One Hundred Years of Silence Turks Slowly Take Stock of Armenian Genocide

Officially, discussion of the Armenian genocide is taboo in Turkey, even 100 years after the crimes. But the issue is becoming harder for the country to suppress and many Turks are rediscovering their long-lost Armenian identities.
Von Ralf Hoppe

A church like that can help a person, says Armen. It can help them from giving up hope -- and that is indeed something.

The fact that the church is even standing here -- beautiful and steadfast in a place that was only recently the site of ruins -- instills a sense of courage, says Armen. And courage is something that is badly needed in these parts, especially in Diyarbakir.

The city is located in southeastern Turkey, deep in the Anatolian mountain region. Diyarbakir is gray, loud and lackluster. But it does have one special landmark -- the stylishly restored St. Giragos Church, located in the Old Town, a labyrinth of crumbling homes and alleys that reverberate with children's shouts as they kick around a soccer ball.

It's a Christian-Armenian church, the first of its kind to be rebuilt and highly symbolic in a city like Diyarbakir. The builders say that attempts were made to prevent the reconstruction, hinting that they may have been linked to some of the politicians involved in the project. Indeed, some felt provoked by the restoration of the church.

For others, the church is a symbol of a major political shift that has gripped Turkish society, a symbol of a willingness to confront its history. The church also helps people to remember and reaffirm their true identity. People like Armen.

Armen Demirjan first trained to become a baker, then a truck driver, then a newspaper deliveryman and now as a parish clerk. In his early life, Armen had a different name: Abdulrahim Zarasaln. But one day he found out that he is really Armenian and that the few members of his family who survived had been forced to convert to Islam. Armen then began a new life -- one that consumed a lot of his energy.

He walks through the church nave. He says construction of the church cost around €2 million ($2.14 million). The architects restored the original, almost minimalist look. They put in a roof using wood with a deep, velvety gloss. The columns, floors and walls were built using dark volcanic stone. Sunlight floods the church through the high windows.

Crocuses and violets blossom in the churchyard and there's a café that sells dishes and T-shirts. The café is well attended, with guests speaking Kurdish, English, Turkish and Armenian. In the very back, two men play chess at a table. Armen lights a cigarette. The scene is a peaceful one.

But there's also a palpable tension that can be felt in even the most basic conversations -- one that can be felt all the way from remote villages to cities like Diyarbakir and Istanbul.

The Armenian Genocide

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the decision by the Ottoman Empire to deport the Armenians. Between 800,000 and 1.5 million people died violent deaths between 1915 and 1918. The European Parliament just passed a motion calling on Turkey to recognize the atrocities as genocide. A total of 22 countries officially define the massacre that took place as such, although Germany, which is home to a large Turkish population, is not one of them. Historians consider the events to be the first genocide  to have been committed during the 20th century. It's a view shared by Pope Francis. "Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it," the pope said last week.

There are only rough estimates of the number of Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Yazidis who converted to Islam in order to prevent death or oppression at the time. What is certain is that Armen Demirjan's own tangled history is in no way an isolated case.

That history begins at the end of the 19th century, the time of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which until then had been a multiethnic and multireligious society. But the people no longer wanted to accept the empire's power and demanded national independence. It was an exciting idea, but it also proved to be deadly.

At the time, Russia was standing in wait at the borders. The Ottomans, led by the Germany military, suspected the Armenians were collaborating with the Russian enemy. The Ottomans reacted with a brutality not previously associated with them.

The Armenians were expelled. Officially, it was called deportation, but the reality is that the Armenians were sent on death marches into the desert where they starved, were attacked and murdered.

Armen says he recalls hearing about these things somehow, of course, but that he had never thought he had any personal connection to it.

A Dark Family Secret

His family is from Lice, a small city located about 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) from Diyarbakir. Armen grew up there and married Leila, a Kurdish woman, when he was in his mid-twenties. They had four children. Armen worked as a driver for the city administration and life felt settled. But then his father died and an uncle revealed the family secret to him -- that the family was of Armenian origin.

Abdulrahim then changed his name to Armen and began researching his family history. A friend in the city administration who owed him a favor, obtained secret documents for him. Armen spent his nights at the kitchen table reading. His old life slowly unraveled, piece by piece, and a new identity took shape.

His brother and his wife Leila were worried. Why did he want to bring up ghosts of the past and reopen old wounds?

"But I think it is my right to live as the person who I am," he says.

He knows that his grandfather and three of his sons were murdered, and that his father was rescued by a Kurdish family. Armen says he had a tough time coming to terms with the information. Without the church, Armen says, he might not have succeeded. He converted to Christianity.

