Dead reckoning (part 2)

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The Independent Online

Alas, all this has come to pass. When I wrote about the Armenian massacres in The Independent in 1993, the Turks denounced my article - as they have countless books and investigations before and since - as a lie. Turkish readers wrote to the editor to demand my dismissal from the paper. If Armenian civilians had been killed, they wrote, this was a result of the anarchy that existed in Ottoman Turkey in the First World War, civil chaos in which countless Turks had died and in which Armenian paramilitaries had deliberately taken the side of Tsarist Russia. The evidence of European commissions into the massacres, the eye-witness accounts of Western journalists at the later slaughter of Armenians at Smyrna - the present-day holiday resort of Izmir where British sunbathers today have no idea of the bloodbath that took place around their beaches - the denunciations of Morgenthau and Churchill, are all dismissed as propaganda.

Alas, all this has come to pass. When I wrote about the Armenian massacres in The Independent in 1993, the Turks denounced my article - as they have countless books and investigations before and since - as a lie. Turkish readers wrote to the editor to demand my dismissal from the paper. If Armenian civilians had been killed, they wrote, this was a result of the anarchy that existed in Ottoman Turkey in the First World War, civil chaos in which countless Turks had died and in which Armenian paramilitaries had deliberately taken the side of Tsarist Russia. The evidence of European commissions into the massacres, the eye-witness accounts of Western journalists at the later slaughter of Armenians at Smyrna - the present-day holiday resort of Izmir where British sunbathers today have no idea of the bloodbath that took place around their beaches - the denunciations of Morgenthau and Churchill, are all dismissed as propaganda.

When a Holocaust conference was to be held in Israel, the Turkish government objected to the inclusion of material on the Armenian slaughter. Incredibly, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel withdrew from the conference after the Israeli foreign ministry said that it might damage Israeli-Turkish relations. The conference went ahead, but only in miniature form. In the United States, Turkey's powerful lobby groups attack journalists or academics who suggest the Armenian genocide was fact. Turkish ambassadors regularly write letters - which have appeared in all British newspapers, even in the Israeli press - denying the truth of the Armenian Holocaust. No one - save the Armenians - objects to this denial. Scarcely a whimper comes from those who would, rightly, condemn any denial of the Jewish Holocaust.

For Turkey - no longer the "sick man of Europe" - is courted by the Western powers which so angrily condemned its cruelty in the last century. It is a valued member of the Nato alliance - our ally in bombing Serbia last year - the closest regional ally of Israel and a major buyer of US and French weaponry. Just as we remained largely silent at the persecution of the Kurds, so we prefer to ignore the world's first holocaust. While Britain's massive contribution to the proposed Euphrates dam project in south-eastern Turkey was in the balance, Tony Blair was not going to mention the Armenian atrocities. Indeed, when this year he announced that Britain was to honour an annual Holocaust Day, he made no mention of the Armenians. Holocaust Day, it seems, was to be a Jewish-only affair. And it was to take a capital "H" when it applied to the Jews.

I've always agreed with this. Mass ethnic slaughter on such a scale - Hitler's murder of six million Jews - deserves a capital "H". But I also believe that the genocide of other races merits a capital "H". Millions of Jews - despite Wiesel's gutlessness and the shameful reaction of the Israeli government - have shown common cause with the Armenians in their suffering, acknowledging the 1915 massacres as the precursor of the "Shoah" or Jewish Holocaust. Norman Finkelstein in his angry new book on the "Holocaust industry" makes a similar point, adding that the Jewish experience - both his parents were extermination camp survivors - should not be allowed to diminish the genocide committed against other ethnic groups in modern history. Indeed, the very word "genocide" was invented for the Armenians in 1944 - by a Polish-born Jew, Raphael Lemkin.

Nor can I myself forget the Armenian Holocaust. The very last survivors of that genocide are still - just - alive, and several of them live in Beirut where I am based as Middle East correspondent of The Independent. I have read extensively about and, occasionally, researched the Jewish Holocaust - my own book about the Lebanese war, Pity the Nation, begins in Auschwitz, where I found frozen lakes filled with the powdered bones of the dead from the ashpits of Birkenau. But the Armenian Holocaust has been "my" story because it is part of the Middle East's history as well as the world's. Only this year, I interviewed Hartun, a 101-year-old blind Armenian in an old people's home in East Beirut who remembered how, in the Syrian desert in 1915, his mother pleaded with Turks not to rape her 18-year-old daughter - Hartun's sister. "As she begged them not to take my sister, they beat her to death," Hartun recalled. "I remember her dying, shouting 'Hartun, Hartun, Hartun' over and over. When she was dead, they took my sister away on a horse. I never saw her again." Hartun - after years of bitterness and longing for revenge - was overcome with what he called "my Christian belief" and decided to abandon the notion of vengeance. "When the Turkish earthquake killed so many people last year," he told me, "I prayed for the poor Turkish people."

It was a deeply moving example of compassion from a man whose suffering those Turks will not admit and whose Holocaust we prefer to ignore. Stirred partly by Hartun's story, I wrote an article for The Independent in January of this year on the "sublimation" of the Armenian genocide, its wilful denial by US academics who hold American university professorships funded by the Turkish government, and the absence of any reference to the Armenians in the British Government's announcement of Holocaust Day. And, yes, I referred to the Armenian Holocaust - as I did to the Jewish Holocaust - with a capital "H". Chatting to an Armenian acquaintance, I mentioned that I had given the Armenian genocide the same capital "H" which I believe should be attached to all acts of genocide.

Little could I have guessed how quickly the dead would rise from their graves. When the article appeared in The Independent - a paper which has never failed to dig into human wickedness visited upon every race and creed - my references to the Jewish Holocaust remained with a capital "H". But the Armenian Holocaust had been downgraded to a lower case "h". "Tell me, Robert," my Armenian friend asked me in suppressed fury, "how do we Armenians qualify for a capital 'H'? Didn't the Turks kill enough of us? Or is it because we're not Jewish?"

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