Thursday, August 19, 2004

Two sides to each story

Since I started travelling, I have begun to treasure the more unusual of Australian national traits, including our unique outlook on defeat. The fact that tens of thousands of young Australians travel to ANZAC Cove each year to commemorate months of slaughter ending in inevitable defeat is indicative of our appreciation for hard work, whether it ends in wealth or death.

Young Australians travel to the Gallipoli Peninsula in tour groups, spend almost 24 hours on the site visiting memorials, waiting for the Dawn Service and standing on the soil that birthed the Australian sense of country and identity. Yet we are people of life and spirit, who work hard and try to empathise with others, in a place of sorrow and death, created by incompetence and intolerance.

My first trip to ANZAC Cove was made in the company of the victors of those hideous killing fields - the Turks. A friend of mine with ties to the young people of the Turkish town of Gelibulu, after which the Gallipoli Peninsula is named, invited me along on a tour organised for Turkish university students that would take us around the Gallipoli memorial site. Like us, these young people were travelling to Gallipoli to commemorate an important moment in their country's history, both in relation to the war and to the post-war identity of the nation. Whilst they lost significantly more men to the Peninsula than the ANZACs, they do have a far more positive reason for celebration. The victorious General Ataturk of Gallipoli went on to become the founding father of their uniquely modern culture that straddles both east and west in an unusually harmonious meeting of politics and culture.

Since the tour was a Turkish one organised by boys who lived in Gelibulu, we spent the night before the Dawn Service in the town, eating in the restaurant on the beach, spending an hour cruising on the Bosporus on a troop carrier and partying in the nightclub to Turkish pop music. As the only two foreigners on the trip, Kim and I were much in demand as conversational partners and I was incredibly gratified to find myself in fascinating discourse with my fellow travellers, me in my only language, they in their second.

We started out for ANZAC Cove at about 1 pm and I was slumped, exhausted, in my seat, watching the impenetrable dark from the softly lit coach and conducting a dreamy conversation with one of the more loquacious of the young Turkish philosophers. As we started out on the long walk to the Cove for the long hours of waiting for the Dawn Service, he told me that my grandfathers and his would be terribly proud that he and I were walking, hand in hand, in companionship and intellectual understanding, on the soil soaked in their blood.

I always manage to experience the emotional resonances of a historical site, but it was this young man's words, spoken in softly accented English in the hushed bush land of Gallipoli that brought home to me the incredible act that is the ANZAC Day celebrations on ANZAC Cove. Citizens from both sides of the conflict converge each year to celebrate the fact that while they may have slaughtered each other's young men mercilessly then, the fallen lie in the same soil now and their descendents sleep side by side in the early hours of the morning to wake with the sun and celebrate the end of conflict.

Gracious in their victory, the incredible hospitality and tolerance of the Turks assures us that we are more than welcome to stay - both to remember the loss of life in war and to enjoy the amazing country that was born out of the conflict. General Ataturk comforted those who mourned the ANZAC dead with true warmth and understanding -

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehemets to us, where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Claire travelled to Gallipoli with Gursal Tours.