THE FINAL JOURNEY

It was more than a week that nearly all the inhabitants of thirteen Ubykh settlements—the elderly, women and children, that is, those of us who were incapable of carrying weapons—were on the road travelling with the meager remains of their belongings. Looking at us one might think we were the victims of a fire, or gypsies, or war refugees. Three thousand homesteads had been uprooted. Of course, it wasn’t ancestral land we were leaving, but land that we had been settled on for quite a long time. And three thousand is no small number. It was summer—dry and scorching hot. In the daytime the heat was enough to fry one’s brains and at night the cold was unendurable. It was just like the African desert where I had suffered so much working on the caravan for Ismail Sabbah, may his soul burn in hell.

As the late Tagir had willed it, we were headed for the Caucasus. Perhaps if we had been going to Syria or Arabia, which no longer belonged to Turkey, Ali Hazret Pasha would have taken an altogether different attitude and realized he had enough troubles as it was without the Ubykhs. But we were headed for our homeland where the present government was friendly to Kemal Pasha. Ali Hazret Pasha boiled with indignation, “We warmed a viper in our bosom; all those emigres from the Caucasus are turncoats, enemies of the sultan. Well, I’ll show them!” He wasn’t just talking: the sultan’s lackey sent his punitive units to attack us like a pack of wolves and they took more and more lives from our human flock in flight for salvation.

I’m not sure, but I think that if we had had more strength and weapons we would have been able to get past Ali Hazret’s soldiers, past the Greeks who were sometimes on the offensive and sometimes on the defensive in those parts, and finally with enough obstinacy and good fortune we could’ve found our way back to the Caucasus and to our native mountains.

But we had little strength and few weapons. We did have some, though, because several dozen of our armed men joined us along the way after fighting on one or another of the hostile sides, or after coming out of the mountains where they were in hiding. They had guns and defended us as best they could.

We passed through the Konya plains that were as bare as a plundered grave. For miles on end there wasn’t a tree, water spring or well in sight. It’s no wonder the Turks would say you couldn’t get through these plains even on a camel.

Our horses, tortured by horse flies, could hardly move. The wheels of our carts were grinding on the rocks, creaking noisily as they rolled along, carrying our children, invalids and disabled elders. We tried to go as fast as we could. The dead were buried quickly and mourned as we moved along. The wounded, who could still walk even though they were barely conscious, didn’t ask to be carried in carts. Only those who were wavering between life and death were carried in carts or on stretchers. We could be shot at from all sides. It was despicable to shoot at a human throng, but a hit was guaranteed; any random bullets eventually find a victim. Our young men had a harder time of it: those who were following us on horseback were shifty like demons; they used hit and run tactics.

Ali Hazret Pasha sent messengers to threaten us:

“If you don’t want to be killed to the last man, give up and turn back before it’s too late! I swear by Allah that anyone heading into the hands of the sultan’s enemy will end up, with my help, in the arms of death!”

But we did not give in to his threats. A river always runs to the sea and a man reaches out for his native land. Since we were already on our way we didn’t want to turn back because the call of home, like the call of truth, cannot be ignored. As a way to cheer up those who were losing heart, we elders would sometimes sing an ancient Ubykh marching song:

Bleeding wounds don’t make us sorry
In defiance of the foe.
For the mountains and glory
Forward valiant horsemen go!

That was song’s refrain. The young didn’t understand the words, but they liked us to sing it anyway. Half the scorched plains were behind us. But then we faced a new problem: our small supplies of food ran out and people began starving; it started with the children’s crying. I’d rather listen day and night to bullets whistling overhead than the whimpering of hungry children. We had no alternative but to slaughter some of our bulls, then the horses. Sharakh, have you ever heard the neighing of a mortally wounded horse? After we had burned up our carts we had to use wooden cradles for firewood. Then we had nothing left that could be used to make a fire except for the butts of our rifles, but we still needed them for fighting back.

“Bleeding wounds don’t make us sorry...” the song soothed our souls. But we weren’t just hungry; we were also thirsty. Hunger and thirst gripped us like the jaws of two mad wolves. And there was no way to fight off the two beasts. Not a spring, or a well in sight!

“I’m thirsty, Mom, I’m thirsty!” a child with parched lips whispered to its mother.

