In Turkey, a lone peacemaker ends many blood feuds

Since giving up his butchering business 10 years ago, Sait Sanli has helped settle 446 disputes – some stretching back decades.

Yigal Schleifer
Local hero: In the past decade, Sanli has settled 446 conflicts.

Here in southeastern Turkey, where blood feuds are still common, even the smallest incident – a cow wandering into a neighbor's field, for example – can lead to a protracted or even fatal dispute.

So when the mayor of the village of Carikli recently shot a political rival in the leg, local leaders knew they needed outside intervention – fast. Sait Sanli, an elfin former butcher with a pocketful of peace treaties, was their man.

"We were afraid that this situation would explode, so we immediately came to Sait," says Ibrahim Ozdal, the wounded politician's nephew, during a visit to Mr. Sanli's office in Diyarbakir. "Everybody in the area knows that he's the first person to come to when something happens. He's the ambassador of peace."

Inside Sanli's jacket pocket is a stack of papers bound with a rubber band and filled with names of people he has helped – 446 blood feuds ended since he gave up butchering a decade ago, by his estimate. His waiting list of disputes to be settled has 67 families on it.

"The cost of the suffering that these feuds cause cannot be estimated. One person may be killed, but the lives of 100 people are affected," says Sanli. "When one person commits a crime, every one of their relatives is responsible." "We are really suffering here from a gap between the official law and traditional law," he adds. "What I'm trying to do is fill in that gap, to prevent things from escalating. I'm a messenger."

Although Sanli now has a five-member "peace committee" in Diyarbakir that assists him, he is still very much a one-man peacekeeping force. He shuttles between families in far-flung towns and villages to hammer out peace agreements. He cajoles, admonishes, and, occasionally threatens. When all else fails, he resorts to crying. The sight of tears rolling down a grown man's face is apparently enough to soften even the most hardened heart.

But his depth of feeling is sincere. Sanli experienced firsthand the effects of a blood feud when he was 14. After an argument with a neighbor turned violent, he and his family had to flee their home village near Diyarbakir, resettling in a town several hours away.

"When I think about those days, I can't help but cry. There was always a sense of panic in the house," Sanli says.

In 1980, a truce was declared between the families and Sanli was able to return to Diyarbakir, starting up a successful butchering and cattle raising business. Ten years ago, he decided to let his eight children run the business and dedicate himself full-time to peacemaking.

On a recent Monday, Sanli was in his office receiving a constant stream of visitors asking for his assistance. Among them were two young men in dark blazers who were trying to end a 35-year-old dispute that had cost the life of their uncle. They had been able to get the younger generation from the families involved to sign on, but now needed Sanli to work on the older generations.

"I am trying to show people the importance of forgiveness, how important it is in our holy book [the Koran], and to show them how much they have been sacrificing by seeking revenge," says Sanli, a five-foot human dynamo who seems to be in perpetual motion, his hands gesticulating. "I tell them we can't do anything about the past, but we can do something about the future."

The enduring sway of blood feuds was made clear by two recent events that grabbed the headlines in Turkey. In early April, five members of one family were shot to death in Tarsus, caught up in a 20-year-old dispute that had its roots in Diyarbakir, some 335 miles away.

A few weeks later, five brothers were shot near the southeastern city of Sanliurfa, after fighting with a rival family about access to irrigation water.

"The blood feuds have remained resistant to Turkey's modernization," says Mazhar Bagli, a sociologist at Diyarbakir's Dicle University, who studies local family customs. "It's not easy to do what [Sanli] is trying to do. He's going against something very ancient."

A small address book, which Sanli also keeps in his jacket pocket, is testament to that. It carries, in black ink, the names of people who have threatened him.

But it also bears the names of those who have signed peace treaties he has brokered.

"The main thing is making people think about how they are acting, about what kind of example they are setting. I try to appeal to that sense in people. I'm trying to show people that there's a different way to do things, that there's a different way to live," he says.

His work leaves little time for rest; on some nights, he gets only two hours of sleep. "I never stop thinking about other people's problems. That's what keeps me going," Sanli says. "Doing this work makes me feel peaceful inside," he adds. "When my head touches my pillow at night, I feel peace."

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