SEVGİ ZÜBEYDE GÜRBÜZ / writing

The Match that Burned the Forest

by Sevgi Zubeyde Gurbuz

We had been waiting for hours for them to come, lying in ambush, trying not to twitch even the smallest muscle, lest it give away our position. The bitter cold night air of the mountains cut through my body like a thousand razors across my skin. My hands were chapped, almost frozen stuck to my rifle.

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 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 to greet this vile enemy that has sucked the blood of my country like a ruthless vampire for the last twenty years. Average citizens have to suffer through news reports of our martyred soldiers and video footage of interviews with terrorist supporters unable to fight back or do anything about it. But I was in a different boat. I could put out this forest fire, ripping apart the matches that started it one by one. Every bullet I thrust into the heart of one of these devils was a step in the right direction, and I yearned for a chance to take revenge. Not just revenge for the murdered villagers, teachers, doctors and soldiers…but for my brother too!

I missed my family. My wife, my baby…

My wife gave birth to our first child just two days ago. I was a father now, and my commander was real kind to let me take leave two weeks later to go visit them. In just two weeks I could hold, smell, and kiss my little boy.

We had decided to name him Mustafa – “the chosen one” – after the Prophet Muhammed and one of the greatest Turkish leaders of our time, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Mustafa! I closed my eyes and imagined my son as he grew up. One instant I pictured him learning to walk, and the next instant I dreamed about us playing soccer together.

Children grow up fast; one day they are just babies, and the next day they are falling in love, getting married and having children of their own. I had already missed his first two days…I wondered what he looked like. Did he get my wife’s beautiful brown eyes, or my green ones?

I smiled unconsciously at these happy thoughts, and glanced down at my watch. There was a little more than two hours left until sunrise. Just two more hours, and I could clean up the scum that dirtied this sacred land. There is a saying: “A nation can only be saved if the moral are more courageous than the immoral.” Well, I joined the army to add my weight to the side of justice.

I’ll never forget the day they killed my brother.

It was just after the afternoon prayers, and I was helping my father unpack some of the new goods that had just arrived. Apples, oranges, grapes…cucumbers, lettuce, and parsley – the smell of the fresh fruits and vegetables gave the store a wondrously uplifting scent.

I was just emptying one of the crates when two heavy-built, sour-faced men came to our store. One of them stayed outside and pretended to look at the melons, while the other carefully examined the store and then approached my father, looking him directly in the eye with a stone-cold gaze.

“I’ve come for the money.”

“I don’t have any debt except a debt to God for my life. I especially don’t have a debt to such ungodly gangsters like you. You tell your boss he’ll never get anything from me!” said my father, unshaken by the aggressive nature of the visitors.

“Look, old man, don’t make things harder for yourself then they need be. You don’t know what you’re talking about, if you’re walking safe and sound in this town its not because of God but because we let you! One day this land is going to be freed from oppression and everyone’s got to do their part. You’ve got two sons old enough to fight, but here they are instead counting apples. What kind of citizen are you? 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 furious. This was too much. He had worked his whole life to finally own and operate his own store, and now these hoodlums were trying to steal the fruits of his labor. How dare they march into his store wielding such threats? Who did they think they were? He’d seen enough of the PKK and their tactics.

First just one or two young men had come to our village, pleading for food and shelter. We knew they were being pursued for illegal activities against the government, but no one had the heart to turn away these hungry men. In time more and more began to come, and soon they were not just asking for supplies and other aid, but were demanding it. Families who did not want to get involved were threatened and forced into submission. What’s worse was that no one could go to the police for help anymore; because of their past aid, everyone was afraid that they would be accused of illegal activities as well. Thus, the PKK began building up their organization in our village. Our youth were fed heroic stories of life as a guerrilla in the mountains, and promises were made for a better life. The government was blamed for all the problems of the region, and our people were told that if we separated from central government, we would be able to live as “first class citizens” and be wealthy. Orphans and street children in the big cities were the first to be targeted, followed by unemployed youth. Parents begged their children not to go since they were afraid that they would be killed or end up in jail, but what could you expect from energetic youth who were misguided and lashing out against their lot in life?