But the mother didn’t even have any tears left to cry— they had dried up. When someone was injured, hardly any blood came from the wound. The group sent out to search for water never came back. Our human flock was no longer moving, just barely crawling along at a snail’s pace. People would fight over a piece of bread, or a drop of water. They ate the grass seen only on rare occasions. Anyone who managed to catch a mouse was really lucky.

Don’t give up hope,
Rain will mercifully
Pour from the heavens tonight.

We elders sang that to lift the people’s spirits. But the song was more like a lament.

Suddenly, like a voice from the heavens:

“There’s a swamp not far from here; there’s a swamp!” wheezed a man staggering as though he were drunk. Even those who were dying got up when they heard what he said.

Some ran, some walked, and still others crawled toward the place that man pointed to. Mothers picked their small children up in their arms, and older children outran the adults. Some just collapsed on the hot earth that was cracked like the shell of an overripe melon, and lay there with their mouths open like fish out of water. No one paid any attention to them.

Soon the people’s feet were squelching over the swampy hummocks. The swamp was wide. The shifting soil on the approaches to it was overgrown with reeds. The quagmire exuded a rotten stench. The soil and grass around it seemed to have been drenched in salt. Someone yelled:

“Don’t drink that water; it’s no good!”

But who cared. People shoved one another aside, breathing heavily in excitement. They fell to their knees and when their mouths got to the brown, lifeless water, they drank until they nearly choked. The water was warm and viscid; slimy water bugs, larvae and spiders drifted on its surface, but we Ubykhs drank with more lust than we had ever drunk from our pure mountain springs. And when we had drunk all that we could hold we still stayed by the swamp. Despite the fiery heat our bodies shivered with the dread of thirst the way a mad dog does fearing water. When we finally recovered our breath we began looking for our relatives and friends. We helped up those who hadn’t reached the water, and discovered that some of them were already dead.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. We had barely quenched our thirst when we began suffering from hunger again. The next day, though, we were fortunate. Two of our scouts who had gone a few miles ahead noticed a herd of grazing horses. The young fellows had the presence of mind to fright en’ the horses with gunshots so they would move toward our people who were dying of hunger. Have you ever heard of a war between people and horses? Well, there was one by that swamp. Men with guns shot at the horses; those with daggers hurled themselves at the confused animals as though in hand- to-hand combat; and those who had axes chopped through the terrified herd as though it was a forest thicket. The hysterical horses wheezed as crimson foam rushed from their bodies. People fell under the hoofs of the crazed horses. There was moaning and cries of horror! Horses fell to the ground with chopped skulls, broken legs, slashed open bellies. And people were crushed under the hoofs of animals frantically seeking escape. Horses, sometimes not yet dead, were skinned, their bodies chopped to pieces. A hungry man is like a wolf. We cut down reeds and made stinking fires out of them. Soon the air smelled of roasted horsemeat. When our stomachs were full of the half raw meat we got thirsty again and went back to the swamp to drink the bad water cupping our hands. Then we buried those who had died in the battle with the herd of horses. But before we moved on we set fire to the reeds growing in abundance around the marsh: “Our enemies will think we’re still sitting by our campfires!”

The hope we found in the flames of our campfire gave us strength; but not for long. After escaping two calamities we had to deal with a third. Cholera broke out. The first one to fall ill was a woman, the mother of three children. Pressing her stomach, and shivering from fever, her lips and her eyelids blue, she rolled around on the hot sand. Then her hands and legs began to convulse. In a few hours the woman died, but her children had caught the disease. Our people were terrified. Some prayed to God, others cursed him. I volunteered to bury the dead and in no time at all I had buried the two people closest to me: Aunt Himzhazh and her husband Sit. When Himzhazh died, Sit told me:

“Zaurkan, I am ill. When I die bury me next to Himzhazh; I don’t want to leave her alone in this cursed land.”

He dug his own grave right next to his wife’s and he didn’t suffer long before passing away.

I stood over their graves, and although my eyes seemed dry, tears appeared on my cheeks. That’s how it is some times in the mountains: even though the sky is clear, one can see cold drops on the rocks. I cried like those rocks: my tears came as if through the wrinkled skin of my cheeks.

