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1959, Turkey – My father Kees Seur is the man with the sunglasses

A documentary series is being broadcast on Dutch mainstream television about the Euphrates, the river that, together with the other river Tigris, defines the region of Mesopotamia. The title of the series is In Search for Paradise and is presented (and made) by Sinan Can, a Dutch journalist of Turkish origin who speaks Arabic. In this area, now partly Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi, Sinan was a war reporter less than two years ago. It used to be land where nomads lived and where, for example, the city of Babylon was. It is an area with ancient history and it has even been called the cradle of civilisation. 

Ever since I first heard about those two rivers and the land between them, it has fascinated me. My father told me about it when we lived in Turkey from 1957 to 1961. He worked on exploration drilling 24-7 in the most inhospitable areas. Also there by the Tigris. That kind of work requires courage, talent for improvisation and the ability to not give up.

Mesopotamia with in the north Diyabakir where this story took place.

And as I breathlessly watch the documentary, my father’s stories and letters come back to my memory. As always, I would like to share with you what is on my mind this week. Therefore, a short piece from my book Kind van de koloniën, published only in Dutch, about this Turkish adventure of my father Kees Steur in the Euphrates region where he almost lost his life. 

From my book Child of the Colonies

The eastern part of Turkey where the oil drilling takes place is the area near the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Two rivers fed by smaller rivers from the mountains. These, in turn, are fed by the heavy rain and snowfall in winter and the meltwater from the snow in spring. 

In the letters my father wrote to us, we lived in Ankara, you read that other companies have already left because of little success in finding oil and to avoid the risk of snowing in. The company Kees works for does not do that. They go even further by drilling on the other side of the river. 

Malatya, 30 December 1959

…The weather was excellent here today and we were able to load 7 trucks and otherwise just hung around until 2.30 this afternoon and drove to the camp, as I have to make my trailer travel-ready as we (Stegge and I) are going to the new location. 

Arnold Baron has managed to get to the site with the Esso trailer today and so we should too. However, my trailer is lower so it will probably fill up with water. Should it rain, we will stay here and not move. It looks like it will be hell here tomorrow, as according to Elzie, it has been raining all day in Ankara and the shower is pushing eastwards. I just hope it stays dry, because if I am on the other side (of the river) we will irrevocably get stuck without food …

31 December 1959

…We finally crossed the river with the radio truck in convoy with the Turkish kitchen trailer and our trailer. There was huge water in the river and we decided to push on to the other side first and gauge the depth. At the deepest place, the engine stalled and there was a nice current. But Commander Steur  whistled briefly on his fingers to the bulldozer that was on the other side and not much later towed us ashore. The water was already rising and I wouldn’t know what would have happened if by chance there hadn’t been a bulldozer. 

Life is full of excitement but they can have it from me. It was raining ever so slightly, but after we got the radio car going again and I got permission to drive on (one way traffic) we started the climb up the mountains. Jesus Christ what a road, some parts were very steep and slippery and you may know, I pinched it like a thief. Suddenly a big truck from Whitlock from the opposite direction came hurtling around the corner of the mountain and I said to Ab Stegge: that’s the end. Hussein our old and experienced driver put his truck nose-first into the mountain and we were able to pass bit by bit (inch by inch) without touching each other. 

What a life. Anyway by 2 o’clock we were in Whitlock Camp and I told Harry over the radio that we had arrived and that the trailers could just barely make it through the river. I was tired as a dog but still managed to unload 3 more trucks with Bop (new truck pusher) Ray, the mechanic at Whitlock and put the subbase of the rig) in place before dark. Ate dinner and then just waited for our trailer. We slept in Smokey’s trailer which has light, fire and water and went to bed at 10 as there was no vodka to celebrate New Year’s Eve. 

Friday, January 1, 1960 

…Last night at 1.30am the rain finally started to set in really Sumatran (Indonesia) style and I curse the day that Stegge and I drove to the new location, if we had gone a day later I would have been on the good side because now we are hemmed in with 15 Turkish personnel, Arnold Baron, Dirk Stickle (the tall one), Bop Ray, Ab and I and yes we do make something of it. The spirit is good and today we made an attempt to evacuate the 15 Turks, however we were too late. Three trucks still got through with three Turks, but when we started the drive, part of the road had been washed away and we had to return to base. Elzie also arrived and now the madhouse is complete. Harry and Dude are also trapped on the old drilling place as they cannot get through the river, are without light and fire and food and we have weak contact with their radio. So, so as not to lose too much energy we do nothing but eat and sleep as it rains and rains like it will never end … 

3 January 1960

… Still rain about 60 hours at a stretch and boy oh boy it’s wet outside. This morning the 2 mechanics of the water pump came back because they ran out of food and half sick we sent them to the nearby village. Smokey, Dirk Stickle and I went to the water pump this morning (9 km) and returned preserved. The pump is almost level with the river now which is as big as the river Moesi (Palembang, Sumatra) and there are no pontoons or nothing so the road to Diyarbakir is also cut off as the water flows so fast that no rowboat can get through. There is no ferry. Just got word that Elzie will chase a batch of donkeys across the river at Khata with food etc. so we will have some more food. Tomorrow night we can expect that convoy….

Later when writing the book I asked my father:

“How did you guys get away from there? I know we were waiting for you endlessly at home in Ankara and mum was very worried.”

“We had been eating corned beef, rice and beans for a fortnight. Well, we thought we had invented the wheel by going through the river with a bulldozer to the safe side with one of the trucks carrying cargo behind us. The water was flowing fast and it was freezing cold. Ab Stegge and I sat on the bulldozer and got as far as halfway. And do you know why? Because one of the tracks of the bulldozer broke. You wouldn’t believe it. There, in the middle of that river. I immediately gestured to the truck not to go any further and decided to swim the rest of the way. Pulled off my parka coat and boots and dove into the water. Not considering the strong current. I did head towards the other side but also with the current, so that didn’t get me anywhere. I really thought my last hour had struck, because the water was also freezing cold. Suddenly I felt someone grab me by my collar. It was Ab. He had followed me. Thanks to this very strong Dutchman I made it across. I’ll tell you honestly that how not religious I am, I got down on my knees, held my Saint Christopher which your mother always made me wear and thanked God for this rescue. Quite an honour, actually. Wasn’t it the same river the holy ferryman Christopher, had carried Jesus across? We did end up drilling there for a couple of months, but the results were nothing to write home about. Those seismic guys were not very good at it, I thought.”

Two years later, we returned to the Netherlands where we started a new life as a family. I was 11 at the time and my sister Patricia, 12.