A forgotten genocide

Print edition : May 29, 2015

Armenians attend a march marking the centenary of the mass killing of their people by Ottoman Turks, in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 24. Photo: DAVID MDZINARISHVILI/REUTERS

Armenia's President Serge Sarkisian takes part in a wreath laying ceremony during a memorial service at the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide memorial complex in Yerevan on April 24. Photo: Tigran Mehrabyan/AP

Khosrov Frangyan, a 105-year-old survivor of the genocide, near Yerevan. Photo: KAREN MINASYAN/AFP

One hundred years after the mass killings of Armenians in Anatolia, Turkey takes the first steps towards reconciliation by acknowledging the tragedy but stops short of terming it a genocide.

The centennial commemoration of the mass killings of Armenians was observed in many parts of the world on April 24. In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a solemn ceremony was held and it was attended by world leaders, including the Russian and French Presidents. Armenians all over the world remember the killings and mass deportations of their people from Turkey a hundred years ago as “the great calamity”. The Armenian government and the Armenian diaspora have been working tirelessly to make the international community recognise the terrible fate that befell their people. There were posters with the words “Forget me not” put up all over Yerevan and other cities with the caption, “We remember and We demand.”

Previous Turkish governments had initially refused to acknowledge that Armenians, who were once an important part of their country’s mosaic, were subjected to mass killings or forced expulsions. The present government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to mend fences with neighbouring Armenia by accepting that many Armenians did lose their lives in the events that occurred during the dying days of the Ottoman empire. But President Erdogan continues to insist that the government of the time did not commit genocide against minority Armenian Christians. Turkey now accepts that many Armenians were killed but refuses to accept the casualty figure of 1.5 million claimed by the Armenians. Last year, Erdogan sent a message to the Armenian government expressing Ankara’s condolences on the occasion of the April 24 anniversary. It was the first time that the head of the government in Turkey had sent such a message. Erdogan, in his message, recognised the significance of the events of 1915, stating that what had happened was “inhumane”. This year, the Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, also declared that he recognised the pain of the Armenians and sent condolences to the descendants of those who had perished in the massacres and forced repatriations.

On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government ordered the mass arrest of Armenian intellectuals, activists, politicians and others connected to revolutionary parties. The 250 people who were arrested met a brutal end. A month later, the government in the fading days of the Ottoman empire, run by the “Young Turks” as the Ottoman leaders Mehmet Talat, Ismail Enver and Ahmet Cemal came to be known, ordered the mass deportation of Armenians in Anatolia to far-off cities like Aleppo and Mosul, to be held in concentration camps. The old, the young, women and children were sent on a death march through the searing Syrian desert. Before that, there were massacres of Armenian men in villages and towns. The government said that the mass deportations were being carried out “as the Armenians had made common cause with the enemy”. According to historians, between 2,000 and 2,500 Armenian villages were completely destroyed. Turkey has continued to claim that the death marches were merely aimed at relocating the Armenians. The noted British historian Arnold Toynbee, along with other scholars including Turkish ones, has written extensively on the atrocities inflicted by the Turkish government on the Armenians. The courage of many Turkish officials who chose to disobey the orders of the “Young Turks” has also been documented. Governors who disobeyed orders from Istanbul and fed and sheltered the refugees crossing the inhospitable desert were dismissed or assassinated.

The official Turkish government line has remained unchanged since the time of Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the first President of Turkey. Modern Turkey came into being only in 1923. The Turkish government points out that many Turks also perished when the First World War was being fought on Turkish soil. It rejects the contention that the massacre of the Armenians was orchestrated by the government of the day. It insists that their deaths should be seen in the context of the War that was raging. Turkey had aligned with Germany and had ended up on the losing side in that War. The Turkish government accused the Armenians of being a fifth column and collaborating with the country’s enemies, notably imperial Russia, to split up the Ottoman empire. Russian forces had invaded Eastern Anatolia during the War.