Construction of the church was made possible by Armenian business people in Istanbul and the city of Diyarbakir, which provided funding. One local man who helped was Abdullah Demirbas, a 49-year-old who until only recently served as mayor of Diyarbakir's historic city center district. Demirbas says he helped even though he isn't an Armenian. "I'm a genuine Kurd going back three generations," he says.

And that's exactly why he made the effort, he says. It's also the reason he helped the Armenian developers push the project through all the bureaucratic barriers and approved €300,000 in grants from the city. At the opening of the church, Demirbas gave a speech and personally apologized for the genocide.

Demirbas sits in the back room of a tea house Indian style on a deep cushion as he is asked why he decided to assist. He stares into his cup of Turkish coffee. "The Kurds back then eagerly followed the order to expel and kill," he says. My grandfather was a part of it. He was a perpetrator. My mother told me about -- the stories were terrible. But also a historic reality. Then, when we Kurds were persecuted and killed ourselves and were declared outlaws, my mother said it was our punishment, that it was divine retribution for what we had done to the Armenians. It got me thinking."

Demirbas says the Turkish government has difficulty recognizing its multicultural past. The doctrine of the founding of the Turkish nation, after all, says it is one nation with one language. He says President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refers frequently to that line, even more so now that he has failed to create a Sunni Islamist axis of power that might have stretched from Libya to Egypt and Syria, with Turkey in the leadership role. Demirbas says that's why Erdogan has now retreated into the kind of nationalism that denies what happened to the Armenians was genocide. But he says the anniversary will need to be commemorated somehow, be it with a ceremony or something else, and he's trying to come up with an idea. He says the unspoken knowledge of the guilt is always present and that it poisons society from within.

Like an infection? the journalist asks.

"Like demons," he says.

Fighting for Society

Around the same time that Diyarbakir politician Demirbas mulls a commemorative event and as Armen, the parish clerk, learns Armenian, 1,020 kilometers away, two young journalists, a man and a woman, are working in an open plan office in Istanbul. They sit at two desks next to each other as they fight against the suppression of the genocide their own way. They say they are fighting for their country and a society that they would one day like to be proud of. Those words might sound heated in another context, but here they seem perfectly reasonable.

The young man, Gökhan Diler, is a Turk. The young woman is Maral Dink, an Armenian. Dink is a pretty famous name in Istanbul and even one that is known to people across Europe. Maral's uncle, Hrant Dink, was one of the best known journalists and authors in Turkey until his assassination.

The two work for the weekly Agos, the newspaper that Maral's uncle co-founded. The bilingual publication is printed in both Turkish and Armenian and has a circulation of 5,000. Although Agos is one of Turkey's smallest newspapers, it compensates by being one of its most courageous.

Diler and Dink are the editorial team's youngest stars. They often collaborate on stories that tackle topics like terrorism, women's rights and subcultures. But their primary concern is the history of the Armenian genocide.

It's just after 9 a.m. when Gökhan arrives at Agos. The young journalist lives in eastern Istanbul, where apartment rents are cheaper. During his commute, he has to take a 22-minute ferry ride across the Golden Horn, time he uses to read two newspapers and check his emails.

When asked what it's like as a Turk to work together with Armenians, he responds, "I have to admit, on the first day I was anxious. Would the Armenians hate me? Would there be harsh words? But that wasn't the case. We work very objectively, we have the same goals and these days I often forget whether a person is Armenian, Kurdish or Turkish."

A Murder Raises a Paper's Profile

Eight years ago, on the afternoon of Jan. 19, 2007, Dink was murdered by a 16-year-old, who shot him in the head and neck. The men behind the assassination had connections to the "Deep State," the clandestine network that had long influenced politics in Turkey and may still do so today. Dink died on the street at the age of 52.

At the time, it would have been easy to assume that his death would spell the end of Agos and all that Dink stood for. But it didn't.

The murder drew attention to Agos and created widespread sympathy that the newspaper might never otherwise have gained. On the night of the murder, thousands gathered in downtown Istanbul and his burial later became a politically symbolic event.

Hrant Dink's killing marked a major turning point in the lives of Gökhan Diler and Maral Dink.

Gökhan had been about to complete a doctoral degree in economics. He wanted to become a professor one day and "lead a nice life in a lovely ivory tower." Maral had just been accepted to study mathematics at a university in London. But the murder deeply traumatized her family and continues to do so to this very day. There have been numerous death threats against members of the Dink family.

