It rains a lot in the Black Sea region of Turkey — that’s what makes it so suitable for the cultivation of its two biggest exports, black tea and hazelnuts — but this year’s precipitation was unmatched. Neither I nor the locals had ever seen anything like it; some were calling it a one in 500-years event. The average precipitation in the town of Hopa, close to Turkey’s border with Georgia, is 173 mm in the month of August, but during one day this year, 255 mm fell in less than 24 hours. Heavy rain we had witnessed last year, which caused minor flooding to our hillside house, seemed like a light shower by comparison.
It was on the weekend starting 22 August that the tumultuous tempest hit us. We had experienced frightening thunderstorms at around dawn a few days earlier, when the shattering cracks of lightning had driven us downstairs to take refuge in the kitchen until it was time to rise. But as a few days of glorious sunshine followed, that brief storm was quickly forgotten. I had to work anyway, glued to my chair at my desk, jealous of my wife and children who had journeyed up to the highlands to spend time with family. In their absence I would laugh at my habitual routines: sitting at my desk, on my own, in a locked house, at the end of a remote road, at the top of a hill, in the middle of nowhere… and still I would lock my computer when I got up to make a cup of coffee! What dedication to data protection!
As I finished work in the evening of 21 August and packed up my workstation for another year, I rejoiced in the return of my holidays. I had some jobs to do around the house, but at least I was free of the computer screen and the unending support tasks that blinked across it. I would have a few days rest, I promised myself. But sadly it was not to be.
Shortly before midnight that Friday night, the first of the torrential rain began to pound on our corrugated iron roof, drumming its ever faster rhythm all night long. The percussion was so intense that I hardly slept at all, drifting off occasionally only to be awoken by a deafening boom or the piercing white light of lightening cutting through the curtains. When I arose for the morning prayer, I discovered minor flooding downstairs, but it was nowhere near as bad as last year. I mopped and brushed out the worst of it, watched the sun rise over the distant horizon and finally went back to bed.
After the rain, Saturday was a beautiful day: sunny and warm, with a cloudless blue sky to dispel any fear that remained. The rising heat quickly dried up the puddles inside and wet earth outside. I had painting to do, but I would wait until the middle of the afternoon for the walls to dry out completely. I managed to paint half of the back wall of our house before the evening light faded.
Saturday night was quiet. I promised myself that I would complete the painting on Sunday, before my family returned home, though in the event I did not start until after asr prayer, when the day began to cool down. I could hear our neighbours working nearby, harvesting hazelnuts a little way up the road. Their distant voices provided a sense of reassurance that I was not all alone, up on my ladder with a paint brush in hand.
As I was painting the house that afternoon, a deer wandered down through the hazelnut grove just behind me. At first I was alarmed as I mistook it for our neighbour’s cow, but as it galloped away at the sight of me, I took its appearance as a good sign… that the bears were not nearby. Soon I became so engrossed in contemplating this notion, as you do when in the midst of a monotonous job such as painting, that I didn’t notice our neighbour come walking down the road behind me. Naturally I jumped out of my skin, and very nearly off the ladder. You really have to be mindful when working in these parts: there are all sorts of creatures and creepy-crawlies out to get you.
Unfortunately, not long after I came in from painting the house, another almighty storm blew in — thunder, lightening and relentless torrential rain — which continued without pause all night, all morning and for most of the day thereafter. The painting that I had completed with some satisfaction the previous evening had mostly been washed off the wall. But it soon turned out that the paint was the least of my problems: when I returned outside after another storm I discovered that the road I had been standing on only a few minutes earlier had been mostly washed away, and now there was a massive waterfall where it used to be.
At seeing that I went back inside and tried to reach my wife on her telephone to advise her not to bother trying to come back to the house. We had no electricity, the road was impassable and, well, it was no place to bring the children. Unfortunately I was unable to reach them and with nothing to do as the storm grew stronger, I closed the curtains and let myself drift away, closing my ears to the furious cloudburst pounding on the roof. My thoughts meandered far away from me and just as the devil drove me to madness, the heavens opened with an almighty crashing thunderclap that shook everything and shot straight through me, sending me fleeing from myself to Him. I took it as a humongous rebuke.
When I glanced out of the window as the rain slowed a little, the stream of water running down the hill had become a vast river. I went into the loft for a better view, which was when I noticed the landslides: in a neigbouring field and across the valley. Realising that I had to get the word to my wife somehow, I decided to visit our neighbours to ask if I could borrow their mobile phone. It was only then that I discovered what a major disaster was unfolding around us.
Heading up the hill, I discovered that one of our tea fields had moved from its place: it had slipped down the hillside and now blocked the road. When I arrived at the neighbour’s house, I found nobody there. I called for them, but no one answered. On a normal day I would have shyly turned around and gone home, but instead I pushed on up the hill to see if they were with one of their relatives. I discovered the whole family running backwards and forwards on the crest of the hill pointing down into the other valley, screaming. As I am not familiar with that side of the hill, it was difficult at first to understand what they were looking at. But soon it became clear: the whole of the steep hillside had fallen down and taken four houses with it.
