Aytek Soner Alpan discusses the difficulties faced by the Turkish (Muslim) exchangees after 1923, and how they resisted the over-centralized and chaotic policies adopted by the Turkish government.
Aytek Soner was awarded his PhD from the University of California, San Diego, on the day of the publication of this blog.
Whereas the resettlement of Greek Orthodox refugees during the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923 has been well-studied, that of the Muslim population has received little scholarly attention. This lacuna can make it easy to assume that the Exchange Convention was effectively handled by the Turkish state. On the contrary, the at once over-centralized and chaotic policies adopted by the Turkish government elicited active resistance from refugees.
Faced with the imminent arrival of refugees in November 1923, one of the most urgent tasks facing the government was establishing reception centres affording temporary accommodation. The limited capacity of these shelters quickly became a problem. Although the legal framework restricted such accommodation to three days, the process of transferring refugees to permanent settlement sites or allocating them abandoned or vacant properties took longer than expected. Many had to stay in the shelters for extended periods. In some areas, the lack of shelter accommodation led to refugees being housed in coal mines, sometimes for months. As a local newspaper in Bursa reported, fifteen refugee families were “literally” forgotten at a vacant madrasa building for weeks .
Packed beyond capacity, the shelters were inhumane and contagious diseases rife. The number of deaths was alarming. On December 18, 1924, hundreds of refugees took to the streets to protest against their treatment. They first went to the Directorate of Resettlement in Sirkeci. Nobody was prepared to listen to them. Overwhelmed with disappointment, the refugees decided to go to the Provincial Administration Building and appeal to the governor. A few hours later they arrived in Bab-ı Ali and marched towards the governor’s office shouting slogans.
At the entrance, they were stopped and informed that governor Süleyman Sami Bey was having his lunch and could not see them. The refugees forced themselves into the building and launched a volley of complaints about their situation. The longer the negotiations dragged on, the thinner the refugees’ patience wore. At some point, the refugees were asked by the gendarme commander to leave the building and return to the shelters.
They refused. A woman carrying an infant shouted to the crowd “Greeks kicked us out of our houses. They gave them to the Rums. If the government doesn’t help us, eventually we’ll kick the Rums here out of their houses.” The gendarmerie fixed their bayonets and tried to push the crowd out of the building.
As the altercation escalated the governor emerged from his office to urge calm, conciliating the refugees by promising that they would be resettled in İstanbul. After this assurance, the refugees cheered for the governor and Mustafa Kemal Paşa and vacated the Provincial Administration Building.
Despite the governor’s assurance, the refugees’ demands fell on deaf ears in Ankara once again. On December 20, 1924, the central government insisted on upholding the original resettlement scheme. Food relief provided to the shelters was cut off again. This raised the tension between refugees and authorities to a new level. As one of the refugees put it to a reporter:
“We are not emigrants, but exchangees. We cannot live on half a loaf of bread per meal. They’ve stopped giving even that. Where should we go? We are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Every day five or six of us die. Infidels are thriving but we are dying.”
Immediately after they had been notified, the refugees announced that they would not leave the shelters and asked for the immediate evacuation of the properties that belonged to Constantinopolitan Greeks, including the non-exchangeable ones. In the meantime, civil initiatives to provide support to the refugees at the shelters were hindered by the state.
So desperate was the condition of the refugees at the shelters that some were driven to plunder bakeries and even assault people in the streets, snatching loaves of bread from their hands . They had received nothing but a small piece of bread in the previous three days. According to the governor, the refugees were free to go to their assigned resettlement sites in Samsun – while they remained in the shelters, however, they would not be given any more food.
The refugees faced the real prospect of starvation. Akşam presented the horns of the dilemma confronted by the refugees. The government was simply telling them “We brought you to this country. You can either die of starvation here or you can go [to your resettlement sites] and perish there in malaria and misery”.
In the previous ten days alone 28 of the 1307 refugees at the Ahırkapı shelter had died, fifteen of them younger than 7 years old. The main cause of death was pneumonia, which was reaching epidemic proportions.
Vatan published a table with the names and ages of the refugees who had died at the shelters. The newspaper also reported that photographers were not allowed in the shelters anymore. Visual images of destitute refugees at the shelters had helped bring their stories home to the public: the ban on photographers represented censorship of the press.
The refugees appealed for their civil and property rights as well as for their immediate survival. They emphasized their exchangee (mübadil) identity, seeking to remind the authorities that they enjoyed the protection of international law. It is important to recognize their bitter struggle for bread and a roof, thereby challenging scholarship that disregards the tragedy of the Muslim exchangees, or at very least denies them agency.
FEATURE IMAGE: ‘SEAGULL OVER THE AEGEAN,’ PHOTOGRAPH BY ŞADİ AŞIROĞLU
 Yoldaş, 4 January 1925.
 Akşam, 25 December 1924.
 Akşam, 28 December 1924.