LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: My friend in Kiev | Lost Coast Outpost


When I woke up early Thursday morning and saw the news that the Russians had invaded Ukraine, my first thoughts were for Gokhan.

Here in Istanbul, we have of course closely followed the crisis in Ukraine. After all, we are neighbors of the Black Sea. The Turks have canceled a planned vacation to Ukraine, and with inflation already skyrocketing here due to lira woes, we can only imagine how the unrest in the north will further compound our own problems.

But that morning, looking at the cold, damp garden in front of our small apartment, I was thinking above all 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 instantly became friends. He was only 26 then, more than a decade younger than me, but we got on well, talking about literature, politics, history and especially music. We shared a passion for all genres of music, but especially metal. Over pints of Efes (although he usually preferred whisky) we discussed the merits of early Metallica versus Megadeath, and in the same conversation we drifted to the Ottomans or the early days of the Republic .

We were roommates for a while, but the neighbors soon grew tired of our partying ways and the landlord sent us packing. After that, we sort of broke up. Gokhan was always between jobs, it seemed, mostly getting by on his wit and proficient English, which allowed him to pay the rent by writing essays for desperate, lazy university students. Her parents had divorced, her father had gone to Kazakhstan, where he had business interests, and her mother had gone to live with relatives in America.

Then, the 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, often chatting about his life there, my life here, and reminiscing about the old days. He spent a few years in Astana (renamed Nur-Sultan), then in Almaty, progressing as in Istanbul, through various constantly evolving professions (teaching English, writing essays, translations, etc.). Often, I asked him if he planned to come back. He always opposed it. “Hell no, bro!” he always said.

The big reason, I understood, was that he didn’t want to do his compulsory military service. If he ever returned to Turkey, he would be detained at the airport (most likely) and immediately sent to the army to fulfill his obligation. All men must do their military service here, although there is a provision that now allows you to pay money to avoid it (Gokhan doesn’t have that kind of money).

But even so, he has a university degree and his service will probably only last a year at most. Just come back and be done with it, I always wanted to say, but I didn’t think it was his choice.

Anyway, a combination of things – mainly political unrest, but also unrest – finally persuaded my old friend to leave Kazakhstan early last year. Initially he moved to Dubai but he left after about a week and then I found out he was in Kyiv. Surprised, I sent him a message.

“Yes man! Change of plan!” he wrote.

Over the next few months, Gokhan began to settle. He loved Kiev, liked its architecture, its cosmopolitan atmosphere and the people were friendly. Having lived so long in Kazakhstan and having a natural talent for languages, he had long since learned to get by communicating in Russian. He found a sales job, a real job, at a company and proudly sent me a picture of his new business card. That was just a month or two ago. He was thrilled, and I must admit I was proud that he seemed to have finally found his niche.

Having traveled part of this world and lived as a foreigner for many years, I am only too aware of the vulnerability you may feel and the desire to find an attachment to your host country. I remember 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’s essential to keep your connections close and the options open. Being stranded in a foreign country, far from home, with few friends, no family and limited resources, one can find themselves in dire straits very quickly.

That is why, when I heard the news of the Russian invasion on Thursday morning, my thoughts immediately turned to Gokhan. Man oh man: having started a whole new life, only to have it in a war zone. Ukraine: of all the places to be right now.

“How are you?” I wrote. We chatted for several minutes.

“I live outside of downtown,” he said in a voicemail. “The street is full of cars. People are fleeing the city. I heard explosions earlier near the airport. I think the Russians are hitting the airport, but I can’t be sure.

I asked how he was holding up.

“I just stay inside,” he said. “I have enough stuff here at home.” Her boss had called and said there would be no work at the moment. As expected, all business has come to a halt, with no idea what will happen in the next few days and beyond.

“Are you in touch with your family?” I asked. He was not. And a few minutes later, he displayed his father’s phone number and his location on the map in Kyiv.

“Just in case something happens to me,” he said. “There are sirens out now, sirens everywhere. There is shit, my brother! »

Over breakfast, my wife and I listened to Turkish reports on the invasion, which the Turkish government incidentally opposed.

“They say there is no internet in Ukraine right now,” my wife said.

But when I messaged Gokhan, he replied immediately. “Nah. I still have mine. Right now he was in line at a supermarket, stocking up on groceries. “Once I get home, I don’t plan on going anywhere for at least minus the next 2-3 days.” He also wanted to get some cash back, but when he went to his local ATM, a line of several hundred people was waiting for him. “to try my luck again in the afternoon. Don’t worry about me, mate! I’ll survive one way or another.”

I wished my old friend good luck and laid low, which I knew he would do. He was always resourceful, a survivor. Maybe it’s something we’ve always had in common.

As I was writing this, I received another message. It was from John Driscoll, a former colleague from when I was a reporter at The Eureka Times-Standard. He wanted to know if I was okay. He was there 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 climbed the hill, I looked over my shoulder at the Bosphorus. Russian ships, even warships, pass by all the time, but this morning nothing seemed different. I guess it’s all perspective. After all, we’re just across the Black Sea and, as the old saying goes, “When our neighbor’s house is on fire, it’s time to take care of ours.”

Early Friday morning, I woke up to see that airstrikes had hit Kiev overnight.

“You’re still here?” I sent an emergency message. It was. Again, living on the outskirts of town has left her neighborhood untouched. The good news? His company was moving him and others to the company’s offices in Chisanau, the capital of neighboring Moldova. They were to leave by car early Saturday morning.

“It’s just temporary, like three months,” Gokhan said. “But at least I’m getting out of here!”

I wished him good luck.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.


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