Friday, October 12, 2012

The Unsolved Disappearance of Donald Mackenzie


I first visited Dogubeyazit in eastern Turkey in February 2007.  At that time I made a website to promote tourism to Mount Ararat (http://www.mountararattrek.com).   I managed the website and the email for reservations.  Since 2010, I have been managing not only the website, but the entire tourism business in partnership with local Kurdish guides.  I am very familiar with the Ararat tourism culture and people.  I spent 2011 and 2012 in eastern Turkey for the climbing season.

I never met Donald Mackenzie, the Scotsman who disappeared searching for Noah’s Ark, but I have talked with many who knew him well.  I learned about Donald in October 2010, after he was reported missing.  At that time I began asking Mount Ararat climbing guides whom I personally know if they knew anything about Donald’s disappearance.

One guide told me the local Jandarma asked all the guides to look for signs of Donald when they were guiding.  They also sent a team of about six guides to search for him in the area he was last seen.  The guide who told me this, told me he organized the search effort.  They looked for one or two days but the weather was bad.   By October the mountain is covered in snow.  Since for every incident regarding Mount Ararat there are at least three or more versions of the story, one must take all information with a grain of salt.  This is a polite way of saying that the guide who told me in 2010 that he searched for Donald is a known liar.  I do, however, believe him about the search effort.  It is unfortunate that lying, cheating, and stealing are endemic in the Mount Ararat tourism industry.  

The reasons for this subculture are complex.  Generally it is driven by poverty, the need to support large families throughout the winter months, gullibility of foreign tourists (like taking candy from a baby), and pressure from religious ark searchers who refuse to accept no for an answer.   The general feeling among local guides is that Noah’s Ark does not exist on Mount Ararat, but if foreigners want to push money at them to search, many will acquiesce.  Donald falls into this third category of religious believers and ark searchers.  However, there is another category of Ararat summit climbers and ark searchers:  those who do not want to pay what it costs to mount an organized, safe expedition.   There are hoards of people in this category which drives guiding prices down so low that the expeditions become dangerous because necessities are eliminated, such as knowledgeable guides, water, enough food, cooking gas, horses, and permits.   Donald was an example of someone who did not have money to spend.   After a number of previous visits, he felt he could climb without assistance.

Mount Ararat is a military controlled zone.  Climbing permits from the government are required for each climber.   The use of permits has been hard to control by the Turkish government.  Many tourists are taken to Mount Ararat without permits.  They may pay a guide or company 50 euro or 50 dollars (or more) for a permit, but that does not guarantee that the guide will pay the government for it.  The normal tourism trekking path to the summit of Mount Ararat is from the south side.  Donald was not anywhere in this area when last seen.  So it would have been unlikely for guides to find any signs of him on the south side while guiding their tourist groups to the summit.  I was told by the guide mentioned above that they also searched on the northwest side of Mount Ararat near Lake Kup.

He told me that Donald had been to Ararat to search for the ark six times.   During one of his visits he had met a man who lived in a village on the north side of Mount Ararat.  They became friends and the man offered his sister to Donald to marry.  Both Donald and the sister agreed to the marriage idea.   According to the story, Donald helped the brother get a visa to the UK and the brother was reportedly living in London while the sister was still living in her parents’ home in Turkey.   I have heard it said that the father stipulated that Donald could marry his daughter, but could not take her away to live in the UK. 

 In the Kurdish culture in eastern Turkey, it is important for family honor that women remain virgins until marriage.   A woman who breaks this rigid tradition risks being killed by her own family.  The man also may be harmed.  This is no longer common practice to kill the woman, although the family may banish her to another town to live.   The people of Turkey, as well as the people of the world, feel it is barbaric to kill a woman for this reason and they do not in any way condone it.   One hears occasionally every year of a woman being murdered in a village, but it is not reported in the news.   One goes to prison, one goes under the ground.   The local people are just as saddened and appalled as your readers would be.  The Turkish government does bring charges, so murdering women for having premarital sex (which is not illegal in Turkey) is by no means condoned by the Turkish government or citizens. 

I have heard no information one way or the other about Donald’s Kurdish fianc√© or their friendship, if any.  I assume she is still living at home with her family.   I never heard one rumor or story about Donald and the Kurdish woman, so I offer this information about local culture only to give a fuller understanding of the environment.  Anything more than that would be unwarranted speculation and would be unfair to the woman’s family.  When Donald was reported missing, his car was left at this family’s home in the village.

