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Cofiwch Hasankeyf: Water as a weapon in Wales and the Middle East

10 Jun 2020 8 minute read
Soldiers at Hasankeyf surrounding. protesters

Henry Brooks

In Wales, we know the political impact of water. Water is in no short supply here but, as the drowning of Capel Celyn in 1965 serves to painfully remind us, water still matters.

Who has control of water and what that water is used for – including where the water goes – are highly charged issues with wide-reaching, and often destructive, implications. No where else is this truer than in the Middle East.

On 25th February, one word in the opening line of Wikipedia’s page on Hasankeyf was changed. Previously it had read, “Hasankeyf is an ancient town and district located along the Tigris River in the Batman Province in southeastern Turkey.” Now it reads, “Hasankeyf was an ancient town …”.

This simple change of tense reflects decades of struggle against the Ilısu Dam, the hydroelectric dam responsible for the drowning of Hasankeyf. The dam has been in development for decades and has met passionate opposition, ranging from the local community and international activists to guerrillas.

Of the many complaints around the creation of Llyn Celyn, the reservoir at the bottom of which the village of Capel Celyn, in the Afon Tryweryn valley, used to reside, was that the flooding would destroy and scatter a precious Welsh speaking community. Which it did.

And the same is true in the case of Hasankeyf, or Heskîf‎, حصن كيفا‎, Հարսնքվ, Κιφας, Cepha, or ܟܐܦܐ. These are the many names of the town in Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Latin, and Syriac. This incredible diversity reflects the rich, 12,000 year history of Hasankeyf. These names contain the many cultures and empires who have made their mark on Hasankeyf. They left many historic monuments and Hasankeyf’s iconic caves which honeycomb the cliffs.



Until recently Hasankeyf was as alive as ever. Prior to the flooding of the town and expulsion of its residents by the Turkish regime, Hasankeyf was home to a harmonious synthesis of Arabic and Kurdish identities, with three languages spoken (including Turkish).

For the stateless Kurds in particular, subject as they have been to systematic oppression by Turkey and the other states which the historical region of Kurdistan overlaps with (Iraq, Iran, and Syria), the loss of a Kurdish speaking community is a tragedy.

The drowning of Hasankeyf is another line on Turkey’s rap sheet of crimes against the Kurds. But this goes even further than just one town, or even just the Kurds.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Source.

The Ilısu Dam sits on the Tigris river. This river flows from the Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, into Iraq, through major settlements including Mosul and Baghdad, and finally empties into the Persian Gulf.

This geography is important. Iraq needs water. So does Syria. It has the Euphrates river which, on the other side of Mesopotamia (the “land between the rivers”), begins in Turkey’s Armenian Highlands, snakes through the middle of Syria, into Iraq, and meets the Tigris at Al-Qurnah in Iraq, which local folklore holds to be the historical site of the Garden of Eden.

These rivers provide water to vast and incredibly diverse populations across Syria and Iraq. This is the geographical reality which Turkey has used to its advantage.

By controlling the upstream flow of water on the Tigris and Euphrates with dams like the Ilısu Dam, not only has Turkey drowned towns like Hasankeyf – which had the arrogance to sit still in same spot for 12,000 years – but Turkey also controls a vital geopolitical resource: water. Turkey has used this to shape the Middle East and extract favours from other states in the region.

In Iraq, many fear Turkey’s dam will drain the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands (only recently restored after they were emptied by Saddam Hussein) further displacing their inhabitants, the Marsh Arabs. Water is a sword Turkey can hold over Iraq, limiting or increasing the supply as a form of blackmail.

The same goes for the Syrian regime. But Syria has another political force, which is something like a state but not quite: the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Protestors at Hasankeyf.


In the vacuum of the Syrian civil war, a Kurdish-led, multi-ethnic coalition of political forces across north and east Syria has built a pluralist, feminist, radical democracy, sometimes referred to by the region’s Kurdish name: Rojava. The Kurds and their allies manage this while they also form the frontline military force against ISIS, including right now holding thousands of ISIS fighters prisoners with basically no help from Western states, even for fighters from those countries.

Turkey despises the Kurds and their pluralist democracy. Kurds living alongside Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs, Ezidis, and other ethnic minorities, sharing democratic structures with them; a commune-based democracy built on the emancipation of women: all of these things are an affront to the Turkish state’s totalitarian mentality. Turkey dismisses this radical and incredibly successful in democracy as a bastion of terrorists, despite the Kurds repeated calls for dialogue, which Turkey intentionally ignores.

So, Turkey uses water as a weapon. On top of the control it has over the Euphrates, which runs through the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, it has attacked and destroyed vital water infrastructure in the region. On the first day of Turkey’s latest invasion of Northeast Syria, triggered by Trump pulling troops out of the region, Turkey attacked the Alouk water station in Serekaniye, a border town on the Syrian side. Since then the site has been repeatedly taken out of action.

Turkey continues to attack water and electricity infrastructure, (with military equipment potentially originating from the UK), dam rivers, and burn newly plant orchards and other agriculture.

Hundreds of thousands of people are left without safe, reliable drinking water. A tragedy at any time, this crisis is further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis where access to water is vital for the maintenance of sanitation protocols.

You can’t wash your hands if you don’t have access to water. “Stay alert” in Rojava means “keep an eye out for drone strikes.”

What to do

Wales knows the power of water. We know how vital it is for life as well as the destruction that can be waged in its name. The people of Hasankeyf should not have been turned out of their homes, just like the people of Capel Celyn should have been able to remain and nurture their precious Welsh speaking community.

The people of Northeast Syria, who want nothing more than for Turkey to just leave their democracy in peace, deserve reliable access to clean water.  Despite this dire situation, you can help.

Right now, activists from across the world are trying to raise £100,000 to help the people of Northeast Syria rebuild water infrastructure destroyed by Turkey. You can donate to that fundraiser here and I encourage you to do so.

Beyond this, the campaign calling on people to Boycott Turkey is growing. The UK provides weapons and military equipment to Turkey – some of it potentially produced in Wales. Welsh tourists cross Europe to holiday on Turkey’s beaches. This puts money straight in the pockets of the regime and is used to fund drone strikes and torture chambers used against the Kurds and their allies.

If you want to help the Kurds, don’t holiday in Turkey and don’t buy Turkish products. Beko, the fridge manufacturer, for example, is linked to the Turkish military. A boycott campaign helped bring down South African apartheid and it can bring an end to Turkey’s merciless persecution of ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, the fundraiser, Water For Rojava, doesn’t have long left. Before submitting my own donation, I thought back to last year when I visited Hasankeyf and saw the rising waters, and the abysmal theatre of the Turkish armed forces who surrounded us by their hundreds with automatic weapons, at one point joking about gunning us down, all to halt our simple protest which was to be nothing more than jumping in the Tigris on a sunny day.

Our histories are very different, but Wales nonetheless has a lot in common with the Kurds and Kurdistan.

When we cofiwch Dryweryn we should also cofiwch Hasankeyf. Not to remember them as historical relics of struggles lost but as living memories which compel us to fight for a better world and make sure that tragedies like these never happen again.

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