“What most troubled the troops – fighting the PKK terror during the early 90s – was the fact that the rest of Turkey was totally unaware of what was going on in that arena, and the realities behind it. Mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, lovers, the media, diplomats, politicians, almost every level of government… as well as soldiers, who had not been to the Southeast corner of Turkey yet… everyone, was totally oblivious to the fact that a bloody and vicious battle with terrible consequences was playing itself out over there. While the media – with few exceptions – chose to report things haphazardly, the true fight against the terrorist organization PKK was left in the hands of the Turkish military. At the time though, both Turkish and international public opinion was in a state of indecision and hesitation, about an issue that in later years left no argument about its wrongfulness.
Nevertheless, the Turkish Armed Forces came out victorious from the battlefield aspect of this conflict, thus relieving the country from a heavy burden. With time, as the wave of terror engulfed the whole world, the concept of fighting terror on a local scale proved to be ineffective, leading to worldwide collaboration against it. Contrary to this newly accepted concept, the fight of the Turkish military against PKK terrorism at that time was mostly deemed “unjust”. Mr. Hasan Pulur, legendary Turkish columnist ended his column dated January 31, 1999 – in reference to this book in your hands, and to this period in history – with these bitter words: “ No government in the world can achieve such high success in keeping its people in the dark, about an ongoing war that was threatening its unity.”
It was under these conditions – that in July 1991, in a tiny cave on the Lisek summit of the 2820 meter high Kato mountain in the eastern Van/Catak region of Turkey – I started to jot down the first words in my diary… words rebelling, not against “the hardship we had to endure, but against the secrecy and unawareness” of what was happening. The notes I took, emphasizing national unity against terrorism, was the starting point of the “Tales from the Southeast”… a collection of anecdotes written in protest against the cloak of secrecy that kept the rest of the country in the dark.
“Tales from the Southeast” depicts only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of memoirs told by those who experienced this most challenging period of Turkey’s history firsthand. The majority of these stories are anecdotes of still active government employees, veterans, families of the fallen, doctors, nurses, judges, pilots, those left behind, those that never made it there, those that are still there, and those that made it back. Upon unanimous request by those sharing their memoirs, the names of people and places have not been mentioned in any of the stories. All these memoirs have come to be recounted with the consent of the tellers – at the end of arduous and sometimes troubling interviews – turned into stories, maintaining an accurate truthfulness to the actual events. In a struggle that now seems to be over, but in actual fact still continues, the risk of exposing people still involved with this battle, is still as real now as it was when the book was written.
It might be argued that there is no point talking and writing after all the bloodshed … all the loss of life. But there are two basic reasons that urged me to write this book. The first and most pressing one was the concern that, if no records existed, years from now, no one would believe what had really taken place. Another one was the just legitimacy of fighting a terrorist organization.
The frustratingly inexplicable inability as well as the groundless half-baked “so-called” truths of public opinion spin-doctors, still provide a source of inspiration for me. This book, which was born thanks to these distortions, has now become the nucleus of a new novel, breaking the boundaries of short anecdotes, bringing together a number of the heroes of “Tales from the Southeast”, giving a clearer picture of their psyche. I believe that those who have wasted years of Turkey’s future by taking advantage of the war against terrorism will be conquered by the remarkable patience of the Turkish people. Bearing in mind that history is created by those who write it, and that justice is always on the side of the powerful, I do believe that Turkey will eventually prevail over those that have threatened its independence.”
I ejected the empty the clip and slammed in a fresh one… no time to check whether the first round was a tracer. My hands had stopped shaking. I had adjusted to this mayhem. With a crack, another bullet tore into a leaf just above me. I looked up and observed that there were maybe only 20-30 leaves left on this giant tree. Both sides had dug in, and from the looks, must have continuously peppered each other since the wee hours of the morning. It hadn’t even been five minutes since we had reached the summit, but from what I saw the situation was dire. Sporadic moments of silence did not last for long, and in each and every case, gave way to intense and heavy gunfire. One could easily distinguish between the sound of an AK47 and the G-3. Compared to the deep knock of the G-3, the AK47 had a much more piercing buzz… and the sound of a terrorist RPG-7 (Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher) was much more spine-chilling than the LAW (Light Antitank Weapon) the soldiers wielded. The RPG-7 would emit three distinct sounds. First, when the trigger is pulled, there is the small crack caused by the accelerant; then the tearing sound of the rocket travelling through the air to the target; and finally the big bang upon impact. This weapon was capable of launching a variety of missiles. Anti-personnel missiles would detonate in mid-air at a certain height, leaving a hanging cloud of smoke and dust. Along the way, we had all become experts in differentiating the various sounds of battle.
