Turkish army fires warning shots, tear gas at villagers protesting against a marble quarry

·5-min read

Residents of the village of Yurtbasi, in Eastern Turkey, took to the streets on May 26 to try and stop a company that wants to demolish the buildings where they house their animals from building a marble quarry. However, soldiers who accompanied the bulldozers aimed tear gas at protesters and fired warning shots using live ammunition. Shocked by the turn of events, opponents of the project are now trying to gain support for their cause by sharing videos of the violence.

Over the past few years, Turkey has launched a number of large-scale industrial construction projects, aimed at building dams, mines and quarries. Often, the people living in areas slated for development don’t want to lose their homes and fear the negative environmental consequences that these projects will have.

For the past ten years, residents of a small village called Yurtbasi, located in eastern Van province near the Iranian border, have been strongly resisting one of these projects.

Yurtbasi is in the easternmost part of Turkey, where a militant group called the Kurdistan Workers Party, commonly referred to as the PKK, are particularly active. The Turkish army has deployed significant resources to fight the PKK and has carried out operations against civilians accused of supporting this separatist movement, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the European Union.

In 2003, the government authorised a local company called Dimer to build a marble quarry in Yurtbasi. The company began construction in 2006.

According to Dimer, they met with widespread anger from the local population and several targeted attacks. As a result, they gave up on the project after just three months.

According to Dimer, another (unnamed) company took over the project in 2020, paying Dimer a fee in order to use the site. Our team was unable to uncover the name of this new company or verify these claims independently.

On May 26, 2021, residents of Yurtbasi were shocked when they saw a bulldozer arrive, accompanied by several dozen soldiers. In a series of videos filmed by a local resident and sent to our team, you can hear bursts of gunfire and see clouds of smoke that look like tear gas. At the end of this montage compiled by our team, you can see the wreckage of several barns that were flattened by the bulldozer. You can also hear women, speaking in Kurdish, lamenting the destruction.

'They started to shoot in the air, it was terrifying'

Mehmet B. (not his real name) lives in Yurtbasi. He witnessed the soldiers dispersing a group of locals who were trying to block the bulldozers. For security reasons, we’ve agreed to maintain his anonymity.

It was the morning [of May 26], when, suddenly, we were woken up by soldiers who had come with bulldozers to the quarry site.

About a dozen of us villagers went to try and block their route. There were elderly people and children with us. We found ourselves up against about 100 soldiers [Editor’s note: several media outlets aligned with the opposition have reported similar numbers but our team was only able to count about 50 soldiers in the videos of the incident].

They started firing tear gas in an attempt to disperse us. This badly affected some of the elderly people, a few even fainted. The soldiers started to shoot in the air, it was terrifying.

In the end, they destroyed some of the barns that locals use for livestock [Editor’s note: according to several opposition media outlets, at least 20 barns were destroyed]. It was really upsetting. Now the livestock farmers don’t have a place to keep their animals, which, for many, provide their only income. Police also arrested four people.

Even after this violent repression, we still hope that the quarry project will be abandoned. Villagers shared videos of the violence on social media that night and, as a result, both journalists and deputies [Editor’s note: from the HDP, or the Democratic People’s Party, which is part of the Kurdish political movement and a member of the opposition] came to the village the very next day. We showed them all of the shell casings that we had collected, proof of the violence we experienced.

On Friday, May 28, more journalists and lawyers came to our village. We hope that they will make the government listen to our cause.

Our team contacted a ballistics expert and showed him screengrabs of a video showing the shell casings that the villagers had gathered after the violent incident. He said that they were from 7.82 calibre bullets. There were also empty tear gas canisters.

Locals filmed soldiers when they made their first foray into the village on April 24, 2021. The soldiers were carrying MPT-76 rifles, a Turkish-made weapon that is widely used within the Turkish army and which is compatible with the casings found at the site on May 26. As automatic or semi-automatic weapons, these rifles could easily have produced the bursts of gunfire heard in the videos filmed on May 26.

Four people were arrested on May 26 but released later that day, according to the sub-prefecture of Gurpinar, which includes Yurtbasi.

“Security forces and government officials had to resist citizens who were throwing stones at them. They intervened and fired warning shots, which was authorised. No civilians were injured,” said the sub-prefecture in a statement.

In the videos filmed by the villagers, at least one person can be seen making a gesture that looks like they are throwing a stone. The local authorities also said that the barns were “illegal buildings” that had been built on land belonging to the government.

Turkey is the largest exporter of marble in the world. In 2017, its marble exports were valued at two billion dollars. There are several hundred marble quarries in the country, mostly in the Aegean and Marmara regions in the west.

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