The same guide who told me he organized a search team for the Jandarma told me, also, that Donald was last seen by a shepherd camping in his tent on September 28, 2010.  The shepherd descended with his sheep in the evening.  When he returned the next day, there was no sign of Donald or his belongings, so that day Donald was reported missing.   This is hearsay which I have not validated.

A guide told me that without getting prior permission, Donald shipped a box of Bibles to him before his arrival so that he could distribute Bibles.  This guide lectured Donald never to do that again because it put the guide in jeopardy to be receiving a big shipment of Bibles.   Although Turkey is a secular country, most Turkish people are Muslim.  All citizens of Turkey have their religion listed on their birth certificates.  So religion, like nationality, is designated at birth.  While most of the population is Muslim, that does not mean that they are all deeply religious. 

One of the cornerstones of the Kurdish culture in eastern Turkey is its hospitality to friends and strangers alike.  It is a moral imperative to welcome anyone who turns up at one’s door.  It is not surprising that Donald made friends, felt at home, and apparently came to love the Kurdish people and eastern Turkey which drew him back time and again.  I have lived and worked among the Kurdish people in Dogubeyazit.  They are my business partners and friends.  Religion is never a topic of our conversation.  Like young people all around the world, they are more interested in work opportunities, iPhones, and making FaceBook friends.  Eastern Turkey is a region in which I feel particularly safe and welcomed.  I have no doubt that I could travel as a single woman in all of eastern Turkey and be welcomed into any house to spend the night.

In 2011, I met an Ararat guide who had previously guided Donald on the north side of Mount Ararat three different times.   This guide, whom I will refer to as Arthur to protect his anonymity, became good friends with Donald who attended Arthur’s wedding.  

When Donald explained to Arthur that he had no money, Arthur brought Donald to his home to sleep and took him guiding without pay.  He also introduced him to a local motorcycle mechanic who was not a Mount Ararat guide.  On the blog site created by Donald’s brother at http://ararathunt.blogspot.com  there is a photo of Donald on a motorcycle, so I assume this is why Arthur introduced him to a motorcycle mechanic who then wooed Donald away from Arthur.
In Dogubeyazit, when one is hungry, there is always someone willing to say he is a guide and to take a gullible tourist climbing for a lesser amount of money.   We disparagingly refer to them as “street guides” who are constantly stealing business from the legitimate, experienced guides.  

The last Arthur heard of Donald was that he was hanging out with the motorcycle mechanic who possibly (probably) also took Donald climbing on Mount Ararat.   After Donald was reported missing, the mechanic left Dogubeyazit and was reported to be living in a distant part of Turkey.   In contradiction to this report is the blog by Donald’s brother who says he was introduced to the mechanic, Moussa, living in his village near Ararat on September 28, 2012. 

In April 2010, a local Turkish guide named Ahmet Ertugrul, nicknamed Parasut (pronounced parachute), in partnership with a Dutch filmmaker named Gerrit Aalten, a Dutch film distribution company named FCCE, and a Chinese organization named Noah’s Ark Ministries International (NAMI) held two press conferences in Hong Kong and Beijing.  They announced they were 99.9% certain they had discovered Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat but that they were keeping the location secret to “protect” it.   National Geographic reported on this announcement which resulted in worldwide publicity for their claim. 

I and others, including Dr. Don Patton and Dr. Randall Price, have exposed this claim for what it is:  a fraud.  See www.mountainararattrek.com/ark for details of the fraud.  Only those religious zealots who refuse to accept the facts of this fraud still cling to their belief that Noah’s Ark was discovered on Mount Ararat. 

In 2010, when Donald heard about the Parsut/NAMI claim to have discovered Noah’s Ark above Lake Kup on the north side of Mount Ararat, he returned to Turkey to search for the secret ark site by himself.   Donald went to Mount Ararat without government permission.
The north side of Mount Ararat is extremely dangerous to climb.   Continual rock and snow avalanches in and around the A’Hora Gorge area put climbers’ lives in constant danger.   The government does not give permission to anyone to climb in this area.  Although the government is often accused of wanting to hide the truth by not granting permission to ark searchers, the more likely reason is that the government is protecting people from themselves by keeping them out of certain danger.