“ Here we go… here comes a mortar round… and that… is an incoming RPG. The BKC is working overtime boys. Hey guys… watch out for anti-aircraft fire.”
Sixty of us were crammed into one little area where three soldiers would have done the job. Most units were stuck on a few tiny knolls, and in the chaos no one really knew where and what they were shooting at. Since we had only recently arrived, I thought it wise to crawl to one of the battle hardened officers, who had spent the whole night in this mess.
“Howdy, sir… where is the target?”
He briefly looked at me, and then returned his gaze to where he thought the target was.
“Well look at that… what have we here? Just what we needed, more troops. Look, I’m going to blast a tracer in their direction. See…?”
I straightened up a bit and peeked… yes… there they were.
“Wouldn’t it be more effective to throw a few handgrenades, sir? They’re right under our noses..”
With obvious sarcasm, he said:
“Well, thanks for the reminder… it had never occured to me…
Look, son… the elevation of that hill must have come down by at least 50 yards, from all the stuff we have been blasting them with since this morning. I take one of them down, three more take his place. I blast those away… five more arrive. Some of them just wander around in a daze. They must be on drugs. They have suffered immense casualties.”
As if in a trance, he was talking without looking at me. I could not decipher the expression on his face, whether he was angry, sad, or just fed up. After a brief pause he went on:
“Whatever… you listen to this. A guy goes into this bakery…”
Letting out a curt but hearty laughter, he swung to the side of the log he was using as cover, and squeezed off a few rounds.
“… and he says to the baker…”
As I was watching him in disbelief, he squeezed off a few more rounds, and let out another bellowing guffaw…
“…why aren’t you laughing yet…anyway, he says to the baker… ‘give me 99 loaves of bread’…”, he fired off another round.
“…the baker counts the loaves…”, another chuckle, and subsequent squeeze of the trigger. But this time the gun did not fire. Realizing that the had emptied the clip, he turned around, and continued with the joke as he replaced the spent clip with a full magazine.
“… and then the baker says… look you’re still not laughing buster, I’m not gonna tell you the rest…”
I was speechless. I was well aware that they had been crammed in here since last night, that morale was low, and that he had lost many of his men… but I still could not figure out this reaction.
“Ok, sir… look… I am laughing… lets get this over with…”
After firing a few more rounds, he continued:
“’Why 99 and not 100?’, asked the baker…”
This time I crawled all the way to his side, and squeezed off a few rounds myself, joining his laughter. I did not know why, but nevertheless , there I was, laughing…
“So what did the guy say, sir?” , I asked.
“Well he said, ‘what am I gonna do with 100 loaves, who’s gonna eat all that bread?’…”
We were cracking up, and both of us were now roaring with laughter. The soldiers behind us joined the chorus, and with tears rolling down our cheeks, I decided right then and there that this was the funniest joke I had ever heard. Then I suddenly froze, and started staring at a single leaf on the tree above me, while I was trying to figure out, why in fact I was laughing. I couldn’t.
Just then, a powerful explosion rocked the landscape. A mortar round had landed behind the hill we were on. As we were trying to figure out who the shooter was, another one landed on the same spot. We had both stopped laughing. The team commander telling the joke started swearing into the handheld.
“God damn you. A hundred yards closer and we would have been toast. Stop this nonsense!”
A few minutes passed and the third mortar round exploded even closer.
“Who the hell is firing these things? This one is just 50 yards off. What’s the deal here?”
The handheld crackled and the reply chilled us to our bones.
