Selda Hepkeskin practices at a shooting range in Florya, Istanbul.
I’ve recently neglected to post stories on this blog, so just to show you that I have been doing something, here are a few of my recent articles.
Last Friday an article of mine for the Christian Science Monitor was published, examining Turkey’s first wildlife corridor, the ecological crisis facing the country, and ecologists’ efforts to raise awareness on the issue.
I also recently did a dispatch for CSM about Ala magazine, Turkey’s ‘Vogue of the Veiled’, which you can read here.
I never linked to my piece for Eurasianet.org looking at Turkey’s urban regeneration schemes and their possible impact on crime in the city.
Last month I wrote an article for The Times about a charity that is telling battered women to arm themselves with guns as a last resort to fend off their murderous/violent husbands. Ironically, the charity is called Sefkat Dernegi, ‘Compassion Association’.
The story got cut right down due to layout/space issues, so I’m posting it unedited here:
Raising her handgun, Selda Hepkeskin pumps five rounds into a target, each time inching closer to the red heart on the stencilled torso of a man.
With Turkey facing deep sexual inequalities and a spate of vicious killings by jilted husbands and ex-lovers, women are trying to level the playing field.
“For me it’s an adrenalin thing,” said Ms Hepkeskin, 31. “There’s a general perception that only men can use guns, but for a woman it gives you the feeling you can achieve anything a man can.”
Now one charity has provoked controversy by vowing to give battered women firearms lessons to help them protect against their former partners.
“As long as the situation is this bad, women need to learn to protect themselves,” said Hayrettin Bulan, director of Sefkat-der, which hopes to begin offering shooting lessons for battered women at practice ranges around Istanbul next month.
Since Sefkat-der published its advice in November more than 3,000 women have called its hotlines expressing interest, he said.
Last year, the Turkish Justice Ministry revealed that murders of women increased by 1,400 per cent over seven years during the past decade, with 953 slain in the first seven months of 2009 alone.
“This is a last resort, and it has created hope for women under threat,” he told the Times in his Istanbul office plastered with dozens of press cuttings of rapes, murders, and abuses of women.
Public anger on the issue has been spurred by a string of recent cases in which victims have been killed after seeking official protection.
Last year, police in Istanbul repeatedly ignored pleas for help from 41-year-old Müzeyyan Yanik, who was divorcing her abusive husband.
When officers finally got round to visiting her home in October, she had been dead since July – shot four times in the head by her former spouse.
While some blame the conservative influence of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, which has governed Turkey since 2002, others see it is a sign that a hitherto ignored problem is finally being brought to light.
“We know that violence against women has been a longstanding bleeding wound of the society,” said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year.
“It is being reflected by the media as a growing issue when it is simply the hidden and unspoken truths being uncovered.”
Since 2006, the government has trained 40,000 police officers, 50,000 health officials, and 250 judges and prosecutors on how to handle domestic violence cases.
It also consulted women’s NGOs earlier this month over the drafting of a law including possible electronic tagging and compulsory anger management courses for convicted wife-beaters.
But one problem, according to Mr Bulan, is Turkey’s high level of gun ownership.
“In Turkey, men learn how to use weapons when they are doing military service, but women do not,” he said.
“It’s considered normal for jewellers or rich businessmen to carry a gun. It’s also normal to have a gun in case a burglar breaks into your home.”
Sefkat-der’s plans have attracted widespread criticism. “In this country there is law enforcement,” wrote columnist Sure Pazarci in the daily Takvim newspaper. “We don’t live in the Middle Ages, this is the year 2012.”
But a growing number of women are no longer content to merely wait for the state to help them.
At the shooting range where Ms Hepkeskin practices there are now 1,000 women members where only four years ago there were virtually none, according to owner Abdullah Dolu.
“10 years ago it would have been extremely unusual to see a woman learning to use a handgun, but in the past three or four years it’s become normal,” he said.
Ms Hepkeskin has several female friends who have guns for their own security, but for her it’s just about the feeling of power: “It makes me feel equal to men.”
I’ve previously written about the same issue here.
Additionally, I never put up stories from a reporting trip to Hatay I made in December for The Times, where I did pieces on the Free Syrian Army and the cross border humanitarian operations being run by activists there.
Here is one of my reports. It was based mainly on Skype interviews conducted with activists and FSA members based in Idlib province, bordering Turkey, as well as with an FSA commander in Antakya.
The ambush had been going well. Twenty fighters from the Free Syrian Army, armed with rifles and home-made bombs, had stopped a military convoy heading to raid the village of Khan Shekhon.
Then they ran out of bullets. Fleeing, they had no choice but to leave a comrade, 25-year-old Muhammad Kataini, wounded in the arm and leg, to a fate worse than death. “They captured him,” recalled Musa, one of the fighters. “We tried to go back for him, but we couldn’t get him. If we had more ammunition we could have saved him.”
Poorly armed, isolated and living as fugitives in remote corners of Syria, the rebels are mounting a desperate insurgency, though one that even they admit has no chance of toppling the Assad regime unaided.
A senior commander told The Times that a Libya-style intervention with targeted bombing and a buffer zone might be needed to prevent the country sliding into civil war.
“If the international community does not do something to help Syria it will become another Somalia. It will not be stable for decades,” said Captain Ayham al-Kurdi, who is charged with co-ordinating Free Army operations in the western city of Hama.