My father did not want that kind of a future for us. He did not want us to go into the mountains, just to return in a body bag. Yes, the region had problems, but the solution was not fighting the army, or killing innocent doctors, teachers, and civil servants. How could any good come from injustice and murder?

My father saw the solution in education and hard work. “Go to school and save yourself, then you can come back and save the village.” he would say. He was not so much angry at the government as he was at the rich village aghas and businessmen who never invested in their hometown.

It’s not that my father was unafraid of what the PKK might do to him for his insubordination. But being part of the problem seemed like a worse fate. My father would always remind us: “From one tree, a million matches can be made. But it only takes one match to burn a million trees. I would rather have one match burn than a million trees.”

And so we burned…

Shortly after these two unwelcome visitors left, we were jarred by the sound of machine gun fire and shattering glass. Instinctively, I dove behind the countertop and my father jumped on my mother to push her away from the exposed front of the store and shield her from debris. My mother was gripped in panic and despair as she shrieked the name of my younger brother, “Yusuuuuuuf!” “My son! Yusuuuufffff!”

My mother fought to break the grasp of my father, who still had her pinned on the floor. Yusuf had been playing just outside the front of the store with his friends. My mother went crazy with the thought of Yusuf’s body being riddled with dozens of bullets, lying in a pool of blood. But my father was right, until the gunfire stopped there was nothing we could do for him.

The anguished screams of my mother together with the noises of destruction all around us made me cower in fear on the floor. Suddenly an even greater explosion jolted me like a dagger piercing my heart, and all became silent. Even my mother was so shocked that she stopped crying, wrapping her arms around my father, unable to fathom what had just happened. We looked at each other for a moment before cautiously getting up and walking outside.

The car parked across the street had just blown up in a tower of flames. The heat and fumes from the fire scorched my eyes, which I was forced to close and shield with my arm. As I turned my face away, I snatched a peek at the surroundings. 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, 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. I saw Neriman Teyze collapse on the body of one of these children, gone mad with grief. Other mothers were swaying back and forth, pressing the bloody remains against their hearts and praying as though by some miracle they could bring back the spirit of their child, now passed on into the shelter of God.

But Neriman Teyze lay still. Several neighbors went by her side to console her, only to find that she too had passed on. I later learned from the doctors that she had had a heart attack. It was just as well. No mother should have to bury her child; at least now they would be together.

Meanwhile, my mother had not yet found Yusuf, but was asking anyone she came across whether they had seen her boy. It was then that one of our village elders, Omer Emmi , invited us to speak in his home, as he had something important to say to us.

“But have you seen my Yusuf?!” exclaimed my mother. “I cannot come for tea now, can’t you see? I need to find my son!”

“I know, I know. But you can’t go running around the streets now, let the firemen and health workers do their job. Come sit down for a moment, catch your breath, compose yourself and calm down a bit. What I have to say is about Yusuf, but we can’t talk here.” said Omer Emmi, in a calm, soothing voice.

We quickly walked to Omer Emmi’s home, where he offered us a glass of water to drink.

“I saw your son playing outside with the other children. When the shooting started, they all scattered in different directions, looking for a place to hide. Nearly all the kids were gunned down before they could find shelter. But not Yusuf, no, he was not shot…” Omer Emmi paused in his narrative, sighing and looking down at the carpet.

My father: “Brother, we don’t think Yusuf was shot, his body was not among those of the other children, like you say. So either he got scared and ran off, or was kidnapped by the terrorists.”

“No, he was not kidnapped.” whispered Omer Emmi. “He did not run off.”

My mother was impatient, and became angry at Omer Emmi for not quickly coming out and saying what happened to Yusuf. “If you know what happened to Yusuf, come tell me. Stop just sitting there wasting our time –“

My father scolded her, his deep bass voice harsh and booming. “Serife! Be quiet and listen, we are lucky even to find a witness.” Then, politely to Omer Emmi: “I am sorry, please continue.”

