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Memories of memorials: Looking back at the Anzac Days of my life

Over the past two decades, Sandra Sarala has attended Anzac Day ceremonies in Wellington, Berlin, Moscow and at Gallipoli itself. She reflects on the meaning of our war memorial day as the terrorist threat grows in Europe and Turkey slides towards dictatorship.

Growing up in Dunedin’s splendid isolation, Anzac Day meant ‘holiday, shops closed’. Aside from watching Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli as a teenager, I didn’t really understand the day’s significance.

But in my mid twenties at the University of Canterbury I learned about the end-days of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, the geo-political importance of the Turkish Straits, Winston Churchill’s Dardanelles fuck-up, the Anzac myth. I remember a radio adaptation of Maurice Shadbolt’s play Once on Chunuk Bair, hearing the chaos and disorientation, isolated in the dark.

My own memories of being up on that same peak last June, a day before the summer solstice, are of swatting away blood-lusting horse flies, chewing dried apricots and salted pistachios and sipping my rationed water supply, of the immense pleasure of washing neck, shins, feet, arms under a public tap in 38 degrees beneath the shade of scrappy invader pines. Probably too, I was thinking back to April 2015, when I was there for the 100th commemorations of 25 April 1915’s infamous landing.

I’ve been attending Anzac Day services for over 20 years now. As well as gaining selection for the ballot at Gallipoli 2015, I’ve gone most years in Berlin since 2002 and attended in Moscow in 1998. I first went to the service in our own capital in 1996.

I remember the deep, dark Wellington night. Riding my bike down Jervois Quay to the Bunny Street venue in front of the railway station, I was the only traffic. Long before mass attendance became a thing, the dawn ceremony was small. I asked the veterans lined up in formation if it was okay for me to march with them. “Damn right it is,” answered a voice from the ranks. So I fell in close and we marched together, the only sound our synchronised footfall. An unseen cannon exploded the barely breaking dawn. I jumped out of my skin. A strong education, that shattering fright. Wars suck.

A field of memorial crosses on the lawn in front of the Auckland War Memorial Museum on April 20, 2017. The field of white crosses has been installed in the lead up to ANZAC Day. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Moscow, 1998. A gilt-edged invite to the Australian Embassy, a service in a crowded formal reception room, a barbecue in the carpark. It was overcast, and everyone wore thick jackets, the last heavy winter snow having fallen a week before. During the socialising upon that grey asphalt rectangle I struck up a conversation with a punky ex-Alice Springs lawyer as we drank imported Aussie beer. Later on, when we’d become friends, she taught me to juggle beside the Moskva River on a sultry 35 degree summer solstice after a tornado hit town, trees and roofing iron thrown about as lightly as we tossed the juggling balls.

Meanwhile, safe down south in Turkey, wealthy Russians were lounging poolside at resorts, slowly becoming a mainstay of Turkey’s tourism industry. Also far away: Putin, war in Syria, and Moscow slapping economic sanctions and an eight month travel ban on Turkey in November 2015, after a Russian warplane was downed on the Turkish-Syrian border.

I live in Berlin now. Each year an imam from the local Turkish community officiates at the annual Anzac ceremony at the war cemetery. The city has one of the world’s largest Turkish diaspora populations: about half of those here eligible to vote in the recent Turkish referendum said “Evet” (yes) to extending President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s powers, mirroring the national result. Every year the imam’s prayer bounces off immaculate lawns before soaring into the (usually blue) sky, upstaging our dirgeful hymns and anthems, unintentionally putting us shyly singing descendants of former invaders in our place.

Attendance has been constant over the years, though there’ve been changes too. An unfortunately too-high soprano now ‘leads’ our Trans-Tasman congregation in the anthems. We used to valiantly mumble through; somehow that felt more ‘us’. The post-service shindig which alternated between Australian and New Zealand hosts has disappeared under budget constraints.

For Anzac 2016 I drank a final ceremonial flat white at Berlin’s own Kiwi cafe The Dairy – now sadly closed – before driving across town to our ambassador’s residence to help cater a pre-service breakfast attended by military and political dignitaries. Police guard on the streets, rainbows of medals, a little quaffing of rum.

