Burden by Ayfer Tunç

The truth is like an iron shutter – if you get caught underneath it you will be crushed.


We had no intention of causing so much distress; absolutely not. How could we have guessed that a thing like this would happen?

We’ll ask our questions, we thought, and if she wants to give an answer, she will. If she doesn’t want to answer, she won’t, and the worst-case scenario – she’ll kick us out of her house. That’s what we thought.

Of course it’s never quite that simple. We were making a documentary about the Turkish Republic’s Medal of Honour and before we’d set off for her house we’d had a long discussion among ourselves as to how to frame the questions. Shall we refer to it as a ‘campaign’ or as a ‘massacre’? The words that you choose when you’re posing the questions are very important – for example, I wasn’t going to use the word ‘genocide’. The truth is like a shutter made of iron and if you get caught underneath it you will be crushed. That’s the most tragic aspect of historiography; in attempting to open the shutter there are those who are crushed beneath its weight – and no-one writes their story down.

We had a lot of arguments before going to see Neyyire Hanım. ‘Let’s be honest,’ we said, ‘and ask her outright. Let’s say, “How do you feel about the fact that your father, as one of the officers who participated in the massacre, may or may not have been responsible for the murder of over fifty thousand women, men, children, elderly people and, worse still, babies?’’ Then again, we thought, the poor old thing is no longer a spring chicken. For eighty years she’s been believing that her father was an honourable officer and to just come out and ask her a question like that would be inhuman.

On the other hand, if we didn’t ask our questions one way or another then we would be guilty of adding a litte more shine to that medal of honour that had already been polished up for so many years; and that certainly wasn’t our intention. In the end we decided to make ourselves appear impartial and go for the soft approach by starting a sentence with something like ‘some historians would say…’. It would be a front, of course. We were not impartial, because to reach the truth you have to be partial to the truth – and thus you have already chosen your side.

Were we honest? I’m not going to get into an argument over where honesty begins and ends but to tell the truth, I have to say that we weren’t very honest because we opened Neyyire Hanım’s door with a lie. There are some doors that you can’t open with fair play. In order to enter the house of an old lady, ask questions that will probably expose the lie that she has lived with her entire life and be able to access documents that might lift the iron shutter of truth you first have to gain her confidence. Being honest is not as easy as people think, since when the matter in hand is written on the dark pages of history honesty can sometimes be the adversary of truth. Yes, it’s a paradox – trying to achieve what’s right by doing what’s wrong but, sadly, honesty and truth don’t always go hand in hand.

You can’t just say to the person you want to interview, ‘We’re making a documentary about the bloodiest pages in the history of the Republic and we’ve come to ask you questions about your father’s role in the massacres.’ If you just come out with something like that, the person won’t talk. Why not? Because from that moment on you are an enemy in their eyes – and why should they talk to an enemy who has come to expose as a lie something they’ve believed in for so long?. And more importantly, they’ve beaten you to it and have already asked themselves that question. It may only have lasted a fraction of a second but they’ve already had their moment of doubt. It may have been in a dream or perhaps in their subconscious, but the question has been posed and they then spend the rest of their lives trying to forget that fleeting moment when they asked, ‘What if?’.

So, you have to start by choosing a vague, relatively ordinary topic and during the interview you slowly increase the weight that your questions carry. If you ask your final question at the beginning, the chances are that you will go back empty handed, and for this reason you have to be aware of the psychology of the person in front of you and always keep the tension under control. It’s unlikely that you’ll get right to the end either, as there’s always a moment when the interviewee tunes in to the subtext of what is happening, and that’s the moment when their trust in you is shattered. As you’re trying to raise the iron shutter of the truth, they suddenly stop trusting you and that makes you feel like crap! And that’s the price of this job.

At the end of the day we not there to talk to the man who’d actually taken part in the massacres and been rewarded for it with a medal of honour – but to his daughter and granddaughter who believed that he’d been a patriot ready to lay down his life for his country and who had spent their own lives trying to live up to this honour bestowed on the family.

We didn’t ring up Neyyire Hanım’s daughter, Serap Hanım and say that we wanted to speak to her mother in relation to a documentary we were making about the officers who had participated in the bloodiest massacre in our history. No, we said that we were making a documentary about the recipients of the Medal of Honour who had participated in the ‘manoeuvres’ and left it at that. The woman nearly jumped for joy, assuming that we were going to secure her grandfather’s place in history. I admit, ours was not a very ethical approach.

