Erdogan hints at nuclear ambitions

05 September 2019

Speaking on the 100th anniversary of the Sivas Congress, which laid the groundwork for Turkey’s independence, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was unacceptable for nuclear-armed countries to prevent Ankara from developing nuclear weapons.

“Several countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But we can’t have them. This I cannot accept,” Erdogan told an audience of his supporters including Justice and Development Party members late Wednesday evening.

“There is no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them,” he added, though just nine countries currently posses nuclear arms capabilities: the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and, though technically unconfirmed, Israel and North Korea.

The speech caused wide-ranging speculation over Erdogan’s intentions, but analysts expressed doubts the rhetoric would lead to a Turkish nuclear weapons program. Turkey was an early signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forbids the development of nuclear weapons, and also benefits from protections against nuclear attacks as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Instead, Erdogan was believed to be highlighting unfairness in the global security regime, in which he has long stated Turkey should play a more prominent role as the nation develops stronger defense relations with non-NATO countries such as Russia and China. Last night, Erdogan noted that Israel’s nuclear program poses a threat to the region, implying Turkey should be afforded similar capabilities.

While such rhetoric signals shifting global ambitions, little change is expected in Turkish policy as the nation remains a member of the NATO alliance, according to Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies and co-editor of the 2015 book, “Turkey’s Nuclear Future.”

“It’s a message that is heavily loaded with populism,” Ulgen told Al-Monitor. “This time around he went a step further, insinuating that Turkey was making preparations, yet in the overall security context it is difficult to imagine Turkey going down this path and acquiring its own nuclear deterrent.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Ousted HDP mayors react as Erdogan promises judicial action

29 August 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan answered questions Wednesday night while flying back from a visit to Russia, telling reporters that new judicial actions would be opened into recently dismissed mayors with the nation’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

On Aug. 19, the HDP mayors of the southeastern cities of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van were suspended for alleged links to terror organizations and allegedly misusing municipal funds to support the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group that has been waging war against the Turkish state since the 1980s.

The mayors were replaced with state-appointed governors and their dismissals brought the total number of HDP officials suspended since the March 31 municipal elections to 88. Erdogan said the mayors “sent taxes distributed to municipalities to Qandil,” referring to the PKK leadership’s base in northern Iraq, and that new judicial actions would begin when the Turkish Parliament reopens on Oct. 1.

Erdogan told reporters on his plane, “They are not decisions that we will make emotionally. The judiciary will make these decisions.”

In response to the allegations, the three dismissed mayors held press conferences in Istanbul on Thursday, first with foreign journalists and then the Turkish press, to refute the charges that led to their suspensions earlier this month. Dismissed Diyarbakir Mayor Selcuk Mizrakli, Mardin Mayor Ahmet Turk and Van Mayor Bedia Ozgokce Ertan fielded questions from reporters, saying the state’s actions were unconstitutional and that they would fight allegations of terror links in Turkish courts to recover their positions.

“This decision is completely political as today there’s a growing demand for change from the opposition, and the government’s basic aim is to create obstacles for us and benefits for themselves to protect their own interests,” Turk said during the press conference.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Istanbul mayor cuts funding to pro-AKP groups as city spending comes under scrutiny

28 August 2019

The misuse of state funds has been a central issue in Turkey since this spring’s municipal elections. Istanbul’s new opposition Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who won both that vote and a do-over election on June 23, is now following through on campaign promises to audit expenditures and cut wasteful spending.

On Aug. 27 Imamoglu, of the nation’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), announced his administration would cancel the transfer of 357 million liras (about $61.5 million) to a number of controversial state-linked foundations. Much of the funding was directed toward food expenditures and the construction of facilities for one of the foundations, expenses Imamoglu called “unbelievable” during a press conference.

“Where do you spend this nation’s money?” Imamoglu asked on Tuesday. “A building was constructed to be handed over to a foundation. It costs 165 million liras. That building now belongs to Istanbulites.”

The targeted foundations have benefited from state resources under the 25-year rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul. The move to cut their funding marks an apparent shift toward more transparent governance brought on by opposition gains across the country during the March elections.

