Turkey: in the tracks of the soldiers

COMMEMORATION – Commemorate a war and fallen soldiers? In Turkey they go a bit further than two minutes of silence. Turkish scouts, for example, re-live the ice-cold conditions endured by their soldiers in the eastern mountains of the country. Fatih (16), high in the mountains in the snow: ‘The soldiers really had a tough time.’

In Turkey it’s not about the commemoration of soldiers from the Second World War, like in our country, because Turkey didn’t take part in that war. But the country did fight in the First World War (1914-1918), and an important battle close to the city or Erzurum in eastern Turkey is always commemorated in December and January.
Turkey was not yet the country it is now. At the time the Ottoman Empire still existed, you could call it Turkey’s predecessor. The Ottoman army fought against (amongst others) the Russians in what is now eastern Turkey.

During one battle, which lasted from December 1914 to January 1915 and which the Ottomans lost, tens of thousands of soldiers died, many of them because they were ill prepared for the cold and snow in the mountains. In several places in the eastern provinces of Erzurum and Kars there are mass graves of soldiers, and one of these is the destination for 45 scouts. They walk to the grave starting from an almost abandoned mountain village, and the night before and after they sleep in the snow in a tent.

No good equipment

Elif (18) says she came along to the camp to experience history. ‘We learn about it at school, but that’s only information from a book. Here we can try to feel a little bit what the soldiers felt, to show our respect.’

That’s difficult, she immediately admits. Because the soldiers didn’t have proper clothes and blankets and in those days the area was covered with a thick layer of snow, while the scouts now do have good equipment and there is only a thin layer of snow this year.
But for Fatih (16) especially, that huge difference makes the experience so important: ‘I slept a little bit in the tent last night, but I was so cold! Especially then you think of how hard it must have been for the soldiers: it was colder then, and they had nothing.’

In the morning the group heads for the mass grave, about one and a half hour’s walk from the abandoned mountain village where they made their camp. They walk in a neat line behind a Turkish flag and a scouting flag. They don’t speak during the walk.
As they get higher, the snow gets thicker, and the sun shines brightly. Sun glasses are obligatory, or black charcoal streaks underneath the eyes, because they block the harmful reflections of the sun. At the grave the group gets a history lesson, they are silent for two minutes and sing the national anthem. Then they walk back, also in silence.

Turkish folk songs

At night, when everybody groups together by the heater in an abandoned house, the experiences of a hundred years ago are talked through. What can you learn from it? It’s mainly about staying warm, helping each other, weighing risks. That’s also why sun glasses or charcoal was obligatory: in difficult circumstances you should avoid every unnecessary risk. It’s also forbidden to group around the heater with a few people, because then you block the heat reaching the rest of the group. After the ‘lesson’ songs are sung. Turkish folk songs. A perfect way to stay warm!

‘I found it all very impressive’, says Elif, when the weekend is almost over. ‘Our ancestors fought for us then, and it’s good to keep that memory alive.’

The Battle of Sarikamiş
The battle that the scouts commemorate is known as the Battle of Sarikamiş. Armies of the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire  fought each other. The Russians were largely supported by the Armenians, a people that lived in the region in both Empires. After the battle was won by the Russians, the suspicion against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire increased. Eventually the leaders of the Ottoman Empire deported and killed a large part of the Armenian community. In those days an estimated one million Armenians lost their lives. These events are known in many countries as ‘the Armenian genocide’. The Battle of Sarikamiş is seen as an important lead-up to this ‘genocide’.
Turkey thinks differently about what happened. The events can’t be called ‘genocide’, because they say the Ottomans didn’t have the intention to exterminate the whole of the Armenian people. The discussion is still a source of a lot of conflict. From time to time the tensions rise between Armenia and Turkey, and also between Turkey on one side and the United States and several European countries on the other about recognition of the ‘genocide’.

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