Dead reckoning

Why is it that only one of the great holocausts of the last century merits a capital 'H'? Here, Robert Fisk, who has spent many years researching the massacre of one and a half million Armenian Christians, argues that all acts of genocide deserve equal recognition
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The Independent Online

In the spring of 1993, with my car keys, I slowly unearthed a set of skulls from the clay wall of a hill in northern Syria. I had been looking for the evidence of a mass murder - the world's first genocide - for the previous two days but it took a 101-year-old Armenian woman to locate the river bed where her family were murdered in the First World War. The more I dug into the hillside next to the Habur river, the more skulls slid from the earth, bright white at first then, gradually, collapsing into paste as the cold, wet air reached the calcium for the first time since their mass murder. The teeth were unblemished - these were mostly young people - and the bones I later found stretched behind them were strong. Backbones, femurs, joints, a few of them laced with the remains of some kind of cord. There were dozens of skeletons here. The more I dug away with my car keys, the more eye sockets peered at me out of the clay. It was a place of horror.

In the spring of 1993, with my car keys, I slowly unearthed a set of skulls from the clay wall of a hill in northern Syria. I had been looking for the evidence of a mass murder - the world's first genocide - for the previous two days but it took a 101-year-old Armenian woman to locate the river bed where her family were murdered in the First World War. The more I dug into the hillside next to the Habur river, the more skulls slid from the earth, bright white at first then, gradually, collapsing into paste as the cold, wet air reached the calcium for the first time since their mass murder. The teeth were unblemished - these were mostly young people - and the bones I later found stretched behind them were strong. Backbones, femurs, joints, a few of them laced with the remains of some kind of cord. There were dozens of skeletons here. The more I dug away with my car keys, the more eye sockets peered at me out of the clay. It was a place of horror.

In 1915, the world reacted with equal horror as news emerged from the dying Ottoman Empire of the deliberate destruction of at least a million and a half Christian Armenians. Their fate - the ethnic cleansing of this ancient race from the lands of Turkey, the razing of their towns and churches, the mass slaughter of their menfolk, the massacre of their women and children - was denounced in Paris, London and Washington as a war crime. Tens of thousands of Armenian women - often after mass rape by their Turkish guards - were left to die of starvation with their children along the banks of the Habur river near Deir ez-Zour, in what is today northern Syria. The few men who survived were tied together and thrown into the river. Turkish gendarmes would fire a bullet into one of them and his body would drag the rest to their deaths. Their skulls - a few of them - were among the bones I unearthed on that terrible afternoon seven years ago.

The deliberate nature of this slaughter was admitted by the then Turkish leader, Enver Pasha, in a conversation with Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador in Constantinople, a Jewish-American diplomat whose vivid reports to Washington in 1915 form an indictment of the greatest war crime the modern world had ever known. Enver denounced the Armenians for siding with Russia in its war with the Turks. But even the Germans, Ottoman Turkey's ally in the First World War, condemned the atrocities; for it was the Armenian civilian population which was cut down by the Turks. The historian Arnold Toynbee, who worked for the Foreign Office during the war, was to record the "atmosphere of horror" which lay over the abandoned Armenian lands in the aftermath of the savagery. Men had been lined up on bridges to have their throats cut and be thrown into rivers; in orchards and fields, women and children had been knifed. Armenians had been shot by the thousand, sometimes beaten to death with clubs. Earlier Turkish pogroms against the Armenians of Asia Minor had been denounced by Lord Gladstone. In the aftermath of the 1914-18 war, Winston Churchill was the most eloquent in reminding the world of the Armenian Holocaust.

"In 1915 the Turkish Government began and ruthlessly carried out the infamous general massacre and deportation of Armenians in Asia Minor," Churchill wrote in his magisterial volume four of The Great War. "... the clearance of the race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act, on a scale so great, could well be ... There is no reasonable doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons." Churchill referred to the Turks as "war criminals" and wrote of their "massacring uncounted thousands of helpless Armenians - men, women and children together; whole districts blotted out in one administrative holocaust - these were beyond human redress."

So Churchill himself, writing 80 years ago, used the word "holocaust" about the Armenian massacres. I am not surprised. A few miles north of the site where I had dug up those skulls, I found a complex of underground caves beneath the Syrian desert. Thousands of Armenians had been driven into this subterranean world in 1915 and Turkish gendarmes lit bonfires at the mouths of the caves. The smoke was blown into the caves and the men were asphyxiated. The caves were the world's first gas chambers. No wonder, then, that Hitler is recorded as asking his generals - as he planned his own numerically far more terrible holocaust - "Who does now remember the Armenians?"

Could such a crime be denied? Could such an act of mass wickedness be covered up? Or could it, as Hitler suggested, be forgotten? Could the world's first holocaust - a painful irony, this - be half-acknowledged but downgraded in the list of human bestiality as the dreadful 20th century produced further acts of mass barbarity?

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