Monday, October 24, 2011

The Call You Never Want To Receive

"There's been an earthquake," my Adana colleague told me. We'd just spent a weekend in Diyarbakir celebrating the reconsecration of a large Armenian church in the heart of the old city. Eric and I had said goodbye to our colleagues and friends, and we planned to stay a few hours later to explore the heart of old Diyarbakir, huddled inside massive, grim basalt walls. We were debating which city gate we'd just passed when my phone rang.

Initially reported as 6.6-7.2 in size, the quake struck twenty miles from the Van city center, which I visited a year ago and which I was planning to visit again with Eric in the next few months. My heart froze when I heard the news - not two hours before I'd said goodbye to a large group of tourists who were travelling by bus to Van.

I'd had dinner with them the night before, telling stories over raki and the dry local wines. One person insisted that I learn Kurdish, offering to have his cousin in Istanbul teach me. Another spoke jouyously about visiting his grandparents' village near Van, the first person in his family to come to Turkey in nearly 100 years. We talked about the future, the past, and what those words mean in Turkey. We parted as old friends, promising to share photos from the weekend with each other and to meet up in Istanbul soon. And now this.

Luckily for them, the bus got nowhere near the earthquake zone. However, as I write this, the overnight death toll in Van topped 200, with many more expected. Buildings in the center of town have collapsed, including probably the hotel where I stayed a year ago. I wonder about the hotel owner, a cheerful man who took me and my colleagues on a guided hike of the Van castle, charming the guards into letting us in to the places that were closed to the public.
Tragedy can strike anywhere, and it's a tragedy whenever a life is lost.  I grieve for the city of Van and its neighbors, who lost so many and so much yesterday.