Suddenly I heard the voice of the eldest among us, Tatlastan:

“We haven’t died yet, but we’re already mourning our selves. Come on, chin up! Ahahara, hahaira! Clap your hands! Let’s dance! Let’s dance!” and he hummed a dance song as though he were the healthiest one of us and fifty years younger than he actually was.

I couldn’t figure it out: had he gone mad?

But Tatlastan was definitely in his right mind.

“Haven’t you ever seen how a candle before it goes out suddenly gets brighter? Come on, and let’s brighten up like a shooting star, no, like lightning, for our enemies to see our splendor before we die.”

Tatlastan clapped his hands louder and louder as he walked up to one person, then another:

“Ahahara, hahaira!”

And really, it was a miracle. No one shouted, “You’re crazy! Calm down!” On the contrary, people who could barely stand up and who a moment before were lying motionless on the sand with no signs of life, began clapping their hands and singing, at first in whispers, then at the top of their lungs, a dance song of their forefathers.

“This land has gone deaf and doesn’t hear our children, crying; it’s gone blind and doesn’t see we’re dying! So, let’s dance, dance so that the noise we make with our feet thunders in its ears. May this land know we’re still alive and have no wish to surrender!” called out Tatlastan.

Gradually a circle was formed. If only you could have seen the faces, my son, of the people in that circle. Just imagine the faces of smiling corpses.

Tatlastan then shouted out, but this time to himself:

“Hey, Tatlastan, surely you haven’t forgotten how to dance? When you were in Ubykhia you could dance at weddings on the top of a narrow table. And the girls got dizzy when you—ahahara! —danced on your toes. The table didn’t shake. And the glasses full to the brim with wine, didn’t lose a drop! Come on and show you’ve still got your pep!”

He began dancing, his hands on his hips.

At that point there was a jumble of noise—laments, shouts of ahahara, tears and laughing. It was a moment of madness. And I began clapping my hands like a man high on hashish:

“Ahahara, hahaira!”

Tatlastan even tried falling on one knee, but he couldn’t do it.

His old bones will no longer do what he wants them to, I thought to myself. There’s a proper age for every dance! But where is he getting that strength?

To be sure, a woman’s age can be told by her face, but a man’s, by his soul. What I was witnessing there in the desert reminded me of the proverb my ancestors had long before my birth: “Invite the dead to a feast and make them want to dance!” When I remembered that I couldn’t help but wonder if our forefathers had foreseen the terrible end of the Ubykhs.

Suddenly Tatlastan, still dancing and clapping his hands, broke away from the crowd, calling us to follow him. The old man was out of breath. He couldn’t talk and nodded to the people to follow him. But everyone obeyed as though he had them tied to a string. He led them toward the sound of a rooster crowing. Not far from us was the first village we had seen in that desert...

What happened after that Zaurkan could hardly remember. He told the rest of the story incoherently. He couldn’t either remember how long the Ubykhs had been on the road, the place they had reached, or the number of surviving Ubykhs. One day he told me one thing, the next day, another. He had everything mixed up.

He was suffering from cholera then and perhaps that’s why he couldn’t remember much. But one thing was clear: the old man had endured a terrible experience. When he began talking about it he trembled all over, his face became sullen, and his voice broke.

But just where was that place?

I took out my map of Turkey and showed it to the old man. I pointed out the Konya plains and the swamps that were marked in green. But the old man couldn’t tell me anymore than he already had.

On the map those swamps were not far from the place where the old man now lived. I figured I had traveled through those places where the bones of the Ubykhs lay buried after the cholera epidemic, somewhere near here. And so Zaurkan was mistaken when he said they were on the road for a long time and the journey took forever. Actually the Ubykhs had gone a mere forty to sixty miles. But how could old man be blamed for stretching out the days and the distance in his memory, affected by the power of his grief?

We sat down again, and once again the old man tried, with great difficulty, to connect all his disjointed memories.

We were driven into a corner: there was no way to go forward and there was no way back. People in the nearby villages fled to the mountains away from the cholera. They took their food and their livestock with them. Only those who’ were already ill stayed at home. Wherever there was thunder, lightning always seemed to strike the Ubykh people. The Turks blamed us for the epidemic and so those who had remained behind in their homes to care for their sick; and those who had already recovered from the illness, took up their guns to stand in the way of our exodus.

