High up in Turkish valleys, Afghan shepherds dream of home

TUNCELI (AFP): In Turkish mountains so high, the silver clouds almost touch the top of his head, the homesick Afghan shepherd prepares his bleating flock for a good shear.

The pebbly valley around him was once full of Kurds, who staged a violently suppressed rebellion in Tunceli in the early years of the modern Turkish state.

But the Kurds in the eastern Mercan Valley have been gradually replaced by Afghans, who fled here by foot and truck across Iran from the poverty and bloodshed back home.

Now, with two decades of conflict behind them, some are thinking of going back, no matter the resurgent Taliban’s hardline rule.

“Nobody would leave their country unless they had to,” says Hafiz Hasimi Meymene, a 20-year-old with a fiancee impatiently waiting for him in Afghanistan.

“We come here, make money through shepherding, and send it to our families,” he says.

A handful of nylon tents are tied down to the hard ground around him, the Afghan families’ new homes.

A few men crouch in a shed, milking their sheep and goats. Their friend ushers the flock into in a pen with a whack of a slender stick.

Mixed emotions

“Next year, I will return to Afghanistan. The war is over,” Meymene says.

“When the (Afghan) state was fighting the Taliban, the economy was hit hard. But now we are planning to return.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan estimates that 300,000 Afghans now live in Turkey, which also hosts 3.7 million people from war-ravaged Syria.

Tunceli native Mustafa Acun says the locals have grown used to Afghans taking care of their herds.

The 67-year-old works alongside them, making cheese and yoghurt from sheep’s milk.

“I mean, our children either cannot or do not want to do this job,” he says looking up from his stool, tending to some steaming pots over an open flame.

It is surprisingly dangerous work.

‘Love the mountains’

An old rifle hangs off one of the men’s shoulders, the better to shoot the wolves and bears that come out hunting at night.

This is also a good time to graze the sheep, which suffer in the baking sun.

The rifle did not keep two of Abudullah Umari’s animals from being torn apart and eaten by a bear the other week.

“I take care of the flock like this,” the 55-year-old Afghan said, the rifle casually swinging behind his back.

“I have been here for seven years. I worked for three years and returned to Afghanistan. But then I decided to come here again,” he recalls, glossing over the pain and danger of each voyage.

“God willing, if my health allows, I will go back to Afghanistan in August,” when the summer heat begins to subside.

But although 29-year-old Suleyman Ezam had not seen his Afghan wife and two little children for four years, says he will miss working as a shepherd in the Turkish mountains with his dogs.

“I love the mountains,” Ezam says after showing a photograph of his four-year-old daughter on his phone. “The mountains of Turkey are so beautiful.”