Such reforms come as alleged evidence of wasteful spending accumulates in southeast Turkey, where several mayors with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been dismissed after promising to conduct similar investigations into municipal expenditures. As the spending practices of past and present AKP officials come under increased scrutiny, observers say the ruling party that once cast itself as incorruptible appears to be losing the moral high ground among Turkish voters.

“Having encountered numerous corruption allegations, the AKP no longer has a clean image and is having difficulty persuading even its own voters that it can provide clean governance,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor for international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, told Al-Monitor.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Outraged over mother’s murder, Turkish women demand protection

26 August 2019

Turkey was shaken when a brutal video was posted on social media Aug. 23, showing the last moments of a woman’s life after she was stabbed by her former husband.

Emine Bulut, 38, is seen covered in blood and clutching her throat as she says, “I don’t want to die.” Next to her, her 10-year-old daughter screams, “Mom, please don’t die.”

On Aug. 18, the pair had met with her ex-husband Fedia Varan in the central Anatolian city of Kirikkale. An argument ensued and Varan attacked Bulut.

“After she insulted me while talking about the custody of our child, I stabbed her with the knife I keep with me,” Varan told prosecutors after being taken into custody.

The event has been a watershed moment in a nation where the murder rate of women has surpassed one a day in 2019. According to the women’s rights platform We Will Stop Femicide, at least 285 Turkish women have died violently so far this year.

Government officials have responded by saying that harsher punishments are needed to deter future incidents, yet women’s rights advocates say the Turkish legal system already provides robust protections for victims of domestic violence and they simply are not being implemented.

Turkey was among the first signatories of the Council of Europe’s 2011 Istanbul Convention to combat violence against women. The document outlines the legal framework to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of domestic violence while bolstering protection and support mechanisms for victims.

Though the convention came into effect Aug. 1, 2014, women’s rights advocates said some of its most basic provisions have yet to be enacted due to pushback from conservative political and religious leaders who claim the convention harms “family unity.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Turkey recalibrates refugee policy as Idlib fighting displaces more Syrians

22 August 2019

As Syrian regime forces advance on rebel positions in Idlib province, the issue of hosting displaced Syrians continues to occupy many high-level and street-level discussions in Turkey. The nation hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees — more than any other country — and the offensive threatens to push a wave of Syrian civilians toward the Turkish border.

On Tuesday, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu outlined plans to shelter newly displaced Syrians in humanitarian camps along the border inside Idlib, which is currently home to about three million people, some of whom were displaced from elsewhere in the country. Soylu listed a number of internal refugee initiatives aiming to mitigate rising tensions caused by the prolonged presence of Syrians in Turkey.

Following the March 31 municipal elections, Syrian refugees have increasingly become scapegoats for Turkey’s troubles, blamed for exacerbating an economic downturn. Once cast as a source of national pride, the Syrians are now finding themselves the subject of state interventions seeking to diminish their visibility and limit political backlash against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which suffered losses at the ballot box partially due to its loose management of refugee policies.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Tourism rebounds in Turkey as visitor profile shifts east

20 August 2019

Nancy Siegers and her partner Cemil Deniz opened a hotel in central Antalya days before the Turkish lira collapsed in August 2018. Siegers, a Dutch national living in Turkey, said business was rough through the fall and winter at her boutique hotel in the historic Kaleici district, but she has seen a gradual turnaround in recent months.

Speaking inside the family home-turned-bed & breakfast, which she named “Nensie’s” in line with Turkish phonetics, Siegers said her rooms were fully booked for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. The rise in summer bookings had been a welcome surprise.

“We are very happy that this was a successful holiday for us,” Siegers told Al-Monitor. “For the first year, I guess we’re doing quite well.”

Down the street, Siegers and Deniz have also been running Cay-Tea’s Lunchroom for the last five years. She said business is recovering there as well after visitor numbers dropped steeply in 2016 following a spate of political instability in Turkey.

Her experience reflects wider trends in the nation’s tourism industry, which had grown exponentially in the 2000s before peaking in 2014 and then falling as result of multiple terror attacks, including one at Ataturk airport in June 2016, and economic fallout spurred by domestic and foreign policy tensions.

Yet Turkey’s tourism sector appears to be rebounding. In the first six months of 2019, the number of foreign visitors in Turkey rose 11.3% year-on-year, according to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. During the recent Eid Al-Adha holiday, some resort areas in Antalya, the nation’s main tourism hub, reported 100% occupancy rates, showing that vacationers were returning to Turkey, which remains among the top 10 most visited countries in the world.

