When I talk to friends here I’m often surprised to learn that they’ve spent the best part of a year as drivers in İzmir or waiters in Ankara, hardly activities that sound very military at all.
But of course some of them have drawn the short straws of postings to southeastern hotspots such as Siirt or Şırnak, or to the bitter winters of Erzurum and the northeast. Shortest of all the short straws, however, has to be a posting to Afghanistan to serve as part of Turkey’s contribution to ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, the multinational body charged with helping the Afghan government bring stability to the country. Just over 1,300 Turkish troops are serving in ISAF and one of them was, until recently, a young Göremeli who, until his call-up, worked in a local carpet shop.
The surprise is that Osman had actually volunteered to go to Afghanistan, the pay for the posting being more than if he had stayed in Turkey. On his return the first thing he talked about was, perhaps not surprisingly, the grotesque heat. “Sixty degrees,” he told me. “We were in the desert.” Thankfully, he reported that their barracks were air-conditioned. Not only that, but their food was supplied by a company in Antalya, so there were no surprises there.
Expecting to hear stories of fearful fighting, I was relieved to learn that he’d spent his nine months in Afghanistan as a driver. “But while I was there a helicopter crashed and 12 men were killed,” he reminded us.
Osman told us that the various nationalities of ISAF each had their own separate barracks but assured us that the locals loved the Turks, probably because of their shared cultural and religious heritage. The occasional newspaper article had lulled me into thinking that Kabul had been largely rebuilt and somehow I’d thought that that might have meant the same sort of rapid development as has happened elsewhere. Osman was quick to disillusion me. No, there were no shopping malls, he said, just little local shops. “It’s a very poor country,” he added to ram home the point.
During the course of his stay he’d seen the poppy fields from which Afghanistan’s opium crop is harvested. Desert, poppy fields, a crumbling capital -- how far a cry it must all have seemed from Göreme with its neatly tended rosebushes, its boutique hotels and its full-on tourist industry.
“We were given several medals,” he told me, and his eyes lit up as he added, “And on the way back we stopped off in Baku as a thank-you present.” And so I should hope. Nine months is a long time for a young man to have to spend in such extreme conditions, supporting a cause about which he probably knew almost nothing before he flew into Kabul.
The interesting thing for those of us who would like to see the creation of a professional army is how much the experience seems to have changed and matured Osman. He seems a happier, more confident young man these days, more strikingly altered by his experiences than his luckier fellows who’ve returned, blasé, from cushy postings in the easier areas of Turkey.
Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.