We came across two women gathering firewood near the riverbed. One was a few years younger than the other. The women told us that they had spotted us sitting up on the hill. The soles of the women’s feet were so covered in callouses that they looked like bunches of broom shrubs. In between the callouses were cracks big enough to put your finger between. They had become so hardened to destitution that they had come to a state where they were genuinely surprised to meet someone with a handful of wheat upon them who was actually wearing full clothing.
All the way, as we walked to the entrance of the village, the women told my mother of all they had been through and how they had survived. The older one had lost every member of her family, apart from her sister’s youngest son. And this little boy had only just died, when the glüng weed illness got hold of him. As for the other woman, four of her six children had died and the other two lay at home, waiting to die. The woman’s husband and oldest son had both escaped in different directions when the soldiers had come to the village. Then the husband and older son had taken the family’s goat and headed off towards Balıkan Mountain. The wife herself, and her children had headed to the little den they had already prepared for themselves in the woods. They had saved their own lives, but had not heard again from either husband or son. They heard that they were among those killed at Ali Boğaz and then heard another story that they were imprisoned somewhere near Bingöl...
The two women took us to the house in which they were staying. To identify this place as a house would need a thousand witnesses. It was a smaller and darker little grave than the one we’d called a house back at Perhan’s. They had covered over the hearth end of this demolished house with brushwood and scrub and had taken refuge underneath it. Wooden planks with burned edges that had lined the wall where the fireplace was, stood with their other ends touching the floor and in one corner, the burned roof formed a kind of first floor. There were a lot of children in the house and all of them had pale fluid running from their noses, just like my Auntie’s daughter. They were all jostling for spaces close to the fire. The children were so thin that nothing but their huge, bug-like eyes were visible when the light leapt and flared out of the fire. Other women who had heard us coming now arrived and all began talking at the same time.
Among them was a woman called Haskar who had no clothes on at all. As the women were talking I couldn’t take my eyes off Haskar, no matter how I tried. This strange woman’s face was changing colour with the flames flickering in the hearth and she stood there hitting herself, hissing like scalding water in the darkness. She showed me her breasts that were covered in blood from her scratching and wanted me to suckle from them. When Haskar did this, it made me nestle in even closer to my mother. At one point, as she held out her hand towards me my mother said, ‘Hey now, how is it you’ve found my child in amongst all of these children?’
When Haskar saw that my mother wanted to hide me for protection further between her squatted legs she hissed at her. Another woman said, ‘Haskar, that’s not your daughter. It’s Hıdır Efendi’s daughter, don’t you remember? Sahan Ağa‘s brother Hıdır.’
Haskar stopped for a moment, as if she had remembered something. She nodded her head in a ‘yes’.
‘Are you Sahan’s girl?’, she asked me.
My mother replied, ‘She’s my girl, Haskar. Sahan had no children.’
Another woman spoke, ‘Haskar, this is Fecire Hatun, Hıdır Efendi’s wife. We went to Hıdır Efendi’s funeral, do you remember?’
Haskar began to scream as though the death had only just happened. As she wept her fingers tore at her skin and she cried out, ‘Who didn’t know Hıdır Efendi? My brother Gagım’s son Göyr was by his side. Why didn’t you tell me? Why do you always tell me when it’s all over? If there is a power on Sıncık Mountain let them come and exterminate you all. Why didn’t you tell me Hıdır Efendi had died? What happened to Göyr? My brother Gagım‘s son Göyr? Oh, may God blind me. I only went the other day, went off to the forest to call for him. There was no answer. ‘Come!’, I shouted, ‘my one and only brother, the soldiers have gone’. That’s what I said, and he didn’t reply.’
Haskar got up from her darkened corner and came closer to the fire. Even though the hairs between her legs were clearly visible she didn’t seem to care at all. She scratched at her head with both hands at once as if it itched, and kept on doing so, swearing to herself.
Every now and then she would turn to my mother and say, ‘So then you’re from Pakire, you’re Turabi’s wife.’
‘Haskar, Haskar’, the women would say, ‘You’ve got it mixed up again, this is Hıdır Efendi’s wife Fecire Hatun. Don’t you recognise her?’
Haskar scratched her head as if remembering something.
‘How could I not remember, Göke? Who hasn’t heard of Hıdır Efendi? They were together, he and my brother Gagım’s son Göyr. My brother Gagım‘s son was one of a kind in this here Dersim. I wish he would come, if only he’d come, my gazelle and bring him with him.’
When Haskar fell quiet the other women began talking again, all at once, and even began to argue with one another too.
‘Oh mother of mine! They died on the Laçinan Plain. Thirty five families, the whole of Seyit Rıza‘s family was there.’
Another woman spoke up to disagree with the former,
‘Mother, listen, the people of Malmensan saw with their own eyes those people having convoy chains slapped on their necks. Ali Kadir was the only one of them who got way, and that was at Haçeli. The others were tied up, two together and bayonetted right through.’
No-one seemed to know where their own relatives had been killed. As for Haskar, as the other women spoke, she had her eyes on my mother. She was looking my mother up and down from head to toe. She’d sidle up to her and stroke our little sheep before turning to my mother and saying, ‘So, you’re from Pakire and you’re Turabi’s wife aren’t you?’
The other women heard,
‘Haskar, only a minute earlier you remembered Hıdır Efendi. You said your brother Gagım’s son was a comrade of his.’
‘And who wouldn’t know Hıdır?’, went on Haskar, ‘They slipped a rope around the neck of that Jandarma from Gur, almost under our roof. And when the Jandarma began to cry, Hıdır would give him some water.’
‘Don’t confuse her, poor thing has lost her mind,’ said my mother.
We boiled up the partridge eggs we’d brought from the mountain, chopped them up with the fennel and ate them. We spent that night there with our little sheep. By morning we saw even more clearly the degree of poverty we were amongst.
There was desperation all around, which brought with it a need to hold on even tighter to life. Having said that there seemed to be no visible effort anywhere in this village of an attempt to stay alive. Half of the children had died, and the rest appeared to be simply waiting for death. They had given away a female child in exchange for a tin drum of barley seeds. However, a herd of wild boar had broken into the field on which they’d scattered the barley seed and eaten it. Desperation was crushing them in its fist and when the soldiers had come and burned the village the desperation, naturally, increased. This helpless ‘waiting for the inevitable’ had frightened my mother so much that we left the village the very next day.
Excerpt from current project, translation of Haydar Karataş’s novel ‘Night Butterfly’.
(c) Haydar Karataş, İletişim Publishing, İstanbul.
Translated by: Caroline Stockford, 2016
Photo: Archive picture relating to Dersim operation, 1939