There is another danger on the north side of Mount Ararat.  The Turkish government and its Kurdish citizens in eastern Turkey have been in conflict since 1984 when the PKK was organized.   In Turkey it is illegal to call one’s self Kurdish or to refer to eastern Turkey as Kurdistan.  All citizens are Turkish.  Kurdistan was christened eastern Anatolia.  This conflict dates back to World War 1 when the 25 million Kurds living in Kurdistan were divided into the four countries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.  Kurds became minorities in each country.  In 1923, Kemal Ataturk, the leader of the newly created country of Turkey, immediately outlawed the speaking or teaching of their native Kurdish language.   They were to be referred to as “mountain Turks,” not Kurds.  The PKK is an armed struggle for the Kurdish people to express their Kurdish identity and receive full equal rights.  Many residents in eastern Turkey view the PKK as their freedom fighters.  Over 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, have been killed in this conflict since 1984.  It is hard to find a Kurdish family that has not been closely touched by the death or imprisonment of a relative or friend.

The PKK is said to control Mount Ararat from 2250 meters and above while the Turkish military controls it below.   In recent years, as soon as all guides and tour operators report to the Jandarma that their last group of climbers is off the mountain, usually in late September, the military has had military exercises on the mountain, including shelling it.  I witnessed the poofs of smoke myself from the Igdir (north) side.   In 2011, Turkey contracted with the Iranian military that crossed into Turkey and mounted a joint operation on Mount Ararat against the PKK.  It is foolhardy and dangerous for one to go secretly on Ararat after the climbing season.  A lone person could be mistakenly shot by the Turkish military or PKK.

The added complexity to asking questions about Donald’s disappearance and getting answers is that since the PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, anyone talking with them can be imprisoned and charged with aiding terrorists.   Over forty Kurdish/Turkish journalists are now on trial for reporting on PKK activities and the ongoing conflict.

Last week a guide friend of mine lamented that he and his cousin can no longer go partridge hunting on Ararat for fear of being mistaken for PKK and killed.  Partridge season begins in October.   In 2011, when they began their partridge hunting trip, a huge military Cobra helicopter rose up over the mountain and circled overhead.  There they were with their shotguns in plain view against the white snow.  They hid under an overhanging rock for 15 minutes, praying they had not been seen, until the helicopter left; then they rapidly descended.  Their partridge hunting days on Ararat are only memories now.

In September 2012, a guide found remains of an old green army-style tent and gear on the north side of Mount Ararat.  While this was quickly reported as Donald’s missing gear, my guide friend Arthur reports that it was probably an old military camp site.  Bones from food were found, suggesting this was not Donald’s site since it was uncharacteristic for Donald to carry meat with him.  On the blog site of Donald’s brother, he shows a photo of a business card of “Colin McDonald” supposedly found with Donald’s few items and proving it was Donald’s campsite.  I have enough experience to know by now that it may or may not have been found at the campsite.  In this region truth is an elusive concept.  The guide who took Donald’s brother to Ararat in September 2012, also is one of a number of liars who owes me and many others money.  I once asked this guide who I could trust.  He candidly answered, “No one.  Don’t even trust me.”

In 2012, a number of documentary film makers descended upon Dogubeyazit and also contacted me for assistance in making a documentary on Donald McKenzie’s disappearance.   This rush of wannabe documentary makers is providing yet a new wave of business “opportunity” to the local opportunistic guides, many of whom are willing to take them anywhere and come up with whatever evidence they are seeking, whether real or fake.  Donna D’Errico, American actress, went twice to Ararat in 2012 and was deceived by two different guides whom I know.  She wrote me, “I now have experienced what you were trying to warn me about!  I should have listened to you, and I see that now.”

After Donald’s disappearance in 2010, Turkish government authorities interviewed repeatedly those people who knew Donald.   Government officials are aware of where the motorcycle mechanic lives.  There are no answers to Donald’s disappearance.  There is no evidence of foul play, so how can there be a charge of murder?   Did Donald get killed by an avalanche or fall into a gorge to his death (a more likely scenario)?  Was he robbed (of money he did not have), then murdered?   Did religious Muslim extremists murder him for proselytizing?  Was he mistakenly killed as a PKK member?  This will probably remain forever an unsolved mystery. 

Copyright 2012, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED by 
Dr. Amy L. Beam
Mount Ararat Trek
Amy L. Beam is an IT professional who now works in Mount Ararat tourism.  She is currently writing her book, Climbing Mount Ararat: Love and Betrayal in Kurdistan, scheduled for completion in early 2013.