Turkish city grapples with violent record

This small city on the Black Sea coast is getting used to being in the headlines – for all the wrong reasons. Over the past two years, Trabzon – best known for its successful professional soccer team, nicknamed the Black Sea Storm – has been front and center in a series of events that have shocked Turkey.

Last week, a local teenager confessed to firing the gun that killed Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, whose murder has had repercussions well beyond Turkey's borders.

Almost a year ago, a 16-year-old shot and killed an Italian priest who was working in a Trabzon church. In May 2005, four students passing out pamphlets about prison conditions were almost killed by an angry mob of 2,000 who thought they were Kurdish activists.

With the murder of Mr. Dink – whose funeral procession in Istanbul Tuesday was joined by tens of thousands – Turks inside and outside Trabzon are now trying to figure out if something has gone dreadfully wrong in the city.

"For the past 20 years, the politicians have been pumping nationalism and chauvinism into Trabzon," says Gultekin Yucesan, head of the local branch of the Human Rights Association, a Turkish watchdog group.

"I wasn't surprised to find out he was from Trabzon," he says about Ogun Samast, the 17-year-old accused of Dink's murder. "There are hundreds of other kids like Ogun Samast in Trabzon right now."

Long known as a bastion of nationalism, Trabzon has seen hard times in recent decades. Once an important commercial port, it is today more known for the sex trade that brings women from the former Soviet Union into Turkey. Unemployment in the city is high, while the countryside around Trabzon, long dependent on hazelnut crops, has seen its market go from boom to bust.

Black Sea folk have a reputation in Turkey for a culture of violence (Trabzon has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country). Locals say that influence, mixed with the lack of economic opportunity, creates a worrying situation.

"It's like a highly explosive material. If it's not handled properly, it will explode," says Omer Faruk Altuntas, a lawyer who is the head of the Trabzon branch of the leftist Freedom and Solidarity Party (ODP).

"A very ugly atmosphere is growing," he says, speaking in his book-lined office.

Umut Ozkirimli, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bilgi University who studies nationalist attitudes, says Trabzon is a hotbed, but not an exception.

"Nationalism and bigotry are not unique to Trabzon," he says. "It's a microcosm, an extreme example of something that exists in other places."

According to published reports, Mr. Samast told the police: "I feel no remorse. [Dink] said Turkish blood was dirty blood."

An unemployed high school dropout, Samast was reportedly part of group of youths that fell under the sway of a local extreme nationalist who spent 10 months in jail for the 2004 bombing of a Trabzon McDonald's in 2004, becoming something of a notorious local hero.

The Pelitli area of Trabzon, where the accused murderer grew up, is built on a steep hill overlooking the Black Sea and the airport runway. It is made up of rows of afet evleri – "natural disaster homes" – squat buildings built two decades ago after massive floods and mudslides displaced villagers.

Residents says there is not much to do except play soccer and go to one of the two Internet cafes (one has now closed after police confiscated all its computers as part of its investigation).

"This is like a small village in Trabzon. There are not many options here, people don't have jobs," says Talat Alamder, a young unemployed man standing outside a convenience store.

"Maybe if the young people have a good income, they wouldn't think about doing such things," he says, referring to Dink's murder.

The district's mayor, Omer Kayikci, says his office is struggling to keep up with Pelitli's needs. While the town's official population is 10,000, the real number is closer 30,000, he says.

"What we are given for one person, we must spend on three," adds Mr. Kayikci, who has suddenly found tiny Pelitli under the media spotlight. Satellite television trucks were parked in front of his office for several days.

"People migrate into this area every day. We have big responsibilities and we are trying our best to help people, but we don't have enough," he says.

Squeezed between the slate-colored waters of the Black Sea and the pitched foothills of the Kackar mountain range, Trabzon can have an almost suffocating quality. During the winter, the air in the city is thick with the acrid soot of cheap Russian coal that many people burn.

Salih Camoglu, a businessman who publishes two local daily newspapers, says the city, like other places in Turkey, has not been unaffected by the rapid changes brought about by the country's European Union membership drive and by events in Iraq.

"Nowadays, what's going on in the region is like an earthquake," he says. "This can damage places all around it."

Discussing Dink's murder, human rights activist Yucesan says recent events have him worried that Trabzon is heading in a dangerous direction.

"I'm from here, and we locals have brave hearts, but even I am sometimes scared," he says.

 [ Editor's note: The original subhead misrepresented the size of Trabzon.]

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