They came singly or in groups from menial jobs or university classrooms or offices to a peace rally in Turkey’s capital on Oct. 10; one hundred ordinary people who were abruptly murdered by a pair of ISIS-linked suicide bombers, victims of a campaign of violence against Turkey’s leftist opposition by the jihadi group based in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Here, Yasemin Congar follows one coffin home to a penniless mountain village in the country’s south, one of a hundred portraits being published by Turkish writers and journalists at www.101015ankara.org:
I am about to fall asleep between heavy wool blankets and a thin but dense mattress spread around an area previously occupied by a floor table. The whole family, as well as relatives coming from afar to offer their condolences and a few neighbors from the village had gathered around here during the evening. Sanem, who is a on a mattress next to me, asks in a tone sincerely convinced that I may provide a suitable answer: “How can someone this afraid of death die?” I stay silent. The night in the village has a pitch black darkness that exposes the weakness of words. A dog barks in the background. I do not know yet that its name is Şiar.
I am in Baqinê, a village in the district of Awel near Siirt, a city in the southeast of Turkey. Vedat Erkan was born in an earthen house at the top of this village, just like his four sisters and three brothers. Thanks to their eldest son who started earning money, the Erkan family built this three room concrete house upon whose floor I am sleeping. Vedat, a jack of all trades, had carried much sand and mixed plenty of cement. He was the third eldest in the family and the only child who finished high school and was determined to go to university. When asked for the date of his birthday his parents falter, and it is his eldest brother Sezer – who ten days before his death managed to postpone Vedat’s compulsory military service and “set his mind at ease”- who jumps in: the 1st of September 1994. The fact that Vedat was born on World Peace Day strikes me as a hollow observation, and I do not say anything. A few hours ago, after Vedat’s uncle Ramazan picked me up from Kurtalan we drove through winding paths uphill to the village, and I reminded him that out of the 102 people killed in the Ankara bombings, two were the bombers. The uncle’s reply nullified any sense of irony however: “That means we have got a hundred martyrs, and the Turkish Republic has two.”
This is not a letter-perfect slogan. It expresses the current situation of a low-income, openhanded, God-fearing family: a family that says “we are Kurds without any reservations and we do not want war”, a family which doesn’t send any of their children to the [militant leftist pro-independence Kurdish]PKK camps in the mountains, a family that acknowledges the PKK but still keeps a distance, a family which supported [conservative Islamist]AKP until a few years ago, and made Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an MP representing the southeastern city Siirt. They are sorrowful, angry and heartbroken. “There was no state representative in our mourning” says Vedat’s father Orhan sitting around the low table, “nor anyone from our neighbouring village that supports AKP; however even the chief police officer used to love Vedat, there was no one who knew him that disliked him.” Süreyya, who I would later realise was the outspoken character in the bashful village, interrupts: “Uncle don’t say that, wasn’t the Special Operations Team here at the mourning pointing their machine guns at the tent trying to force us to take down the flag?” Vedat’s mother Behice, staring into space as if speaking into the void, completes her statement: “We call it Heftreng, it is our traditional veil of seven colours. We use it to cover our brides’ heads and the coffins of those that died before getting married. Should we not have put it on Vedat’s?” Everyone falls silent. I look at Süreyya. Her cheeks are wet.
Vedat’s cousin Süreyya is a tall, stout young girl. They grew up together and enjoyed joking around and he used to keep an eye on her and warn her “not to show up when men are around”. The next day whilst Süreyya gave me a tour of the village, which smelled of burned earth, and which has shrunk from 120 families down to 48, due to poverty and blood feuds, she took me to see her four cows she called “my children”: “Vedat insisted that they were his. He had such a fondness for animals and children. He loved interacting with people one on one. He tried to avoid crowds and he did not even go to weddings, he was never involved in the traditional halay dance at all. Everyone would go, but he would be the only one to stay at home. We suffered a lot because we were Kurds. Vedat also knew that, but he never got involved in politics. He never attended any rallies or party meetings. October the 10th was the first time ever.”
