Being an Armenian in Turkey (16): Military service and death
Before I go on to tell you about what I went through during my military service, I would like to tell you about a scene that has lingered in my memory. You know how scenes from films stick in your memory, I also have such a scene from a Turkish film that has stuck in my mind even though I don't remember the name of the film.
In the film there is a village. There is the village chief. There is cruelty as part of the village's hierarchical structure, and there is love. And there is also the fool of the village.... The fool of the village, no matter how untouchable the chief is, because he is a fool, could do some foolish things that went beyond boundaries.
He would insist on shouting at the village chief, "Memento mori, memento mori!"
I liked the idea of reminding the oppressor of death. I actually thought that maybe this was the only ammunition available to the people in that village who were not as fortunate as the chief. It was a very good idea to remind someone who has done evil, who has committed cruelty, of death. The reality of this "memento mori," I have unfortunately seen in the military, in war...
When I did my military service in Dersim, people were killed around me. The stories I retain from them always told me: "memento mori."
To be sent to Dersim, you will first be picked up in Elazig, at the recruitment center.
They send you in military convoys, armored vehicles, guarded by military men, to nearby towns. The reason was that the Dersim road was on the route where Semdin Sakik killed thirty-three soldiers. These boys were killed when they were travelling in regular buses to their units in civilian clothes. After that, soldiers were forbidden to travel to these dangerous areas on their own.
When I landed in Elazig, the plane was being loaded with the bodies of two martyrs who had fallen in Bingol. When I reached my unit in Dersim, the first sight that greeted me was saxophones, trumpets and drums that had been smashed in the explosion. For the first time, I experienced the reality of war so closely.
You get used to everything. Death became commonplace as people went on dying on a daily basis. People from the law enforcement, from the guerrillas, from the civilians, from all sides were getting killed. I signed up in the marching band thinking, "I'm going to dodge the war," but even though I was in the band, I was in the middle of the war. In those fifteen months, I experienced all the reality of war. A lot of people that I knew, that I greeted, that I had tea with, that I shared dreams with as much as possible, were being killed.
The names of the former band members who were killed in that attack were petty officers Ali Alici, Cafer Akinci, Hakan Akyar, Onder Yagmur and Privates Celal Atil, Ahmet Yayman, and Yusuf Yildirim.
It was decided to set up a memorial corner for these boys in the empty room opposite the commander's office, similar to the Ataturk corners in schools. I participated in the creation of this martyrs' corner. During my military leave, I bought most of the materials needed for this commemorative corner and brought them to the commander. I even bought the artificial ornamental flowers with my own money.
Although six months had passed since the explosion, Ahmet's mother still called from time to time and asked about her son on the phone. Since I was the commander’s staff officer, I took the calls, and once again, six months or so after the attack, a woman called. I think it was the ex-girlfriend of one of the fallen NCOs. She didn't know what had happened and when she said she wanted to talk to him, I didn't know what to do. I said in a trembling voice, "Just a moment," and put her through to the commander. The commander immediately broke the news to her. I was shocked, because before, the dead were just statistics to me: five martyrs here, seven martyrs there, eight martyrs yonder...
For a year and a half, I lived with the stories of the fallen of that unit. I spent time with their family members, their friends, eyewitnesses, and the broken saxophones and instruments they left behind. These instruments were replaced, and people played them again to perform flag ceremonies. The metaphor I used to understand the existence of death before I was drafted into the army, the awareness of death I wanted to achieve, became flesh and blood in the army. I understood what "memento mori" meant.
For the first time, I was so close to death.
For the first time, there was so much death around me, and it was quite normal.
Ibrahim, Gungor, Ahmet, Orcun...
Gungor was a nice boy from Aydin with colored eyes and an Aegean accent.
On that fateful day, he was to take part in the flag ceremony whereas Ibrahim was supposed to be on guard duty at the sentry post. He asks Gungor to take his place on guard duty so that he can go to the city center to at least look at girls, shop windows to pass the time, go for a walk, because he was bored. This was actually against the rules, but since Ibrahim's discharge was imminent, he was able to make the necessary arrangements. Gungor goes on guard duty, and Ibrahim joins the marching band downtown with his instrument in hand. The suicide bomber hugged Ibrahim before blowing herself up. Ibrahim's body was blown into several pieces. Should Gungor feel lucky or sorry about all of this? Imagine how a person can go on with his life after experiencing something like that.
