This weekend marks the passing of the 101st year since the beginning of the Armenian genocide, when the Committee of Unity and Progress (also known as the Young Turks) initiated the ideology of an ethnically unified state in an attempt to preserve the crumbling Ottoman Empire. This process of so-called ‘Turkification’ would be enforced with the deportation and annihilation of the Armenian community, and over a million lives were lost in the process.
The Turkish state continues to deny that a genocide was carried out against the Armenian people in 1915; this denial is reinforced by processes of assimilation which continue to deny and erase ethnic identities in the modern Turkish republic.
Before 1915, Anatolia in eastern Turkey was a heterogeneous region of thriving diversity. Communities of Armenians lived alongside Turks, Kurds and Greeks. However, this would soon change; as the Ottoman Empire slowly crumbled in the advent of the first world war, the government feared an alliance of ‘Armenian separatists’ with the invading Russian army in the Eastern part of its territories. In order to deal with this perceived threat, a ‘relocation and resettlement’ policy was drawn up (the Tehcir Law), which authorised the deportation of, and use of military measures against, ‘individuals who resisted the government’. The events that followed would change the face of this part of the world forever, and represent the first historical example of the brutal nature of Turkification.
On 24 April 1915, 200 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople were arrested and subsequently executed. In the following months Armenian villages and city neighbourhoods were emptied, the inhabitants methodically massacred and their property seized. Women and children were abducted and abused, and sent to die of thirst and hunger on ‘death marches’ into the Syrian desert. In total, the death toll is estimated to have been around 1.5m.
The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines a genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Genocide scholars are unanimous in declaring that the Armenian experiences fits this definition, stating that “the mass murder that was committed to the Armenians in Turkey in 1915 represents a case of Genocide according to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.”
And yet, as a matter of policy, Turkey adamantly denies that the events of 1915 constitute a genocide. According to the Turkish history books, these events are justified as a response to a series of Armenian ‘terrorist resistance launched against the Ottoman government’. The death toll is set at a maximum of 600,000.
In order to learn about the experience of an Armenian living in Turkey I interviewed Vartan Estukyan, a journalist for Agos, Turkey’s bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper. Hrant Dink, the founding editor-in-chief of Agos, was assassinated in a nationalist motivated attack in January 2007. Despite this, Agos has maintained its strong editorial policy of criticising discrimination against the Armenian community and other ethnic minorities in Turkey. As a result, Estukyan understandably has concerns about his security.
He, like most Armenians, has his own family story about surviving the genocide: “They collected all the men and shot them. There was a big hammam in the town, they locked the women and children inside and set it on fire. Everybody inside burned to death. But my father’s grandmother was one of the few children who were rescued by the Turkish villagers.”
What does Turkey’s denial of the genocide mean for Armenians today, whose families survived the massacres and the deportations, and what is the significance of recognition?
“I don’t care if any other country recognises the genocide,” Estukyan explained from a café around the corner from the Agos office in Istanbul. “For me the only important thing is that Turkey recognises it, that the population knows their history and accepts that this is a shameful thing that happened in Turkey’s past.”
Estukyan feels that any international recognition of this tragic event is empty, simply used by politicians as a bargaining tool. “They are playing with the genocide for political reasons. For example, if France needs something from Turkey they threaten to recognise the genocide. There are 500,000 Armenians living in France today, an important number for the elections. So, every party promises to recognise the genocide to get the Armenian votes. These days everything is political.”
In present day Turkey’s denial of the past is in parallel with denial of the present, and it is impossible to remember the events of 1915 without being confronted with the realisation that a tragedy of this scale is not something confined to the past. The perpetrators of the Armenian genocide became the founders of the modern Turkish state, and carried their exclusionary, inherently violent ideology of ‘Turkification’ into the constitution.
There are striking and deeply concerning similarities between the Young Turks’ attitude and actions towards the Armenian population and that of the modern Turkish republic towards another ethnic minority group in Turkey: the Kurds. As the international community commemorates the anniversary of 1915 and swears to ‘never forget’, they turn a blind eye to state-sanctioned violence on Kurdish towns and neighbourhoods in the east.
In 1915 the Kurds acted as a ‘frontier gendarmerie’ for the Ottoman Empire; Kurdish clans planned and carried out many of the massacres for the Ottoman bureaucracy, and became rich by seizing Armenian property. However, the Kurds themselves soon became the next targets of Turkification. They were denied as a separate ethnicity, branded as ‘Mountain Turks’ who had lost their language and needed to be brought back into the mainstream. As the British ambassador to Ankara reported in 1927: “It is a curious trick of fate that the Kurds, who were the principal agent employed for the deportation of Armenians, should be in danger of suffering the same fate as the Armenian only 12 years later.”