The police had strict orders from Istanbul: “Keep the Ubykhs from going anywhere. Do not hesitate to shoot. Burn up the dead!”

When we got to the first village and were already at the houses on the edge of the community, some peasant came running toward us and shot Tatlastan, who was leading us all. Then the man vanished. Tatlastan fell down. I bent over him.

“Well, they got me, Zaurkan! Bury me with my head toward Ubykhia.”

He died and I felt feverish. I remembered the words from an ancient song: “In a cholera year even the swallows don’t fly,” and I looked at the sky: there were no swallows there. Far into the distance I saw fog. I pressed my palm on my forehead. The fog was gone, but then it came back. Standing over Tatlastan’s dead body I couldn’t for the life of me figure out which way was Ubykhia. I didn’t bury him: I hadn’t the strength. I was only able to drag his body under a tree and close his eyes. My condition got worse and worse. Feeling pain in my stomach, I went over to the house that stood somewhat apart from the rest. I could hear bullets whistling over my head, but I paid no attention.

Tatlastan‘s nephew and some other Ubykh ran past me with their daggers bared in search of the peasant who had shot the old man.

“He couldn’t have just vanished into thin air?” shouted one of the Ubykhs.

“He’s probably hiding in some house.”

As I came near the gate, I could hear the heart-rending cry of a woman. Mustering up what was left of my strength, I went into the house. Tatlastan’s nephew had pushed the frightened woman into a corner and was pressing his dagger to her breast.

“Tell us where the man who shot the gun is hiding? I saw how he ran into this house. Stop your teeth from chattering and answer my question! If you don’t tell me, you witch, I’ll put an end to you and your son!” He said and nodded to the sick boy tossing on the bed.

“I swear to Allah that no one came in here. You may search the whole house, but don’t kill us. We’re innocent! My son is an orphan; his father died two years ago,” said the terrified woman, trying to edge her way to the poor boy.

“Get out of here!” I hollered.

Probably my voice was like the howl of a dying animal.

The astonished men put away their weapons. I heard a shot outside, then another, and the young men ran out of the house. I also turned to go out the door, but the woman grabbed me with both her hands:

“Don’t go, I beg of you. Don’t go! If we’re left here alone they’ll come back and kill us. Please take pity on us!” she pointed to the boy.

If that woman hadn’t tried to keep me there I wouldn’t have gone very far anyway. She laid me down on her bed and I lost consciousness.

I don’t know how long I was delirious and convulsing, and then unconscious, but when I did come to I saw that I was in some strange house.

“Where am I?” were the first words I spoke the day I came back from my journey to death. I was talking to the woman standing at the head of my bed.

“Just consider yourself at home.”

“And who are you, Hanum?”

“If you look closely you may remember me.”

I thought I saw the woman smiling and began examining her. Her round face, her big black eyes, despite her smile, were full of sorrow, and her hair was streaked with gray. I tried to remember who she was, but couldn’t.

The woman told me herself.

“Remember how two of your young men wanted to knife me and my son, and you saved us. Then you wanted to leave, but I begged you to stay. You were already ill, and I had to put you in bed. Till this day you’ve been on the verge of dying, but, praise be to Allah, you’re alive.”

Gradually my head began to clear and I could remember. One after another, I conjured up visions of the final journey of the Ubykhs... Corpses, corpses, and more corpses. Tatlastan dancing... And finally I remembered how I had come to this house. Cheered by my restored memory, I decided to sit up in bed.

“Lie down! You’re still too weak,” said the woman as she carefully wiped away sweat from my face and forced me to put my head back on the pillow. Then she brought me tea and helped me drink it.

“So these hands took me out of the grips of death?” and I patted her hand.

“You are our savior. Of course, it wasn’t easy to take care of two sick people at the same time—you here and my son there; but praise be to Allah, you’re both alive.” She went to the door and, opening it, she called out: “Biram! Come in the house, Son.”

A boy of fifteen, as skinny as a rail, quietly walked into the room. His face was very pale.

“You see, Biram, our savior is also recovering!” said the mother to her son, not taking her loving eyes off him. “Go to him, and talk to him, only not long, or you’ll wear him out!

