Yeraltý Notlarý, 9 Kasým 2004

Sevgül Uludað

 

Assia: The village with the smell of vasilicon…(*)

Assia: The village with the smell of vasilicon…

Assia: The village with the smell of vasilicon…(*)

 

Sevgul Uludag

 

For the journalist Hasan Kahvecioglu, Assia was the smell of vasilicon (basil)… He had got engaged with a girl from Sinda, both of them young teachers, looking forward to a happy and peaceful life together. This was the year 1973…

He remembers Assia with the smell of vasilicon:

`We were going every day from Sinda to Nicosia by bus. As a young couple we would sit at the front seats of the bus… Our bus would stop at the petrol station in Assia. The wife of the owner of the petrol station would give us a branch of vasilicon, each time we stopped there. She had a lot of vasilicon plants at the station – in the evening when we would return to Sinda, we would see her watering her plants… I wonder if she is still alive…`

Lecturer and peace activist Maria Hadjipavlou also remembers that right after the tragedies of July and August 1974, when the people of Assia became refugees, they had a lot of vasilicon plants in rusty tins…

`They were living in the refugee camps or tents but still kept vasilicon in old tins…`

Vasilicon – the plant which is hard to grow but is so Cypriot – we even have a common song, sang both in Turkish and Greek in Cyprus.

`Psindri vasilica mu ce manzurana mu/Cesu na mehorizes abo ti mana mu/Evka sto parasdiri krifa tu mana su/Ce kame bosbotizis tin manzurana su`

`You are my love/you, the basil flower opening in my heart/My lover has basil on her/has bendo liras (five golden coins) around her beautiful neck/As she plants basil in her pots/I went around her/My love when I see you my heart moves/You’re my heart, my basil I can’t leave you`

For Christoforos Skarparis, Assia is the sky full of stars, it’s the innocence of children, the eternal summer of youth… In his poem called `The nights of May`, you can smell vasilicon:

 

`When we were young

We dreamed of rainy winters

And thick forests.

There, in the midst of our eternal summer

The essence of our dreams

Was not the acquirement of big houses and luxurious cars.

We were never ashamed of our poverty.

When bread was short in our earthen houses

We collected the rain water sent by the Almighty

through our dripping roofs and kept it in tin jars, with a holy tenderness

for the dry, hot summer days –

Oh! What a blessing for our mint and basil in our little gardens…

 

In the burning Messaoria

We never heard of `noble` metals,

Neither did we hold in our hands what others call precious stones.

In our grandfathers’ rough palms we dug for gold.

In the nights of May,

With our tender eyes covered by magic dew

We searched the skies of Spring

For Sirius and Aphrodite – those were our true and precious diamonds…

 

It was our destiny to grow up in other lands.

In places where darkness is man’s foe.

Where nights don’t come along with dreams and smells of jasmine

and stars don’t shine.

It was our destiny to live another life.

Strangers, with all things around dreadfully strange to us…`

 

I go and meet Christophoros Skarparis and Yiannos Demetriou from the Cultural Association of AssiaYiannos was only 11 years old and Christophoros, barely 15… They relate their experience through the eyes of a child and a youngster of those times… Yiannos later goes to the US for two years and there writes a composition in school. His teacher Edna Murphy is so shocked that she keeps the composition for many years… When Yiannos goes back for university studies, she gives it to him… The composition is written in early 1975 when Yiannos was about 12 years old. The teacher Edna Murphy had asked the students the question: `What is the most important thing that happened in your life?` and he answers this question:

`The most important thing that happened in my life was when we were captured by the Turks. We were prisoners for 14 days. This is how it happened: It was August 14, 1974 and the day was Wednesday, 1.45 pm. My family and I were at my aunt’s house and we heard shootings. My brother went out to see what was happening. We also heard horns and people yelling. That time my uncle came with the car and told us to leave. We went in the car but we could not leave because there were two more cars – on in front of us and the other on the back. So we got ut of the car and went to an old house. In that house there were 26 people and the size of the room was about ¼ of our classroom. We stayed there for das and we had very little to eat and we had to drink water from the well. In the 4th day we left from that house and went to my mother’s aunt’s house. There we had more food to eat. We stayed there for 5 days. Every day a Turkish soldier came with the guns kicking the doors and yelling. In the fifth day they came and kicked the door and broke it and motined to us to get out. I was barefooted so I went to pick my shoes but the Turkish soldier pointed his gun to me so I just went out bare-footed. We started walking – some soldiers were on the front and some on the back with gns in their hands. The road was full of pieces of glass. While we walked we saw a car on the road that was like a piece of board because a Turkish tank went over it. We walked for a while until they took us to a neighborhood on the eastern part of the village.

