Jonathan Milne: Kiwis must continue to offer friendship, even if Turkey wipes our 'Johnnies' from its Gallipoli history
OPINION: Few of us who have been to Gallipoli will not have been moved by those poignant words attributed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the inspirational leader who led the Turkish troops and ultimately the Turkish nation.
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours."
It is likely he didn't speak those exact words, but certainly over the years he often expressed that sentiment – and so too have generations of Turks whose ancestors defended the Peninsula.
"You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."
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The same words appear on national war memorials in Gallipoli, Canberra and Wellington. These are words that give solace to Turkish, Australian, British and New Zealand families who lost loved ones in the misguided assault; it is this spirit that underlies an unusual bond between peoples who once fought each other.
Gallipoli in June is calm, peaceful. I was there 10 years ago, and could walk along the rugged Anzac Cove coastline to the Ari Burnu memorial in relative solitude.
That is changing, as increasing numbers of Turkish visitors, old and young, join the Kiwi and Australian tourists – and it is a welcome change.
It is this time of the year, too, that the Turkish Government often takes advantage of a lull in visitors to take care of the roads, the cemeteries, the visitor centres.
This year, the memorials are being restored and refreshed. As part of that work, the words attributed to Ataturk – and, it should be said, other messages of tribute – have been wiped from the monuments; some to be reinstated, others not. The Johnnies and the Mehmets are no longer commemorated side-by-side.
Historians like New Zealand's Christopher Pugsley hope this is nothing more than a refurbishment; that the words will be restored. Others, like Australia's Peter Stanley, believe the Islamist government of President Recep Erdogan is taking the opportunity to impose a new, chauvinist historical interpretation that poses a real threat to our nations' warm relationship with Turkey.
Certainly, Erdogan likes to remind his voters that their ancestors died defending their nation against Christian invaders: "The crusades were not [finished] nine centuries ago in the past! Do not forget Gallipoli was a crusade," he says.
And after Erdogan's security forces put down a coup last year, Erdogan invoked memories of Gallipoli to celebrate his triumph. In a pro-government rally in Istanbul's Taksim Square, the Guardian reports, large video screens displayed recreated scenes of Ottoman victories in battles against the Anzacs.
Turkey and the beautiful city of Istanbul sit astride the Bosphorus strait, the divide between Europe and Asia.
And in a very real sense, the nation is at the sharp edge of the battle between Western democratic values and conservative Islam. Terror attacks are all too frequent; the attackers are often Turkish, so too the victims.
New Zealanders can help Turkey grapple with its cultural, political and religious schisms.
We must continue to visit, continue to strengthen the relationship between our two peoples, continue to show that we are not invaders seeking to impose our values but friends trying hard to learn from the mistakes of the past – and to ensure those mistakes are not repeated in the future.
The message on the memorial? It's just words carved on stone, it doesn't matter.
It is the spirit that we must keep intact.
- Sunday Star Times