“Whoever this clown is, talking on the walkie… listen to me. Since the Cobra helicopters are on the way, we had stopped firing some time ago. These are not friendly mortars… repeat… this is not friendly fire. If you keep directing them with your 100 yards, and 50 yards, you’ll find out soon enough who’s blasting you, when you embrace the fourth one with your name on it.”
Without waiting for the sentence to finish, we both instinctively jumped out of our cover, and with ducked heads, started running for our lives. The fourth mortar round fell right on top of the cover where just a few minutes ago I had been listening to my favorite joke, completely destroying the area, leaving behind nothing but dust and smoke. We were staring at each other… he was grinning from ear to ear. Again, a few minutes passed, and with the Cobras now in sight, the pounding of the mortar stopped. We had to get back to our previous spot, since we could not leave that hill without coverage… so we started crawling back. I was intently listening for the whistling sound of the mortar round, but with all the noise around me — machine guns, RPGs, choppers – I was not sure whether I could pick out the mortar sound from among this cacophony. But nevertheless we were crawling towards our destiny, and soon took up position again. As I slightly straightened up to have a peek at the terrorist positions, I saw someone running towards us. I yelled: “One of them got up. I’m going to zap him.” But no sooner had I flicked off the safety than the officer put his hand on the barrel, stopping me from shooting. According to him, this was another one of the defectors. Since this morning at least ten such guys had tried to cross over, shouting: “I surrender”, and running for their lives at the same time, but none of them had made it past the hill. All of them had gotten nailed in the back by their own. To give this guy a fighting chance, we both started to shower the terrorist positions with automatic fire, and as we were firing, we were guiding the defector to our position, yelling:
“Nobody fire at this runner… hurry up… here… we won’t shoot you… bend down… crawl… keep your head down, boy.”
It was a scene of horror. The runner was a young boy, and he was zigging and zagging to avoid catching a round in the back, and we were trying to save the life of a terrorist of all people.
I had my finger on the trigger, spraying the whole area with a hail of bullets.
“God damn it”, the officer said, “they’ve lobbed a grenade…duck… duck you sucker… take a dive..”
“Boooom…” and the inevitable ending… just as before. This time, since they could not lift their heads and shoot due to our cover fire, they had chosen to lob a grenade in the defector’s direction. We listened to the boy’s screams for a few minutes… and among the sounds of an ongoing battle those same screams were at first reduced to a moan, and finally stopped all together.
I was distraught. For the first time in my life, someone had perished right in front of my eyes, and I had been completely helpless. I turned to the officer, and told him that I wanted to erect a few more covers, and then started crawling away from our position. He yelled after me not to bother, something about it being impossible…but I had no choice. Only a few positions, including the one I just left, provided the protection and made it possible to shoot from. Those that could not find cover, which made up most of the unit, sat behind the hill, and did basically nothing. Those out in the open and without cover didn’t dare show their positions, and as such did not fire at all. We started on the first one, by dragging rocks from the rear, and then by crawling and pushing them in front of our heads up the slope. The moment we were within the enemy’s sight the rock in front of our heads would get hit numerous times, and sometimes even pulverized, so that we would have to duck back to get new ones. Almost every member of the team of about sixty, now was hurriedly gathering rocks behind the hill – away from enemy fire – and bring it to the two crawling officers – us -, who were trying to pile them up to erect some covers.
It was backbreaking, tedious work, and what under normal circumstances should not have taken no more than half an hour, could only be completed through shift work, after several hours.
Two bulwarks were erected, and teams would take turns in manning them with firepower, while the rest of the team would supply the ammo from positions in the rear, safe from enemy fire.
From the moment we had joined this mayhem, Cobras, cannon fire, as well as mortar rounds, and fighter planes were all buzzing overhead. What shook us to the core though, were the bombs dropped by the fighter planes. Because of our proximity to the terrorist positions, we could feel the earth shifting under us. These bombs also had a disadvantage. The dust and smoke these bombs would lift did not dissipate immediately – sometimes taking up to half an hour to clear. This gave the terrorists the smoke screen and time they needed to move around and reposition.