Independent of each other, both abandoned their plans and applied to work at Agos. They now work for a fraction of what they might be making elsewhere. But that doesn't bother them.

Maral, an attractive woman with large eyes, arrives at the office soon after Gökhan. She beams, hangs her scarf over the back of the chair and heads over to the coffee kitchen, where she hugs a colleague. Gökhan looks up from his notes.


Maral says she's optimistic about the changes taking place in Turkish society. She says many Turks now understand that their country has a need to address its past.

"Maral's right. The suppression sucked up a lot of energy," says Gökhan.

The societal change that Maral and Gökhan are speaking of began right after the election victory in 2002 of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AKP) party, as odd as that may seem today. The party has since become considerably more conservative and religious, but during its first years in power, AKP pushed through reforms, modernized the country and also promoted a more liberal climate. In 2005, a conference of historians took place in Istanbul focusing on the issue of the genocide, despite angry protests by the nationalists. For the first time in Turkish history, critical researchers were allowed to express their doubts publicly about the official government line that there had been no genocide.

The same year, novelist Orhan Pamuk, who would later receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, said, "30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and no one but me dares to talk about it."

Protests took place and Pamuk was charged with insulting his country. But the issue could no longer be suppressed -- the genie was out of the bottle and the Turks began discussing it.

The expulsion and the genocide displaced Armenians to faraway places, including Moscow, Los Angeles, Paris and Beirut. Today, Istanbul is home to only around 65,000 Armenians. Having to persevere in a hostile environment, the Armenians who stayed behind often had a harder time than those who left.

This makes it all the more important that the taboo has been broken and the issue of the genocide is now discussed. And it is a change that is visible not only in Istanbul or the Armenian church in Diyarbakir, but also in the distant villages of Anatolia. Like Armen, the parish clerk, other Armenians are also discovering their true identities and rethinking their lives.

A Life-Long Secret

But it isn't easy, as the story of Asiya Altai shows.

The village of Cüngüs is about a one and a half hour drive from Diyarbakir. The landscape is rugged and mountainous and the gaps in the hills are filled with almond and pistachio trees. Perched on the hillside, the houses in Cüngüs are painted yellow, green and ochre.

Altai's house is at the edge of the village. She sits there in a small wooden chair. She's a diminutive elderly woman, but her hands are heavy, strong and accustomed to hard work. Her grandson, who is five or six, sits next to her. Altai is around 98 years old, although she's not certain of her exact age.

When a car pulls up and two unknown people get out and start moving toward her, she stands up. She protectively puts her hands over the forehead of the boy, who is standing in front of her. Her son-in-law Recai tries to calm her. She insists she doesn't want to talk about her past. But it's important, her son-in-law says.

Altai was born during the time of the decimation. She knows that her mother's name was Safiye, an Armenian-Christian name that is the equivalent of Sophie. Safiye had been on a death march with her parents in the Syrian desert when a Kurdish guerrilla caught sight of the 12-year-old girl and either fell in love with or wanted to rape her. In any case, by wrestling Safiye away from her parents, the man saved her life.

This man was likely Asiya's father, but it appears that he died shortly after her birth. Asiya never got to know him. She grew up in Cüngüs. It's likely that her mother was unable to really trust the other women in the village, so she made her daughter one of her earliest confidantes. She also made her daughter promise never to reveal the terrible secret of her roots.

Altai still feels bound to that pledge today. Her daughter and her son-in-law have to coax each word out of her. Her mother had probably also been warned never to utter a word about what had happened.

"But that no longer applies today!" says son-in-law Recai.

"It's OK to talk about it," her daughter Ayse says.

'The Armenians Just Disappeared'

"There were many Armenians living here," says Altai. "There was a church and a cloister -- the ruins are still standing. Then the Armenians just disappeared one day, just like that."

When the interview ends, Recai suggests driving back along the Dudan River, which is about 15 minutes away.

He says many people were killed there -- that they were pushed there and then flung into the gorge. Older people in the surrounding villages, he says, knew what was happening and even talk about it among themselves. Recai says that people in the village avoid the site, believing it is cursed.

Green mountain water foams as it makes its way down the Dudan, first through a gorge and then tumbling into a crevice. It's like an underground waterfall. There's a drop of 15 or 20 meters (49 to 65 feet) -- a thunderous, dark hole from which wafts of mist rise.

The driver, quiet up until this moment, says it's time to leave. He doesn't want to stay here. No, he says, it's not that he believes in ghosts, not really. But you never know.

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