Kisir, Turkey: The Next Big Radioactive Tourism Destination?




By Umut Kuruüzüm and İpek Potur

Karakaya, Turkey. Photo by the authors, 2020.

Towards New Year’s Eve, we set out on a hunt for a place to visit — somewhere stimulating to ring in 2020 with a fresh and healthy start. At one point in the process, we were watching the Netflix documentary ‘Dark Tourist’ about journalist David Farrier’s visits to controversial tourist spots around the world. His travels featured truly bizarre activities ranging from swimming in a nuclear lake in Kazakhstan to visiting a suicide hotspot in Japan. In an ecosphere where threats to all sorts of life on earth have increased, humans have made risk a valuable commodity. After all, why shouldn’t such experiences be sold for leisure when everything else becomes saleable?

We couldn’t remain indifferent to the opportunity any longer. With a little help from Google, we came across a former uranium-mining pit in Australia — the stunning Mary Kathleen. The water in the pit — bright blue, crystal clear and radioactive — seemed just perfect to take a Sunday morning hike alongside. A few pictures there would be totally ‘Instagrammable’ with the astonishing color palette of reds, greens, and yellows — all thanks to the metals and salts in the area. No wonder it has already turned into a significant tourist attraction. Another such spot was the well-known Grand Canyon. Recently, it has earned an exceptional reputation for possible radiation exposure due to uranium, which obviously was reason enough for schools across the U.S. to gather masses of students for a fun day off class. It certainly makes a romantic place for lovers, too. With the healing touch of radiation, immense health benefits add to the area’s spectacular views.

With the now constant depreciation of Turkish Lira against major currencies, though, it became more difficult for Turkish citizens to take their ‘dark tourism’ enthusiasm abroad. Luckily for us, there is no short supply of such spots at home either. For instance, Turkey is home to Dilovası, where it snows beautiful coal powder when the northern winds hit the coal-handling areas on top of an industrial town cuddled by steel companies and international ports. The nation is also proud to feature İncirliova, a small agricultural town where smoke appears from hundreds of wells drilled by geothermal power plants across the region. Or Damal, a tinier town near the Georgian border that welcomes the apparition of Turkey’s founder Kemal Atatürk every year as his shadow naturally falls upon a mountain slope, apparently protecting the lands of Turks. Happily, there is even a radioactive holiday experience on offer in the country, the flourishing village of Kisir near the Mediterranean Sea. One can’t take any chances regarding leisure, so we visited them all, but Kisir was the crown of our vacation experience.

When we arrived in the village, we learned that its blessed residents have benefited from troves of underground uranium, the result of multiple mining attempts in the area since the 1950s. Rumour has it that these efforts came from a British company whose identity, however, is kept a secret. Apparently, over time the company has blended into the collective identity here as a ghost. 

‘Köy kahvesi’ or less formally ‘kahve’ — a small old coffee house in the village — is the ultimate place to socialize. It is buzzing every day with men who come here to read newspapers, drink lots of tea, and engage in casual talk with each other. It is a colourful place interestingly decorated with pictures of and quotes from Albert Einstein alongside others from Atatürk and Erdoğan. When asked about the diversity of this collection, Baki Suna, who officially runs the place, says, ‘kahve is the place for everyone’. His wife Nazan Suna, who runs the kahve, works every day from morning to evening, serving tea and taking care of everything related to business.

Baki Suna, who is also the elected administrator of the village (Muhtar in Turkish), has repeatedly called for investigations into radiation levels in the area. For Baki Suna, the results are beyond what is tolerable by human beings, supporting the results published in a Greenpeace Report in 2017 on Kisir that is currently not publicly available. The village made news nationwide when he and his wife Nazan protested the authorities’ disregard for the high levels of radiation by shaving their hair off at the center of the village, directly in front of their popular kahve. Following the protest and the media attention, Kisir started to be known as ‘cancer village.’

