It was exactly 3 years ago that J and I had picked up Kaptan June Haimoff and whisked her off on one of our adventures – this time to Ardahan Province which is hard up against the Georgian border and pretty much as far east as you can get without a stamp in your passport! Despite her years in Turkey, June has journeyed little away from the western end of the country, blaming this shortfall in her CV on her aged VW Beetle. This is a terrible slur and I’m sure the car resents it as it never seems to fail to fire up first time, every time.
Anyway, back to our tale; we were in Ardahan at this particular time to participate in a wonderful children’s reading project that our kaymakam ‘son’ had set up (of which more another time). He knows that J and I are obsessed with the ‘real Turkey’ and always arranges for us to accompany him on his visits, official and otherwise.
On this particular day we left his town and then struck out across country on barely discernable tracks. Ardahan is a place of undulating pastures, deep ravines, herds of horses and serious rain – it rains pretty much every day and this is the land of ‘40 Shades of Green’. It is also the gateway to the ancient Kingdoms of Georgia and perched atop any pinnacle of rock can be seen the remains of countless castle ruins. When seen as the sun breaks through the roiling thunder clouds these fortresses are like pictures from the dragon worlds of a fantasy novel.
We topped a small rise and there below us in the valley was Yeniköy our destination. The village has about 30 houses that sit either side of a beautiful river connected by a bridge. This was an unannounced visit but everyone knows the kaymakam’s car so we were soon surrounded and led off to the muhtar’s (village headman) house. There we were welcomed and led inside to his salon where tea was served, followed in very short order by enormous plates of fresh, young red trout from the river cooked in butter together with delicious village bread. Welcome to Yeniköy!
Meal over we were led through to the back of the house and the contrast could hardly have been greater; the salon was obviously kept for receiving guests whilst the kitchen was a wonderful great barn of a place with swept concrete floor, huge tables, a huge soba, plenty of bench seating and cats! It turned out our hosts were Alawites and by custom more tolerant of animals. Through the door at the back were the stables for cows, horses and sheep – it was a wonderfully cosy place to be.
Now, this may have been an unofficial visit but that doesn’t stop the people arriving with their petitions for this and that, and pretty soon the room was full of villagers. These people lack health or social insurance, the climate is harsh for much of the year, money is scarce and life is hard. Kaymakams have special funds to relieve the worst of peoples’ needs; be it the old lady who would be sent for special medical treatment in the big city or the old man whose roof was broken.
When the ‘court’ was over we were led outside to be surrounded by curious villagers eager to know who we were, where we came from and why we were in their village. J was set up on a horse and sent off riding, June had great fun relating her life in Turkey to an enthralled audience and I wandered off to seek out the local flora and fauna.
Soon enough it was time to leave but before we did a group of villagers insisted on taking us to a spot just outside the village. On a grass covered hillside there were rows of rough stones carved with writing – these we were told were the graves and the site of a massacre of their forebears; men, women and children murdered by invading Russians and Armenians who had swept in as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Why were they showing us this place? Because they wanted the state to erect a small monument to remember the terrible price that ordinary people pay in the grand schemes of sultans, kings and czars. Millions have died through conflicts fuelled by greed; their names forgotten except by their often still grieving relatives or sometimes remembered in the name of a village; Yeniköy – New Village, rebuilt from the stones and the memories of the old.
Alan Fenn, Okçular Köyü