A year has passed since I went to a wedding in Beytüşşebap and promised to return with an interpreter. Now there's a new baby and Denize is getting married to her cousin in Van. Only four months ago she had dressed up in her khaki guerrilla clothes and Kurdish neck scarf to have our picture taken together. She swore she would never marry. I was alarmed, thinking she might run off to the Qandil mountains to join the PKK.
When I asked, she explained the clothes were only a costume for wedding parties. She assured me she would never leave her parents like that. Then she showed me photos of four of her school girlfriends who had gone to the mountains and joined the PKK. They were nineteen. She showed me a handsome boy. "He was killed last year. He was my close friend. I will never marry," she said with tears in her eyes.
I bribe Farhan to go with me to Beytüşşebap to interpret by promising to pay him. I suggest he bring his wife, but he is vehement in his refusal. "I will never take my wife to meet a Kurdish woman. I hate all Kurds. I do not trust them."
"You are wrong, It is the PKK and the Kurds who have saved you. They feed you. They give you clothes and shelter from their own pockets without one dollar of government help. If it weren't for the Kurds, you would be dead," I lecture him for the hundredth time. "The Kurds in Turkey are different from the Peshmerga in Iraq."
But he will not be swayed. We take a three-hour bus ride on winding roads into the mountains of Beytüşşebap.
I point out the flocks of sheep on the mountain meadows in the early morning light. "I miss my sheep," is all Farhan will say with a forlorn longing. The Islamic State stole all 112 of his sheep after the August 3, 2014, attack.
Autumn has turned the leaves golden yellow. The bus turns off the main road and snakes its way upward along a rushing river. We are eye level with the clouds. Farhan has motion sickness all the way from Sirnak which turns into painful dry heaves by the time we arrive.
The Kurdish political party in Sirnak has arranged for the DBP party leader in Beytüşşebap, Hazim Cin, to meet us. Our bus driver delivers us to his house. In Kurdistan, the Party protects all guests, passing them along from one person to the next like a Robin's egg. No harm must come to a visitor. Each visitor must be wrapped in the warmth and security of Kurdish hospitality. In this way they also monitor all outside visitors. Kurds have been infiltrated and betrayed so many times; now they are vigilant.
Farhan translates while curled up on the floor, under a blanket, recovering from dry heaves. His face is flushed and damp with perspiration. He wants to sleep, but I remind him we came here to work. Like a professional, he translates in a prone position with his head near the warmth of the coal-burning stove. After an extravagant lunch in our honor, Hazim helps me complete the list of 35 villages and farms that were evacuated and burned in Beytüşşebap by the Turkish government in the early 1990s.
He studies my list of 18 villages, then writes down another 17 villages. The villages are no longer on any map. They live on only in peoples' collective memories, giving Kurds the steel determination to resist oppression in the face of death. Only the town of Beytüşşebap itself was spared destruction. They will never be listed in a Turkish history school book.
Beri Kişli 1
Beri Kişli 2
Gova Mala Haci
In these staggering mountains, sunset comes by 4 PM and the deep canyons fall into blue shadow. Abdul arrives to pick us up. Farhan, who has not been able to eat, is now trembling and pale as a ghost, so Abdul drives us straight to the hospital. Farhan is immediately seen by a young female doctor from Adana who hooks him up with an IV drip in his arm. When he shows his plastic ID card issued by Turkey and explains he is Yazidi, she treats him for free.
Her sympathy is so unlike the disapproving demeanor of western Turks that I comment on it. She explains that her parents are Alevis whose town was violently attacked and forcibly displaced in 1978 from Sivas by nationalist extremists. She grew up listening to the Alevis' oral history.
While Farhan is resting, the doctor chats with me in very good English. This is her first assignment since finishing medical school. She has been here only two months. I explain I am writing a book about Kurdistan, but have not been able to finish it in nearly three years.
"I understand," she says. "In these mountains the story is never finished. Here, every day brings a new story. The story in Kurdistan keeps getting bigger." She peeks in at Farhan who is now awake. "You may as well take him home now. That drip will last until morning."
We bundle Farhan into the pickup truck along with the stand to hold the IV drip. Abdul drives us carefully up the steep, rutted road toward Meydan. A truck has slipped sideways on the muddy road leaving barely enough room for us to pass. I suck in my breath and squeeze my eyes shut as we creep past the truck with not a foot of extra road between us and the gorge.
"The government refuses to give us a paved road to our village," Abdul explains.
Abdul's family gathers at the door to greet me with bear hugs like a returning favorite aunt. His wife gives me the baby to inspect, and I produce my gift of baby socks. His older brother, Yakup Aslan, and their mother have walked through the mud from Yakup's house to meet with me. I open my notebook and record each person's name and age so I can learn them. Abdul has seven children under the age of 15. The baby is two months old.