At the cemetery a flimsy string of white plastic bollards and ropes separated plebs from official wreath-layers, perhaps lest we unceremoniously usurp their place, as has never happened in the past. So it goes. One could easily go round the side – the cemetery’s a big, open space – and get away with it. The police were street-side, after all, back out at the gate on alert for possible Daesh terrorists.

New Zealanders attend the dawn ceremony to mark the 94th anniversary of the World War I campaign of Gallipoli at Anzac Cove on April 25, 2009 in Gallipoli, Turkey (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

Gallipoli 2015 was a strange, immersive experience, and like most, I expect it’ll be ‘once in a lifetime’ thing. Not because of worries about security, which was thorough and reassuring, but because, like the cemetery lawns, the commemoration’s highly manicured. Mainly that’s why I returned to walk the land last June, in spite of the increasing terrorist threat in Turkey. Skyping prior with Mum I warned I mightn’t come back, and in fact I departed beautiful, bustling Istanbul mere evenings before the Ataturk Airport attack. I went because I’d wanted more space for personal reflection, without 10,000 Antipodeans, 500 officials, and thousands of Turkish scouts. (Lest we forget, Gallipoli’s a big memory for Turkey too.)

The ‘Reflective Programme’ at the official 100th in fact left little room for reflection. The overnight vigil was kept under constant sound, light and historical-content bombardment. Then, 15 minutes before dawn, it stopped. From out of the scrub at the base of the Sphinx came the sweet, liquid serenade of nightingales. Low, amplified waves lapped. Didgeridoo master William Barton made dignified passage, looping rhythms and breath. The karanga of the NZDF women rang. Up in the assisted mobility stands, wrapped in blankets against chill air, I drifted asleep from a mix of sleep deprivation and boredom with turgid Prime Ministerial rhetoric.

The atmosphere atop Chunuk Bair had a uniquely home-grown flavour; in time-honoured vernacular, it was ‘pretty special’. The Youth Ambassadors got everyone rocking to ‘April Sun in Cuba’ (ok, we pumped the chorus). VIPs limousined in at the last possible minute. A 100 year old bugle sounded out. I met Prince Harry during his walkabout, his head surreally 30 centimetres away from mine. Until I told him, he’d no idea we’d all overnighted tentless. With a “Wow, you guys are hardcore!” he and his security guys whirled onto the next colonial cluster, the next one-liner.

My 2016 Turkey visit coincided with Ramadan – some observing, like the musicians roaming the streets before first light, drumming people awake for breakfast; some not, like the locals packing cafes and bars day and night. On the solstice evening walking with friends up İstiklal, Istanbul’s main shopping street, we met a protest for a journalist arrested on trumped up charges. The police response to peaceful protesters was three armoured personnel carriers, water cannons, and phalanxes of officers behind riot shields.

My time in Istanbul also coincided with a religion-fuelled attack on a female friend of friends at a bar, and another on people drinking beer outside a record store which was live-streaming Radiohead’s new album. Ignoring that Turkey is a secular state, the mayor of Begoğlu, the cosmopolitan district which is home to Taksim Square, complained the event had insulted Islam. Businesses are being destroyed by Erdoğan’s politics and policies. One estimate I heard: tourism is down 80 per cent. Since July 2016’s coup, anti-foreign sentiments abound. Dark shadows are everywhere, even in bright sunshine, no matter which way the earth turns.

I really want to explore Gallipoli again. I have mixed feelings about filling the coffers of a nascent dictatorship in Turkey; given people’s general warmth and kindness, their president’s a bane. Given I’ve insulted his thin-skinned arse publicly now, I may have blown my chances anyway.

The forecast for this Anzac Day is looking dodgy, and it’s not just that Europe’s full of refugees, right-wing populism is on the rise, and there’s a high travel alert for Turkey. It’s spring now, but rain is expected to lash Berlin and the the temperature won’t pass eight degrees. But if soldiers managed to turn out in all weathers, we can too.


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