The Kurds’ resistance to these violent attempts to eradicate their culture and identity emerged as a militant nationalist movement in the form of the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – which has been fighting an armed insurgency since 1984. In response to such Kurdish militancy, the state enacted similar processes to those of 1915. In the 1990s thousands of villages accused of supporting the PKK were cleared of their Kurdish population and those who resisted were massacred, causing a mass exodus to the cities. Today the aim of the PKK is autonomy within Kurdistan and the fight has moved to the cities, resulting in a higher number of civilian casualties.
The histories of the Armenian and Kurdish communities are inexplicably intertwined, as is their shared experience of political violence, and it is perhaps in Diyarbakir that this is most evident.
Before 1915 the Armenian community was the largest of the various ethnicities which populated the city. The community was destroyed, but some were saved by their Muslim Turkish or Kurdish neighbours who sheltered them from the death marches. These days it is impossible to know just how many Armenians remain in the city as survivors converted to Islam and slipped into mainstream society. Orphaned children who were taken in were given a new name and identity: not all of them have discovered or admitted their true heritage.
And so the Armenians of Diyarbakir lingered as a hidden thread in the tapestry of the city’s population. Their presence was visibly erased as streets and villages were renamed and churches became mosques. Sourp Giragos, a 19th century basilica of hand-carved volcanic rock and previously the centre of the Armenian community in Diyarbakır, fell into disuse and disrepair.
This very much remained the case, until news emerged of the rehabilitation of this ancient church. “Sourp Giragos opens to the faithful,” Armenian Weekly announced in 2011. Armenians from all over the world gathered again in Diyarbakir to witness the ceremony, where Demirbas, the Kurdish mayor of Sur (Diyarbakir’s old city) at the time, made a bold statement admitting and atoning for the role of Kurds during 1915: “Our grandparents, incited by others, committed wrongs, but we, their grandchildren, will not repeat them.”
The reconstruction of Sourp Giragos happened at a time of hope for political and social harmony in Turkey, and this church was heralded as a symbol of the ruling AKP’s ‘tolerance’. The Armenians of Diyarbakir, for the first time since 1915, shook off their long-worn disguises and came out saying, ‘I am Armenian’. Demirbas set out to restore the multicultural nature of the city, installing Armenian language signboards and using municipal funds for Armenian language classes.
“Demirbas was one of the first people to accept and apologise for the Kurds’ role in 1915 and to call for Armenians to return to Diyarbakir. He’s an important figure for us and in the Kurdish community; they listen to what he says,” explained Estukyan.
But the atmosphere of religious freedom and tolerance in Diyarbakir was to be short lived. Fighting between the PKK and the Turkish state reached a new level in August 2015 when the peace process between Ankara and the PKK broke down. Urban centres became the battlefield as guerrillas began defending neighbourhoods, leading to a heavy handed response from the state who bombarded these neighbourhoods with an intensity never seen before. Many neighbourhoods in cities in the south-east now lie empty as the state showed no mercy for the citizens and historical importance of such areas. Since August 2015, at least 310 civilians have lost their lives due to this conflict, and 355,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
Sourp Giragos is amongst the collateral damage, and has been expropriated by the state. Armenians may not have been the direct targets this time around, but the loss of their church has large repercussions for the community. Estukyan told me about a recent phone call with an Armenian family in Diyarbakir, who had converted to Islam after 1915:
“In the past they would visit other Armenians in the community only in secret, but after Demirbas rebuilt the church they could go there and meet openly for the first time. For us it’s not just a church, it’s more like a house, a meeting place for our community. There has been some damage from the war but it’s still standing. They told me, ‘taking this church from us, like the state has done, is like taking our freedom from us’.”
Sourp Giragos stood as a symbol of religious and ethnic diversity and it is believed by some that its expropriation stands as a warning or a punishment for Armenians, as the community was amongst those who voted against the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in favour of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), a pro-Kurdish and pro-minority party led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas.
The state-sanctioned violence currently being enacted in Sur and other Kurdish towns and city neighbourhoods across eastern Turkey is part of the continuing process of Turkification. “Today the same thing is happening in Sur in Diyarbakir as in 1915. They [the state] say that they’re doing this against the PKK and terrorists, but it’s civilians who are dying. It’s very close to what happened in 1915,” Estukyan told me gravely.
