|SEVGİ ZÜBEYDE GÜRBÜZ / writing|
A later reworking/rewriting of "The Match that Burned the Forest" by Sevgi Zubeyde Gurbuz
Normally, waiting for hours in the cold would be torturous and impossible to bear. But in combat, the reverse is true. Even the slightest twitch of a leaf or the faintest crackle of dead branches tossed aside by a squirrel can grab one’s attention. For these mountains, though breathtakingly gorgeous by day, are menacing at night. The next swoosh of the wind could bring death – or glory.
I was impatient for them to come. For over twenty years, they’ve been murdering villagers, teachers, doctors, policemen and soldiers – anyone who refused to submit to their ideology or their authority. Like a chameleon they adapted themselves to the changing world order, first touting communism and now claiming to be freedom fighters.
But what freedom fighter would murder his people? What freedom fighter would continue to plant land mines while more and more children were killed or crippled each day? What freedom fighter would murder my brother, then just a child, in broad daylight? They were nothing more than terrorists, murderers, gangsters, criminals, blood suckers…
* * *
I missed my family.
My wife gave birth to our first child just two days ago. A son: seven pounds, eight ounces, dark-haired, olive-colored skin, with a small pinkish “strawberry” right in the middle of his forehead. Mustafa! I should have been there when he was born. A boy should know his father better than through just stories and phone calls. If only this violence would end, I could go home. But there was no end - just blood, blood and more blood.
* * *
I’ll never forget the day they killed my brother.
The muezzin had just delivered the afternoon ezan, calling all Muslims to prayer. I was working in my father’s grocery store, unpacking the watermelons that had just come in, fresh from Diyarbakir. Two men approached the front of our shop, examining the apple, pear, and peach stands we had set up outside by the street curb.
“Selamunaleykum, my friend, how may I help you?” invited my father.
“Aleykumselam” replied the elder of the two men, entering the store while the other stayed outside, furtively surveying the surroundings as he pretended to look at the apples. “Apo sends his greetings. He tells me that you have a gift for him.”
These words wiped the smile off my father’s face. “No,” he said curtly, “You are mistaken. We don’t give away gifts here.” Carefully eyeing the stranger, he slowly moved towards the check-out counter, where we kept a pistol hidden in case anyone caused trouble.
The man chuckled, smiling as though this was all some joke. Below his dark, thick mustache I could see his yellow teeth glimmer as his smile turned into a sneer, his eyes cold and calculating. His clothes reeked of cigarette smoke, replacing the enticing aroma of the fruits with his noxious poison.
“Perhaps you should reconsider your policy. Maintaining good customer relations is important for good business, you know.”
“No, thank you anyway, no gifts. If you’d like to purchase anything I’d be glad to help you, otherwise please excuse me, but I have some work to tend to.”
But the stranger would not be sent away so easily. Lips pursed and hands clenched into a fist, he walked straight towards my father, stopping just a foot away. Glaring, he said, “Look, old man, you obviously haven’t yet learned how business is done around here. Remember, if you’re walking safe and sound in this town, it’s because we let you! You’ve got two sons old enough to fight, but here they are instead counting apples. Now you don’t want to pay your dues? One way or another, we’ll get what we want. So smarten up, or else…well, you know, this is a strange land, my friend, strange accidents can happen at the oddest times.”
My father was not a man to be threatened. “Get out!” he yelled, drawing the pistol out from behind the counter. “Get out, and don’t ever come back!”
“Okay, okay, take it easy man!” Raising his hands, the stranger backed away from my father, towards the door. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Then motioning towards the other man, they both left, walking down the street with their hands in their jacket pockets as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
“Baba, they’re gone, they’re gone! Yuppie, look at them go now, the scardy cats!” I said, rejoicing.
My father slowly sat down, gloomily staring at the floor. “Ah, oghlum, ah, you shouldn’t be so happy, you have no idea of what I’ve just done.”
“What?” I said, inquisitively.
“Those men were PKK men. Do you know what they did to the last shopkeeper who didn’t pay up? He was found shot the next day.”
“Then why didn’t you pay him?”
“Pay him with what? It’s not like we have that much to give. Besides, if I give them money they’ll just come back again and again.”
“Baba, let me go, then.”
“And just where do you think you are going to go, huh?” replied my father angrily. “To the mountains? You think that becoming one of them is a solution?”
“Everyone is going! Ibrahim and Suleyman joined. Baba, maybe they are right, maybe this is the only way that things will change.”
