(I went to Gülyazi this week, one of the villages in the Uludere district where 35 villagers got killed in an airstrike of the Turkish army. Read this news agency article I wrote about it here, and a blog post here.)
In the old days, says one of the smugglers, there were no stones at the border. Now there are, every hundred metres. On one side is written IRAQ, on the other side TURKEY. These stones, he says, mean nothing to us. This, he says, is just all our land, the land of our ancestors.
It’s about six kilometres walk from Gülyazi to a village on the other side of the border. A two hours walk over rugged mountainous terrain, climbing and descending. They call the villagers on the other side of the stones beforehand and tell them what is needed. Sugar, petrol, tea, cigarettes. Then they set off. It’s smuggling, of course, and they know it, but to them it hardly feels like doing something illegal. They just get cheap stuff from close by, some of the smugglers even have family over the border. Then back in Turkey, they sell the goods and earn some money. It’s been done like that for generations, it’s just a very normal part of life.
When I ask if they also smuggle weapons, they sigh. No, of course not. That’s not part of life for these smugglers. They don’t do anything illegal – well, not illegal in that way. They are not connected to the PKK. The PKK also never ever uses the trails the smugglers use, because everybody knows there are too many soldiers around. The first PKK camps, they say, are around 100 kilometres away. They smuggle daily goods that everybody needs, no guns. And I have no reason not to believe them.
Then I talk to a 19 year old boy, and I realize even more how totally normal the smuggling is in the life of many villagers along the border. He is studying tourism at the university in Gaziantep and goes smuggling during his holidays. To contribute to the family income, and to pay for his studies. His younger brother was killed in the bombing, but that doesn’t stop him from crossing the border again for smuggling. He needs the money, and smuggling is the way. When we visit the graves of the victims, the 19 year old takes me to one of them to show me a note left on it. It says: ‘He went for a computer’. With smuggling, you can earn 50 lira a night, and if you want to save money for a computer, smuggling is the way.
I think back to when I was a teenager. I earned some extra money by delivering papers every Wednesday after school, and during my studies at journalism academy I earned some money in a supermarket and by writing for a local newspaper. What the boys and young men in Gülyazi do is as normal for them as my supermarket job was for me. The difference is: for them, it’s out of pure necessity to go earn some money, and they don’t have safer job options to turn to.