Walk to the fallen soldiers

After one and a half hours of walking silently in the snow, the group arrives at a mass grave. The grave is old, the group is young: 45 boy and girl scouts are here to pay their respects to Ottoman soldiers who froze to death in the Battle of Sarikamis, fought in December 1914 and January 1915. ‘There is not much I can do for them’, says 26 year old Çağla as she warms up later by a fire. ‘I can only try to experience a little bit of what they experienced, and pay respects at their grave.’

Çağla is one of the oldest in the group: most are between 14 and 25. They are part of a group of 250 scouts from all over Turkey who visit the small village of Bardiz in the eastern province of Erzurum every year to attend an official ceremony marking the deaths at Sarikamis. A small group leaves Bardiz the day before the ceremony and they walk seven kilometres up into the mountains for a special commemoration. Tents on their backs, and sleeping bags that will keep them warm in temperatures reaching minus 20 degrees Celsius. By sleeping in tents in the snow and by walking to the mass grave in the mountains, they try to experience history and feel more closely connected to the soldiers who defended the former Ottoman Empire. The camp is organized under the name ‘We walk to the fallen soldiers’.

It’s considered an honour to be in this group of 45, and the youngsters behave accordingly. There are no fights or even quarrels in the group, the atmosphere is serious, everybody is helpful towards everybody, songs are sung in harmony and during the walk there is no sound heard other than scrunching shoes in the snow. At the grave there is silence too, a history lesson from one of the scoutmasters and then the scouts sing the national anthem.

The history lesson is interesting: the Ottomans lost the Battle of Sarikamis rather dramatically. Nobody is sure how many soldiers died, but estimates vary between 40,000 to as many as 90,000. It is said about 30,000 Russian soldiers died. Sarikamis was on Russian territory at the time, which gave the Russians a huge logistic advantage since it had a railway station. The Ottomans were poorly equipped, had no proper winter gear (some regiments came straight from Tunisia and had only summer uniforms) and the strategy of commander Ismail Enver wasn’t well thought through.

Considering the fact that Turks love to sing praise over their victories and are not always good at admitting mistakes or failures, it seems a bit odd to revive the memory of this particular one. Hasan Subasi, head of the Turkish Scouting Federation, who started this event when he became head of the Federation in 2004, explains: ‘The Ottomans lost this battle, but that gives you a chance to learn. That’s what we discuss here: if you want to reach a goal, how will you plan it properly and, for example, get your logistics in order?’

In an evening session all sorts of practical things are discussed: how to weigh the risks of an expedition you want to undertake, how to stay warm when it’s cold, how to help each other in difficult circumstances. And human rights are discussed too, more specifically the ethics of war. No killing of civilians, no use of chemical weapons, no killing of unarmed soldiers.

It’s a relief to see historical events placed in a certain context that is not only nationalist, but which turns mistakes of the past to useful lessons for today. These are not the messages of politicians, of official ceremonies and of state museums that endlessly repeat the glory of the Ottomans and Turks. These are just young people trying to feel history. Okay, they are members of a big organisation that is not critical of the state and that is nationalistic too (this is Turkey, what can we do?), but still, the young men and women are genuinely grateful to be in this camp and they practice what they preach: friendship, proper behaviour, respect for nature, respect for their country.

For me, besides being an impressive experience, this is a wonderful opportunity to write about the Turkish traumas of the First World War for Dutch media. I’ve been wanting to do that for years, but couldn’t really find a good angle or a good lead, nor much interest from the magazines I write for, as you can read in a former blog post here. I think this is finally my chance to write and actually sell this story.

Then there will be at least some balance in my reporting about historic events in 1915. I’ve often published stories about that period of time, but only from another angle. Remember, we are talking about the commemoration of events that evolved at the beginning of the First World War in an area that is now eastern Turkey. Yes, exactly the time something else happened in this region: the mass killings of Armenians, referred to by many people outside Turkey as the ‘genocide’. It is never ever a problem to sell a story about that. Armenians sell, so to say.

But the Turks have a story about this area too, and I think it’s a story worth telling. It’s not only about fallen soldiers, but also about killed civilians. I had a talk about that with the scouts and their scouters, and stories were being told of families being murdered by Armenians rebelling against the Ottoman state. About the mass killings of Armenians they all strongly defend the state version of the events (that is written down here by the Turkish Coalition of America), and I expected nothing else. But does that make the story of the Turks less interesting? I don’t think so. I wonder what Dutch media will say.

I will keep you posted and hope to publish an extensive story about this that will of course be published here too. You, dear readers, will get a special treat later this week: I made a video, and I will edit it and publish it here. The first mail to a Dutch magazine has been sent. Let’s see if I can give the scouts and their experiences, emotions and history a face in the Netherlands!

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