Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Turkey: State bulldozers Roma Settlement

The destruction of a Roma area of Istanbul once famous for its music and dancing:

'Anti-riot police supervised this final phase last week of the demolition of Sulukule, a neighborhood on the European bank of Istanbul once home to a vibrant community of musicians and artists whose rhythmic songs and belly dancing served as the city's musical heart.

Similar scenes have been repeated across the country as municipalities, supported by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), drive home a programme of urban renewal, destroying ramshackle and often unsanitary housing in favour of new tower blocks, often many kilometers (miles) outside localities.

But the demolition of Sulukule caused controversy as it razed an ancient community of Rom gypsies who can trace their history in the suburb back to Byzantine times. "A big thank you to the municipality," said Celep, who is unemployed. Thanks to them I will sleep on the street with my wife, my new-born child and the four-year-old. We have no where to go."

.... local activist Hacer Foggo of a group called the Sulukule Platform estimates that closer to 5,000 people, the bulk of them members of the minority, are being displaced, and all to benefit the ruling party and its allies. "Who is going to buy the houses that they will build here? It will be the profiteers, those close to the AKP," she said. "The idea is to expel the poor from the city centre and put the rich in their place."

Turkish media reported a few months ago that several AKP members and figures close to the party were allegedly among the prospective buyers of the new houses. Foggo said the resettlement will break up a community that has survived through centuries thanks to a tradition of solidarity and mutual aid. "Here at least everyone knew each other, the rent was very low and the local grocer always gave you credit," she added.

Sulukule welcomed generations of residents from other parts of Istanbul who came for music, booze and belly dancing before a ban in the 1990s by conservative governments shut its colorful neighbourhood taverns.

...It means the end of a millennia of history, according to British researcher Adrian Marsh, a specialist on the Roms of Turkey. Sulukule was the oldest known settlement in the world of Nomadic Roms, said Marsh, first mentioned by a Byzantine scribe in 1054. His writings speak of "Egyptians" living in black tents along the fortress walls and eking out an existence thanks to their belly dancers, fortune tellers and dancing bears, Marsh said.

After Constantinople -- as it was then known - fell to the Turks in 1453, Sulukule's dancers and musicians became fixtures of the opulent nights at the Ottoman court. "Demolishing Sulukule is not the same as demolishing just any other gypsy slum, the way it happens all over Turkey and Europe," said Marsh."It is the annihilation of the memory of an entire community."

Source: AFP 18 May 2009; see also this report at Rroma.org

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