State-sanctioned violence against ethnic minorities as experienced by the Kurdish and Armenian communities of Turkey is not limited to physical destruction of life and property; the violence is reinforced by anti-Armenian and anti-Kurdish reporting in the Turkish media. From 1915 until present day, Armenians have been scapegoated at times of crisis, and portrayed as the enemies of Turkey, as Estukyan described:
“Armenians are the first people to be blamed for every bad thing that happens in Turkey. The result of this is that the image Turkish people have of us is that of a terrorist or a traitor. And who did this? The Turkish state, through media. People believe what the state says through the media, through the television; this has created hatred between ethnicities. People in Turkey grow up to hate Armenians because of what the state is making them believe.”
Since the PKK’s inception Turkish media has drawn links between the group and the Armenian community (such as a photo of Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the PKK, and an Assyrian priest published on the front page of a Turkish daily with the caption ‘Here’s proof of the Armenian-PKK cooperation’), using the deeply ingrained negative perception of Armenians in the Turkish population as an attempt to discredit Kurdish resistance in the public mentality.
This negative portrayal of Armenians and Kurds in the media has intensified in recent years, to the point where both communities have become synonymous with each other, and terrorism. “For example the state even says that the PKK is an Armenian organisation, that Armenians created it, that Ocalan is Armenian,” Estukyan explained.
“The state uses the word terrorism for every action against the state. This is what they have people believe, but this is a very wrong thing. If the PKK does operations against civilians, we can say that this is terrorism. But if you look at the background of the PKK, why the PKK exists, you will see that it emerged as a popular uprising of people to protect themselves from the injustice that the Turkish state was inflicting on them.”
On 7 September 2015, the presidential senior adviser Burhan Kuzu tweeted a statement referring to PKK members and subtly implying their Armenian heritage: “The killed terrorists’ bodies must be examined. It would seem that most of them are not circumcised. Wake up my Kurdish brother, wake up already.”
The state has always viewed Kurds as Turkish Muslims and in recent years the AKP has used this view to identify a ‘brotherhood’ between Kurds and Turks. This reference from Kuzu is an attempt to separate the PKK from their Kurdish Muslim ‘brothers’, the implication being that the PKK and Kurdish separatists are non-Muslims (uncircumcised), and therefore Armenians.
This sort of statement from Turkey’s political figures is, unfortunately, not uncommon; at a ceremony in Askale (a small town in eastern Anatolia) to celebrate the 98th anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of the town in 1915 (rather than commemorating the massacre and deportation of Armenians in the town), the mayor Enver Basaran said: “The Armenian gangs are betrayal organizations and their hatred against this land and noble Turkish nation has no end. Now, these Armenian gangs have been performing separatist activities with the PKK.”
“See the past, look what happens to those who rebel against the Turk,” reads the graffiti warning sprayed on the walls on a Kurdish town. During the curfew in Cizre the police shouted, “Armenians are proud of you, you are all Armenians.” Such statements show just how far this mentality has been institutionalised and normalised.
The consistent portrayal of Armenians as traitors and terrorists in order to justify and play down the events of 1915 in the national memory is dangerous in itself, but in light of the state sanctioned violence against the Kurdish community, statements like these can be viewed as an attempt to justify similar actions in the present day.
The events across the Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey clearly show that even today, any individual or group which challenges the state’s ruthless ideology of Turkification – whether by simply asserting an ethnic identity or by resisting state sanctioned violence and rampant assimilation – is, in the state’s view, worthy of the same treatment as the Armenians in 1915.
In Yerevan, the Armenian capital city, a striking billboard references the genocides of 1915 and 1939 and makes the bold statement: “By condemning the previous we could have prevented the following.” Could the destruction, and massacres, in Kurdish-populated areas been avoided if the genocide had been recognised?
However, much of the international community recognises – and this weekend, will commemorate – the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide. While they do so, President Erdogan’s government continues to systematically massacre Kurdish communities as the EU negotiates with and makes deals with Ankara. In light of this, we must ask ourselves: is recognition of the genocide enough?
Considering the tragic events of 1915, Estukyan understands why the Kurds took up arms to defend themselves: “1915 started and finished very quickly. If there is any reason that the state’s battle against the Kurds is still ongoing, it’s that the Kurds took up arms and are fighting against the state. In 1915 the Armenians didn’t get weapons and that’s why they were wiped out. This is the reason that the Kurdish people are still standing, still fighting. There are similarities, yes, but if the Kurds hadn’t got weapons the same thing would have happened to them as happened to us in 1915.”
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