I introduce Farhan and explain he is Yazidi and his family is now living in Sirnak Yazidi refugee camp in one small room. After dinner we begin our storytelling. They ask Farhan about the attack on Shingal Mountain. No Yazidis came to their remote mountain village, so they are eager to hear what happened. He adjusts his arm which is still attached to the IV drip.
"I was working in Dohuk when Daesh attacked Shingal on August 3 (2014) at 2 AM. People woke up in the morning to discover the Peshmerga, who were supposed to be defending us, had left during the night. My parents, my brother, wife and kids fled in the car to Shingal Mountain where they left the car then walked three hours up on the mountain. They had no food or water, so the next day my father went in search of food in an abandoned village. He was driving his car toward a village when he saw Daesh gangs on the road ahead of him, so he drove his car into a ditch and slumped over the steering wheel pretending he was dying in a car accident.
"So Daesh did not touch him. After they left, he returned to the mountain without food. The next day he went again and succeeded at buying food in a shop and returning to the mountain. I was in touch with them by phone and had their coordinates. So I downloaded a map of Shingal Mountain from Google Earth and drove to the Syrian border, then drove to the base of Shingal Mountain. This was before the mountain was completely surrounded by Daesh forces; before everyone was trapped on the mountain.
" I climbed up and found them. We slept one night, then I brought them to my uncle's home on the mountain. He has a garden with grapes and figs. At 3 AM, we walked off the mountain in the dark. I carried my six-month-old baby on my shoulders and held the hand of my two-year-old boy.
"We walked from 3 AM to 3 PM in 44C heat to the Syrian border. At the border, the PKK put us in a car and sent us to Zakho. From there we walked up the mountain and slept three nights in a PKK camp. They gave everyone food and water and blankets. But we had only two blankets for six of us, because there were 3,500 Yazidis waiting to cross into Turkey.
"During the night the PKK guided us to the mountain border and we walked into Turkey where we were met by people from Roboski. They put the people who couldn't walk in cars and on mules. We walked nine hours to the school. After one night, buses took us to Sirnak. Now six of us live in one little room. We all made it. We are safe, thanks to the PKK. If it wasn't for the PKK, we'd all be dead.
"We left behind everything: four houses, one car, one pickup truck, 111 sheep, and two kilos of gold. That is about $76,000 dollars. Now I cannot afford a pack of cigarettes. They gave me a pair of used shoes, but they leak. I am ashamed to ask for another pair. Who will help us? I don't know.
"My uncle's house was near the mountain in Judela. It was worth $30,000 dollars. Daesh blew it up. Now my uncle is in a camp in Dohuk. Their tent was flooded last week.
"I don't care about anything but my computer. It had all my photos on it . . . all my memories of my life. Photos of my childhood. Photos of my mother holding me, of my wedding day. Photos of my house, my city Tel Azer, my school mates growing up, high school graduation. Photos of when I worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army during the war. Photos of when I was given awards for my performance. . . when my first son was born. I have lost all my memories. That is the worst. I have nothing now. How can I ever start over when I do not have a lire in my pocket? I was always strong for my wife. Now, what can I do?"
Abdul's wife shifts the baby on her lap and reaches over to squeeze Farhan's hand. "You have your children. We will be your family, too, here in Turkey."
At this gesture, Farhan wipes a tear from his eye. It is the kindness of strangers that always disarms us.
Yakup and Abdul's mother pours tea for everyone while Abdul's daughter sets out plates of sliced apples for desert.
I turn to Yakup, "I have waited one year to hear your story, Yakup, about what happened here 20 years ago. Finally, I have Farhan here to translate. Will you tell us?"
"We used to live in Feraşin, up in the highlands with our sheep," he begins. "Oh, Feraşin is like paradise. In the spring the river is full from melting snow. The wild flowers are a yellow carpet. In June everything is green and the grass is high. You must come back to visit next summer and stay in our tent. All the houses have been destroyed. Now we open our tents up there to live in the summer with our sheep, but back then, when I was a young man, our village was there.
"We were one of the last villages in Beytüşşebap that the soldiers destroyed. It was September 1995."
Farhan is translating. He reacts to Yakup's story with an "Oh" and another "Oh" and another. Each sentence wounds him. Yakup's voice trails off. Everyone is silent. Yakup's mother picks up the story and continues.
I have to prod Farhan to translate, "What? Tell me." His eyes are glistening.
"They bombed around the edge of Feraşin for ten days with Cobra helicopters. Also, the helicopters were used to deliver four or five thousand soldiers. They were bombing near our sheep and killing some. Each day they would come to us after bombing and pressure the men to join the Village Guard to fight the PKK, but the men refused, so the next day they would bomb again. They told us we were protecting the PKK, so they had to destroy our village. They promised to build us new houses if we would join the Village Guard. They tried every kind of threat and promise, but no one would join the Village Guard.
