ISTANBUL, Turkey (A.W.)—This year, for the first time since the genocide, April 24 coincided with Easter in the Armenian Church calendar. As the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian people observed the 96th year of the Armenian Genocide, the World Council of Churches and the Conference of Churches in Europe appealed to all member churches to remember the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide during their prayers and messages on Easter Day.
However, in Turkey, where a community of 60,000 Armenians live in Istanbul and uncounted numbers of Armenian origin are spread all over the country, it is still problematic to address this Genocide, even as it has been commemorated throughout the world for decades. The Armenian churches in Istanbul could only say that prayers would be made for “all those who found the mercy of our Lord” in their Easter announcements, while several other events were held on April 24 under different, roundabout titles. This isn’t surprising since 74 percent of people in Turkey have negative feelings toward Armenians, according to a recent poll published in the Radikal Turkish daily newspaper that surveyed 3,040 Turkish citizens.
After the collapse of the Swiss-brokered conciliation process between Armenia and Turkey in 2009, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t miss a chance to exacerbate Turkey’s poor treatment of its Armenian population, which shrank to a minority 96 years ago, by using them as a bargaining chip in Armenia-Turkey relations. The latest of such moves was the demolition of a statue designed to promote conciliation with Armenia near the Turkish-Armenian border on April 26. This was followed by an earlier visit to the site by Erdogan in January, when he described the monument as a “monstrosity” that overshadowed a nearby Islamic shrine. The demolition has prompted strong criticism from some opponents of Erdogan’s government and prominent Turkish artists. One of them, Bedri Baykam, was stabbed and hospitalized in April immediately after attending a meeting about supporting the statue.
Opposition figures don’t seem to be interested in changing much either. In mid-April, the leader of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, sued writer Suleyman Yesilyurt for “accusing” him of having Armenian ancestry. Kilicdaroglu denied the claims by saying that “they want to destroy his image with false accusations ahead of the coming elections,” once more framing any Armenian linkage as an insult in Turkey.
Trying to cope more with European Union standards and taking domestic politics into account in their calculations, at least five Turkish political parties, including the Justice and Development Party in power and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, announced they would put Armenian candidates on their lists during the upcoming elections on June 12. However, all of them later dropped that decision, leaving politics as a spectators-only sport for the Armenian community of Turkey.
It was in this atmosphere that Armenians in Turkey marked the 96th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. In spite of this, there is a growing interest and understanding towards Armenians and their problems in Turkey. Several academic conferences and discussions about 1915 have taken place over the last few years. The Human Rights Association of Istanbul has been organizing Armenian Genocide commemoration events since 2005, and silent public sit-ins were held in five cities in Turkey for the second year in a row.
Writer and journalist Ahmet Insel said that holding these commemorations is very important. “Especially the one organized by the Human Rights Association of Istanbul in front of the place where it used to be a prison,” he said. “It was also important doing the commemoration event in Taksim Square for the second time and with more people signing under their declaration. But I was expecting more participants this year, perhaps 2 or 3 times more people. But it wasn’t, and I feel sad for that. It seems that we should discuss, present, and campaign for this in a different way. Obviously, the commemoration in Taksim will become a tradition, and this is very important, but making more people attend this commemoration seems also very important to me.”
“This year there was no increase in the number of participants in Taksim. Instead there was an increase in the number of the cities where commemorations were held,” said journalist Ali Bayramoglu. “These events have a symbolic meaning. This means that some Turks are confronting their past and they have reached the level to make an apology. If one day Armenians and Turks establish a friendship, or if Armenia and Turkey make reconciliation, or if Turkey recognizes the Armenian Genocide, it will be obviously through these kinds of public exercises. As it is in other countries, the state is hard to convince. This could happen only if the society changes and starts to push the state for that. That would be more honest and real. I regard these commemorations as firm steps in this direction,” he added.
Human rights lawyer Fethiye Cetin pointed out that these commemorations are coming very late. “Nearly 100 years passed on these events and we have just started to remember them,” she said. “But better late than never. It wasn’t easy to break the policy of denial and the taboo stamped on this issue in this country, and the state is still continuing its policy of denial. They even responded to the annual speech of President Obama about the Armenian Genocide. This is embarrassing for Turkey, because if we want justice to prevail, we should start by confronting our past first. After that we need to apologize. And the apology must come from the leaders of this country, not from the bottom of the society. After this apology, every step should be taken to restore justice,” she said.
Few Armenians also participated in the commemorations this year. Armenian American Anoush Suni, who is following an exchange program on Middle Eastern studies in Istanbul, was one of them. “I went to the Armenian Genocide commemorations in Sultanahmet and Taksim out of curiosity,” she said. “Some Armenian community members have said that we have no business with them, that they’re the ones who should apologize. We already know what happened. I was very impressed, especially by the commemoration in Sultanahmet. There the declaration said that what happened in 1915 is genocide and we should recognize that. I think that those are very powerful words.”
