Monday, April 25, 2011

They Were Only Boys

The atmosphere in the city today is electric. Walking to work, I couldn't help but grin. Bag pipes and drums blaring, people still marching even though it's pissing down, rosemary tucked into suits, old men dressed in their Sunday best... God love Anzac Day. It made me think of something I wrote a few years ago. For our final uni assessment we had to write a travel memoir, this piece is from my trip to Gallipoli in December 2008... 
The Call to Prayer wakes me from my sleep. Usually, being woken at 5am I’d be cranky but the humming echoes of the chants are soothing. I drift in and out of sleep, relishing the noise. It gives me goose bumps. There’s something about the Call to Prayer that calms me. The whole city comes together for those few minutes and I feel so far away from home, but in a good way. 
However this time I am woken by the incessant rustling of plastic bags. And I am cranky. It’s a piercing knife to my ear, rudely interrupting my pleasant slumber. What kind of an idiot wraps their belongings in hundreds of plastic bags and thinks, “yes, this method will be so considerate to my sleeping room mates at 6am.”
I don’t have the guts to tell him to shut up. Instead I lie there, plotting Mr Plastic Bag Man’s slow and painful death. Perhaps I’ll suffocate him with one of his bags. I throw in a few dramatic huffs and puffs and eventually he gets the message. That’s right Mr Plastic Bag Man, don’t mess with me when I’m sleeping. 
You see, I need a good sleep. Today I am leaving my beloved Istanbul. I’ve been here for ten days but already it feels like home. I’ll miss the chaotic atmosphere of the city, the eager merchants trying to sell their goods and flog off a ‘discounted’ rug with every purchase. No, I do not need a rug with my lunch thank you very much.
I’ll miss the creamy salep that’s made from crushed orchard bulbs. I drink it daily from copper pots. It is like drinking a cloud. I’ll miss getting lost in The Grand Bazaar. I’ll miss the exotic smells of the Spice Bazaar. I’ll miss the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the hundreds of minarets that pierce the sky. I’ll miss the view of the Bosphourous from my hostel window, the pristine blue sea that connects Europe and Asia. I’ll miss the evil eyes pinned on every second person and the sweet smell of apple shisha that floats about the city. Oh Istanbul, you make my heart skip a beat. 
It is time to move on; I am bound for Çanakkale. It’s a six hour bus ride and on the southern Asian coast of the Dardanelles. Tomorrow I am going to Gallipoli. I wouldn’t classify myself as extremely patriotic and I cringe when I see Southern Cross tattoos on pseudo patriots who like to bash up anyone who isn't “Aussie” by their definition. But I do feel a sense of duty to pay my respects to the fallen soldiers. I don’t think I could go to Turkey and not visit Gallipoli

The concept of war has always been ingrained in our family’s minds. Both my Grandparents fought in World War Two and Desi, my Dad’s Dad was a Prisoner of War for three and a half years and was awarded an Order of Australia in 2002. Even though it was a different war, I know this will be an important thing to do. 
When I arrive in Çanakkale it’s mid December and it’s a ghost town. It feels odd to be in a place so far away from home with kangaroo statues erected at every corner. The hostels have names like “Anzac House” and “Crowded House” and offer Vegemite and Tim Tams. They definitely know who their target market is but at this time of year the Aussies have cleared out and I feel like I’m the only one here.  
I am greeted by my guide for the day, Anil. He is healthily robust, has salt and pepper grey hair, an infectious smile and is instantly likeable. We drive up into the jagged cliffs and I realise how harsh the terrain is. Anil is a living encyclopaedia of Gallipoli knowledge. 
“The poor buggers had to get up these hills with thirty kilogram rucksacks,” he says. You can tell he makes and effort to try and sound Australian, he loves using words like ‘mate’ and ‘fair dinkum’. I feel relaxed in his presence. 
We come to the first mass Australian grave and Anil waits in the car. It is eerie to be alone. The wind makes my face cold and the sea crashes into the shore. I have goose bumps. Olive trees and rosemary bushes line the garden. Despite the wind, everything is somehow still. I begin to read the plaques out loud. I take solace in their words. ‘Lost to sight, to memory dear,’ one says.
I am appalled at how young these so called men were. 18, 19 and 20, I see these ages again and again. I see these numbers too many times.  I could spend all day here and this is just the first site. My eyes well up when I read ‘a mother’s mind often wanders to this sad and lonely place.’ The lump in my throat gets bigger when I see ‘loving youngest son’, on countless plaques. They were not men, they were only boys. 
I look out to the ocean. I watch the hazy line where the topaz green sea blends into the fiery orange horizon, and I cannot begin to imagine the bloodshed that took place. I am so far removed from the notion of war and here I am, Little Miss Ignorant who is usually tucked safely away in good old Australia, crying. I feel selfish and silly but I am overwhelmed. The idea of war has just become real. 
Anil then takes me to Anzac Cove, where the Australian and New Zealanders accidentally landed on the 25th.
“It was biiiiiig disaster”, he says.
Anil then passionately explains his belief in the purity of the human spirit. “Even in war we care for our enemies, many beautiful story of Aussie and Turk caring for mates when wounded. At end of day, we all mates, right?” He says as he walks me over to a statue.
I have seen this statue countless times on television. To be standing in front of it is more moving than I anticipated.  A Turkish solider is carrying a wounded Anzac solider. The power and significance of this statue hits me like a bullet. I instinctively put my hand to my chest and breathe. I will never forget this statue, it will forever be etched in my mind.  
“Here look at this.” Anil summons me over, snatching me from my trance-like state. He is holding what appears to be a bullet. 
“Even 94 years later they are still turning up. There are thousands of them. You keep,” he says.  
I hold the silver ball in my palm. I wonder if it belonged to the Turks or to us? I wonder if it missed its target. If their life was saved, or simply taken seconds later by another bullet with a better aim? I am holding a tiny morsel of history. 
We drive off and Anil cranks the music. My heart is pounding and I am trying to digest what I have seen while the obnoxiously happy lyrics infiltrate my thoughts. Anil taps the steering wheel and wiggles his bottom. 
“I love the George Michaels!” He says. “Freeeeedom! What you want? Freeeeedom!” He sings along.
I have just been to Gallipoli, where thousands of my countrymen perished and now I am listening to George Michael. What on earth would the teenagers of 1915 buried here make of this? 
That night, back at my hostel I read over the founder of the Turkish Republic, Attaturk’s words to the mothers whose sons died at Gallipoli. 
‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.’
These words show the pointlessness of war. They were only boys snatched away from their families. For the third time that day, my skin is awash with goose bumps.

One of my favourite photos from my trip


  1. Simply that is beautiful!!

  2. I had never seen this, Bella - beautiful writing. If there IS a god, Desi will be smiling down on you. And Toots would agree with me: if women ran the world, there would be no wars...


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