Two Turkish military personnel, dressed in army fatigues, and long rifles strapped across their chest, appeared across the street out of nowhere and motioned for me to approach them. The small beige Samsonite suitcase looked awfully suspicious by itself in the middle of the sidewalk. No wonder I was summoned.
"You are not from this country?'' said one of them. He scanned me from head to toe, clutching his gun. Handing him a slip of paper, with address and phone number, I said in my North American accented Turkish; "I'm from Istanbul. Is this address around here?''
We were at the front gate of one of the four military barracks located in a somewhat depressed section of Şirnak, a mostly Kurdish town not far from the Syrian and Iraqi border. I had arrived here thirty minutes ago from Diyarbakir to visit the refugee camps, but quickly got lost along the way. The bus driver had mistakenly let me off in front of the barracks, which carried the same name as the apartment complex I would be staying in.
"Call the number now," the second soldier demanded. He gently took the phone from me as soon as I dialed it and spoke to Bilge, an Armenian woman from Istanbul who lived somewhere nearby in town. She was hosting me and had been working in the camps for the last several months. "Go back across the street and wait for her," he insisted. "And don't forget your suitcase."
The residential buildings surrounding me, three to four stories high: all had unpainted facades and were shoddily constructed with cheap concrete. Big black letters PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) were spray painted on multiple walls. Blocks of much taller apartments colored pink, blue and green multiplied in the distance behind them. The city was situated in rugged terrain, in between hills and surrounded by barren mountains.
There is not much to say about town with a population of fifty thousand whose main attraction is a building with bullet holes covering the entire facade. The owner apparently refused to repair it in order to make a political statement. Şirnak only has one decent hotel, which had just opened for operation earlier that year. With the exceptions of a few kebab, hamburger and pizza places at city center, there were no real restaurants where you could spend a fun evening with friends. The culture seemed to suggest most everyone one stuck close to home after sunset.
Bilge drove me to her home, a characteristic nondescript concrete apartment building, in an even more depressed section of town. It was located down the street from another military barracks. We entered the building from the side. The lobby was dark, and the elevator wasn't working properly. Nevertheless, we took it to the fifth floor and then walked to the sixth. The apartment was very bright with the early afternoon sun peeping in through the windows. There was no furniture in the living room, only floor-to-floor white carpeting. My room had one bed set close to the ground. After I settled in, we decided to head out the camps for a brief visit.
"You only drive to the camps with people you trust. We have a driver," Bilge said as she began dialing his number.
The driver, a young man with distinctively large hands showed up before we were ready. Acting as if trespassing into a forbidden place, he sat down on the floor in the living room with legs crossed and kept his head down, gazing at the floor. The sound of the beads on his tespi (rosary) pierced the silence as he nervously flipped them.
I got the feeling that this was not a place where you asked too many questions or talked much about yourself, especially if you didn't live here. People were cordial with each other, but there was a clear demarcation when it came to strangers. Conversations were curt without much eye contact. The atmosphere felt heavy: weighed down with seriousness. There was never the slightest laugh, or moments of joy around, almost as if everyone was in a state of depression. Şirnak was the epicenter of PKK activity and became a war zone until the ceasefire in 1991. It was obvious people were tired. The politics and fighting had adversely permeated everyone's being. People did not trust easily and lacked the ability to truly connect from the heart.
We drove out of the city down the main highway, past the newly constructed hotel. Fifteen minutes later, we found ourselves down a narrow, twisting dirt road. There was nothing in sight for a several minutes except for the dust blowing up from the parched earth. After the haze cleared, I saw a grey building with small white windows on my left and some children playing around it. It was part of a former military barracks, and the camp was set up inside. We parked near the entrance.
Two Kurdish guards greeted us at the gate. The security was much less strict here than in Diyarbakir. They recognized all of us: Bilge, the driver and ourselves, and we were able to go in after a few words were exchanged. Everywhere we looked, there were kids running. Some of the refugees stopped to stare at us as we walked toward the main buildings. The camp was small with a total of five buildings in close proximity to each other. The refugees, a few hundred in number and mostly from Iraq, were housed there instead of in tents, giving them more shelter from the sun and arid surroundings. There were men and women sitting on the steps to the entrance of each building. The facades were decorated with laundry and carpets hanging on ropes. The few adults standing appeared to be the leaders and volunteers. Amongst them, stood a tall blond American woman: a dentist, from California, there to fix teeth. She was encircled by a mob of children and was posing for multiple photo ops taken by one of the volunteers. Every time she moved the kids followed her.
One by one the children tentatively started to approach me. Some stared, some smiled. One little girl about ten years, wearing a pink sweatshirt, finally spoke. "This is how we count to twenty in Kurdish." (I was not expecting anyone to speak English.) I repeated this to her satisfaction, "Yek, doo, se." "Can you take me to Europe with you." "No, sweetheart," I said stroking her cheek. "If I take you your mother will get very angry at me and besides I would have to take your whole family along with us." "Yes, you are right." "Chwar, penj, shash." The crowd of kids continued to grow around me. All of the children looked beautiful to me; some had blond hair and blue eyes. I couldn't stop admiring them.
I heard a shuffle of feet and turned around to see a woman being carried inside on a blanket. "What's wrong with her?" I asked a camp leader. "She has been fainting the last several days. They will take care of her. Working here has its challenges. When these people first came here, they took all the donated blue colored clothes and put them aside refusing to wear them. We told them you have no choice. Just yesterday, one sewing machine came but we had to take it away. The women couldn't figure out how to share it and fought over it over whom it should belonged to. And just this morning, an American freelance journalist made it in here without permission. We had to ask her to leave. She kept saying she was going to call the embassy. We didn't trust her and think she was trying to smuggle people out of the camp."
"Is there anything for them to do here?' I asked, changing the subject "Not yet. We are working on it, but who knows how long it will take. Our main priority is to ensure everyone is fed. We have five hundred kilos of fresh milk coming in tomorrow."
Someone grabbed my arm. It was a young boy with arms too long for his lanky prepubescent body. He winked at me and took a big step back. His friends clapped and laughed at him. Blushing, he kept looking at me and then turned his head away. "Hey," I said with a big grin on my face. "I am going to get you." They all ran away and went behind the main building; their cackling laughter fading in with the sounds of other children.
The driver was ready to take us back home. "You are very lucky," Bilge said later that night, right before I went to bed. "Why?" "I didn't want to say anything," she paused. "What, tell me?" "Twice, earlier this week for the first time since I've been here, police sprayed tear gas below us. My eyes started burning so badly that I had to go the bedroom in the back and shut the door to wait it out. It always starts after sunset after the shops close. Smoke bombs go off in the distance and then the police come. Tonight is quiet. You are lucky." Her demeanor was very calm as if this was normal for her.
I went to bed feeling very nervous, considering whether or not I would have come to Şirnak if I had known beforehand of this disturbing nighttime activity. I calmed down, thinking of my late afternoon flight back to Istanbul the next day.