Vedat grew up believing in both destiny and the power of prayer, just like his two elder brothers Sezer and Sedat, his younger brother Mekan, his younger sisters Sanem, Mizgin, and Nesrin, and Büşra, the eight year old baby girl in the family whose religious knowledge her father praises saying “she can hardly write her own name, but outscores everyone else in reciting the prophet’s life story.”. When preparing for the university entrance exams Vedat said “Pray for me mother… When I pass the exam and become a teacher I will look after all of you and take you out of this village.” Behice is a Zaza woman who came here from Mutki as a bride. Her voice resembles her face, and in every word she utters and in her every look there is a hint of melancholy, pure and delicate like the white laces around her white headscarf: “Of course I prayed. I invoked 4444 verses before the exam. He went and came back. After some time he began to have a long face. He said nothing. He didn’t eat. He sat in the garden and wept by himself. I approached him. ‘I couldn’t pass, mum’ he said, ‘I couldn’t pass the threshold despite your prayers, because I am from Siirt.’ But he was dedicated, he was going to try again.”
Vedat left Siirt twice in his lifetime. The first time was last year when he followed his two brothers to Ankara. “He was waiting at the stop” says Behice, “I mean at the day-laborer’s market, he was waiting for people to take him to a job.” He called a few days after: “We’re waiting here like fools mom, I can’t do it” he said, and he returned back home. Then, the minibus which Mekan took to come back from school flipped and her hip bone fractured. “Vedat stayed at home and helped his sister recover. He carried her everywhere, looked after her. He used to look after everyone. He loved caring for them.”
In another conversation I hear similar words about Vedat from a close friend of his: “He was benevolent.” This comes from Vedat Erkan, a short and stout young man unlike his late namesake. “We were the only two from the village to attend the multi-program high school” he relates, “We are not relatives, our fathers are at odds, but our names and surnames are the same. I have epilepsy, I have seizures, I collapse. I collapsed fifty seven times in one year. Whenever I collapsed at school, Vedat was there to help. Time after time, the principal started calling out ‘Vedat Erkan collapsed, find Vedat Erkan.’ Vedat used to carry me to Baykan to the hospital in Siirt. He would wait by my side and then carry me back home.” Behice concurs: “He came back home from school, covered in blood, his eyes swollen. I was about to ask whether he was involved in a fight but he started explaining what happened: ‘Vedat fell, hurt his head, he was bleeding in my arms, I was scared, I thought he was going to die. I cried.’ He really liked this guy.”
Vedat could not stand seeing blood or confront the idea of death. Once in the garden when Sezer hit a scythe on his foot and it was bleeding Vedat ran away. One day he asked his friend Vedat who had left high school and devoted himself to religious studies a question: “Tell me about the torments of the grave. What happens when you die?” “He would be the most upset when someone died,” says Sanem, “it used to frustrate him that the doors of the room in the mosque where the dead bodies are washed were left ajar.” He had no idea that his mother would look at him from that gap one day, consoling herself with the fact that at least his face did not have any scars.
Vedat’s father Orhan says that in the Ankara bombings Vedat had a wound as small as a pinhead around his ear, somewhere close to his carotid: “His clothes were soaking wet. He was exposed to pressured water, he had a heart attack. They took him to hospital, his heart stopped twice there, but they managed to make it work again. But after the third time it didn’t work.” No one actually knows how Vedat, who has no fondness for crowds, decided to go to that rally. “He was following what was happening closely” his father says, pointing at the Kurdish TV channel Azadi that transmits news in a low volume at the end of the room. His brothers read his last message on Facebook after the massacre: “Young people, join the peace march, say no to war.” Vedat worked until eight that Friday night, and made his way to the rally after his shift. “He was probably going to shoot a video to post on Facebook” says Sezer.
