On April 24 every year, Armenian Christians around the world solemnly remember the start of the tremendous suffering they faced in 1915 during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The date marks the day when some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested and deported from Istanbul. Few survived. The event was only the beginning of mass deportations of Armenians from parts of Ottoman Anatolia.
As the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, Russian forces began to invade lands in the East and losses in the two Balkan Wars (1912-13) resulted in hundreds of thousands of Muslims being expelled to Turkey. After Turkey entered World War 1 on Germany’s side in 1915, it suffered great losses across the Middle East, and faced the invasion of Istanbul as Anglo-French alliance sought to seize the Turkish capital and on the way capture strategic straits of Gallipoli.
The Ottoman government came to believe that Armenians in those areas of the country and Armenian nationalists posed a direct security threat. Armenians had faced violence and massacres before since the late 1800s. Many rural Armenians had found themselves at the mercy of local gangs and tribes. Some joined Russian forces which had occupied Ottoman lands since the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 and were seen as a protector of Orthodox Christians. Some joined groups for self-defence. Some sought to pursue the vision of creating an autonomous or independent Armenia like other Balkan nations which had broken away from the Ottoman Empire. Between 1894-96 a series of widespread massacres claimed many thousands of Armenian lives.
With their sense of threat and an historic mistrust and antipathy towards Christian communities, the Ottoman government embarked on a series of actions that led ultimately to the deaths of probably some 1 to 1.5 million Armenians (numbers are hard to establish) and the dispersion of many more across the world. The city of Van was ordered to provide 4,000 Armenian able-bodied men to serve in the army. Van offered only 500 and came under siege. The armed defence of Van then led the Ottoman rulers to order the deportation of Armenians from other towns and provinces. Alongside official orders, it is clear that instructions and permissions were also given to gangs and criminals to attack the mass migration marches of Armenians, who were already facing starvation and dehydration.
While the government and military officials of the Ottoman government which ordered these crimes were eventually found guilty, some hanged and others sent into exile by Turkish courts, the new Republic of Turkey established after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was keen to leave this dark episode behind. Official Turkish histories omitted any accounts of what happened to the Armenians, nor to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Assyrians and Ottoman Greeks in similar massacres and death marches.
When the concept and legal definition of genocide was created in 1960s and post-WWII visions for human rights and international law began to spread, Armenians around the world demanded that Turkey acknowledge the Armenians’ suffering in 1915 as a genocide, pay reparations and return properties. Turkish governments have vehemently refused these charges, often argued that no such events occurred, and claimed that Armenians exaggerated the responses of Ottoman authorities to Armenians who rebelled and joined invading Russian troops.
In the 1970s, the Armenian terrorist organisation, ASALA, began to assassinate Turkish diplomats around the world in revenge. This only hardened the government view. Eventually ASALA attracted widespread condemnation and ceased to exist. Armenian communities settled around the world began lobbying their governments to officially acknowledge 1915’s events as a genocide and press Turkey to do the same. Since then, 23 countries have done this.
Facing the past
In Turkey, even writing about the Armenian tragedy, let alone using the word “genocide” became impossible. Many writers and academics found themselves facing court cases and death threats. However, increasing numbers of Turks have come to acknowledge the atrocities that are part of their history and that history has to be faced.
An influential figure in this was Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Dink’s writings provoked widespread debate and anger from both Turks and Armenians. Dink was assassinated in 2008 by an ultranationalist network in Istanbul. His dead body lying on the pavement of the newspaper where he worked in Istanbul triggered national anguish. Hundreds of thousands of Turks marched chanting “We are all Hrant Dink, We are all Armenian”.
Since then, the AK Party government of Tayyip Erdogan has slowly breached national taboos and provided opportunities and greater freedom for the issue to be discussed. It has issued multiple statements acknowledging the great suffering of Armenians and its sorrow over the loss of most of Turkey’s Armenian population.
Yet, the issue of the word “genocide” continues. Many Armenians believe it is key that Turkey officially uses that word in order to address properly what happened in 1915. Many Turks still think that use of such a word is harmful to their country and some refuse to believe such horrors could have been perpetrated in their country. Yet, increasing number of Turks vocally challenge the taboos, use the word “genocide” in writings and publications and many more continue to call their government to face the past fully even though they might not use the word “genocide”.
Legal definitions of what happened in the past matter both for the victims and their descendants. It is important that what happened is brought to the light. Of course, justice cannot be met fully when all the victims and murderers are no longer alive. But acknowledgement, the re-writing of histories and taking steps to restore the Armenian heritage in Turkey would be vital steps towards it. In this way, the past can be stopped from fuelling new animosities, and can form a basis for healing and ensuring that such things never happen again.
This April, we will remember the 100th Anniversary of the 1915 genocide. We will remember in sadness all the innocent lives lost, the century of silence about their fate, and the long years when Armenians have felt their pain has not been felt. We will pray for healing, hope and restoration. We will pray for the openness in Turkey to face their suffering and to hear their voices.