The boy looked at me with his kind deer-like eyes, and coming over to the bed, whispered:

“Praise be to Allah; praise be to Allah!”

The woman put her hand on the boy’s head and sighed hopefully:

“Maybe now our days will finally be brighter.”

Sharakh, that was the home where we’re now sitting. I lay right there where my bed is now, and she sat watching me from where you’re sitting...

I know that I shouldn’t say her name. The Ubykhs, like the Abkhasians, are not supposed to mention the names of their wives. But you should know the name of that Turkish woman who saved my life: her name was Salima.

My dear friend, my patient friend, I must’ve worn you out with my story, every word of which has a sheen of blood and grief. All the Ubykhs who tried to return to their homeland perished: some from cholera, others from bullets. Still others, although these were few in number, survived, but I also consider them dead because they ceased to be Ubykhs.

You ask what happened to Salima? That woman had a rare soul. I was eighty that year when she pulled me out of the grasp of the angel of death. I completely recuperated within a short time and got back all my strength. I was planning to go, but she said: “Stay here, you have no where to go. From this day on my home is yours.” Even though I was advanced in years I was still a strong man. We lived like man and wife. Within a few months there was no more cholera in the village. All those who had fled to the mountains had returned. Only the number of graves dug that year in the village cemetery was more than there had been in ten years of peaceful life.

Then one day Salima suddenly fell ill. She had some chest ailment. I did everything I could to save her, but I suppose it wasn’t enough. Before she died she asked me:

“Don’t leave Biram! Be a father to him!”

The next day I buried her. Her grave is not far from here— on the slope of the hill. When I take a walk I go there. I always feel as though not only she is buried there, but all of my loved ones. I told Biram a long time ago to bury me there, too, when my time comes.

While Biram was growing up he stayed with me all the time. I was his father and I taught him all I knew. When he got married he began to live with his own family. He has a reputation among the people as an honest man, and a hardworking, good blacksmith. You and God are my wit nesses that my son does not forget me. Each day now can easily become my last in a foreign land, in a house I didn’t build. I-Zaurkan Zolak—am the last Ubykh in this imperfect world. I even feel ashamed that I’ve lingered so long...

That’s all that Zaurkan Zolak had time to tell me. I have read my notes over and over and am continually astounded by the man’s vitality. He who witnessed the disappearance of his people, managed to find the strength for more than a month to recount their sad story to me.

“My son, Sharakh, don’t be offended, but I must lie down, I’m dizzy,” he said that last evening and got up wishing me a good night.

I went to my room, lit a candle, laid-my notes in front of me, and got to thinking about all I had heard from the old man. It was as though I had witnessed the Ubykhs’ final journey; I could still hear the screaming and the gun fire. My manuscript seemed drenched in blood and tears.

There are many examples in history when whole nations, much larger than the Ubykhs, disappeared from the face of the earth without a trace. But the Ubykhs ceased to exist not so very long ago; it all happened within one man’s life time, but of course, not overnight and not in one year.

From the day they boarded the ships in the hope of finding the Promised Land in Turkey, they doomed them selves to gradual extinction.

Assimilation was and continued to be Turkey’s official policy, both under Sultan Abdulhamid and later under the government of the Young Turks.

The turbid and powerful river of assimilation picked up the Ubykhs and forced them into its rapids, as it did to many other peoples. The Young Turks dreamed of uniting all countries inhabited by Muslims, the Caucasus included. They believed that in the Great Ottoman Empire they would thus create, the state religion would be Islam; the only language would be Turkish; and all nations would be equal— all would be Turks. The small ethnic groups had no choice but to be enveloped and swallowed by the waters of that single river. Those who resisted would end up like Tagir.

The 1917 Socialist Revolution in Russia affected the entire world; word of it also reached the emigres from the Caucasus who were living in Turkey. The emigres still, deep down in their hearts, continued loving their native land. When they heard that after the 1917 Socialist Revolution the other ethnic groups of the Caucasus had become masters of their ancestral territories, many of them wished to return home to their abandoned hearths... When Mikhail Frunze* M. Frunze (1885—1925)—Soviet statesman, Party and military leader.—Ed. was touring Turkey in 1921 some of the Caucasians told him about it.

And so I wasn’t surprised when Zaurkan told me about Tagir, who, in spite of all the dangers involved, tried to get through the network of frontlines to Ankara to meet some representative of Soviet Russia.