The sector’s recovery has been a boon for the still-ailing Turkish economy, but hotel owners and tour operators noted a significant shift in the profile of people visiting from abroad. A growing share of Asian and Middle Eastern tourists have been filling hotel rooms traditionally booked by European visitors, who continue to vacation in Istanbul and Antalya, though in markedly fewer numbers since 2016.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Turkey ousts three more pro-Kurdish mayors

19 August 2019

State appointees replaced three recently elected mayors with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast Monday morning. Authorities cited alleged misuses of public office and ongoing terror-related investigations into the HDP officials as grounds for their suspension in a statement released by Turkey’s Interior Ministry.

According to the statement, the municipalities had “sought to become logistical centers for ensuring militant [resources], financial support and equipment for supporting terrorist activities.”

The move comes less than five months after the mayors were elected in the March 31 municipal elections and is the latest strike against the HDP, which some Turkish leaders with nationalist leanings and pro-state media outlets claim is a political front for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant insurgency that has waged war against the Turkish state since the 1980s.

The dismissed officials — Diyarbakir Mayor Selcuk Mizrakli, Mardin Mayor Ahmet Turk and Van Mayor Bedia Ozgokce Ertan — were confirmed as candidates by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council ahead of the March elections. They won their seats with 63%, 56% and 53% of the vote, respectively, but were dismissed Monday morning. The ongoing investigations include charges of making propaganda for a terrorist organization and being a member of an armed terrorist organization.

The Interior Ministry also accused the mayors of offering employment opportunities to family members of deceased PKK militants and showing sympathy for the group by attending the funerals of its members, changing street names to honor the group and observing moments of silence for deceased militants.

Ankara’s appointees have taken over the three districts, taking on the municipal duties of the dismissed mayors. They may keep the positions until the next scheduled municipal elections in 2024.

A number of opposition leaders and HDP officials denounced the move as undemocratic. Newly elected Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) tweeted that appointing trustees to replace elected officials violates “democratic norms” and that “Ignoring the people’s will is unacceptable.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Families, rights groups demand answers about two more vanished Turks

14 August 2019

The last time Sumeyye Yilmaz saw her husband Mustafa was the night of Feb. 18, 2019. The physiotherapist went to work the next day while she was still asleep and did not return.

After 24 hours without news of his whereabouts, Yilmaz said she went to file a missing persons’ report at her local police station in Ankara. The officers there told her she had been abandoned, that he had run away, and she immediately became suspicious.

Seeking answers, Sumeyye began looking through surveillance camera footage in her neighborhood. First, she found a video of Mustafa in their apartment’s elevator the morning of Feb. 19. She also saw exterior footage of him leaving the building and taking his usual commute route.

Then she found camera footage from adjacent buildings showing a man approach Mustafa and begin hitting him. Another man appeared during the melee and put a white bag over his head. Mustafa was then forced into a black Volkswagen Transporter van while a third man took his wallet, cell phone and jacket, which he quickly slipped on, and continued walking along Mustafa’s commute route as the van sped off with her husband inside.

Sumeyye said she took the footage to the police station, but the officer on duty would not accept it, recording only short clips of the videos with his cell phone.

“In those videos, there’s clear evidence of his abduction,” Sumeyye told Al-Monitor. “The black Transporter had taken tours around our house many times before they took him. And after his disappearance, you can see someone who comes to check the neighborhood cameras to see if they were working.”

“Neither the police nor the prosecutors I contacted are taking enough action to find my husband and he was taken from right in front of his home,” Sumeyye added.

Mustafa Yilmaz is one of at least two people that have gone missing in similar circumstances since February. The other is a dismissed civil servant from Antalya, Gokhan Turkmen. Following the sudden reappearance of four additional missing men at a detention site on July 28, human rights groups have amplified calls for investigations into the whereabouts of Yilmaz and Turkmen, who are believed to held incommunicado in police custody.

