SEVGİ ZÜBEYDE GÜRBÜZ / writing

My Grandfather's Canteen

by Sevgi Zubeyde Gurbuz

Omer wearily gazed at his tattered, worn out canteen. Not much larger than an apple, its bladder was swollen with water, damp and pliable, like jelly between his fingers. His dusty cracked lips ached to take a sip of the cold, sweet liquid, but he fought back the temptation and instead clasped the canteen to his belt. Water was strictly rationed, and these few gulps of water needed to last him the whole day. Food was even scarcer. Oftentimes he would gnaw on his leather moccasins to suppress his hunger.

But there was no time to think about this now. He was a soldier in Ataturk's army, the only thing separating the advancing Greek army from the beautiful city of Kutahya, humbly straddling the Porsuk River, her wooden homes appearing as a dusty brown silhouette in the distance. From the west, Omer could hear the sound of gun and cannon fire.

Ever since the occupation of Izmir on May 19, 1919, the Greek army had surely been sweeping eastward towards Ankara, slaughtering the local Turkish population to the ecstatic welcoming cheers of the local Greek minority. But the Turks were not to be so easily driven out from their homeland. Initially, villagers formed their own ad-hoc resistance units. Later, these informal militias were united under the command of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a General in the Ottoman army who resigned his post in opposition of the Allied occupation.

Every family contributed all their men to the resistance force. Even some of the women also chose to take up arms, or join support units transporting ammunition and supplies. All of Omer's brothers had gone off to war. One was martyred during the great 1915 Battle of Gallipoli. The other was fighting somewhere in the east, he didn't know where. It had been months since had had gotten any word of him.

Nearby, Omer heard the faint voice of a soldier begging for water. He was pale and bony, almost immobile from exhaustion. But no one had responded to his plea. "Sorry, brother, we don't even have enough water for ourselves," muttered passersby.

Without water, the man would die. Omer indecisively looked first at the feeble man, then at his enticing canteen, and back again at the man. Finally, Omer walked over to him and held out his canteen. "Here, drink a little for yourself, but leave some for me, this is all I have for the day," he said.

But the man was so thirsty, that he could not stop himself after just a few sips. Tilting his head back, he gulped down Omer's entire day's supply. "Bless you," he said gratefully.

Naturally, Omer was angry that he had not left him even one drop of water. But there was nothing he could do. Besides, "God works in mysterious ways; sometimes there is unforeseen good in every calamity," he thought.

Some time later, Omer received news that his elder brother too had been martyred in Kerkuk. As the only surviving male left in the family, Omer was discharged from the army, and ordered to return to his hometown. In those days, however, there were no airplanes, trains, cars or other convenient forms of transportation. You'd be lucky to even find a horse or donkey to ride. Omer was not so lucky; so he trudged along on foot.

I don't think any of us today can imagine what it is like to walk 300-400 miles without having any food or water. No rest stops, no Burger Kings or McDonalds to fill up on. No kebab or even a snack pack. The war had devastated the countryside. There were no men left to work on the farms, and many families, like the soldiers, had trouble finding food.

By the time Omer reached the town of Sungurlu, on the southern outskirts of Corum province, he was on the verge of starvation. In the distance, however, he saw a man working in a field, and started to walk in his direction, hoping that he could find some food. But the man, upon seeing him approach, started running towards his house. When Omer reached the house, he knocked on the door and was greeted by a woman, probably the man's wife.

"I'm trying to get home from the war and am really hungry. Please, do you have any food you can spare? Please, I have not eaten in days," pleaded Omer.

The woman smiled and invited him to sit down. She brought him some water and a bowl of rice. "I know it's not much, but you can share what we have."

Meanwhile, the man came out from one of the other rooms.

"I know you – you are the man who gave me water!" he exclaimed.

Omer looked up, and carefully inspected the man's face. Sure enough, this was the man who had gulped down all his water when he was in Kutahya. Omer nodded in agreement.

"You're not here to arrest me, are you?" asked the man.

Omer looked at him puzzled. "No, both my brothers have been martyred, so their discharged me. I'm going home."

The man looked relieved. "I'm sorry for running away from you earlier, but when I saw you in the soldier's uniform, I thought they might have sent you after me. I couldn't stand the conditions anymore, so I escaped from my unit and came home early. I am a deserter," he said, ashamed.

But all Omer could think about was the delicious bowl of rice in front of him. He hungrily finished off the last grains of rice.

"Look, I hear you are headed towards the city. Take my horse and leave him with Haci Mehmet when you get to Corum. My friend will return the horse to me when he comes to visit."

Omer thanked the man over and over again for helping him. "Who would have guessed that one day we would meet again, and that the man to whom I gave my water would one day save my life?"