But the interview developed in a way we could never have expected. There was a kind of chemistry, I don’t know how else to describe it. You know, when one thing comes into contact with another and bang! you have an explosion; that’s just what it was like.. And it wasn’t our fault, either. Granted, we did have a motive in all this, but what happened was not our fault; honestly.

Neyyire Hanım lit the fuse of her own accord and we were just there to witness the shocking fallout.

It did make our job easier in some ways, because we didn’t have to experience that moment when they lose all trust in you and you feel like crap. But even so, it was still pretty awful, witnessing someone else falling apart like that. And it wasn’t even the bloody-handed officer’s daughter but his granddaughter who went to pieces. She’ll never get over it.

You do feel a bit anxious, of course, when you have a hidden agenda in relation to the person you’re interviewing. But given the kind of country this is, the kind of times we’d been through and the nature of the history that we were trying to rake up, hidden as it was behind such thick iron shutters – we had no other choice and so decided to take it as far as we could. Some historians have said that they prefer a neutral starting point, a stock-standard sentence from which to begin to probe their way forward towards that bloody massacre. But whichever way you do it, at the end of the day every medal of honour is dipped in blood.

But the opportunity didn’t present itself for us to ask our sugar-coated questions. Serap Hanım fluttered around us like a moth, pouring tea and offering cake, ‘please eat some, for goodness’ sake, please’… The woman was going on about how difficult our work must be and flattering us; sincerely. This is the dirtiest side of the job. The fact that the person of whom you’re going to ask agonizing questions goes around treating you like an honoured guest. No, we didn’t want any tea, thank you very much, no cake, no, please don’t go to all that trouble. It’s enough to make a person shout, ‘No! We’ve come here to ask you the kind of questions that will swamp you in deep sorrow, so no! No cake!’

I told the cameraman that we should record the photographs they were showing us first. This way, if they kicked us out, at least we’d have something to show for it. They had some important photographs, you see, some of which were records of the massacres. Their Medal-of-Honour- daddy was standing there smiling his best smile whilst stamping out the rebels.

The touching part was that Serap Hanım had laid out the family photo album, her father’s medals and insignia upon a coffee table in an effort to assist us in broadcasting this glorious period in history to the world.

We weren’t exactly sure of Neyyire Hanım’s state of mind, either. The woman was 83 or so and there was a chance that she wouldn’t be ‘compos mentis’. But we had nothing to worry about, as her mind and memory were as sharp as a pin. You could tell that she was a very astute lady. First there was a bit of smalltalk of the order of how ‘there was so much traffic over the bridge nowadays’ and ‘yes, this city is getting harder to live in by the day’. Then it was our turn with the, ‘why don’t you sit there, let’s put a microphone on you and get the lighting right, and can we move this chair a little over this way?’, of course we could, we were free to turn her house upside down in order to set the perfect stage.

We started by asking her when and where she’d been born and if could she tell us a little about her family and her childhood. I felt really uncomfortable with these questions as I had no interest whatsoever in her answers. These were just the warm-up questions to get her into the flow of talking about herself and gradually opening up. But in answer to our questions Neyyire Hanım gave surprisingly clear, comprehensive answers full of the detail we were after.

The old lady was completely in love with her father. She told us – there could never be a better father than hers in the whole world and no children ever loved their father as much as she and her siblings loved him, her daughter’s face shone with pride, while I inwardly cringed and outwardly smiled. I nearly snapped when she showed me the photographs of her decorated father posing over corpses. The urge to get up and throw the pictures at her was almost overwhelming. When you consider how the interview ended, I can’t help but be staggered by the seemingly heartfelt love that this woman expressed for her father and by her worship of this man she’d crowned with the halo of a hero. With hindsight, I think that in her own approach to the borderlands of death she wanted to relieve herself of a burden that lay on her conscience. Did she just decide at that very moment to come out with it? Was it something she’d been thinking about for years? I don’t know and I’ll never find out.

It’s really odd, but the alarming end to the interview came about when I asked her about her own mother’s death. Had it been an illness or, perhaps, an accident? I only asked it as a throwaway question to lead us into chatting about her childhood, family life and eventually her father. In retrospect, it makes me think that I’m not really that good at my job. I didn’t pay enough attention to inoccuous questioning and reading between the lines. The iron shutter of truth flew up of its own accord, quite by chance, and I had nothing to do with it.

