Smuggler’s Voice in Istanbul

In evening of December 28th, 2011 in the Turkish region of Uludere on Turkey’s eastern boarder with northern Iraq a group of villagers who were smuggling goods and diesel from Iraq into Turkey were killed in a bombing by Turkish Air force F16s. 34 civilians of Turkey from the nearby village of Guzelyazi were killed in the attack. According to reports many of the dead were under the age of 18.

The Turkish government has called the events in the region of Uludere an “intelligence service mistake” but failed to make any formal apology to the relatives of the dead. In order to understand the reasons behind why citizens along the Turkish/Iraqi border risk their lives smuggling one needs to comprehend how topography and politics affect trade and movement along an international border.

The distance between the Iraqi border and the nearest village of Guzelyazi is 15 minutes. There is a small river between the village and the border. Next to the river is a mountain. The people who live in this area call the mountain “Kopki.” There is a Turkish military base on the mountain. On a separate mountain peak called Nival the Turkish Military has installed a surveillance camera to watch anyone coming into or going out of Turkey. In order to enter into Iraq from Turkey smugglers must cross the river and pass the mountain into Iraq using a well-watched and well-guarded road. The trip is about 2 or 3 kilometers (1 or 1.5 miles).

The question commentators in Turkey have asked since the bombing is how could the government have made and “intelligence mistake” when it was a well-guarded road with very good cameras.

The heads of Guzelyazi village and other nearby villages are part of a Turkish confederation of militarized civilian soldiers used to confront the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). For nearly 30 years the PKK has been in open rebellion against the Turkish government. The civilian soldiers of Guzelyazi work very closely with the Turkish military in the area and constantly inform the regional Turkish military leaders about what the villagers are up to.

Because of the obvious intelligence that the Turkish Military apparently did have about local villagers’ actions how could they have made the mistake and bombed their own people who were only bringing goods to their families and community?

One young Kurdish man who works as a smuggler on the border and lives six months out of the year in Istanbul explained the situation:

“I’m 26 years old and as far as I know there has been no stop in the actives of smuggling on the Turkey/Iraq border. Sometimes things have been held up for a month or two but still it continues. The village leaders and heads of the militarized civilian forces in the area know all about who comes and goes to the border. Certainly the village leaders and civilian military leaders give intelligence to the local military about the villagers. If you ask me this is all controlled. My father and grandfather did this same work and they were never bombed. Before the military shot at us with their guns but they never bombed us. When we were captured they took our goods and either burnt them or threw them out. They then gave us over to the courts and we released free.”

Ali Mendillioğlu : So Why do you smuggle?

Smuggler: We smuggle because we have no income over there (at the border). There isn’t a factory to work at or a field to sow. I don’t have a way to get by besides to smuggle. Every family has 10 to 12 children so they don’t want to leave the village.

At least in the village they don’t have trouble paying water bills and rent they way they would in the city. Also it is cheap to live and buy things in the village. In Istanbul the price of 50 kilos (110 pounds) of sugar is between 70 to 80 Turkish liras while in the village we would only have to spend 20 to 30 Turkish Liras. In our fields we plant barley and clover. We only do this to feed the animals. We don’t work in livestock or the selling of the animals. It is forbidden to raise and grow your animals in our natural fields. In our province of Sirnak there is a lot of coal. If they would do mining in the area it would solve a lot of our unemployment problems. If agriculture were practiced in near by Urfa Province we could solve some of our unemployment problems. But no new jobs ever open up.


Besides diesel what else are you bring over the border?

Tea, Sugar, Rice, Cigarettes but only very rarely.


One Donkey can carry how many kilos (pounds)?

A donkey can carry 75 to 100 kilos (165 pounds to 220 pounds).


Where do you sell diesel? You can’t use it in the village.

You’re right, we can’t use it (diesel) in the village. We sold the diesel to people coming from the Provinces of Van and Hakkari and other places. If we think that one trip across the border can net a family 300 kilos (640 pounds) worth of diesel to sell and upon selling the diesel we are 300 Turkish Liras in the black then you do the math. Six trips over the border and selling then in Turkey and a family can make 1,800 Turkish Liras which we get by easily with. We are compelled to do this smuggling work. If we didn’t smuggle our people in the village would starve. There is no other way.