Omer Emmi looked my father straight in the eye. “My friend, I don’t know how I am going to say this; I was trying to break it to you the easiest way possible. But there is no good way of bringing bad news, so I will just come out and say it. Yusuf took cover in one of the cars parked along the street.” Omer Emmi paused again before sighing and finally blurting out: “He was in the car that blew up…”

My eyes moistened as I remembered that day. I cleared my eyes with the cuff of my sleeve. I shouldn’t be thinking of these things now, in the middle of an operation, but sometimes I can’t help it. Mustafa’s birth has made me more emotional, I guess. I didn’t want my son to have the same fate as my brother. Either I was going to make these terrorists pay for what they’ve done to my people, or I was going to die trying and rest forever in the sweet sacred land of my forefathers.

Death…

I talked about death a lot before I married my wife. “Do you know how difficult it will be to be the wife of a commando? Are you going to be able to live without me for months at a time? If I am killed, will you be able to withstand this pain?” I had to be sure that she was prepared for the road ahead of us; otherwise, I would be leading both of us to unhappiness.

Her reply amazed me. She looked me straight in the eye, with those gentle brown eyes, and without any hesitation at all, courageously but softly said, “Yes.”

“My love, you are part of my soul; even if you are far away, I know that in spirit you are always by my side. Do you really think that you are fighting alone? Don’t be silly – wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be by your side always. I will love you until the end of time, and not even death will part us. What should I say to you about death? For your country, for your family, sometimes you have to take that final step into certain death. Because if you don’t, who will? Do not worry, my dear. If death knocks on our door, then so be it. Let us die, let us die together – I will take that final step with you.”

Now that’s a real commando’s wife!

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 and led the way down, towards the villages.

I went after him in pursuit, periodically hiding behind a rock, a tree, or just lying flat among the leaves to avoid getting hit. When we came to the creek, however, his good fortunes turned, for now there was nowhere to hide. Retreat, and he would turn right into the barrel of my gun. Advance, and he would have to dash across the clearing surrounding the creek to make it into the forest on the other side.

As commandos we are taught to first try to get the enemy to surrender, then to capture them alive, and only when the situation demanded it, kill. I aimed towards his legs to cripple him, and then called out again, “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. After my next volley of shots, he dropped his gun to the ground, clenching his wounds. Though wounded, he still had enough strength to give me a piece of his mind. “You bastard! Esogluesek! Do you think I will ever surrender to you and your venomous army! You murderer! You suck the blood of my people but we will never stop! You can kill me, go ahead! In my place tens, hundreds more will come to take my vengence! You don’t belong on this land, in these mountains! I spit on all of you and your kind!” he said, yelling at the top of his lungs, but intermittantly gasping for breath as his body lost more and more blood.

I approached cautiously, kicking his gun away out of arm’s reach. How much hatred was in his voice. If he had the strength, he would have choked me with his own bare hands, but in his present condition all he could do was glare at me with utter dispise, ever rebellious despite his weakened state.

Now that I could see him clearly, groveling and struggling for his life here in the mud before me, I pitied him. He was just a young boy, probably not even eighteen yet. I couldn’t fathom why a boy would choose to rush towards death when he could fight for a good life – sure, times were tough, but at how could he believe that killing people would solve whatever problems he had?

Ideology...

Ideology is what makes people die for the most illogical and nonsensical “causes.” Who knows what the PKK taught him about life, his history, and his people.

Turks and Kurds have been living on this land for centuries together, and have fought under the same flag ever since the time of Yavuz Sultan Selim. Assimulation went both ways: many Kurds had learned Turkish, easily becoming part of mainstream society. And many Turkish tribes had developed such close relations with Kurds that they now spoke Kurdish as their mother-tongue, and their youth even viewed themselves as being Kurdish. Turks and Kurds were just different flavors of the same pie. Unfortunately, politics can divide even blood brothers.