There is also the story of Ahmet Yayman from Hatay, which I will never forget.
He was one of the recruits from the 76/1 draft. In other words, he was one of the fresh soldiers who arrived there just before I joined this unit. It was said that Ahmet had very nice handwriting. Inscriptions like "No smoking - Commander" or "Get your uniform in order - Commander" inscriptions were all written in his handwriting and became part of the military's inventory.
And then there was Orcun, a musician from Bursa, from the same draft as Ahmet Yayman from Hatay. All the gypsy musicians there claimed that they had played for Ibrahim Tatlises. And they all blew in our ears behind each other's backs that the other one was lying. Orcun, a fiddler, was one of these musicians.
During a night watch, the two fell into nearby posts. As they were talking, Orcun said, "I can't read or write, could you put it in writing in a letter to my mother if I speak to you." Ahmet Yayman replied, "I will, buddy, no problem," and wrote the letter. After writing it, he read the letter through. Underneath he had added a cliché verse: "Don't be grieved if I become a martyr, mother...". "I didn't ask you to put a poem, why did you do it? Now you're going to upset her," Orcun objected. Ahmet insists on adding the poem, "We are soldiers, you never know, you have to ask for their blessings at every opportunity," he says.
Orcun always told that Ahmet seemed troubled that night, that a sense of gloom surrounded him. Ahmet was one of the victims of the same bombing. Orcun was wounded and sent home for medical treatment when there was a knock at the door while he was sitting at home with his wife and children. He opened the door and received from the mailman the letter he had dictated to Ahmet.
That same letter he sent to his mother, in Ahmet's handwriting, with the verse about martyrdom...
"Tell that Armenian bastard to choose himself an outpost in the mountains!"
There were petty officers who stayed in the company who were not given lodgings because they were single.
They slept in company dormitories which were rather like sheds. There were some among them who got up every night to wake up the soldier who stood sentry for the bathrooms or who made toasts, and treated the people who could sleep only three or five hours because they were on guard duty one after the other, like servants. Since I was a commander's staff officer, I was in a good shape. But I had a lot of trouble with these petty officers, reporting them to the commandant, getting them into trouble at every opportunity, trying to stop their torment.
It was towards the end of my military service, the commander I served as a staff officer was transferred to Ankara and I continued my service under another commander. For the last three months I was a company sergeant. In the meantime, I was given leave of absence with the departure of my commander. When I returned, I was to continue my service under the new commander. But before I returned to my unit, a message came from those torment-loving NCOs, "Tell that Armenian bastard to choose from the outposts in the mountains!" They tried to avenge my struggle with them with a triple ambition because I was Armenian. And they partially succeeded, I suffered a little bit after that. But I must admit that the military at that time generally favored affirmative action towards minorities.
They had taken measures to prevent harm to minority soldiers through positive discrimination. But of course, ultimately this is the military, and you have a lot of kind of experiences in your personal relationships. The NCO who hates you behaves accordingly, and your fellow soldier who doesn't like you treats you the same way.
When I came back from the military, I felt so much compassion for the people there that I was like, "Well, these people are also soldiers and policemen of this country, what's this hostility?" That was the time in my life when I was closest to the political right. I remember walking along Taksim in Istanbul, and when the ground was dug up with a hoe, I dived to the ground because I thought a shooting had started. Although I hadn't experienced what the guys fighting in the mountains went through, I too had developed a very strong war trauma.
There is a book with a title that translates as "The Book of the Unnamed Soldier" by Nadire Mater. It consists of the narratives of forty-two soldiers who participated in the war with the Kurds. These soldiers are not ideologically homogeneous. Among them were those who said, "We have laid the bodies of the terrorists and cut off their ears," as well as those who thought, "Should I fight against my own people?"
I am one of those who spoke in this book, that is, one of those soldiers but I used my own identity. I think I am also one of the reasons why the book was banned. The book was taken to court and caused a great controversy. In the publicity for the book in newspapers and art supplements, the introduction referred to my chapter, which made me feel very happy. "No one can explain Ahmet's death to me," was the basis of the introduction.
I think in this book, among the turmoil of that time, what I had told, even if without being able to figure out what it was, was one of the materials that turned out to be helpful. This was exactly what the book was questioning. The mood of people coming out of the war, the impact of the war on people.
It was this confusion...