Speaking in Antakya, Turkey, near where the Free Army’s exiled leaders co-ordinate operations from a refugee camp, Captain al-Kurdi claimed that they had more than 10,000 fighters, almost all army deserters. The figure cannot be independently verified, but even if it is true, the rebels are outgunned by Syria’s 300,000-strong regular army and a sprawling police state adept at instilling terror in its populace.
Nonetheless, in areas such as Daraa, Idlib, Homs and Hama, they appear to be mounting increasingly deadly attacks against the military and security forces. Yesterday, there were reports that rebels shot dead eight soldiers travelling in a military convoy in Hama province after government troops destroyed a civilian car.
At least 25 people were reported killed around the country, after a surge in violence on Tuesday that left 38 dead.
Since peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations began in March against President Assad and his family, who have ruled Syria for more than 40 years, more than 5,000 people have been killed.
In Idlib, where rebel fighters are supported by extensive smuggling networks from neighbouring Turkey, they have carved out fragile pockets of territory. “We are surrounded by Syrian army troops, we have less than ten square kilometres, and any safe area we’re in can be invaded at any time,” said Alaa, 29, a taxi driver turned activist, who regularly ferries injured civilians and rebels to secret makeshift field hospitals.
“Every day there are wounded and martyrs, and every day I do this. It is my duty as a Syrian,” he said in a Skype interview with The Times.
Alaa is a wanted man whose home has been raided five times since the start of the uprising, although he has done nothing more than treat the injured and relay reports of regime outrages to the outside world.
While he and many other rebels and dissidents clamour for outside intervention, others fear that it could merely fuel a conflict already heading for civil war, pitting the country’s disenfranchised Sunni Muslim majority against the minority Alawite sect whose members make up the regime’s backbone.
But Captain al-Kurdi says there is a greater risk in doing nothing. “Yes, there’s a fear of it turning into a sectarian conflict,” he said. “In fact the regime is trying to provoke this by arming Alawite villages and raiding Sunni ones. But if the international community does not act, then it will not just be soldiers picking up arms, but ordinary people, and that is the danger.” The hope on the horizon, he said, was that the army would collapse under mass defections once outside powers have created a safe zone for deserters.
“When the uprising started, maybe 50 per cent of the people in the army believed the regime’s lies, but now I believe that 90 per cent want to desert,” said Musa, 25. He deserted from the security forces 40 days ago and fought in the ambush outside Khan Shekhon, in Idlib province, last week.
Musa and his comrades had been sent to Deraa at the start of the uprising and told they were fighting Islamist terrorists. What he witnessed was a terror campaign waged by the Government on its own people.
“Our duty was to raid houses and arrest wanted people. I saw them rape women in public, without shame,” he told The Times from inside Syria.
“There was one woman with her children. When we came into the house, she begged us not to rape her in front of them. We just walked out the house, her words hurt so much. Even if I had no weapons we would keep doing this, to defend our land and our dignity from this Nazi regime.”
I also wrote about Ibrahim Othman, a prominent opposition activist who set up a network of secret mobile medical centres inside Damascus, and was killed trying to flee to Turkey:
As founder of Damascus Doctors, a network of secret medical clinics that treated injured protesters, Ibrahim Othman was a hero of the nine-month uprising against President Assad’s rule in Syria — it also made him one of the country’s most-wanted men.
As the 26-year-old doctor tried to flee into Turkey on Saturday he was shot dead by government forces, fellow activists told The Times. A video posted on the internet appeared to show his body and what was claimed to be his passport. A fellow activist said that security forces near the border village of Khirbet al-Joz opened fire on the minibus carrying Dr Othman and other dissidents.
After being forced from his hospital job for treating demonstrators earlier this year, Dr Othman helped to establish secret medical facilities where injured protesters could receive treatment. In an interview with CNN in July, he said he knew it put his life at risk.
“It’s illegal, but this is the only way to treat injured demonstrators . . . they are risking their life too,” he said.
According to the Avaaz media network, 18,600 people have been injured since demonstrations began in Syria in March, and the UN estimates that 5,000 people have been killed. The Government is accused of arresting or killing injured demonstrators and threatening hospital staff who treat them. Doctors and activists who spoke to The Times said that growing intimidation of doctors meant there were fewer able to treat the injured, and that it was getting harder to send medical supplies and people over the border.
“We opened ten days ago and in that time two people we work with have been killed, another arrested, another injured,” said Ahmed al-Jisri from Antakya in Turkey where the supply of medical aid to Syria is co-ordinated.
From a basement office, dissidents send bloodbags, bandages, stitching thread, antibiotics and other basic medical supplies to cities including Homs, Hama, Latakia, Idlib and Damascus.
Abu Hamza, a doctor from Hama who set up a secret medical clinic in Syria before he fled to Antakya in October, said police would raid the wards of the private hospital where he had worked as they searched for wounded protesters. He left after security forces raided his home and told his wife they would kill him when they found him.
“We had so much pressure, and so many wounded people, we couldn’t treat them all,” he said. “People inside Syria supplied us with medical equipment, but it was nowhere near enough.” The wounds of the injured mark them out as protesters and liable for arrest. Abdullah, a 26-year-old activist from Hama, was blinded after security forces fired a rocket propelled grenade into the apartment. He spent 15 days with shrapnel in his eyeball as fellow activists helped him flee to Turkey.
Friends and colleagues of Dr Othman paid tribute to him. “I’ve never seen such determination under fire,” wrote one on a Facebook page set up in his memory. “This hero devoted his life to the oath he took. He saved lives, then left us with a wound that won’t heal.”