Sarah Yates shares her experience of paying her respects on ANZAC day. Ever since thousands of ANZAC troops died fighting for freedom on its shores, Turkey has been a Mecca of sorts for Australians. The very name of the country conjures up sounds and memories, passed down through our Australian families in whispers and through our classrooms in textbooks. A trip to this exotic sounding place brings the opportunity to pay respects, to take tea with the descendants of troops gunned down in the fight for democracy, to roam the wild coast of Gallipoli and to wander the cobbled streets of Istanbul searching for…something…
It was that something that led me to pack my bags and head for Istanbul just in time for the ANZAC day services on the shores of Gallipoli. Friends and family enthused about the experience of being able to be there on such an important day; “We’ll think of you from the dawn service in Perth” my parents wrote, the pride in their words almost palpable from the screen of my internet café computer.
The plane was full of Australian accents, all drawn to the same place, for the same reasons. Every traveller knows the feeling of hearing a familiar accent across a crowded foreign street. The warmth it brings; the solidarity and immediate comradeship it invokes between two strangers. To me, hearing my own accent replicated over and over was a gentle tug at the heart strings and a warm embrace from home flicked far across the ocean. Istanbul was full of them, the twinge and drawl of the Aussie vernacular. In fact, it was difficult to pick the Turkish voice amongst the din of the Australian travellers.
The hostel-lined streets “become one long outdoor restaurant for the week either side of ANZAC day”, my pension owner told me. “It is very good for business!”. Songs from Cold Chisel poured out of the speakers at one pension, to mingle with Hunters and Collectors at the next, and Men at Work at a third. Baskets of wonderful Turkish bread were brought to tables full of Australians and New Zealanders talking, making friends and sharing tales from the roads that brought them to this place.
Sure, there was a distinct lack of “Turkish” in the air, with the focus being firmly on playing to the patriotic hearts of the travellers. But if you overlooked this, there was an electric feeling around that could almost be touched. We were here to pay our respects, to honour the fallen and to revel in all it meant to be an Australian or a New Zealander.
Imagine then, my disappointment when I noticed the vast quantities of beer consumed by many people as we travelled to the coast in the early hours for the next morning’s ceremony. I disembarked feeling disgusted with the smell of warm beer that had lodged itself in my nose and feeling faintly embarrassed by those who did not even make it off the bus, deep in the oblivious slumber that comes with beer and late hours.
I wandered off in the darkness to find a quiet spot from which I could warm myself and watch the service. The track was rough, bumpy and crumbling. There were Turkish soldiers everywhere; with guns so big they looked pretend. Even though the guns on these shores were long silent, there was the ever-present fear in a post September 11 world that they would not be hushed forever. The irony could not be escaped – here we were to celebrate peace surrounded by guns to ensure it stayed that way.
I squashed in between two guys leaning up against a wall and proceeded to try and get warm; even after surviving a winter in London the cold chilled me to the core. The three of us began to talk, sharing details of our lives the way strangers do when they meet on the road. There were lights on the stage below us and a band was playing covers of Aussie pop songs. The noise was tinny and cheap, the sound floating around on the air without purpose or meaning. I wondered why noise was so important…surely sometimes silence is more poignant? But suddenly, the music faded away. The crowd quietened. The ceremony began.
The conflicting feelings I had about the music and the drinking and the party fell away in the silence. The dark was all-encompassing. 15,000 people wondered as one how the men had felt watching the dawn on that day all those years ago, and they listened as one to Attaturk’s famous poem: “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.”
I let the tears fall, making no effort to wipe them from my face. As dawn broke, the power of the coastline was revealed – the foreboding cliffs, the sharp rocks, the tiny shore, the uselessness of the campaign, the appalling waste of life and the echoes of the pain. All of this came with the sun. They must have known, those men on those boats. Known about the death that was coming.
After the final blessing the crowd did not move. There was no sound, every person there was keeping a tryst with the past. Slowly people unfolded themselves, packed up sleeping bags and moved off. There was a hush about the grounds, the party was over, only respect and awe remained.
There had been so much blood, but as I walked back up the hill away from the beach everything was so still, so peaceful. The water was blue and the sky clear. Somehow appreciating the beauty of this place seemed wrong, like I was trespassing on the grief of the families. But the beauty is impassable, the starkness and loneliness of the coastline, the greenness of the cemeteries and the white of the tombstones. I left a little piece of myself on the shores of ANZAC cove that day, as does everyone who goes there. I had roamed the coastline in search of something I could not get from the textbooks of my school days … and I had not been left wanting.