“The people who spoke were very clear and open,” she continued. “They said everything as it was in simple terms that everyone could understand. They showed pictures of those who’ve been deported and killed. They presented things that can drive people to try to think. Unfortunately there was a small crowd, and hopefully there will be more next year. The commemoration in Taksim Square was quite different. The main slogan there, which read ‘This pain is our pain,’ should be discussed, because some might argue that such a slogan distorts the experience that Armenians had and makes it more general, less specific, less historicized. But at the same time, I think that what happened there is a great effort—the fact that hundreds of people can gather in Turkey and express their view that history must be recognized.”
The first of these events was a conference on April 19 organized by the Surp Khach School and titled “They were journalists, too,” dedicated to the Armenian journalists who were killed in 1915. The chief editor of Agos newspaper, Rober Koptas, along with journalist Bullent Tellan, publisher Ragip Zarakolu, and Bayramoglu were among the speakers who demanded adding the names of those journalists killed in 1915 to the list of “Killed Journalists” in Turkey. The president of the Modern Journalists Association of Turkey, Ahmet Abakay, said they were very late to organize such an event because they were unaware and ignorant of the facts. He said he hoped this would serve as an example for other professional associations.
Discussion panels were also organized separately by various leftist organizations and association, like “Guney” Cultural Center’s event in the Esenyurt District of Istanbul, or the conference in Bilgi University organized by the “Confrontation” association. Also significant was the conference organized by the “Say Stop to Racism and Nationalism” initiative in the Taxim Hill Hotel. Titled “What happened in April 24, 1915?” it featured nearly one dozen speakers who highlighted the importance of educating and acknowledging the events of 1915.
At that conference, Prof. Selim Deringil stated that the majority of citizens of the Republic of Turkey believe that Armenians deserved what they suffered in 1915. Another speaker, Istanbul-Armenian activist Hayko Bagdat, said in his speech that the solution to the “Armenian problem” is not related to the 60,000 Armenians left in Turkey, nor with Armenians living in other parts of the world; instead, it is related to Turkey’s future. “If you could say ‘This was a bad thing,’ you will have a different life,” he said. “And if you would ask me, as one of those who lived after the genocide on our lands, I think we should be able to say to the dominant forces here that they stole our ability to grieve our friends’ deaths, they did the most evil thing that someone can do,” said Bagdat. “From now on, this is not my issue, but it’s your issue. We can live a better way on these lands. Our cinema, theater, even the way we touch our loved ones, all that would change if we could face these problems. April 24 is not an occasion to ask me about the past, it is an occasion for you to tell me about your future, and I am watching with big interest and curiosity how the people of these lands are going to tell their children about their past. April 24 is what you will pass on to your children. Thus, please do not ask this to an Armenian. From now on let it be your story,” he said.
A few days later, on April 27, the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSIP) organized a conference titled “From 1915 to Hrant Dink: The Importance of Facing the Armenian Genocide.” There, Agos’s Koptas explained that saying “This is our mutual pain” isn’t fair, because there are still steps to be taken to reach that level. Koptas warned that April 24 commemorations shouldn’t become like other regular events. He stated that a new language must be constructed to deal with the issue.
On Sat., April 23, a group of protesters—comprised mostly women whose husbands, sons, or relatives have either been arrested or have disappeared—gathered in Galatasaray Square on Istiklal Street in Istanbul for the 317th week in a row. The protest, which is being organized every Saturday by the Human Rights Association of Istanbul, was also dedicated to the memory of the Armenian intellectuals who were also arrested and killed or disappeared 96 years ago. The protesters held pictures of Siamanto, Daniel Varujan, and Krikor Zohrab alongside pictures of their relatives. The protest’s declaration read: “We are saying this again on the occasion of the disappearance of our Armenian intellectuals 96 years ago: You can run away from the truth. If not today, then tomorrow you are going to admit your lies. You are going to face your dark past.”
On April 24, the Human Rights Association organized another commemorative event in the Sultanahmet Area in front of the Turkish Islamic Arts Museum. Formerly called the Ibrahim Pasha Palace, the museum served as a prison for a long time. It was also where the Armenian leaders and intellectuals were arrested on April 24, before being taken to the Haydarpasha train station and sent to the interior of the country, where most were killed.
Nearly 50 people attended the event, most of them journalists, writers, publishers, and activists. A statement issued by the association—titled “1915 is genocide, genocide is a crime against humanity”—was read aloud by human rights lawyer Eren Keskin, the editor in chief of the Ozgur Gundem daily newspaper that focuses on Kurdish issues, and an Armenian Weekly columnist. “This civilization was destroyed and erased from its thousands-years-old motherland,” read the statement.