Archival material shows that many Caucasians living in Turkey were involved in the revolutionary events, although because the political developments were so complicated there were some who were forced to change sides overnight, going from one political extreme to the other.

Like the Ubykh Tagir, whose dream never came true, there were other Caucasian emigres in Turkey who realized the importance of preserving their languages and made at least some attempt to preserve them as well as their customs and their mode of life in general. They sought salvation in enlightenment. They made alphabets and readers, printed small newspapers in their own languages, and organized educational centers for their ethnic communities.

In 1919 Mustafa Butba, of Abkhasian descent, had an Abkhasian reader published in Istanbul. The alphabet he had devised was based on the Latin alphabet. Some Abkhasian schools were even organized here and there and they used Butba’s reader.

But those first weak sprouts of enlightenment perished under the pressure of assimilation. They had just barely sprung up when they were pushed back down into the earth.

Because of the many complications of war, some Abkhasians from Turkey ended up in Greece. I once read the letter that they sent in desperation to Sukhumi, to the government of Abkhasia:

“Three years of life in Macedonia, full of the most terrible trials and tribulations, have been unbearable in this climate we are unaccustomed to. Even in Turkey we always looked back on our native villages of Abkhasia. But that was no time to go back. The old system did not want us to return to our native mountains. Now Abkhasia is free and independent, and we Abkhasians, thrown by fate into foreign lands, now more than ever, yearn for our free mountains, our own families, our brothers across the sea. All of us Abkhasians are inspired by a common dream: to serve the free Abkhasian people. We gathered in Kailaria on September 28, 1925, and unanimously agreed to request that the People’s Commissariat of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhasia allow us, 700 Abkhasians and their families in Greece, to return to our native villages in free Abkhasia.”

Sitting alone in Zaurkan Zolak’s home and adding these comments to my manuscript, I thought about many things, including that letter, which revealed the dramatic history of the Abkhasian people, and not them alone.

Through the narrow window I could see a bright star shining in the distance, and suddenly I remembered Abkhasia and the home where I was born and where my mother now lived alone. Maybe she can’t get to sleep tonight either...

All night long I could hear Zaurkan coughing and moaning in his sleep.

I wasn’t able to fall asleep until early in the morning. When I got up I found out that the old man was sick; he couldn’t get out of bed. He tried not to moan, but I could see he was straining to hide his pain; his sunken eyes showed the suffering. He couldn’t eat anything; from time to time he swallowed some water and smoked.

For three days Biram and I tried to do what we could for Zaurkan, but how was it possible to cure the illness called old age?

I couldn’t stay any longer; my overseas passport was expiring.

The morning of the day I was due to leave, Zaurkan called me to him:

“My dear Sharakh, don’t worry about leaving: I’ll either recover or, if I see I can’t go on any longer, I’ll quietly meet my death. I saw you, an Abkhasian, my mother’s relative, the son of the people from whose body I came, and I was able to tell you all about my bitter experiences. And you brought me the good news that the Abkhasians and Abkhasia are still inseparable.”

The old man called Biram and whispered a few words in his ear. He went out and returned with a brass horn and a big Caucasian dagger. The old man held them for a long time in his trembling hands looking them over.

“Dear Sharakh, this is all that’s left of the Ubykhs who have disappeared from the face of the earth. Take these things with you to Abkhasia! With Biram they are silent, but they will talk to you. If they stay here, they’ll end up in alien hands when I die. But if you take them they’ll return to their native land.”

I thanked him for these precious gifts, and made every effort to keep Zaurkan from getting out of bed. But he wouldn’t hear of it and got up. He donned his old shirt and Circassian coat, put his Astrakhan hat on his head, picked up his staff, and walked me to the gate. It was only there, after he hugged and kissed me, wishing me a good journey, that he let me leave.

Biram helped me carry my baggage to the nearest road. We walked slowly along the plains, and when I looked back I could see Zaurkan standing on the mound; a lone figure, all that remained of an old fortress wall...

I didn’t look back anymore. I wanted to remember him that way. And I want him to appear that way, like the last proud fragment of the past, to others when they read the book about him that I will most certainly write. This book will be based on my notes of his story.