and started crying. The mother, however, encouraged him to resist the urge to cry. "Stand, my boy," she said. "Everything is for our home!"