The TOKİ conundrum

The TOKİ conundrum

               A view of Esenyurt. Barış Altıntaş doesn’t understand why anyone who owns a house here can still complain.

TOKİ is Turkey’s main state builder. It builds things — mostly housing projects, but also schools, bridges and sometimes even tunnels. It runs on empty spaces in the city as its fuel. Any plot of land in an urban area that belongs to the Treasury, as it always happens, can be given to TOKİ, which in turn will build something on it.

Sometimes, the Treasury will sell a plot of land to private construction companies, as decided by our municipalities and our Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, which is headed by a former president of TOKİ. But either way, these empty plots gradually turn into high-rise buildings.

And when people — only those who hate our government, of course — complain about TOKİ, they also mean to express their general frustration with the rapid urbanization our country has seen. These people — who do not know what it takes to civilize— claim that the unplanned and profit-oriented development complexes have ignored ecological and environmental concerns. They also claim that zoning plans and regulations are unlawfully or unethically being altered to fit the construction industry’s building needs.

The good thing, though, thanks to its building boom, is that our country breezed through the global crisis which has brought European economies to their knees and seen much of the globe highly distressed. Thanks to our construction industry we continued to grow economically during these times of hardship, and many people, who normally would not be able to buy a home, became homeowners.

But in return, all our government gets is criticism.

Just the other day, I overheard a colleague complaining that our cities are becoming unlivable. Because of permits being issued for high-rises without taking into consideration the state of the city’s infrastructure, İstanbul is doomed to live with congested traffic and no trees, she argued. I rightly pointed out that this person herself bought a house in Esenyurt — the heart of İstanbul’s construction industry, as its determined municipality never treats a restrictive zoning rule as an obstacle. Esenyurt possibly hosts the highest number of residential complexes in any of İstanbul’s recently gentrified districts and possibly the highest-rising apartments. “But it was affordable!” she said in her defense. “Admittedly, it is a tricky conundrum for someone like me, but I can’t boycott LIFE,” she said, claiming that she was being forced into living in these concrete blocks because she cannot afford an apartment elsewhere.

I quickly pointed out that no one really likes cutting down trees or destroying huge chunks of forest or declaring war on the environment, but as our Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar once said, we need this for the money, so that people like her can buy homes. “This is poverty,” she said. “The tiny cells of concrete we call home are built not for people to live in them but so that construction companies can make money. If you need to sit in traffic for three hours to get to your home, this is another kind of poverty. If you have no parks or woods or clean air, then this is another kind of poverty!” she said. Well I think she is wrong. If we could do “sustainability” and “growth” together, surely our leaders wouldn’t be cutting trees. This colleague tells me this is a lie, and we don’t have to choose between “oxygen and growth” (her words). How irrational!

Well, you can’t eat free time, can you? Or trees? We really wouldn’t have a traffic issue in İstanbul if those Gezi protesters who normally take the bus hadn’t deliberately bought cars to create the mistaken impression that we have traffic! İstanbul’s jams are created by Justice and Development Party (AK Party) haters, and everyone knows that. It is common knowledge, just like the fact that there are foreign spies who are trying to assassinate our prime minister through telekinesis.

Of course this person’s criticism is intended to weaken our government. And she can only say these things — as our prime minister has stated rightfully many times — because we do not live in a dictatorship.

I am deeply concerned about these TOKİ-haters. She is one of many who have been ungratefully complaining of how our quality of life is suffering, and things will worsen and how we need to, like, “plan” cities and stuff. And how we should protect the environment, because there is global climate change, and we can’t let our forests die or ponds dry out because we have a responsibility before future generations, blah blah blah.

Thank God this person does not even have a Twitter account. Because TOKİ-haters who want to undermine our government often use social media to share their toxic ideas. I know it comes close to treason, but this same person has also claimed that if people speak of the environment on social media, then the government “unleashes its Twitter gestapo” on them. Of course, I just laugh at such nonsense.

She should consider herself lucky because I am not reporting her to the authorities or writing her full name here in my blog, because as much as our judiciary respects freedom of speech and that people are entitled to their opinions, she would be in trouble if I went ahead and tweeted my opinion (as conscientious journalists sometimes do) that prosecutors really ought to take legal action against her. Because, let’s admit it, we all know that her only intention is to defame our government and she really doesn’t care about the environment, or the future generations. She should just be grateful she is not in jail and has a roof over her head.