Firstly there was silence. I repeated my question. Silence. As the silence grew, Serap Hanım spoke in her mother’s place. ‘Grandmother got ill didn’t she mother? You remember, you told us, she’d just had a baby and she got puerperal fever … and they couldn’t save her,’ she said.

‘I lied’, said Neyyire Hanım.

That’s how it started. That split-second before the detonation.

Serap Hanım was shocked by her mother’s answer. It’s as if she could tell that a family secret was about to be revealed, one too enormous to ever be swept under the carpet. When I think back, I’m sure that she had no idea what was coming, her face betrayed that much. But more than that, I think she sensed the presence of something that must never be spoken of and that had needed to be buried in a place deeper than mere forgetting. And so she tried to change the subject, ‘Never mind how dear Grandmother died,’ she said, ‘Shall we move on to another question?’ But Neyyire Hanım did not want to move on. The mother and daughter began an obstinate battle of ‘yes/no’ with each other and when Serap Hanım saw how determined her mother was, she wanted to end the interview. She told us to leave. We didn’t. So then she accused her mother of having gone senile and tried to convince us, unsucessfully, that her mother had lost her mind.

All at once Neyyire Hanım said that her mother had committed suicide. One simple sentence. ‘My mother grabbed hold of my father’s service pistol, put it to her head and pulled the trigger,’ she said.

Her daughter screamed, ‘No!’. The bomb went off.
The old woman said it again, differently this time.
‘My mother-killed herself-with my father’s-service pistol’.
Full stop.
Then everything erupted.

What had happened was this:
The medal-of-honour-bearing-officer had finally returned from manoeuvres to a great family dinner. The house was full of people – children of all ages, and all the relatives sitting around the table. Neyyire Hanım was nine years old and well remembered the coal stove burning away, emitting a cosy ‘bup, bup, bup’ noise. The stuffed, spit-roasted lamb filled nearly all of the table, specially roasted by her youngest uncle in honour of his brother’s return. Her two month old baby sister was on her mother’s lap, sleeping like an angel, a charm against the Evil Eye pinned to her tiny shoulder. Everyone was jubilant at the safe return of Neyyire Hanım’s father from military operations and happiness was so thick in the air you could almost hold it in your hand. They ate the enormous lamb.

Eveyone was chatting away, her father, uncles and aunties, nephews and nieces, soldiers who had come to congratulate her father, his civilian friends and their wives… ‘Water may run still, but the enemy never will’, they were saying. They were talking about the country’s enemies, within and without, and came to the conclusion that the enemy within was much more dangerous as it had nested in the heart of the country and sucked its blood. They went on about how their soil was still wet with the blood of the martyrs who had fought to unify this country, never to be divided; how each person in this country was a soldier, from babies in the womb to one-hundred-year-old-grandmothers, and how one’s duty was to lie down and die for one’s country. Her father then went on to tell them how he had eradicated the bloodstock of the rebels, sparing no gory detail as he spoke. He told them how the rebel’s children and even pregnant women had to die and how, for the continuing good of this country, their little bastards must not be born, and why that was the reason they had cleansed the land of the trecherous pregnant women and their children. Everyone had agreed with him with great enthusiasm.

They’d sat up until late, eating and drinking. Her mother hadn’t said a word all evening and her silence was passed off as her being overwhelmed with joy at seeing her husband safely home.

Later that night, when everyone had gone, her mother sat and looked for some time at the baby sleeping on her lap, before putting her to bed and taking a seat at the table.

Then she’d started to cry. ‘Did you kill babies?’, she asked her husband, ‘And did you kill pregnant women? And what about old people who couldn’t lift an arm to defend themselves?’. Neyyire Hanım’s father was stunned. He’d been expecting acclaim, not inquisition, he wanted his wife to be roused by his heroism and proud of his medal. But her mother just kept crying and asking, ‘Why?’

‘Why did you kill babies?, she’d shrieked, ‘Because if you hadn’t stamped out their father’s line they might grow up to bring trouble to this country?’..

Neyyire Hanım had felt awful for her mother and hadn’t wanted to see her parents arguing.

Then her mother suddenly reached for her father’s service pistol, put it to her head and fired. Everything happened in a few short seconds. She could still see the blood running down the wall to the floor. That was all.

‘Now I can die!’, sobbed Neyyire Hanım, ‘Now I can die! Now I can die!’. But it was her daughter who had turned into a woman possessed. She grabbed hold of her mother in a frenzy and we had a real struggle to free the old woman from her daughter’s grasp.


Author:  Ayfer Tunç

Translator:  Caroline Stockford



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