Soon afterward, the farmers who make up the bulk of the village’s adult population were unable to sell their crops — olives, watermelons, and oranges – because they were produced in lands watered by Kisir Creek. Their produce used to be popular in the market, which also supplied raw fruit to the region’s two factories.

Although it was the harvest season for olives at the time of our visit, farming has now become fragile and precarious. As the village gains a negative reputation via news reports on uranium and radiation, young people are migrating to cities for better opportunities. While we were there, we had the chance to speak to residents on the subject. İsmet owns a small grocery shop but also works in one of the mining pits. He and his wife are the only two individuals that make up his household now that his kids have moved away. İsmet says he would not hesitate to leave if he had the chance, but he doesn’t think he could find a new source of income outside the village. So, they have stayed, laboring tirelessly and still hoping things will get better someday. 

Kisir Primary School serves as an educational hub, where all the children from neighboring villages study. When we were there, the road leading to the school was extremely busy with trucks carrying minerals from the mining areas. We followed the vehicles to their source, which led us to another village. The hills near Karakaya were carved entirely away, with trees clinging to cliff edges. Our path eventually led to a factory producing quartz and feldspar, as well as thick clouds of dust that clouded the air that was then blown down the valley. Some local farmers have seen their olive and watermelon fields become desiccated as a result, and have brought the matter to court.  

The saddest aspect of life in Kisir is that cancer cases have increased considerably (Uranyum Uğruna, Özer Akdemir, 2017: 110-114). Whether it is because of the uranium wells or the factories like the one near Karakaya, cancer threatens all of the region’s residents, according to Baki.

While driving back home, we bought some honey and olive oil produced in Kisir, which were both marketed as organic. It is a strange feeling that they have come all the way from Kisir to our kitchen table in Istanbul. Should we consume them or not? Would it still be a kind gesture to share them with neighbors and friends? Honey from Kisir remained bright on the shelf of the kitchen in its beautiful yellow, possibly radioactive, form for days.

Kisir is, in fact, just another story of how nature has been nurtured as a site for the circulation of capital. Whether it is uranium, quartz or feldspar, the rapid exploitation of nature formed over millenniums, hoarding of the profit by a few factory owners, and the subsequent growth of inequality have all become quite ordinary facts. What is new is the manufacture and distribution of interconnected risk, far more than ever before in human history. The risk today is comprehensively contagious; one might say radioactive. Yet everyone confronts risk at different intensities. For instance, farmers living next to mining pits or uranium wells in Kisir face far more risk than us living next to a possibly radioactive jar of honey. Nevertheless, we all still share the risk as it is being distributed around the country through the distribution of goods from Kisir. That’s why we delved into this topic of one risk-filled society that exists against political, ethnical, religious, or racial divisions.

Do we not actually understand this, even more, these days, as the number of novel coronavirus infections continues to climb? Ever since New Year’s Eve, when China alerted WHO to a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, we have canceled flights and closed international borders. Yet, we also understand how interconnected we are with each other. During the Pandemic, the feeling of inseparableness has united us virally. As the Pandemic crashes global stock markets around the world, ISIS has regained strength and is once again attempting to unite the Levant under a radical Islamic state. The civil war drags on in Syria, as the most massive refugee crisis of our time has forced people to cross a continent on foot to Europe. Armed gangs of rival drug smugglers and cartels fight each other across Latin America. And finally, the earth’s rising average temperature continues to jeopardize our existence, globally and quite individually, through wildfires, extinction of species as well as droughts, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. Do we need another contagious risk to reveal our wholeness?

If visitors at Chernobyl can now tour the control room where radiation levels may still be 40,000 times higher than normal, then it is only a matter of time before Wuhan becomes the next global disaster tourism destination. In fact, the hospital famously built in just ten days – equipped with 1,000 beds, several isolation wards, and 30 intensive care units – can simply be converted into a hotel. That’s why we want to market Kisir before it becomes the next globally famous destination for a radioactive holiday, to see the opportunity while prices are still low. As a bestselling author, Daniel Pink tells us, ‘to sell is human.’ It is true, with a minor correction: particularly under anthropogenic capitalism.