At first glance there is little to distinguish this small, ramshackle town of potholed streets and cement-block bungalows from any of the countless improverished workers' communities that have sprung up in the countryside around Istanbul in recent years.
But the patrol of blue-bereted military gendarmes picking their way cautiously down the town's main street, automatic rifles at the ready, belies the seeming normality. Elsewhere, in the 19 Turkish provinces now under martial law, the Army patrols in 2s or 3s. Here the gendarnes move in patrols of 5 or more.
There is reason for the Army's caution. For Umraniye is better known here and in Instanbul as the "First of May" community, one of the hundreds of so-called "liberated zones" of the extreme left or extreme right that have sprouted in urban neighborhoods and ruraal villages as the cleavages of Turkish society have widened.
To mention the name "First of May," or Umraniye, to officials in Instanbul, over a bleak hill and across the Bosporos from here, is to elicit dismay and alarm. It is officials say, a stronghold of "Dev-Sol" a militantly pro-Moscow terrorist group. The town, they maintain is an area of lawlessness and revolution, where violence stalks at night and the government's writ, when it can be imposed, is carried at the point of a bayonet.
The citizens of Umraniye scoff at this image, though they do not hide their independence and Marxist leanings.
"Since the town is virtually under our control, we don't have many assassinations like elsewhere," says Nuerettin Gundolu, a 26-year-old court scribe. He is a member of the shawdowy executive committee that clearly runs this town of 120,000, mostly Kurdish emigres from Turkey's mountainous east. "A bullet today cost the price of two loaves of bread. Anyone who can't afford bread can hardly afford to waste money on ammunition."
Community leaders, who gather often during the day in the small, shabby, concrete-floored office off the grocery store of the "First of May People's Consumer Society" tell a very different story about what has led them to their defiant radicalism.
Faced with the rural poverty of their home villages in eastern Turkey, they say they come here five years ago to find work, food, shelter and the sort of decent life denied them by the backward and impoverished "feudalism" reigning at home.
Finding no place to live in Istanbul, whose population has swelled in the past decade to more than 5 million, they squatted on government lands here, as is their right, for "temporary reasons," under Turkish law. In what was a barren, sun-seared, rolling hillside on the Asian side of the Bosporos, they laid out streets, built their homes out of concrete block and reinforcing steel, and went off to neighboring cities seeking work in the factories and businesses around Instanbul.
"Our idea in leaving our homes in the provinces was to find a better life," said Gundoglu, a handsome, mustachioed man whose hands dart constantly into the air to make a point. "But feudalism followed us here and now we have nowhere else to go.That is the root of our conflict."
The Kurds, a minority of 7 million among Turkey's population of 45 million, have a tradition of independence and progressive ideas that they no doubt brought here when they settled. But from the evidence one sees and hears here, it is difficult not to believe that the government was at least partially responsible for their radicalization.
The villagers did not build slum houses but solid, concrete-blocked structures of some permanence. When the government refused to provide electricity, they were forced to tap near the pylons. Water supplies were erratic as were virtually all the social services the villagers of Umraniye sought to obtain.
Three years ago, the government abruptly announced that it had sold the land they were living on to Mecmettin Ozturk, a real-estate speculator.
Offers by the villagers to pay for the land on which they had built their homes were turned down and, one morning a convoy of bulldozers arrived unannounced and leveled the town.
Some of the people resisted and there was a clash with the police in which 12 inhabitants died.
The bulldodzers razed 3,000 homes. Broken concrete mounds of rubble, intermixed with old clothes and bits of dishes and furniture, still stand in a naked landscape that looks as if it had been devastated by an earth-quake.
Because of their doggedness -- and the fact that the government did not offer the dispossessed alternative housing -- the people squatted on the adjacent plot of land, still owned by the government. Using salvaged concret bricks and what unbroken tiles they could find amid the wreckage of their old homes, they soon rebuilt the town and christened it the "First of May" community.
There was a second confrontation last year when the government came back and razed another group of houses rebuilt on the foundations of the original town. No one was killed at the time, though in a clash some weeks later three police officers died in a shootout after dark.
A year ago the government made a belated effort to alleviate some of the tension in Umraniye by improving the main road and building an elementary school, which the community promptly named in honor of Sehitlik Ilokulu, the first villager to die in the clash with police in 1977.
The government also built a concret police station on the edge of town. From there the military gendarmerie, in the absence of the police who have given up the area, send out their patrols in the streets, showing the government flag and painting over the inflammatory political graffiti that keeps reappearing on the village's whitewashed walls by night.
Ostensibly the town government is in the hands of a four-man committee of elders elected by the community, but the young people like Gundoglu make no bones about the fact that the elders are figureheads to impress the authorities and the maritial-law administrators." The real government power of the community rests in the hands of a larger, younger, more secretive committee, probably dominated by Dev-Sol, whose name is among the most prominent graffiti being rubbed out by the Army.
Kadir Yazgire, a 33-year-old civil servant and one of the leading members of the governing executive, denies that they have their own secruity forces and courts in the town, though others admit that the villagers are armed "for self-defense" and that the committee has ways of enforcing its decisions.
With the Army sending out periodic patrols through the streets, the community's autonomy is precarious. "They would like to provoke us into a major confrontation so they could get rid of us once and for all," said Yazgire as he showed a visitor the ruins of the first town.
"But we know their game and are extremely careful not to fall into a trap."
The villagers' hatred for the government -- of the industrialists, the real-estate speculators, the police and others who support it -- is as tangible as the mounds of rubble left by the bulldozers. It bespeaks, with unmistakable clairty, the deep divisions that today threaten the fabric of Turkish socity.
"A climax must come with a settlement of accounts," Gundoglu said quietly. "When it does come, it will be bloody."