After years of campaigning for a tourist boycott, Mark Campbell explains why he is now encouraging visitors to Turkey's Kurdish areas.
Before I went to the Kurdish region of Turkey in 1993, I was like most people on the liberal left. I would of happily have gone and sat on a Turkish beach thinking I was enjoying a cultural holiday and learning a little of the language.
Nobody at that time really knew what was happening in "the emergency area" as the Kurdish region was known. But the 10 days that I spent there, as part of a trade union human rights delegation, changed my life forever.
We visited the Kurdish town of Lice (the first delegation to do so) on November 22 1993, one month after it had been systematically destroyed and razed by the Turkish army. We were taken into "protective custody' by Turkish Special Forces at Agilli village, one day after it had been torched by the Turkish army. We watched as Kurdish women picked out burnt kettles from the still-burning ruins of their houses before beginning a journey to restart their lives as refugees. We took testimony from villagers who had been dragged by their hair into the village square and urinated on, and heard that all the men had been taken in "custody", later hearing that some had died under torture. I saw all this and much more.
When I came back, I felt I had been an eyewitness to war crimes nobody seemed to be talking about. Worse, I would see adverts for "Turkey, Paradise Preserved" on the sides of buses and wondered why our government or the press did not speak out about this "secret war" against the Kurdish population.
Looking back, perhaps I should have just moved on. But I was paralysed. And so for over 10 years I set to campaigning. I began a "Boycott Tourism to Turkey Campaign", gaining the support of several trade unions. Harold Pinter was my "character witness" at a trial when I sat down in front of Turkish generals coming to buy assault rifles from the UK government.
So why, now, am I against a tourism boycott?
Many years on, the situation has changed dramatically. The forced depopulation policy has stopped, there is an uneasy ceasefire between the Kurdish and Turkish sides and moves are being made to address the "Kurdish question". Turkey's talks to join the EU officially began on October 3 2005, and right at the top of the Union's demands for democratisation is a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question.
There is still racism and discrimination against Kurdish people in Turkey, particularly in national politics. But the Kurdish parties have been working furiously for the last 10 years to gain control of town halls in the Kurdish region. Tired of the inaction of the government, they are working hard to improve services to the Kurdish people themselves.
One such place is Dogubayazit. Mukaddes Kubilay was the first Kurdish woman to be elected as mayor and is now in her seventh year of office. Together with the council, Mukaddes has dedicated herself to improving the Kurdish town that lies under Mount Ararat on the border with Armenia and Iran. Building a sewage system for the first time. Improving the roads, health services and environment, among other things. And not least, leading a revolution in attitudes to women. She is also trying to open up the incredible opportunities for tourism so as to benefit the people of the town.
And what opportunities there are! Mount Ararat and Dogubayazit offer natural and historical wonders and the people of the town embody a cultural experience you're unlikely to forget. In my view, ethical tourism to Turkey is tourism to the Kurdish areas. These areas have been closed off for many years but as a brand new Turkish traveller's book on eastern Turkey says in the forward, "For the true traveller, Eastern Turkey is the more interesting half of the country. The landscapes are gorgeous. Historical monuments are abundant, unfamiliar and often of surpassing beauty ..." I believe that the world is about to discover the beauties of Kurdish Turkey, but hope that it will be developed in a way that is responsible and of benefit to the people of the region.
• Mark Campbell is the founder of the recently launched Noah's Ark Holidays
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