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Turkish Valley Home To Human Settlements For Millenia Soon Will Be A Lake

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And now to southeastern Turkey, where an ancient town is due to be flooded by a massive dam project on the Tigris River. As Durrie Bouscaren reports, thousands of people have been forced out of their homes ahead of the expected floods. That will close a final chapter in a valley thought to have been inhabited for more than 11,000 years.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: The stone and dirt pathways of Hasankeyf might be a maze to an outsider, but a local tour guide, Ahmet Sevinc, knows exactly where to stop.

Up a staircase, over the roofs of the old bazaar, through an alley that hugs an abandoned home. Far below our feet, the hulking columns of a 12th-century bridge long since collapsed rise out of the Tigris River. Once, it was one of the most important trading centers of the Kurdish heartland. Soon, it'll all be underwater. A hydroelectric dam downstream is in the process of filling a massive reservoir. When it's full, the area it covers will be 120 square miles, displacing at least 15,000 people.

AHMET SEVINC: (Non-English language spoken).

BOUSCAREN: Near the top of a hill, we reach a tiny stone convent. It was built centuries before Syriac Christians and Armenians were massacred and driven out into the Syrian desert.

SEVINC: There was lots of Syriac people who used to live in Hasankeyf. They'll just come to visit every year.

BOUSCAREN: For a moment, we try to figure out if the convent stands above or below where the water will reach.

SEVINC: Oh, yeah. It will be - that's the line. You see the red line? It will be right there, the water. So it'll disappear, also.

BOUSCAREN: There will be no single day that is the last for Hasankeyf, no biblical wave of water. It's been creeping up slowly for months. But even before that started, the town was being dismantled. Historic monuments were dug up and transported to higher ground, where the government hopes to build a new tourism destination. Others were buried under concrete to try to preserve them underwater. The sinking of Hasankeyf has been in the works for decades.

After multiple delays, the Ilisu Dam is about to be one of the cornerstone pieces of Turkey's plan to bring hydroelectricity, irrigation and prosperity to an underdeveloped southeast. Nicholas Danforth researches modern Turkish politics for the German Marshall Fund. He lays out the debate this way.

NICHOLAS DANFORTH: It's long been a concern of the Turkish government that the southeastern part of the country has lagged behind.

BOUSCAREN: Residents and archaeologists mounted a decades-long opposition, arguing that the displacement of thousands of people, the disruption of the river's ecosystem and the cultural loss just isn't worth it. Most modern dams only last 50 to 70 years. But Danforth says supporters of the dam have won out.

DANFORTH: For supporters, the goal remains in progress and development. And the specific concerns of the people who are affected are less important.

BOUSCAREN: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a statement by email saying that while the nostalgia of living here may be romantic, it doesn't address the social and economic needs of southeastern Turkey.

SEVINC: (Singing in Non-English Language).

BOUSCAREN: At night, Sevinc, the tour guide, sits with his friends in the old bazaar. It's slated for demolition, so they build a fire with the debris around them. Most of their families have already moved New Hasankeyf, a neighborhood of matching stucco houses that sit above where the water will reach.

The conversation is peppered with Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic - a legacy of the town's layered cultural history. Tiny glasses of tea are passed around.

SEVINC: So then this keep going like this every night. So just having a conversation about the future, what's going to happen in New Hasankeyf.

BOUSCAREN: If anything, it feels surreal, they say. They wonder what their grandparents would think.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BOUSCAREN: Sevinc translates for a friend.

SEVINC: If they were, like, woke up from the grave today, they would spit on our face (laughter) probably. And then they would go back because we couldn't do anything about this situation.

BOUSCAREN: Days later, Sevinc sends me a video of workers clearing the bazaar area to make way for the relocation of a 600-year-old mosque to higher ground. They stumbled on a ruined hidden in the dirt below. Archaeologists are scrambling to uncover as much as possible before the waters arrive. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Hasankeyf, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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