A few hours later, another commemoration took place in the Armenian cemetery of Balikli. This became a tradition to commemorate Hrant Dink’s by his family, friends, and community members. Prayers were said and roses were left in front of Dink’s memorial statue and in front of another dedicated to the victims of the 1896-97 Hamidian Massacres.
On the afternoon of April 24, the largest commemoration event took place in Taksim Square with nearly 500 participants. The event was organized by “Say Stop to Racism and Nationalism Initiative,” which made a declaration titled, “This pain belongs to all of us.” In it, expressions like “a crime against humanity,” “the devastating act,” and “the great guilt” were used, in place of the word “genocide,” which is still a debated and taboo term among even many of those who acknowledge the guilt associated with April 24. This move, however, allowed for a larger number of writers, journalists, intellectuals, and activists from various walks of Turkish society to more readily show their support and sign their names under the declaration. Similar silent sit-ins took place on the same day in Ankara, Izmir, Bodrum, and Diyarbekir.
Hauntingly, however, on the other side of the same square, a counter-protest was held by a group of so-called “leftists” called the People’s Liberation Party. They carried signs that read, “Long live our new liberation war against the second Sevres Treaty.” Numbering nearly 50, the group stayed 30 meters away from the commemoration because of a heavy police and security presence. An hour after the commemoration in Taksim, another counter-protest broke out on nearby Istiklal Street by members of the ultra nationalist “Bozkurt” group, the youth wing of the Nationalist Movement Party. The protesters carried the flags of Azerbaijan in an attempt to provoke anti-Armenian sentiment. They also chanted slogans condemning the “imperialist lies about the genocide” and marched down the street making threats and other hate-filled remarks.
“The most important thing is that the people in Turkey started to acknowledge that in 1915 on these lands, their neighbors, friends, and fellows, who were the ancestral owners of these lands, were subjected to a very big and planned ethnic cleansing campaign, and they started feeling and sharing its pain,” said writer and journalist Ahmet Insel, one of the signatories of the declaration. “After that some people will call it a genocide, some a disaster, others will call it deportations. This is a very long debate. But the most important thing is that a very awful, unacceptable, and heavy crime against humanity was perpetrated here on our fellow citizens. I think that it is more important, to keep the discussion about what really happened, rather than focusing on the exact word,” he added.
On the same issue, Bayramoglu said, “This event constitutes genocide, and not using the word might seem like not admitting the fact. There are serious criticisms about that from Armenia, the diaspora, and others. But there is this point when we say that Nazis killed the Jews, and not Germans. In this case, we are saying that Turks killed Armenians. This way, Turks are having hard time confronting themselves and accepting what happened. The important thing is to feel and understand what happened, whether you call it a genocide, massacre, tragedy, or whatever.”
“As an individual I think that it must be said at some point, because it is important to take this responsibility,” said Gokce Percinoglu, a researcher in a leading Turkish think tank. “We should also be careful from accepting some things and denying others. But I don’t know when the right time will be for it because most people in Turkey are just learning about this and trying to confront their past. Sometimes the word genocide is scaring them. There are even former diplomats who are now in this learning process. Those people, for example, spent years defending the official version of this issue. They had a very nationalistic approach on that. These people are now admitting the responsibility of Turkey about what happened in 1915, but they are still reluctant about saying genocide.”
Publisher and human right activist Osman Koker said that there’s no Armenian problem in Turkey, but that there’s a Turkish problem in Turkey, which is about killings and denial. “I see the solution of this problem right here,” he said. “This problem will be solved within Turkey. Many years ago, people were killed and it still weights heavy on us. Whenever Turkey realizes this pain and makes an apology, whenever it drops its policy of denial, this problem will be solved. Outside of Turkey, there might be parliament resolutions, protests, and so on, and they are free to do that, but if all countries recognized the Armenian Genocide, while Turkey didn’t, this problem would still exist. In that sense, any little event or commemoration done in Turkey is very important to me.”
Whether they call it genocide, massacre, catastrophe, or disaster, said Fethiye Cetin, it’s crucial for intellectuals in Turkey to recognize these events and confront their past. “The only criterion to naming these events is the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, according to which they constitute genocide,” she said. “But even if these people are not saying genocide, it is very important to see these people to face this pain and responsibility, because a very big segment in the society doesn’t know what happened in 1915. To understand what happened, we need to discuss it at least, even without naming it from the beginning.”
In her book My Grandmother, Cetin tells the story of her Armenian grandmother—a powerful, effective, and moving story, even without any discussion or debate about the word genocide. It reached many people, and many of those started to study what happened in 1915 and to accept it as genocide themselves.
“In legal terms, I can name it genocide,” she said. “But what happened in 1915 can only be named by its victims. If they are naming it a great catastrophe, then it is such. If they are calling it genocide, then it is genocide.”