by Christos Zografos*
An unexpected meeting during a fieldtrip forges connections across the border, stirs historical memories, and stimulates reflections about dispossession, mobilisation and the relevance of the emotional in political ecology.
It’s a June midday, and the sun is burning hot on my head. We have come to the small village of Yeniköy, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Istanbul, to speak to locals who oppose the new, third Istanbul airport project, which will be built right next to their village, and which will spread out upon land they have used for nearly three generations. As reported before in the ENTITLE blog, once built, this would be the largest airport in the world; but its construction requires the conversion of land, 80% of which is forested, including rare wetlands, important drinking water tributaries and ponds that will be either destroyed or filled up with waste.
It takes me time to realise that the sound I hear from the middle-aged, grey-haired man standing amidst a group of ENTITLE project colleagues (who intensely look at me, expecting some sort of a more active reaction from my side) is a “Welcome” in broken Greek. While I hesitantly start replying in Greek and my colleagues explain that Mustafa lives in Yeniköy and opposes the airport, he suddenly opens his arms and grabs me in a deep, asphyxiating but warm embrace. I have no option but to react by embracing him back as strong as I can.
Mustafa explains (in a broken but easy to understand Greek) that his family moved to Yeniköy in 1924, with the population exchange agreed in the Treaty of Lausanne that marked the end of the bloody 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war. It was the last attempt at territorial expansion of the modern Greek state, the “Asia Minor catastrophe”, as it is commonly called in Greece. I remember how my grandfather, who had served in the Greek army at the time, used to tell us stories about the war. He had to run for his life during the very last act of the conflict, the “fall of Smyrna” – today’s Izmir on the western coast of Turkey.
Mustafa tells me how his grandparents came from a village in the north of Greece, where their ancestors had lived for generations. They learned their Turkish only after they were installed in this little village of Turkish Thrace next to the Black Sea, which used to be inhabited mostly by an ethnically Greek population. Mustafa is very emotional about his roots and stays connected to them in several ways, such as by teaching Greek words to other people in Yeniköy.
*Christos Zografos is a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science & Technology (ICTA) of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain, and a Visiting Lecturer at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. He is a co-ordinator for the ENTITLE project.