While we were working on the bulwarks, I got my marching orders. All units were to unleash their firepower on terrorist positions at precisely the same moment, supported by fighter jets. We got to work, and completed our preparations. The LAWs got assembled; the artillery took position. I lined up my machine gunners. We were ready for the big bang… and a bang it was. As usual, the artillery led the way, and soon we were throwing at them, everything in our arsenal. RPGs, heavy machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, shoulder missiles, artillery… anything and everything we could throw, shoot, or launch. I had never witnessed anything like this in my life. My soldiers, while incessantly squeezing the trigger and emptying their magazines in one salvo, were screaming and yelling like children on a joyride. It was a scene from hell on earth… Apocalypse Now! had nothing on this madness. Amidst this infernal bedlam, nobody could pick out the sound of his own weapon.
Later on, the company that was now jammed in this narrow strip of desolate land, faced a threat other than enemy fire. After the initial artillery barrage, the Cobra helicopters hovering overhead were discarding a sizzling hail of shellcasings right on top of us. In the ensuing chaos, it would be futile for me to try to reach and alert the choppers. Something hot hit my cheek. I touched it… there was no blood, only a burning sensation. There… again. Glancing over to the soldier firing his weapon next to me I realized that, after somersaulting in the air, his rifle’s hot empty cartridges were ejecting right into my cheek. I called out to him, but he didn’t hear. I ended up getting his attention with a kick. The poor guy, flustered, lowered his head, cracked a sheepish smile, and kept on firing.
Suddenly a powerful explosion, loud enough to suppress the battle pandemonium, lifted me up and dropped me a few yards back. Amidst a thick dust cloud, I heard yelling and screaming. My backpack, rifle, and binoculars were all over the place. As I got my bearings, and the buzzing in my ears dissipated, I checked my surroundings. My company was not where they had been a few seconds ago. Everyone that had been thrown about was either dusting off or trying to find their weapon. I was terrified. It surely had not been a mortar round that hit us, nor had it been an RPG; and strangely from what I could deduce, there were no casualties. Then what the hell was it? Where had it landed? It had to be pretty close, but I just couldn’t figure it out. I had the air knocked out of me, and felt dizzy. So, for a while, I just lay there on my back. What on earth could be so powerful as to lift and scatter all these men like matchsticks? I asked whether anyone was hurt, and the answer was: “No, sir!” We had dodged the bullet on this one, for sure. But what about the next one? I looked up, and saw an F-16 fighter tearing right over me. It suddenly struck me that this marvel of technology, the mere sight of which would evoke in me contrasting feelings of pride and envy, was the culprit.
I hollered: “Down… everybody down!” , and this time the F-16, hugging the landscape close enough for me to see every detail of its pilot, dropped the two-thousand pounders right on the intended target. Apparently it was their turn again. I felt relieved, but not for long. I suddenly remembered the team I had sent forward to the grove fifty yards away. What if they got the brunt of it? There was no way that any of them would make it out of there alive. Suddenly the whole landscape started to spin. I was losing it. What was I going to do? My whole body started shaking uncontrollably. In this havoc, how was I going to collect their remains – whatever was left of them? How was I going to evacuate the wounded, if any?… there was no place for the choppers to land. I only had a single field doctor available to me, and if the bomb had landed right where they were we would simultaneously have to deal with at least ten casualties. How was I to pull this off? There was not enough serum available for such a mass casualty. How was I to amass enough bandages from the first aid packs of the other soldiers? What if in the midst of this tragedy, we would receive an order to pull back. Trying to keep my composure, I spoke into the walkie-talkie:
“Deniz… Deniz… are you there? Answer me… Deniz.”