This post originally appeared at TZ’s Blog Section

The system, not his mother, failed Baby Berk

 The system, not his mother, failed Baby Berk
Turkish newspapers used headlines such as “Monster Mom” to cover the tragedy. Not a single newspaper questioned the flaws in child protection services or the possible role of negligence on the part of officials or those around the woman. (Photo: Today’s Zaman)


Women’s rights organizations and media watchdogs were outraged by the Turkish news media’s appalling coverage of the tragic story of a two-month-old baby who died because of starvation when his obviously deranged mother left him at home to visit her parents in another city earlier this week.

The woman left her two-month-old home in his crib over the nine-day Eid holiday to visit her family, who reside in another town. Her baby had died — possibly due to starvation though the complete forensic report is not yet ready — in his crib when she returned. Oblivious to this fact, she took the child to the hospital, nonchalantly complaining to health workers that her baby didn’t seem to want to eat. The woman was put under arrest immediately without any psychiatric evaluation in spite of her obvious detachment from reality. (She said she had left two feeding bottles next to the baby in her testimony; the police also found recently reheated baby formula when they searched the house later, indicating that she indeed tried to feed the baby.)

The baby didn’t yet have an ID card, but she told the police she was going to name him Berk.

Yet the Turkish media openly reported on her marital status (divorced with baby recently born out of wedlock); her profession (school teacher, which is admittedly worrisome) and published her full body pictures, calling her “the monster mom,” and “the evil mom” and similar descriptions in their headlines. HaberTürk published the full name of the woman. Reader comments and user comments on popular sites — such as the user-created-content dictionary Ek$i Sözlük — were full of messages condemning the “mother from hell.” How Turkey’s health services — whose employees have on more than one occasion called up fathers of young women to let them know that their daughter is pregnant — could skip this baby who was born prematurely and spent 19 days at a hospital; or how the woman’s neighbors did not even know of the baby is not exactly interesting for anyone. This baby did not exist as far as anybody who could have actually helped him is concerned.

Women’s groups also rightly noted that although stories about children killed by their own fathers in moments of temporary insanity are not uncommon in the press, male perpetrators are never demonized the way this woman has been. The case also indicated problems with Turkey’s cultural bias against women who have children outside a marriage: The woman said her family did not know about the baby and that’s why she couldn’t take him with her.

The media campaign against the mother — who might not even have criminal liability, something that will come out later at the end of psychiatric evaluation — is unacceptable, according to women’s rights groups and media experts. Üsküdar University Rector and psychiatry professor Nevzat Tarhan said: “A thorough investigation must be conducted first, before declaring anyone guilty.” Tarhan said a psychiatric evaluation is necessary to understand the mental state of the woman. However, he noted that currently doesn’t have legislation necessary to prevent such tragedies.

“We urgently need social services checks immediately [to prevent such cases],” he said, drawing attention to the obvious lack of state intervention in such cases. Children with perfectly sane parents are also often victims of abuse and crime, and Turkey does not have a viable social protection system to catch such instances. This could partially be remedied if communities were more sensitive, but this obviously is not the case. As Tarhan noted: “Everyone should be asking themselves whether such a thing could be happening to the people around them. This [case] also indicates that neighborly relations in our society are also weak.”

Although it is not their fault, how the neighbors failed to hear the screams of a starving baby is another question that begs answers. Some of the neighbors who were interviewed by the media said they did not even know the baby existed, much like the state, although this baby spent 19 days at a hospital. The mother was also a school teacher, against whom a number of parents had filed complaints for “acting strange” around the kids. This started a new discussion on background checks because the school’s principal played down the complaints and she kept her job, thankfully without causing another tragedy at her place of employment. But could Baby Berk have been discovered had the principal been more meticulous in handling complaints? The baby’s father, reportedly a police officer, said he didn’t know of the child. How could he or others around the woman miss a 35-week long pregnancy? The same question applies to the woman’s neighbors and colleagues who must have seen her during her pregnancy.

Tarhan also said local governments should take more responsibility in their districts. “Unfortunately municipal services in Turkey are only seen as building roads. Local governments should be undertaking social responsibility projects. This woman should have had a place to call in that moment of crisis. The Family and Social Policy Ministry is trying to set up such a system, and such efforts should be supported.”

During his brief existence that ended miserably, Baby Berk was not seen or heard by the Turkish state or society, which is now pouring out their hate toward a person whose sanity has not even been confirmed. One shudders to imagine the number of babies with similar fates Turkey’s media and society so readily ignore every year.

This article was originally published as a TZ Blog Post at