My father grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me up against the wall, furious. “Boy, you listen to me, and you listen to me good. Do you think anything good can come from evil? The Kur’an teaches patience, peace, and hard work. What do these hoodlums do? Drugs, murder. Do you know how many people die every day because of these people? Turks and Kurds have shared the same fate, the same nation for centuries. We’re blood brothers. Changing the regime, making everything Kurdish, won’t make our social and economic problems go away.”
“Baba, if I don’t go, they will kill you!”
“Oghlum, if you go, then you will die. Let’s see how many days or weeks later Ibo and Sulo come back in a body bag. If you want to do any good, then study your books well, go to college, make someone out of yourself and then come back and invest here. Create jobs, do community service. But whatever you do, don’t go to the mountains just to learn how to kill.”
“So you’re going to pay them?”
“No way! I won’t have my money contributing to their sinful deeds.”
“Then what will you do?”
“Nothing. Oghlum, there is a saying: from one tree, a million matches can be made. But it only takes one match to burn a million trees. You see? All I can do is not become the match that burns down the entire forest.”
* * *
About an hour before the evening ezan, my mother came with my younger brother Yusuf, dinner neatly packed in her wicker picnic basket. The scrumptious smell of freshly baked spinach borek and baklava wafted through the store, beckoning me to steal a sample before dinner. But I was caught eying the basket.
“Now don’t you even think of sneaking a bite Osman, or you won’t get any at all during dinner.” she said, smiling as she feigned frustration, pleased that we like her cooking so much. Foiled for the time being, I enviously watched my brother play street soccer with the other kids.
Suddenly, we were jarred by the sound of machine gun fire and shattering glass. Instinctively, I dove behind one of the fruit stands. My father leapt towards my mother to push her away from the exposed front of the store and shield her from debris.
“Yusuf! Oghlum Yusuf!” shrieked my mother, tormented with images of her son’s body riddled with bullets, lying in a pool of blood. She struggled to break my father’s grasp, but to no avail.
“Stay down!” commanded my father. “Until the gunfire stops there is nothing we can do.”
I curled up on the floor, my hands above my head, like a turtle hiding in his shell, squeezing myself tighter with each shot. The shock wave from an explosion outside toppled several of the food stands on top of me, and then as suddenly as it began, all fell silent. We looked at each other for a moment before cautiously getting up and walking outside.
The car parked across the street had blown up in a tower of flames. Our store was completely destroyed, along with the front half of the store next to the burning car. There were several bodies scattered along the road - small bodies, bodies of children.
My mother ran into the street, shielding her face with her headscarf, frantically checking each of the bodies to see if one of them was Yusuf. Other mothers also ran out into the street doing the same, uncontrollably crying, pressing the bloody remains against their hearts and praying as though by some miracle they could bring back the spirit of their child.
Meanwhile, one of our village elders, Omer Emmi, motioned for my father to come and talk in one of the side streets.
“Selim, you’re looking for Yusuf?” he asked.
My father nodded affirmatively.
“Yusuf was playing outside here with the kids, when the gunfire started. They all scattered in different directions, looking for a place to hide. Yusuf took cover in one of the cars parked along the street.”
My father, hopeful, turned to search the cars, but Omer Emmi stopped him, grabbing him by the arm.
“Selim, I’m sorry, you won’t find him. He was in the car that blew up…”
* * *
The sun was beginning to rise. The dark black curtain of night was being replaced with the sleepy relaxed pastels of pale yellow and light blue. Light bounced off the leaves of the trees and formed polkadots on the musty brown earth below.
It was then that I noticed a man softly brush aside a group of tree branches and take a step forward towards my position. My body tensed when I saw him. The waiting was over.
My commander called out to the approaching militants. “Throw down your weapons and surrender! Your life will be spared and you will be treated with justice if you surrender!”
But, the machine gun fire in reply was a clear sign that no one was going to surrender – at least not today. We returned fire, but it was difficult to get a clear aim because of the trees and large rocks that covered the forest floor. Just to mix things up a bit, I threw a grenade in the general direction of the militants. Amidst the pieces of rock, dirt and dust that went flying in every direction, I saw one of the militants sneak off towards the west, where a small winding creek snaked around the mountain, down towards the villages.
I went after him in pursuit, cornering him at the creek. Retreat, and he would turn right into the barrel of my gun. Advance, and he would have to make a dash for the forest, exposing himself as he crossed.
Aiming towards the legs to capture him alive, I called out: “You don’t have to die! I don’t want to kill you, surrender and you will be spared!”
But as before, he did not surrender, instead firing at me while he crawled away. My next volley of shots disabled him.
“You bastard! Esh-oghlu-eshek! Do you think I will ever surrender to you? Go on, kill me, go ahead! In my place tens, hundreds more will come and take my vengence! You don’t belong on this land, in these mountains!” he gasped defiantly, clenching his wounds.