Since a 2016 coup attempt, the number of cases involving such disappearances have risen sharply in Turkey, as security officials have cracked down on supporters of Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara accuses of having orchestrated the failed putsch. Such tactics have not been widely used in Turkey since 1990s operations against Kurdish militants, and their resurgence in the post-coup period has alarmed local and international observers.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

US-Turkey joint operations center buys time for Syria safe zone talks

13 August 2019

US delegation arrived in Turkey Monday to set up a joint operations center that will oversee the establishment of a so-called safe zone in Syria. The move follows a recent agreement between US and Turkish officials to address Ankara’s security concerns along its southern border.

Though details of the peace corridor’s size and management protocols remain undetermined, the command center is expected to serve as a conduit for negotiations shaping the future of a region that has long been a friction point in US-Turkish relations.

Deep disagreements remain over the role of Kurdish militants in the Syrian Democratic Forces with which the United States allied to eradicate Islamic State militants from northeast Syria. Turkey, a US NATO ally, sees elements of the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a Kurdish insurgent group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union that has waged war in Turkey since the 1980s.

With such divisions unlikely to be surmounted in the near-to-medium term, analysts view the establishment of the joint operations center as a mechanism to buy time and stave off a possible third Turkish military incursion into Syria that Ankara officials have been increasingly promoting in recent weeks.

“The United States’ priority was to prevent Turkey from taking unilateral steps,” Washington-based journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu told Al-Monitor, noting the parameters of the safe zone can have different interpretations.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Two more elected HDP officials suspended in Turkey

12 August 2019

An elected official hasn’t run Caldiran, a town of 67,000 people near Turkey’s border with Iran, since February 2017.

That’s when the former co-mayor, Faruk Demir, was detained by presidential decree and placed in pre-trial detention for 11 months on terror charges. A state-appointed trustee took over municipal functions in Caldiran as in nearly 100 other municipalities — most of which were run by officials affiliated with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)  — that were impacted during mass purges stemming from a 2016 coup attempt.

Demir was eventually released, though his trials continue. In the meantime, he prepared for the March 2019 municipal elections. This spring he ran for the town’s municipal assembly with the HDP co-mayor candidate Leyla Atsak. They won handily, but Atsak was denied the mayoral seat on the grounds she had been previously dismissed by presidential decree, despite being confirmed as a candidate by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council before the vote.

As in six other municipalities following the March elections, the mayorship was given to the runner-up candidate, which in Caldiran was Sefik Ensari of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Demir maintained his position in the HDP-majority municipal assembly until Aug. 10, when he received a call informing him of his suspension.

“It was no surprise to me,” Demir told Al-Monitor. “I was expecting that they would do something unlawful and take this position from me.”

Demir was one of two elected HDP officials suspended from municipal duties over the weekend. Turkey’s Interior Ministry cited Demir’s ongoing trials as the basis for his suspension but did not respond to requests for interviews at the time of publication.

The move highlights ongoing pressure on Turkey’s minority rights-focused HDP, whose officials have for years been restricted or barred from participating in parliamentary and municipal politics. Nine of the party’s deputies, including former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, remain in prison despite condemnation from international governments and human rights advocates.

Turkish leaders with nationalist leanings have long claimed the HDP is a political front for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group that has waged war against the Turkish state since the 1980s. Following the collapse of state-sponsored peace talks in 2015 and with the ongoing threat of a Turkish military operation against a Kurdish militant enclave in northeast Syria, HDP officials continue to face allegations of terror links, limiting one of the primary legal avenues for Kurdish representation in the Turkish political sphere.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

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    Ani Ruins

    Lost count of how many check points I passed on a road trip to the Ani Ruins, but I’d recommend a visit for anyone trying to understand Turkey and its region.

    Ani, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    2018 Anthony Lewis Prize for Exceptional Rule of Law Journalism

    I want to thank The World Justice Project for recognizing my reporting from #Turkey with an honorable mention in The 2018 Anthony Lewis Prize for Exceptional Rule of Law Journalism. Also, congrats to my colleagues, whose unwavering integrity leads us through challenging times.

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    The Case of an American Pastor Caught in a Geopolitical Fight

    Andrew Brunson will likely visit the White House today after being released from two years in Turkish custody. This is rare step forward for US-#Turkey relations, but many serious problems remain. My latest for The Atlantic with input from Ozgur Ozgur Unluhisarcikli and Nate Schenkkan:

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    Edward Hopper tribute from Diyarbakir

    Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Sur Street Scene

    Sur, Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Mars of the Middle East

    Nice to see National Geographic publish my photo from the Wadi Rum in Jordan. It’s one the most surreal landscapes in the Middle East and well worth a visit.