"Finally, after ten days of bombing, the soldiers came to us with their guns and ordered us to leave. They threatened to burn us alive inside our houses if we did not leave. They forced us out of our houses with only the clothes on our backs.
"The soldiers beat and kicked the men down. It was terrible. They stomped on top of their bodies until the men were nearly dead and could not move. They accused them of being PKK, but this was not true. We were all shepherds. Feraşin had only 1,000 people with over 100,000 sheep and cows. Our family had 500 sheep. We had a good life in Feraşin. It was our Shangri-La. They burned all the houses with everything we owned.
"They stole our animals and said it was because the sheep belonged to the PKK, but this was a lie. The sheep belonged to civilians. All our wealth was in our animals and our land. How could we start over without them?
"We left without even carrying any food with us. The United Nations had made two tent cities that the soldiers ran. One was named Kanimasi. It was 5 km from our village and had 200 or 300 tents. It was created in 1992. Every year in the early 1990s, Turkey was destroying the villages in Beytuşşebap and sending the people to these tent camps. Feraşin was last. All 300 families from Feraşin walked to Kanimasi.
"The soldiers gave us two pieces of bread and two kilos of sugar per family. They enforced a food embargo on Kurds from here all the way north to Erzurum and Kars. We were allowed barely enough food each month not starve to death, but not enough to give to the PKK. They warned us not to let the PKK enter the camp.
"Eventually the families moved away to Sirnak, Mersin, Adana, Van, Entebe, and Hakkari. We stayed four months in a tent then moved to Mersin. We worked for Turks and were poor. About 4,000 people moved to Iraq. Our tribe is called Gewdan Aşıret. It has 40,000 people; about half still live in Turkey. My grandfather was named Zoradeşt. He was famous.
"Only fifteen families joined the Village Guard and moved into the town of Beytuşşebap which had not been bombed. The soldiers promised to build them new houses, but broke their promise. After five or ten years, they finally built this village, Meydan, and gave a house to each Village Guard family."
I am disturbed at this discovery, but try not to show my alarm. "If you moved to Mersin and this is a Village Guard village, then why are you living here now?"
Yakup picks up the story from his mother.
"We got tired of working for Turks in Mersin. In 2004, Prime Minister Erdoğan said we could return to our villages. What villages? They were destroyed, but we missed Feraşin, so in 2008, we returned. We came back to our memories. My brother, Abdul, bought this house from a Village Guard. The Village Guard moved away because people do not like them. They are not safe here anymore.
"Now Kurds are very strong. We do not want Village Guards living among us. Maybe there are a few left here. Maybe some people work secretively for the government and don't wear a uniform. We have to be careful. If it was not for the Village Guard system, the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds would not have lasted more than five years. The PKK would have finished this problem.
"I bought some land and built my house near Abdul's house. We are poor here, but it is our home, our culture, our land. We will never give it up. We can speak our own language here. What can Turkey do to us now? They already destroyed everything we had. We have nothing to fear, because we have nothing more to lose. Only last year they stopped shooting at us from that military outlook up on the mountain.
Now Yakup is telling his story for Farhan. He has forgotten me. We all have damp eyes. Yakup's mother looks at Farhan, and gently says, "You see, Farhan, Beytüşşebap was our Shingal. We understand very well what happened to you. We have to save Yazidis even if we have nothing ourselves."
Abdul's wife disappears into her bedroom and returns with a beautiful green velvet dress for cold winter days and a big bulky pullover sweater to match. "This is for your wife," she says. He refuses, but she insists with a lie, "I don't wear it anymore."
"I will bring my wife to visit you," he replies and gives her a one-armed hug.
"Come back in August for our sheep-shearing festival (Kuzu Kırpma). Thousands of Kurds come from all over the country to sing and dance and share our memories of what they did to us in the 1990s. Our memory grows stronger every year, even without photos."
The next week Farhan changed his Facebook banner from a blue peacock to a red background with a yellow starburst representing the Yazidi flag and colors of Kurdistan.
The day after I visited Beytüşşebap, the Sirnak Foreign Police noted my visit in the computer system and placed a secret entry ban against me. My application to renew my residence permit was denied without a reason. Secretly I was told it was because of my "Kurdish politics" and writing. I filed my appeal of the entry ban and denial of my residence permit in Turkish administrative court on March 13, 2015. I continue to write about Kurds and Yazidis from outside of Turkey.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey has dropped to number 154 out of 180 countries in its 2014 Press Freedom Index. Foreign journalists in Turkey have been silenced through fear of losing their residence permit or actual deportation and banning. These bans often come without explanation.