I approached cautiously, kicking his gun away out of arm’s reach. He was just a young boy, probably not even eighteen yet. Kneeling down beside him, I searched him for any other weapons, then proceeded to bandage his wounds.
I couldn’t help but notice a piece of paper that had slightly fallen out of one of his breast pockets. It was a photograph, but looking from a distance I thought one of the faces seemed familiar. As I pulled it out of his pocket, the boy struggled to stop me with the little strength he had left.
“Give me that photograph back! Thief!” he protested; but my shock over what I saw made me oblivious to anything he said.
I knew this picture. I knew all the people in this photograph. I shook my head in disbelief. How could it be possible?
This was a photograph of my family just a week before Yusuf was killed. We had all gone to Lake Hazar to celebrate my good test scores on the University Admissions Test. Yusuf was only ten years old then, but he was a great fisher. That day, for the first time, he actually caught more fish than my father did – he was so proud, that he had another fisherman take a family photo of us while he showed off his catch.
How was it possible for this picture to end up in the pocket of this boy?
In my heart, I knew the answer to this question, but my mind was unable to believe what seemed impossible.
Yusuf! The youngest, purest, most vibrant rose of our family, plucked from our bossom before he had much of a chance to grow up.
Could it really be true? Was this militant, this terrorist, this boy before me my brother?
I looked carefully at the boy’s face. Six years had passed since I last saw my brother, but the resemblance was definite. I softly whispered his name, as though saying it too loud might wake me from this dream and I would loose my brother all over again.
Now it was Yusuf’s turn to be suprised. I took out a handkerchief, moistened it with some water from the stream, and wiped off the green-brown camuflage paint from my face. As his anger melted away, I could tell that he recognized me.
For a long time, neither of us knew what to say. It was not like this was a typical reunion. We couldn’t just run towards each other and smile with a hearty embrace. Not more than five minutes ago, we were shooting bullets at each other. I was not Osman, nor he Yusuf. We were just two enemies trying to wipe each other out from the face of the earth.
I finished bandaging his wounds in silence.
Yusuf was the first to speak: “I thought you were dead.”
I shook my head and smiled, trying to make light our painful past. “Nope, as you can see, I am very much alive!”
“Mother, father – are they alive too?”
“Yes...they are fine. But we thought you had been killed. If you were alive, why didn’t you come home?”
“To shield myself from the gunfire, I had scrunched down on the back seat of the car, when Kamil Bey tapped the car window and urgently motioned me to get out. But I was too scared to even move at all. So he opened the door and dragged me out, taking me to his home.
Kamil Bey then left promising to go look for you. I wanted to go with him, but he warned against that saying that the men who attacked were Military Gendarme that wanted to kill all of us, so it wouldn’t be safe for me to be seen.”
I interrupted: “But the attackers weren’t Gendarme, Yusuf! They were PKK! You know these same people you have been risking your life for over the past six years? They were the ones that attacked our store!”
“Brother, they told me you all were dead. I went to the mountains to avenge your murders.” sighed Yusuf.
“And I joined the army to avenge yours,” I said.
Yusuf groaned painfully, closing his eyes to shut out this new reality that contradicted everything he had learned in the last six years. As for me, I had trouble accepting that my brother was involved with this organization. I didn’t want to think about how many people he may have killed or children left fatherless.
A bullet whized by my head. Suddenly I was jolted back into action, but it was too late. The next bullet found its target, and I dropped to the ground writhing in pain. I tried reaching for my gun to fire back, but the onslaught continued, and I could feel my chest and legs burn as more bullets found their way into my body. Screaming, I dragged myself behind a rock, grabbed my walkie talkie and immediately radioed for help, describing Yusuf’s location and asking for a medivac helicopter to airlift us to safety.
I could hear Yusuf shouting for me in tears, “Brother! Brother!” but his voice seemed faint. My head began to spin, and I felt overwhelmed by a great rush of pressure in my head. It was as though my brains were emptying down into my body, but there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Every heartbeat brought me closer to death. I imagined my wife, newly awoken, hair disheveled, yawning, stretching and rubbing her eyes as she rolled towards me in bed for a good-morning kiss. I wanted to wrap my arms around her, pressing her breasts gently but firmly against my body, letting her warmth surge through my chest, refreshing me like a deep breath of sweet-smelling fresh air. I wanted to hold my son, Mustafa, cradle him in my arms, and protect him from this mess that had claimed too many lives already.
“Mustafa,” I wispered, with my last breath, “What will be your fate?”