“How I used to work! I would get up before sunrise to knead bread – 15, 16 loaves. Then to the fields. We were growing wheat, broad beans, chick peas, rye. The rye was so high that you’d get lost in those fields. We had three cows that I milked. That’s how I spent my life. Everything we ate, we produced ourselves. At night, when I finally went to bed, I used to be so tired that I’d lie down as if I were dead.
“Our work was hard all the time but until these foreigners came here, we had peace. This mine has destroyed that peace. How would we have known that in our old age we would become activists and protesters?”
Süyet Ünek, 75, interviewed in the village of Ovacık, Turkey.
When Üstün Bilgen Reinart returned from Canada to her beloved Anatolia, in the first summer she and her husband Jean explored the region on a motorcycle. Üstün was particularly drawn to the lush, green plateau around Bergama, a town of about 50,000 not far from the Aegean, renowned as Pergamum in Hellenic and Roman times for its great library and medical centre.
She heard that villagers in the area were trying to block the development of a gold mine that threatened their farms. “I was immediately interested,” she says. “Villagers in Turkey had never done anything like this before. They’ve never had any power, never any say in what happens to them. In a way, in the Turkish context villagers are the aboriginal people. They work very hard, toiling on the land, and for centuries they’ve been buffeted by economic forces, political whims, and now globalization. I knew that for villagers to engage in civil disobedience against a foreign mining corporation was extremely unusual.” As an experienced journalist she decided to investigate.
Not surprisingly, at first the villagers were reluctant to answer any questions. Though Üstün spoke Turkish, she looked urban and had arrived with a foreigner – all of which meant she could be a spy for the mine. When a few people did consent to talk with her, cautiously, she was struck by the clarity and depth of what they said: The mine would poison their land and give nothing back, they didn’t want anything to do with it, they would defend their lands, to the death if necessary, but would use no violence, nor would they break the law.
I asked Üstün how she persuaded women to tell their stories. “I just talked to them – it was easy, I’m a woman, we had lots to talk about!” she says, with a warm laugh. Before the resistance developed, village women played no role in public life. “It was an amazing change. In a village where a man would not have allowed his wife to go even to her mother’s place without another woman going along, now he wouldn’t blink when someone knocks twice on the window – one knock, the man has to go, two knocks, the woman – so the woman grabs her basket of olives and cheese and bread, she runs to the minibus waiting outside in the dark to take her to Ankara or Istanbul. While she’s gone, the men look after the children, they make breakfast, they send the children to school. The men had even got used to seeing the women on television, so my coming on the scene asking questions to the women was not threatening at all.”
In the interviews, Üstün undertook to explore not only stories of resistance, but also what was at stake for the villagers, the texture of their daily lives, working on the land. “They work with the rhythms of the seasons, the light, the sun and the rain,” she replies. “This is what they know. They told me that olive trees never die – if you prune them in the right way, they’re immortal. I didn’t know this. So I wanted to make a record of how hard they work, how gruelling their lives are, and yet how they love this life, because they work with the soil, and it gives back.”
She also wanted to fathom how isolated villagers with little formal education had built such a complex, sophisticated movement. “I remember that in Canada, NGOs would hold workshops on civil disobedience – it’s not something you can just do. How could large numbers of people, including women, leave their families, get on bus, go to a big city and do these courageous, creative acts of disobedience? That was stunning to me.”
I asked her what obstacles she encountered in doing the interviews. “Villagers did not have a tradition of working with words – with the land, yes, but not with words,” says Üstün. “In the beginning they would say, ‘Oh yes, it was very hard, we went everywhere, we did lots of things.’ Then, silence. I kept asking questions in different ways: ‘When you were little, what kinds of stories would your parents tell you? What songs were sung in the region? In the bus going to the demonstration, did you sleep, did you talk, were you worried?’ The villagers had learned to be very careful in what they said, because if they were going to do an action, and out of affection they told someone, of course word would travel, and they’d be arrested on the way, so they had to change the way they related even to each other. Not knowing these things beforehand, I had to find ways of asking questions that would elicit such details. But then eventually a kind of invisible tap would be turned on, and they would talk to me.”
After more than a decade of resistance, hundreds of meetings and actions, how well are people able to reconstruct their memories? “Of course there were gaps, it’s inevitable,” says Üstün. “I would ask, ‘Do you remember you tied tins to your ankles, you carried your animals with you and went in a procession on the highway, the tins banging as you walked?’ He looks at me. He can’t remember the details. But then I would ask someone else, ‘When there was that cyanide spill in Romania, you protested, didn’t you?’ She says, ‘Oh yes, we tied those tins around our ankles, we carried the animals on our shoulders, and we did this…’ – so it comes out like that.”
Since one of her goals is to document the villagers’ resistance for future generations, how concerned is she with the accuracy of their memories? “I find that from a distance, people do remember things differently,” she replies. “For example, a woman told me that in one demonstration she offered a bowl of olives to the gendarme, she said to him, ‘This is what we are defending.’ But then purely by chance I found a video of this action – the gendarmes always tape demonstrations, and by Turkish law they are required to make it available, on request, to the people who were taped – and in the video I see that this actually happened, but the woman who offered the olives was not the same person who told me the story, it was someone else!” She laughs. “But really, in the bigger picture it’s not so important, is it? When people embellish things or misremember details, I don’t interfere.”
Why not? As a journalist, she does have to be concerned with accuracy, doesn’t she? “Yes, of course,” she replies. “But there is a kind of truth even in the embellishments. I want their truth to remain as they see and define it. At the same time, I also do an enormous amount of work with archives, court and government records, police videos, newspapers, any documents I can find. The Bergama book is structured similarly to Night Spirits, where the oral histories are framed by my narrative voice. That frame, as in traditional journalism, has to be tightly constructed so that times, dates, events are as accurate as possible – the documents have to confirm objectively what events took place when and where. After I’ve taken care of that, always there is this human process, the interaction between my consciousness and theirs, but in the end, it’s their voices telling their stories.”