Turkish officials say that a commission of eminent historians should be set up to investigate whether or not the events of 1915 could be categorised as genocide. The Turkish government has reasons to be wary. If the events of 1915 are characterised as genocide by the international community, then there could be a heavy legal and financial burden to bear for the government in Ankara. Because of the controversies that surround the emotive issue, the border between Turkey and Armenia has remained closed since 1994, though Turkey was among the first countries to recognise the Republic of Armenia after it declared independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The other major irritant in the relations between the two countries is the conflict in the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenian separatists have been in control of the enclave, which is inside the territory of Azerbaijan. Turkey and Azerbaijan have close economic and political partnerships.

Armenia has also been angered by the decision of the Turkish government to shift the date of the centenary ceremony of the Battle of Gallipoli in the First World War from the traditional date of March 8 to April 24-25, this year. Armenian authorities view this as a Turkish diplomatic manoeuvre to distract attention from the “genocide remembrance” ceremonies that were held in Yerevan on April 24. World leaders were forced to choose between the two ceremonies.

“Genocide recognition” has become one of the key components of Armenia’s foreign policy. In Armenia, nearly every family has been affected by the events of 1915. In the Armenian version of the events, which is backed by many scholars, Ottoman rulers, under the cover of the War, masterminded the genocidal plan. The International Court of Justice has held Bosnian Serbs guilty of committing genocide for a crime committed in the 1990s involving the deaths of less than a thousand people. The court found the Serbs guilty of killing 8,000 men and deporting 25,000 women and children in Srebrenica. The Armenians want the international community to rectify what they consider a historic travesty of justice.

Hrant Dink, the Turkish journalist of Armenian descent who was assassinated by a right-wing nationalist in 2007, had argued against using international forums to persuade the Turkish government and civil society to acknowledge the reality of the Armenian genocide. Dink had urged an open dialogue among Turks on the events of 1915 and called for closer relations with Armenia so that both sides could find it easier to comprehend and understand the complex events that led to the tragedy of 2015. Dink had acknowledged that the Turks too had paid a heavy price along with the Armenians in those tumultuous years.

In 2008, some Turkish intellectuals started an online initiative, “I apologise”, which asked the government to recognise the 1915 genocide and issue an apology to the Armenians. More than 32,000 Turks signed the petition. Many more Turks have started openly recognising the significance of April 24 by holding private meetings. The main Kurdish opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has issued an apology to the Armenian people and restored an Armenian church in Diyarbakir. The worst atrocities against Armenians were carried out in the Kurdish areas of present-day Turkey. Ten years ago, it was a crime in Turkey for citizens to say that the events of 1915 were equivalent to genocide. Hrant Dink was branded a traitor by nationalists for trying to bring about reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.

Pope Francis described the events of 1915 as “an immense and senseless slaughter” that is “widely considered as the first genocide of the 20th century”. The Pontiff, at the same time, called on Turkey and Armenia to take up the path of reconciliation. The Russian President described the events that occurred a hundred years ago in modern-day Turkey as “a mournful date, related to one of the most horrendous and dramatic events in human history, the genocide of the Armenian people”. He stressed that the international community had a duty to ensure that atrocities on such a scale never happened again. The European Parliament too issued a statement calling on Turkey to recognise that the events of 1915 did indeed constitute an act of “genocide”. The Austrian and German parliaments also seconded the views of the European Parliament. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the 1915 events as “an atrocity”. U.S. President Barack Obama shied away from using the word “genocide” while making his traditional April 24 speech on the Armenian massacre. He, however, did describe the slaughter as “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century”. When he first ran for President, Obama had promised Armenian Americans that if elected he would make the “genocide issue” a priority. As a Senator, Obama had co-sponsored a resolution calling for the use of the word “genocide” while describing the events of 1915.

President Recep Erdogan has been dismissive of the statements made by the Pontiff and President Putin. He described the Pope’s statement as “nonsense” and repeated that historians have not yet come to a conclusion about what had taken place in 1915. He issued a statement declaring that “using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey and turning this issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible”. Only around 24 countries have as yet recognised the “genocide” against the Armenians. Only two countries, Turkey and Azerbaijan, categorically deny that a genocide against the Armenians ever happened. As for Erdogan, playing the nationalist card at this juncture will help his party in the parliamentary elections scheduled to be held later in the year. In Anatolia, where the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party gets most of its support, memories of the failed attempt by Britain, France and Germany to carve out the territory after the First World War are still alive.

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