Are you bringing those goods and fuel for your families and specifically for your own needs or are you selling them as well?

Some of these things are need every month for our families. Other things we sell. To the people who live in our region but live far from the border we sell some of these things to them.

Do you allow people who do not live in your village to practice smuggling in your area?

We don’t. The soldiers let us do our work because they trust that we don’t sell heroin or bring weapons into Turkey. However if we don’t know a villager we have no way of knowing if he might be trying to bring things across the boarder. For this reason we don’t give permission.


How much money is to be made from selling diesel?

Each mule can bring about 60 to 70 Turkish Liras. At the end of the day even if we have the threat of death we take the risk. I wouldn’t go for anything like 10 Turkish Liras.


In the Turkish news they have said that a smuggler makes 30 to 40 Turkish Liras a day. Is this true?

Yeah that is true. Some smugglers are rich. Some have many mules; some have a lot of capitol to spend. The poor smugglers have no mules. For example some villagers have 50 mules they can use to smuggle. They get other workers from the village to help them. When that happens an owner pays workers 30 to 50 Turkish Liras to work for a day smuggling goods on his mules. But the daily wage doesn’t fall below 30 TL. Sometimes we don’t give the military word that we are leaving but (from their base or their camera) but they can certainly see us going. We don’t go with any group smaller than 10 to 15 people because it is hard to cross this hard land with only 3 or so people.


NOTE: According to reports of smugglers in the area of Guzelyazi, the Turkish Military leaders in the area had worked out an “arrangement” with the smugglers. The smugglers, sometimes as many as 150 to 200 people would cross the border with donkeys to carry new goods into Turkey at night and the Turkish military leadership would turn a blind eye to these actions. The smugglers would rise very early and head out between 4 and 5 in the morning arriving in northern Iraq. After spending the day shopping and loading their donkeys down with goods such as sugar, flour, and rice the smugglers would begin their trip back to their homes in the evening as dusk fell. Returning was always a bit longer, taking more than an hour because of the goods weighting down their donkeys. These villager/smugglers would only spend the day in Iraq but they wouldn’t go to any Iraqi cities. Instead they would call northern Iraqi merchants and place orders for goods. The northern Iraqi merchants would come to the border and meet the smugglers where they would sell to them.

This is the picture of the events in the world of smuggling between Turkey and Iraq. This picture has remained unchanged for many years.


How much does one mule cost?

It costs between 2500 to 3000 Turkish Liras. We don’t use horses or donkeys very much.


Was this the first time your people have ever been attacked while smuggling?

The first time was in 2003 or 2004. My uncle’s son went smuggling. They went over the border and came back again. When they got back they were shot at by Turkish soldiers. Everyone ran off and escaped but my uncle’s son caught a bullet in the eye. The military could have arrested them but instead they choose to fire at them.



If we look at the history of smuggling on the border of Turkey what were the things brought over before and what are the things brought over now?

Before there was always the sale of “small hoofed” animals (lambs, goats). But now that is not allowed. As the issues of terrorism in the east have increased the government doesn’t allow such things to be brought in over the border. (The Turkish government forbids the bringing in of animals that the PKK can acquire to feed its insurgents with).


Has the PKK ever attacked your village?

In the 1990s of course the village was attacked. In those times the Turkish military and “the people in the mountains” (PKK members) hurt our villagers. But now you can be sure that (even though we are part of the civilian military structure) we have at least 10 of our boys with “the people in the mountains” (PKK).

When we go over the border we can see one or two PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) members. They tell us to bring them cheese and yogurt but they don’t harm us. We have seen them far from our village. Some news reports have said the PKK were close to Haftani (a nearby region) and this was why we were bombed… but this can’t be true. The bombing happened only 3 or 4 (about 2 miles) from our village. But Haftani is 20 kilometers (about 10 miles) from our village. Maybe one day you will be able to go and you will see how far Haftani is from our village. It is hard to explain to you without you first seeing the region. First you need to go and live the realities of the place and then you will understand.