As I joined them there, I learned that my wife had just called them to find me. She had arrived in town from the highlands and was at her sister’s house. Down on the low-lying ground the picture was obviously far, far worse, as the rivers of every hill and valley spewed down into the major riverbed, now a torrent of chocolate-brown muddy water gushing through the town, spilling over its banks and taking everything that would move with it, from gas canisters to trees to cars and vans. Moments earlier she had witnessed a mudslide cascade down the hill on the other side of the valley, burying a family alive, and was distraught. I was safe and well, I told her.
Despite everything, for me up there on the hill, it still hadn’t sunk in how serious this calamity was. I was a stranger with limited communications skills, seeing only a tiny piece of the bigger picture. After speaking to my wife, I returned to our house to begin packing our bags and putting everything away ready to leave; I thought I would stay another night and then in the morning I’d make my way down to town to be reunited with my family, leaving the house behind until next year. But instead, an hour or so later, my neighbours appeared out of the gloom and thrust a telephone to my ear. My wife was adamant that I leave immediately and make my way down the hill, where a car would be waiting for me to take me to safety.
And so it was that I was forced to abandon our hillside home and flee on foot. I had done the bulk of the tidying up, mothballing the house as we do each year, but the luggage remained unpacked. Now there was no time to plan or pack; now I just had to get out. So off I went: carrying nothing but a plastic bag containing a single change of clothes, a bottle of water, a chocolate bar and my passport, I dashed out of the house and up the road, soon to further discover the extent of the disaster.
The dirt track that led to our house had mostly been washed away by the rain now. A two minute walk up the road, I found my path blocked by a landslide. There was no way forward except over it, my feet sinking into the sodden mud. Another minute on, I encountered an even bigger one; looking up the hill from where it had come, I could see the underneath of a neighbour’s house, the land that used to sit underneath it now a vast mound blocking the road. Once more I clambered over the mud as quickly as I could, though it easily reached my thighs, both to avoid getting stuck in it and to get out of the way of that precarious looking house.
At the junction of our road with another one, I met another group of unlikely refugees – a family of five: an old man with an umbrella, a man of about my age, and three women in hijab and traditional clothes, covered in mud. None of us were dressed for an adventure of this type; we had all just left in whatever we were wearing. The priority had been to escape, not to change into old clothes or hiking gear.
Further down the road another landslide blocked our way, but this one was massive. I thought that if I tried climbing over it I would definitely get stuck in the mud, so I opted to clamber down the hillside instead. This turned out to be a huge mistake, because although the soft-looking tea bushes made the slope look gentle from a distance, it was in fact a near vertical drop. While I was still only half way down, I saw that the other group had made it over the mudslide and were pushing onwards; I still had to get out of the tea field and after that I didn’t see the family again.
So went the journey down the hill, encountering mud slide after mud slide. The hill is steep but the distance is not great: about 5 km down to town. I know the route very well because I walk that way to the mosque on Fridays: in normal circumstances it takes about 20 minutes to walk down and 40 to walk back up again. But with so many landslides cutting across the roads all the way down, it was easy to become disorientated. Several times I had to trample straight down the steep hillside instead, swinging between hazelnut trees, surprising myself with the bursts of energy that kept me going.
Part way down my wife and a distant relative appeared out of the rain. They shouldn’t have put themselves in danger to find me, but there was no time then to get angry. We just had to get down to safety. Up on the hill I had had no idea how serious the unfolding disaster was: soon I would see the devastation. The town was submerged in tumultuous floodwater and my usual route through the town was cut off. My wife and her companion guided me in another direction, along a road I would never pass when walking down alone. Crossing the river at the road bridge, the water almost reaching its surface, we met streams and streams of people pouring out of the valley on foot. We were all refugees from the disaster.
Only then did the seriousness of all that had occurred really hit me: as I sat besides my wife in the minibus that had been sent to rescue me. Through the windows were scenes of utter devastation: flooding, landslides, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, thick mud everywhere. Shops were already sold out of candles, matches and bottled water. And as the evening drew in and darkness fell it all became all the more surreal. With no electricity to comfort us and no running water on tap, we ate a modest meal by candle light and then went to bed to absorb all that had come to pass.
The following day there were the funerals for the family that died opposite my sister-in-law’s house. My nephew and his cousins were heroes, having rescued two alive from the deep mud, digging though it with bare hands and feet, although the stones cut their skin to shreds. And now they were on funeral duty, digging the graves for the deceased, who only yesterday had been enjoying life on their homestead farm on the side of the hill. Some others, swept away elsewhere are yet to be found: one a hero in her own right, who went back into her house to rescue her disabled grandmother when the landslide came.
While this experience was nothing to experience of those escaping war or major disasters, those few short moments as a refugee from calamity made me appreciate the hardship the desperate go through: to have with you only what you can carry; to leave your home behind, not knowing what might happen to it; to press on, against all the odds, when colossal obstacles seem to obstruct your way. It offered me a sense of perspective that nothing else could. One day I might write about the feelings it stirred up within. One day, perhaps, when I have been able to return to our little house on the hill, on a sunny day, when the madness of my panicked departure is no longer my only memory.
May all refugees see such days again. Our discomfort and fear was only temporary. May their discomfort and fear be relieved soon too.