When I woke up early Thursday morning, and saw in the news that the Russians had invaded Ukraine, my first thoughts were of Gokhan.
Here in Istanbul, we of course have been monitoring the crisis in Ukraine closely. After all, we are Black Sea neighbors. Turks have canceled planned holidays in Ukraine, and with inflation already skyrocketing here because of the lira’s woes, we can only imagine how the troubles up north will further add to our own problems.
But that morning, looking out at the cold, wet garden outside our small flat, I was thinking mostly of Gokhan, my friend in Kiev. Gokhan was one of my first friends when I arrived in Istanbul in 2010. We struck up a random conversation in a bar in Kadikoy one afternoon, and became instant friends. He was just 26 then, more than a decade younger than myself, but we hit it off, talking about literature, politics, history, and especially music. We shared a passion for all kinds of music, but especially metal. Over pints of Efes (though he generally preferred whiskey), we’d discuss the merits of early Metallica versus Megadeath, and in the same conversation drift over to the Ottomans or the early Republic days.
We were roommates for a time, but the neighbors soon wearied of our hard-partying ways, and the landlord sent us packing. After that, we sort of drifted apart. Gokhan was always between jobs it seemed, scraping by mostly on his wits and his proficient English, which enabled him to pay the rent by writing essays for desperate, lazy university students. His parents had divorced, his father gone off to Kazakhstan, where he had business interests, and his mother left to live with relatives in America.
Then, next thing I knew, Gokhan himself was gone. He left Istanbul, and his home country, for Kazakhstan. Over the next decade, we kept in touch via social media, chatting often about his life there, my life here, and reminiscing about the old days. He spent a few years in Astana (renamed Nur-Sultan), and later Almaty, getting by the same way he did in Istanbul, through various ever-changing jobs (teaching English, essay writing, translations, etc). Often I’d ask if he ever planned to return. He was always dead set against it. “Hell no, bro!” he’d always say.
The big reason, I gathered, was that he didn’t want to do his mandatory military service. If he ever returned to Turkey, he would be detained at the airport (most likely) and immediately sent into the army to fulfill his obligation. All men have to do their military service here, though there is a provision that now allows you do pay some money to avoid it (Gokhan doesn’t have that kind of money).
But even so, he has a university degree, and most likely his service would only be a year at most. Just come back and get it over with, I always wanted to say, but didn’t figuring it wanas his choice.
Anyway, a combination of things — the political unrest chiefly, but also restlessness — finally coaxed my old friend into leaving Kazakhstan early last year. Initially he settled in Dubai, but left after only a week or so and next thing I knew he was in Kiev. Surprised, I messaged him.
“Yeah, man! Change of plans!” he wrote.
Over the next few months, Gokhan began to settle in. He liked Kiev, liked its architecture, its cosmopolitan feel, and the people were friendly. Having lived in Kazakhstan for so long, and having a natural talent for languages, he had long since learned to get by communicating in Russian. He found a sales job, a proper job, at a company and proudly sent me an image of his new business card. This was just a month or two ago. He was elated, and I have to admit I was proud that he seemed to have at last found his niche.
Having traveled some of this world, and lived as a foreigner for many years, I am all too aware of how vulnerable you can feel, and the longing to find some attachment to your host country. I can recall the Gezi Park protests here in 2013, and the failed coup attempt three years later, not to mention the war in Syria and the sight of countless refugees on the streets. In these volatile times, it is vital to keep your connections close and options open. To be stranded in a foreign country, far from home, with few friends, no family and limited resources, one could find oneself in dire straits very fast indeed.
That is why, when I woke to the news of the Russian invasion Thursday morning, my thoughts were immediately with Gokhan. Man oh man: to have started a whole new life, only to have it be in a war zone. Ukraine: of all the places to be right now.
“How are you?” I wrote. We chatted for several minutes.
“I’m living outside the city center,” he said in a voice message. “The street is full of cars. People are fleeing the city. I heard some explosions earlier, up near the airport. I think the Russians are hitting the airport, but I can’t be sure.”
I asked how he was holding up.
“Just staying inside,” he said. “I’ve got enough stuff here at the house.” His boss had called and said there would be no work for the time being. As expected, all business has ground to a halt, with no idea what is going to happen in the next few days and beyond.
“Are you in touch with your family?” I asked. He wasn’t. And a few minutes later, he posted his father’s phone number as well as his map location in Kiev.
“Just in case anything happens to me,” he said. “There are sirens outside now, sirens everywhere. Some shit is going down, bro!”
Over breakfast my wife and I listened to the Turkish reports on the invasion, which the Turkish government has opposed by the way.
“They’re saying there’s no Internet in Ukraine right now,” my wife said.
But when I messaged Gokhan, he immediately replied. “Nope. I still got mine.” At the moment, he was standing in line at a supermarket, stocking up on groceries. “Once I get home, I don’t plan on going anywhere for at least the next 2-3 days.” He also wanted to grab some cash, but when he went to his local ATM, a line of several hundred people were waiting. “I’ll just have to try my luck again in the afternoon. Don’t worry about me, bro! I’ll survive one way or the other.”
I wished my old friend well, and to lay low, which I knew he would. He’s always been resourceful, a survivor. That’s something we have always had in common perhaps.
As I was writing this, I got another message. It was from John Driscoll, an old colleague from my days reporting at The Eureka Times-Standard. He wanted to know if I was OK. There he was in California, worrying about me in Turkey while I was worrying about my friend in Kiev.
After chatting with him, I took my son Leo to the market up the street. As we walked up the hill, I looked over my shoulder at the Bosphorus. Russian vessels, even war ships, pass by all the time, but that morning nothing seemed different. I guess it’s all a perspective. After all, we are just across the Black Sea, and as the old saying goes, “When our neighbor’s house is on fire, it’s time to look after our own.”
Early Friday morning, I woke to see that airstrikes had hit Kiev overnight.
“You still there?” I urgently messaged. He was. Again, living on the city’s outskirts left his neighborhood untouched. The good news? His company was transferring him and others to the company’s offices in Chisanau, the capital of nearby Moldova. They were scheduled to leave by car early Saturday morning.
“It’s just temporary, like three months,” Gokhan said. “But at least I’m getting the fuck out of here!”
I wished him luck.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.