When I heard about the Turkish F16 planes (bombing villagers in our region) I was shocked. Sure the Turkish military closed off roads to us before and pointed weapons at us but we were never bombed.


Is there bribery in your region?

There isn’t any bribery. The Turkish soldiers let us smuggle. Since the PKK can get food from us they attack the Turkish soldiers less. All of this is because of what we do. When I go smuggling I know that my son is in the mountains (with the PKK). I give him sugar, and cheese. I see him and I try to get him to come down from the mountains. Even if he won’t leave the PKK and the mountains I try to brining him back home anyway. At the end of the day he has decided that this is what he is going to do. My son has a lot of questions in his mind; why did the Turkish military kill my uncle he asks. He asks why doesn’t Turkish culture let him openly speak his native language (Kurdish)? Why don’t Turks let him live openly? Why don’t they let him learn Kurdish?

Those “People in the Mountains” (PKK) don’t want to live like this, in a society like this. I have, for example, 4 or 5 close school friends who are all up in the mountains now, with “them” (the PKK).

If I didn’t smuggle, if the soldiers put me under martial law if I would then starve you can be sure that from our village 10 more people would go into the mountains (to fight with the PKK against the Turkish Military). People would do this because they wouldn’t be able to take care of their children, no language, no school, no money. (Without smuggling) the people would go to the mountains thinking that the people in northern Iraq (Kurds) would help them.

There are only mountains in our region and no fields or agriculture to grow. And there is something else about the border. For example my older brother and older sister and relatives all live in Iraq. Since I don’t have any money I can’t get a passport but my father, my mother, my relatives, all of us cross the border to visit our relatives. And they cross the border to visit us. So just for that reason alone the border can’t be closed.


When we have spoken with other villagers in your region they have said there are people driving high-class cars, the sort that aren’t even seen in Istanbul. Is it true that one can make a huge amount of money from smuggling?

There is a difference between our village’s border gate and Silopi’s border (a nearby border entry point). By going with mule I only make at best 70 Turkish Liras. But the smugglers at Silopi’s boarder cross the border with 2 huge Mack Trucks. A Silopi smuggler can put on two gas tanks and bring in one trip the amount of diesel that I bring on a mule over the span of one month. Since they are nearby they can go all the time across the border.


The numbers of children who died in the bomb attack on December 29th, 2011 were very high.

Yes, yes unfortunately…


Do children always go smuggling?

Yes, they are needed to go. A child goes to school but what if his father can’t pay. The teacher wants the child to buy books. I studied too, I studied in another village. Our village leader rented a minibus for us. We went in the morning and came back at night via the rented minibus. We were ashamed to ask our father for bus money or for school money he had no money to give and he was always very pressed to help us.

When I was growing up my big brother was working in Istanbul and would send money to us from time to time. When my family had no money to give and my big brother sent no money from Istanbul I had to go to work. There was little else I could do. So over the span of one month I would go 3 or 4 times smuggling as a child across the Turkish/Iraqi border.


I understand that you were compelled by your circumstances to do this work but from a distance smuggling seems to me like an abnormal thing. Can you explain it a bit more?

Whether or not smuggling from Iran or Syria or Iraq this work is all the same. I did my Turkish military duty in Urfa. We weren’t able to stop this smuggling. We would catch a few and then throw them in jail and then release the arrested ones and a day later those we had released were again arrested. They would tell us that they had a brother or an uncle or a relative on the other side of the border but they had no money to cross the border. In the holidays people want to go see their relatives, and they always have a connection to the border so you can’t really block the progress of people across the border.

Yazar hakkında

Ali Mendillioğlu is a trash sorter, union organizer, writer and editor of Katık Magazine. Katık Magazine highlights the struggles of Turkey's marginalized Trash Sorting Community and other working classes. Mendillioğlu can be reached at or Katik Magazine's facebook page (KATIK/GERİ DÖNÜŞÜM İŞÇİLERİ DERGİSİ).

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