Autumn Phillips: Everything’s relative
March 4, 2004
This was a stressful week. I share the following story to remind myself that life can be far more stressful than any mental pushing and shoving from my current life.
The story starts at midnight, in the middle of nowhere. I was waiting for a bus to take me to a place called Tunceli, Turkey, for a three-day Kurdish Cultural Festival. A friend’s parting words rang in my head, “Please be careful. These festivals can sometimes get really dangerous.”
I tried to picture a festival going bad, but I had no context.
The lights of the bus blinded me as it pulled into the stall. I felt a tinge of fear but boarded anyway.
When the sun rose, as the passengers woke up, I started to hear less Turkish spoken and more throaty Kurdish. Outside, the valley opened into Van Gogh farmland with sheaths of wheat standing upright and women bent at the waist raking up the last of the harvest.
We pulled into Tunceli, the first in a parade of buses and minibuses. A policeman waved us over and boarded to check IDs. My American passport stuck out in the pile of laminated cards. The officer signaled for me to grab my bag and follow him.
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I stepped off the bus alone.
“Is there a problem?”
“No problem,” the driver said as he closed the door and pulled away.
I officially had been in Turkey for three months and could speak as much Turkish. Which is to say, not enough to answer the four hours of questions that followed.
The interrogation was nice enough. They fed me breakfast and gave me tea and cigarettes. And one at a time, they came to me with the same simple questions. How did I hear about the festival? How long would I be in Turkey? What was my job? Could they please have my address and telephone number, maybe we could visit each other. … I couldn’t leave until someone came to get me. But no one was expecting me, and the cell phone number I had for a friend of a friend was not working.
I smiled and had another cigarette.
Naivete is a beautiful thing. At the time, at that police station, I had no idea what kind of festival I was about to attend. I knew very little about the intensity of the Kurdish political situation nor the importance of the Tunceli area in the fight between the Kurds and the Turks.
As it turned out, the Munzur Festival was less of a festival and more of a battle by the Kurds to have a festival.
According to the things I was later told, the area had been a center for Kurdistan Workers Party activity. In retaliation, villages were burned and an embargo was placed on the valley.
The friend from Istanbul finally arrived, and I waved goodbye to the police. The traffic was slow into the city. Above us, rows and rows of Turkish flags hung to remind visitors this was not and would never be Kurdistan, the independent state for which the Kurds are fighting.
On the side of the road, men and children were selling posters of Che Guevara and activist filmmaker Yilmaz Guney.
The festival was to begin with a concert, and we headed in that direction.
My friend’s phone rang. It was the police. They wanted him to know that they had seen him pick me up. They would be watching
Once in town, car parked, we were greeted by an angry crowd. The concert had been canceled, and the 20,000 people who had come to hear music were pouring into the street, fists raised.
My friend led me. He held a video camera above his head and pointed. Beyond the crowd was a tank and rows and rows of police waiting quietly in riot gear.
“These are attempts to provoke us,” he said. “If we become violent, they will have an excuse.”
A man was standing on the roof of a van telling protesters to go home. The crowd turned on him. They gathered around the van and started rocking it.
Somehow, the conflict was resolved. The sun set, and I was one of 20,000 people headed to the stadium.
Traffic was moving slower than people could walk, so most everyone climbed out of their cars and taxis and made their way on foot. The moon was a perfect half. Mars was bright in the sky. Police and tanks lined the highway island between us.
They let 6,000 people into the stadium and then slammed the gates shut. People started throwing things and rushing at the police. My friend grabbed my hand.
“Don’t panic,” he said. We stood perfectly still, and my friend filmed everything — the line of tanks moving toward us shining lights in our eyes, the soldiers with machine guns ready, the panicking crowd. Music came from inside the stadium.
The rest of the night was more protest than concert. God willing, I will never have a machine gun that close to my face again.
I decided not to stay for the last day of the festival. My nerves had taken enough police confrontation. I was invited to a nearby town by the mayor’s son.
We left in a procession of Kurdish leaders and one American girl.