    Wadi Rum, Jordan - © Diego Cupolo 2017

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    President Erdogan’s Republic of Fear

    “For the few journalists that remain, it has not been easy…to direct critical questions to the government about their actions,” Cumhuriyet’s Cigdem Toker told me for my latest take on the ‘New #Turkey.’

    Full story:

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    For Kurds in Southeast Turkey, the urban conflict continues: The fighting has ended, but fears that a culture will be erased remain

    24,000 people are still displaced two years after military operations ended in the Sur district of Diyarbakir. Homeowners were offered an average of 40,000 liras for property lost to the fighting. Now developers are building 400,000-lira houses on expropriated lands.

    This photo is part of my latest report from southeast Turkey:

    Sur, Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Turks Have Voted Away Their Democracy

    “First they ignored him. Then they laughed at him. Then they jailed him. Then he became perhaps Turkey’s most powerful leader in 80 years.” My take on ‘the oppressed’ and who’s claiming that status in a changing Turkey.

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    The Fate of Turkey’s Democracy Lies With the Kurds

    Over the last week, I reported from villages in southeast #Turkey, where paved roads are rare, security checkpoints are abundant and 1,090 ballot boxes are being relocated. This is what I saw ahead of the nation’s pivotal elections.

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    Turkey’s high-speed rail system highlighted in Monocle Magazine

    Just spotted the new transportation issue of Monocle Magazine. Inside, I wrote about Turkey’s fast developing high-speed rail network and plans to link Izmir to Sivas in 2019. The service already runs from Istanbul to Konya via Ankara, which will soon be the nation’s high-speed rail hub.

    Get the magazine here:

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    Three choices: Recep, Tayyip or Erdogan?

    Ankara, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Erdogan’s ‘pious generation’ goal drives Islam into education

    Over the years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made clear his intentions to raise a “pious generation” that espouses Islamic values alongside Turkish nationalism. I took this photo of a father and daughter reading a Quran through a religious bookstore window in Fatih, Istanbul, to accompany a report on religious education by Fariba Nawa and Ozge Sebzeci in the Financial Times’ special insert on Turkey this week.

    Full story:

    Istanbul, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Financial Times Special Report: Turkey

    Pick up today’s FT special report on Turkey for an overview of big themes facing the nation ahead of its 24 June elections. Includes articles by Laura Pitel, Fariba Nawa and others - with my photos throughout.


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    Hamsi: The much sought-after Black Sea anchovy

    Samsun, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Election season is upon us

    Ankara, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Ankara Morning

    Ankara, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Turkey’s Female Opposition Candidate

    In Monocle Magazine’s latest Spring Weekly, I profile IYI Party leader Meral Aksener, who says #Turkey’s president “can’t handle losing to woman.”

    Order a copy here:

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    Mardin Bazaar

    Mardin, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Saat Kulesi

    Izmir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Turkey‘s Dangerous Game of ‘Hostage Diplomacy’: How an American pastor became a political pawn for Erdogan

    Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, has been imprisoned in Turkey for the last 18 months. He has lost 50 pounds in jail and has passed long periods locked up by himself. This is my deep dive into his story, worsening US-Turkey relations, and talks of retaliatory sanctions on capitol hill.

    Full story:

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    Mosque in Sur

    Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    As Ilisu Dam nears completion, Hasankeyf residents facing eviction

    Construction of the Ilisu dam is nearing completion. A new reservoir will soon begin to form in southeast Turkey that will submerge the ancient settlement of Hasankeyf, where some long-time residents and merchants will not get state relocation assistance.

    Full story:

    Hasankeyf, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Refugee education in Turkey

    A breakdown of the good, the bad, and the innovative when it comes to refugee education in Turkey, a country hosting more than one million Syrian children - many of whom are likely to stay long-term.

    Full Story:

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    Kurds protest Turkey’s Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

    Newroz festivities in Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority city, Diyarbakir, were marked by anger and frustration over Ankara’s military operation in Afrin and the international community’s inaction.

    Photo Essay:

    Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018