I had gone on air, disregarding every battle etiquette in the book. I had forgotten the team’s call sign, and was addressing the team commander by his name. On top of that I was holding the handheld upside down, mindlessly yelling his name over and over again. There was no reply, I was about to lose my mind, and the soldiers standing next to me were watching me with eyes wide open. I decided to send a team of two to the area. Under heavy fire, they started to crawl towards the grove. I just sunk to the ground, and scooped up a handful of dirt, that had been softened by the tremor. The compact clay of a few minutes ago had become as loose as beach sand. For another five minutes my calls remained unanswered. The pounding of the area by fighter jets was still in full force, with one jet after the other dropping their bombs on specified targets. Again, I started to picture us picking up the pieces… their pieces… pieces of my men. What would I put them in? We had no ponchos or blankets. To reduce weight, we had left them back at the camp, and they were to arrive later on choppers. All we had on were our uniforms and underwear. We would have to improvise, but how? I remembered their team sergeant. Just a few weeks ago I had pinned on his sergeant insignia myself. Their team commander – a lieutenant – was a friend of mine. We had mutual dreams and aspirations. His fiancee finally had given up on him claiming: ” I just can’t take this anymore, constantly waiting in fear, for the other shoe to drop.” She was seeing someone else now. Our plan was to go and convince her to take him back. On the same team, there was a petty officer, whose car got rear-ended when he was on leave, and he was getting the run around from the insurance company. I had recently decided to send the rear guard of this team, on the first convoy out to the comms office, so he could contact his home. One of his kids was sick. He was worried… just then, the walkie-talkie crackled:
“Aras 1 here… all is well, we’re all O.K. and in one piece. The bomb hit the side of the hill. We are carrying on with our mission. Sir, could you please alert Air Control to get their shit together… especially that particular fighter jock…”
His voice was fading in and out. Apparently the battery of his handheld was dying. But despite the weak signal, and all the noise surrounding me, I had heard every bit of detail in his voice, as well his message. I got my nerve back, and felt revived. I passed the good news on to my troops around me, and then barked the next order:
“ Let’s get to work boys. Use your ammo sparingly, keep it at semi-auto. This is only the beginning.”
A leviathan of a bomb had just landed in our laps, and there wasn’t a single scratch on anyone.
I was ecstatic. I crawled over to the machine gun spotter, and scanned the area. As I was drawing a bead to a rocky enclave, from which we were taking fire, I spotted a team creeping up towards the crest of the hill. While we were dealing with the bomb dropped on us, obviously a large-scale attack had been ordered, and was well under way by now. Frequently coming to a full stop, the crawling team was inching its way towards the target. The fighters passing just above them were dropping their loads on the hill right in front of them. The team was now stuck between friendly and enemy fires. One could see the tiny bullet marks landing next to them, but I was unable to locate the marksman who was taking pot shots at them. While I was deliberating, the inevitable happened, and I heard the first scream.
While the whole company was watching this scene, playing out right before their eyes, I was still busy, looking for the sniper. It was extremely frustrating, to see them taking such fire, and not be able to do anything about it. All we did was to make an educated guess, and then unleash heavy firepower towards those targets. The screams of the wounded soldier could be heard above the pandemonium… or so it seemed to me. His buddy, just a few yards behind, started to crawl up to him in a hurry, but took one in the shoulder before he got to him. They were both still fully exposed, and the terrorist sniper, taking full advantage of their helplessness, had increased the frequency of shots, his concentration now fully centered on those two. I called the battalion commander on the frequency. He immediately directed all available firepower towards the sniper’s position. I could not see the sniper from my vantage point, but obviously they had pinpointed his position from theirs. A hellish hail of bullets was tearing the terrorist positions apart. At this point, others close to the act had started to crawl to the wounded to extract them back to safety. One of those got hit, just as he reached the two wounded. The sniper, who was perched somewhere towards their rear, was having a field day by nailing them, the moment they came into his view. We now had three wounded in an area as large as a postage stamp. One of the soldiers, who made it there without getting hit, was now pulling one of the wounded into safety, right towards my company, which was the nearest safe spot. As soon as they reached safety, the doctor – a second lieutenant – inserted the serum. Another soldier, in support of one of the wounded, got hit. And then, miraculously, an F-4 dropped a bomb right into the heart of the sniper’s nest, and the firing stopped. My men, who saw the smoke and dust rising from the enemy position, had started running towards the wounded, before I could even give the order. Thanks to the smoke screen the bomb provided, we had ample time to move the wounded into safety. I saw another soldier go down, taking a hit by fire opened from another terrorist position. While they hastily pulled all the wounded to the triage area, I heard the doctor yelling:
” Bring me combat packs. Hurry up… someone bring me some bandages. I’m out of serum… Sir, call in the choppers.”