I kneeled down next to the boy and searched him for any other weapons. As I bandaged his wounds, my eye got caught on 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 immediately became angry and 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 that 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.

“Yusuf”

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 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 in the car that exploded. What happened? If you were alive, why didn’t you come home? Loosing you broke their heart, nothing has been the same since.” I grew somber as I pictured my mother crying and pressing Yusuf’s picture to her bossom, praying for the strength to go on with life.

Yusuf smiled when he heard this good news, but in his eyes I could see pain mixed in with his happiness and relief. He had spent the last six years in these treacherous mountains, longing with all his heart for his family, when in fact they were not lost to him after all. It was a waste; these last six years of his life was a complete, utter waste.

“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, pulling me by my arm, and took me to his home. I felt safe there, Halil and Ismail also came by to comfort me.

Kamil Bey then left promising to go look for you. I wanted to go with him, but he warned me 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. At the time, I didn’t understand why the Gendarme would do such a thing, but I later understood as I learned more about why the government hates Kurds.”

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 bloodsuckers that attacked our store!”

As Yusuf’s world slowly came crashing down around him, I could see him become more and more disturbed. “But I saw it with my own eyes! I saw them wearing soldier’s camuflage! Kamil Bey told me that you were all dead! That you had all been killed! When Halil and Ismail went to the mountains, I went with them to get revenge!” he explained in exasperation.

“Yusuf – they lied! Don’t you understand, everything they have told you is a lie! The PKK can get soldier’s uniforms from anywhere; they wear them on purpose so they can blame the government! Don’t you see?”

Yusuf closed his eyes to shut out the world, to shut out this new reality that contradicted everything he had learned in the last six years. Perhaps the vision of the life he could have had – playing and studying near his family – was too much to bear. As for me, I had trouble accepting and coming to terms with the fact that my brother was involved with this organization. I didn’t want to think about how many soldiers he may have killed, or how many children he may have left fatherless.

“Taaak!”

A bullet whized by my head. Suddenly I was jolted back into action, whisked far away from my painful memories of the past into the lively instantaneous nature of the present.

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.

I now knew that I was going to die, and I lost all hope of ever seeing my family again. I was going to die without seeing my son, or kissing my wife. And there was no way for me to change this merciless fate. My only consolation was that now Yusuf was saved. At least now my mother, while losing one son, would gain the other.

With every heartbeat, I came closer to loosing consciousness and greeting death. People always seem to think that since you see darkness when you close your eyes, when you die you fall into darkness as well. Death is always depicted with black gloominess. On the contrary, as I fell unconscious, my surroundings seemed to brighten, and I felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders.

I now found myself once again at home. My darling wife had just woken up and was washing her face. Its ironic that she spends so much time and effort to look good, when little does she know that I am most attacted to her when her hair is still disheveled, tangled all about her head and shoulders, and she’s stuggling to wake up, yawning and rubbing her sleepy eyes.

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. My muscles ached with longing and desire, knowing that they would never be able to feel her gentle caress again.

I gently kissed her on her forehead and whispered in her ear: “My love, my life, mother of my son; I never would have wanted to cause you sorrow, but my time has come now, I must go.” At that moment, my wife looked up at a picture of me in full service-dress uniform that was hanging on the wall, her eyes turning red as tears rolled down her cheeks. Was it possible that she heard me?

I went to the cradle where my son was peacefully sleeping and carefully lifted him from his bed, so as not to wake him, gently holding him against my bossom. He was breathing quickly, but softly. Such a small, delicate creation. His minature hands and feet, so miraculously beautiful. I would be watching him from afar from now on. My dear son, my precious son Mustafa. May the evil eye never look upon you, and may you be victorious in all your battles. The duty of protecting our people now falls on your shoulders.

Having been blessed with a last visit to my son and wife, and I smiled as I now understood how right my wife had been: death could not separate us. No matter what happens, until the end of time we will be together. I placed my son back into his crib, kissed him on his forehead, and walked into the light.

THE END