The house we were in there were around 60 persons. We had a hard time and fear in that house. We almost didn’t have anything to eat in there. In that house there were just women and children. They captured all the men, no matter how old they were. My grandfather was captured too. The village started to smell because the people the Turks killed were still unburied. One day a Turkish doctor came to the village and he said that everyone had to leave from the village because the air was poisonous. So the Turks decided to let us leave. But the night before we were going to leave some men escaped from prison. The next day the Turks got mad because some men escaped and changed their mind. They were not going to let us leave that day. They also started punishing the other prisoners who did not escape, they punched and kicked them. We waited one more day and then another one. The atmosphere was terrible – it smelt very bad and we had to get handkerchiefs and put them around our mouth and nose so we would not breathe the poisonous air. In the 14th day they brought busus and all the people went in the buses. People were leaving from the village, leaving everything behind us – our homes, cars, furniture, farms, factories and all the other things they had. One of those people was me and my family. We left everything we had with very few things. When we got free we stayed in Cyprus four more months and we came to United States..`

I listen to the story of the 84 missing persons from Assia… I listen to the pain and humiliation, the rapes of young girls barely 12 or 13, the death and torture the people of Assia had to go during August 1974.  I listen to the tragic story of Michael Kashalos – an old painter from Assia who was beaten so severely that his bones were broken – he could only survive two days in hospital after he came to the southern part of our island, dying and leaving behind naïve paintings to be awarded after his death…I look at his pictures, sitting with his wife, painting, painting the impressions he got from his beloved village… I look at the photographs from Assia – it was a happy place once, kids on donkeys, people eating and drinking, having football matches, making souflakia on Sundays… All of a sudden all of this was destroyed and only pain remained behind… Christophoros Skarparis sums it up in a poem called `That summer`:

 

`In the heart of that bitter summer

We left behind our tender youth

Wandering wounded among the ruins

Of homes dearly loved.

We left behind our dreams

Hanging on a nail

Among a budle of rusting keys

That will never open our entrance doors again.

We left behind a dreadful silence

Haunting our belltowers

And deserted streets

That once were filled with blossomed jasmine

And cheerful voices of children at play.

We left behind our last funeral marches,

Still so vivid in our disrupted memories.

Like the mourning of centuries

Which was shut behind our tight lips forever.

 

In the heart of that bitter summer

We left behind the broken masts of our lives…`

 

What remains behind dear reader? Now Assia has become `Pashakoy` and there is no trace of the life that was once there… Only the photographs, the pain and the trauma remains… And sometimes not even `A photograph` as in the poem of Skarparis:

 

`A birthmark in my guts

is my sole proof that once I had a child, a son.

I have nothing else of him.

Not even a tuft of hair,

An exercise book, a sketch,

Two rows of words… nothing!

For thirty years I struggle to imagine how he looks,

Whom he resembeles,

If the smallpox marks

Have vanished from his forehead…

For thirty years

I wander around in squares

Without even a photographs

That I could kiss,

That I could show to people and as if they have seen him,

That I could tenderly lay on his pillow,

And sing lullabies to it…`

 

When shall we realize that the pain of Assia is the same in Dochni and is the same in Aleminyo and is the same in Palekythrea – it is the same in Kythrea or Maratha – the pain we must learn from, the trauma that we must heal together… No one will treat our wounds but ourselves and only if we can look at each other’s eyes and admit all the mistakes, all the pain we have inflicted on each other, the rapes and the killings, only if we can admit and apologize and try to pave a better way for our kids… It will not bring back the good times, the laughter, the loved ones buried that we don’t even know where… But it will at least give a chance for a fresh start without any pretense with truth and reconciliation… And only then perhaps, the vasilicon will start smelling better, healing our hearts and minds…

 

(*) Article published in ALITHIA newspaper on the 7th November, 2004.

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