Enter any teahouse in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir and the topic of discussion is the same: Iraq. While much of the local economy is reeling from the effects of the war 400 km to the southeast, teahouses - a traditional refuge for men with too much time on their hands - have never been fuller.
"Thirty percent of the people in this city are unemployed," Turan Yilmaz, a newly married shopkeeper told IRIN outside Diyarbakir's ancient and imposing Ulu Mosque - the hub of this largely ethnic Kurdish city. "I'm not scared, but war is the last thing we needed right now."
According to the 30-year-old, who had closed his shop due to a lack of customers, "people simply do not want to part with their money during times of uncertainty".
Looking around the tea garden, there are many men like Yilmaz, but even more with no jobs at all. Most Turks are still suffering from a massive devaluation of their currency two years ago, an event that added millions to the nation's unemployed overnight. In southeastern Anatolia, an impoverished region less developed than the rest of the country, the impact of the ongoing conflict in Iraq has been devastating.
"Much of our economy is dependent on the cross-border trading we do with Iraq. For the past 12 years we have suffered," an old man complained, citing UN sanctions and political manoeuvring on the country since the first Gulf War in 1991. "What will happen now?"
A good question. Earlier, Tuncay Ozilhan, the chairman of the Turkish Businessmen's Association, told IRIN from the country's commercial capital, Istanbul, it would be next to impossible to assess all the eventual costs of the war. "It will affect every aspect of our lives, both individually and nationally," he asserted.
But nowhere is that feeling more prevalent than southeastern Turkey. Despite the five Patriot missile launchers ringing the runway at Diyarbakir's airport, and the roar of Turkish military jets overhead, residents in this city of one million plus feel less secure now than ever before. They worry for their future. "I can barely pay my rent," one tea drinker told IRIN. "How am I supposed to feed my family?"
With salaries averaging US $150 a month at the best of times, it is not hard to understand his concern. Coping mechanisms for those living close to the poverty line, strained under the best of circumstances, are at an all-time low.
Halis Yesildarli, an 18-year-old farm hand, described the situation as tough. "There is a crisis in Turkey. There is no work," he told IRIN, sitting on his idle tractor. Spending most of his time chatting at a local teahouse, he now hopes things will improve before August when he and his friends spend most of their time transporting Diyarbakir's famed watermelons, a source of pride for farmers throughout the region.
Down the street, things don't look much better. While local farmers work to sell their wares in the open on this spring day, most concede it is a losing battle. "People are simply not buying," a disgruntled tomato seller shouted. "I don't know why I even came to town."
At the Baghdad Palace Hotel, a run-down boarding house for people just like him, things don't look good either. "My family has run this hotel for 25 years and it's never been this bad," its proprietor and manager, Sezayir Akyildirim, told IRIN. Most of his customers were passing tradesman and labourers, but economic movement of any sort was simply not there, the 37-year-old explained. And at $2 a bed, his empty 25 rooms could hardly be called expensive.
Further down the road at the Kenan Turkish bath, Abdullah Toguc told IRIN that playing cards has been the only way to fill up his time. "We used to have up to 100 people a day bathing. Now we are lucky to see 10." Meanwhile, the heavy-handed masseur standing next to him appears agitated, not having had a chance of plying his trade all day.
But the impact of the conflict extends far beyond Diyarbakir, a city local residents lovingly refer to as the Paris of the East. Driving outside the city's black basalt walls, past the Tigris (Dicle) river - the same river that snakes its way towards Baghdad - one cannot help but wonder how the conflict is affecting the rural communities of the southeast as well. Largely dependent on agriculture and animal husbandry, the region has witnessed a dramatic shock to both its output and its demand.
Adnan Guc, a local driver and Diyarbakir resident, told IRIN that what was happening was an untold story, their real losses unreported in the media. "During the Gulf War we were scared. Now we are scared over the impact it [the conflict] will have on our lives," he said. According to the 35-year-old, life as he had known it, particularly in the villages, was now at a standstill.
Such a contention, given the lack of trade, is not without merit. Squadrons of trucks once busy ferrying cheap fuel, as well as local commodities, back and forth across the border with Iraq stand idle, victim to events unfolding across the border. In Nusaybin, a town of 70,000 on the outskirts of the largely Arabic-speaking town of Mardin, 100 trucks can be counted at one location alone, with many more parked along the road.
Idle trucks along the road to Silopi
Travelling along the famed silk route towards Iraq, past the Syrian border to the south, the four-star Nezirhan Hotel, traditionally packed with travellers and businessmen, stands empty. "Normally we are full at this time of year," a hotel waiter, Memet Iskanoglu, said.
On arrival in Silopi, a dull town 15 km from the Iraqi border, nestled at the foot of the snowcapped Cudi Dag mountains, the atmosphere is even more sombre. "The economy in Silopi is finished," Sekvan Bilen, a 27-year-old local prayer leader, told IRIN. His family's four petrol trucks now out of commission, he believes prospects for improvement remain bleak.
Indeed, aside from the one or two drab hotels that have succeeded in capturing the largely journalistic clientele encamped in the town, he could be right. Unless, of course, one owned a teahouse.
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