It is obvious from the videos that Büşra shows us that Vedat liked shooting videos. Whilst watching the videos Büşra would sometimes laugh and sometimes have a hint of melancholy. Here, the siblings play with the snow they were buried up to their bellies last year. Here is Vedat, who I heard from everyone was always concerned about his looks and looked in the mirror many times before going out, seen from the side showing his house in Ankara, smiling, looking satisfied with his hair style which is longer on the front. In one of his last videos he plays with one lira and fifty kuruş coins which he spread all around the table. Then we see a moneybox for children. When the video ends Büşra runs to fetch the moneybox. Vedat bought it for her and it was Sezer’s duty to bring it here after emptying Vedat’s house in Ankara after the massacre. Büşra vigilantly opens the pink lock of the moneybox. There are one lira coins, fifty kuruş coins, and a small box. In that small box is the last surprise from Vedat to Büşra: a precious, small gold coin.
Everything I heard from Vedat’s relatives, friends and family confirms that whilst leaving the village Vedat was quite content with his life, much unlike the first time he left. As opposed to his brothers who were working in Nevşehir doing painting and plastering jobs at construction sites, Vedat was working as a laser cutting machinery operator in the Ankara Ostim Industrial Zone “because he had brains for math”. “Everyone was a university graduate there, teachers and engineers” says his father, crowing proudly: “It was only Vedat who was just a high school graduate, but he was the best of them all, he had the largest raise, his salary had increased to 1300 Lira.”
He liked his work and the apartment he rented at Demetevler. His first concern was to see his brothers getting married. “It is not easy, the dowry is at least twenty thousand lira” says Behice. When she mentions Vedat saying “let’s get Sedat and Sezer married first, then I will bring you here too, mother” she gets a lump in the throat: “he could not bring me there, he came here, I wish he didn’t come like this, I wish he didn’t come at all.” Then suddenly, holding the side of her headscarf she begins to swing back and forth and a gentle melancholy pervades the room. Behice sings a tune, a lament: “Ankara’s bloody square, stole away my Vedat, and never gave him back”.
With his presence and his struggle Vedat was the light of everyone in the family. His father now has gastric bleeding. The two brothers left their jobs in Nevşehir and returned to their villages for good. The answer to the question “do you have any income?” is a muffled no. Eleven year old Nesrin shows me the peppers and aubergines Vedat grew in the garden next to their house and the huge pines he planted and whose snow he would clear every winter. “He planted these the latest but I don’t know what they are,” she says about the three young trees looking over the village and to the lands of Garzan, to the Cudi mountain on the horizon, and to Siirt whose lights shine brightly on clear nights. “These are Japanese plums, look how nicely they blossom” I say to Nesrin, and I blush, just like I did the night before hearing what Behice said when I rejected the honeycomb she brought for me on a tray: “It is Vedat’s honey, it is a local type of honey, it is karakovan. He picked the bees himself. Have it, so that his good deed passes to you.”
We climb uphill to the highest slope in the village before the mid-afternoon prayer time with Nesrin, Sanem, and Sedat. The cemetery is full of anonymous, naked mounds without gravestones. The two girls are praying next to the freshest mound, between two briquettes whose pebblestones laid from head to the toe catch the eye. Sedat is waiting for us a little bit behind. I touch the soil. When we go back everyone is performing the mid-afternoon prayer. I suddenly realise I have not been hearing the call to prayer for twenty four hours. “There is an official state imam for the village” they say, “but he does not stay here because he does not like it here. He is hardly here for half of the week. Sometimes we even perform the Friday prayer without the call to prayer.”
I will pass by the cemetery once again in the evening when I walk along the mountain trail in order to reach the highway that stretches out towards Iran through Bitlis, Muş and Ağrı. I now know that the beautiful eyed and kind-hearted son of the people who have nothing but their belief in God, the soil they will eventually rest in, and no palpable hope of change, is resting there. Vedat is resting there.
Yasemin Congar Translated from Turkish by International Boulevard
28 Jan 2016