They had brought two of the wounded to him at the same time. The doctor, who was now running around in frustration, could not decide which one to attend to first, while one of the company commanders was yanking his chain.
“Doc… you came here as an intern, and in no time became a surgeon. What does Hippocrates have to say about all this?”
The doc, who was leaning over one of the wounded, replied without even looking up:
“Screw Hippocrates now… guys… guys… stop screaming, I will get to the both of you…I promise.”
Very little after his arrival, the doctor had gained the respect of the company, with his polite mannerism and respectable personality. He would manage to retain his calm and gentle demeanor in the face of just about anything happening around him. But now I was seeing him in a totally different light. While he was cursing at the top of his lungs, he was trying to stop the bleeding, his hands badly shaking.
“Apply pressure right here buddy… not like a girl… harder. Where the hell is your vein? Damn… I can’t find the vein… God damn you Apo [the terrorist leader]. God damn you, and the ones supporting you… you coward son of a bitch… you jackass…”
I was following the comms traffic on the walkie-talkie. The chopper to evacuate the wounded had arrived, alas with no secure place to land. The ground crew was directing the pilot:
“Negative… don’t touch down there. That location is drawing heavy fire.”… and as this line of communication dragged on, it took a toll on the pilot, who kept saying:
“Look this is your last chance. Soon darkness will set in, and the wounded will have to overnight right here. So, hurry up!”
Finally, despite all the objections, the pilot touched down on a patch, which was right in the line of enemy fire. The gunny, manning the Gatling gun at the door, was spraying enemy positions with deadly accuracy raising dust everywhere, causing havoc in their positions. The ground crew warned the pilot of the uneven and rocky terrain:
“Not there, sir… the bird will topple.”
The pilot’s reply was curt and this time more to the point:
” Don’t teach me how to do my job… just rush over the wounded.”
The wounded – accompanied by the doc – were now being hauled over to the top of the hill, to the patch the pilot had chosen to set the bird down. A few more screams tore through the sounds of heavy combat, as one of the haphazardly carried casualties slipped through hands and fell on the ground. Soon, thanks to the gutsy pilot, things quieted down, and they were on their way.
While watching the chopper disappear into the distance, I failed to notice one of my second lieutenants crawling up to me. With eyes as big as saucers, he was pointing his clenched fist at me:
“Sir, guess what I have here.”
“Buddy… do you really think this is the right time for this?”
“But sir, look…” and he opened his fist. Inside I saw an AK47 bullet.
“So what?” I replied. But reading the shock in his eyes, I took a step back.
“Tell me, what happened?”
“Sir, this bullet…” he stopped and pointed to the base of the bullet, “take a look sir.” His tone was ice cold, not the tone I was used to… it was almost as though he was losing his marbles.
“Look sir … the firing pin impact is right here, but the bullet did not go off.”
“What’s your point? There are thousands of those littering this area. So the gun jammed.”
“But this one had my name on it, sir. If his gun had not jammed, then instead of him, I would have been history.”
I recognized signs of him going into battle shock, and had to pull him out of it.
“Give me that bullet!” I ordered, “I’ll return it to you when we’re back in camp. Now go and join your team!” He crawled back the same way he came. I thumbed the base of the bullet. Indeed, the firing pin had struck the bullet. You could see the mark on the shell base. But somehow the bullet had not fired. I slid the bullet into the left breast pocket of my combat vest, and then returned to the melee, yelling:
“Don’t shoot without acquiring target. Don’t waste any ammo. It is not us, who will retreat… it will be them.”
And retreat they did. Soon thereafter we returned to our outpost. I summoned the second lieutenant and handed over his bullet. He strung it on a piece of rope, and hung it around his neck, pointing out that he was never to take it off again.
“Sir, this will always be a reminder, of my life going into overtime.”