Armenian genocide: Turkey's day of denial amid remembrance for a genocide in all but name

As brave Turks dared to challenge the consensus to mark the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the President chose to look the other way

Robert Fisk
Friday 24 April 2015 21:43 BST
A memorial in Istanbul to mark the 100th anniversary of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Armenia claims 1.5 million people were killed in the atrocities, a figure Turkey disputes
A memorial in Istanbul to mark the 100th anniversary of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Armenia claims 1.5 million people were killed in the atrocities, a figure Turkey disputes (EPA)

They were brave Turks and they were brave Armenians, the descendants of the murderers of 1915 and the descendants of their victims.

They stood together outside the old Istanbul prison where the first 250 Armenians – intellectuals, lawyers, teachers, journalists – were imprisoned by the Ottoman Turks exactly 100 years ago, and they travelled across the Bosphorus to sit next to each other outside the gaunt pseudo-Gothic hulk of what was once the Anatolia Station.

From here, those 250 men were sent to their fate. Yesterday, the Turks and the Armenians held a sign in their hands and repeated one word in Turkish: “Soykirim”. It means “genocide”.

How they humbled the great and the good of our Western world, as they commemorated together the planned slaughter of one and a half million Armenian men, women and children.

For despite his first pre-election pledge to the contrary, Barack Obama once more refused to use the word “genocide” on Thursday. The Brits ducked the word again. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stubbornly maintaining his country’s ossified policy of denial – once more both Armenians and Turks had to listen to the usual “fog of war” explanation for the 20th century’s first holocaust – was sitting 180 miles away, next to Prince Charles, to honour the dead of the 1915 battle of Gallipoli.

It is a century since the first 250 Armenians were killed (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

But Professor Ayhan Aktar, a proud Turk whose family emigrated from the Balkans in 1912, understood the cynical history of the Gallipoli ceremony. For on 24 April, as the first Armenians were being rounded up, absolutely nothing happened at Gallipoli. The battle began the next day, when the Irish and the Lancashire soldiers landed on the peninsula. The Erdogan government in Ankara was using Gallipoli as a smoke screen. “We all know why Erdogan chose 24 April, and of course it was a genocide,” Ayhan Aktar said, his voice booming with indignation. “Ankara will NEVER use the word ‘genocide’. Sixty per cent of Turks will one day use the word – and still Ankara will say ‘no’. Yes, I have made enemies, but also some very interesting friends. It was all worth it.”

The professor’s scorn came from deep historical soil. “When my Armenian journalist friend Hrant Dink was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist outside his newspaper office in February 2007, I was shocked and deeply depressed,” he said.

“I promised myself that because of Hrant’s death, I would write about 1915. With a colleague of mine, we went through documents – and we wrote about the Turkish bureaucrats who resisted the Armenian deportations. I read more and more and I started to use the word ‘genocide’. It was the truth.”

Turkish soldiers at the Helles memorial in Gallipoli (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

And so two sets of names – all dead – dominated those few hundred courageous souls who, in what was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, turned their back on the hypocrisy of those diplomats and prime ministers 200 miles away in Gallipoli. There was Faik Ali, Turkish governor of Kutahya in 1915 and his contemporary Mehmet Celal in Konya and there was Huseyin Nesimi, the deputy Turkish governor in Lice. “All fed the persecuted Armenians, all refused to kill them,” the professor said. “Faik Ali and Huseyin Nesimi were both dismissed. Nesimi was murdered on the orders of his senior governor, Dr Reshid.”

These were the good Turks who tried to maintain their country’s honour in its hour of shame. The few hundred equally honourable Turks and Armenians who crossed the Bosphorus to the German-built railway station on Friday then sat down on the sunny steps and held up photographs of the 250 Armenians who were put aboard the cattle wagons inside.

There was Ardashes Harutunian, Dr Garabed Pasayian Han, Karekin Cakalian, Atom Yercanjian and Siamonto, the pen name of Atom Yarjanian, a landmark figure of Armenia’s golden age of poetry.

Siamonto’s great nephew had arrived from Paris for his first visit – ever – to the land in which his people were destroyed. “You must understand the significance of Gallipoli in all this,” Manouk Atomyan explained. “At first, the Turks didn’t kill them (the Armenians) – because they thought the Allies would win at Gallipoli and rescue them all. But by July, it was obvious the Allies were losing. So the Turks set about the killing.”

The 250 men, the cream of Armenian Istanbul society, were put on a train which stopped before Ankara. The first carriages were sent on to Ankara, where most of the passengers were executed. Of the 250, 175 were killed, shot in the head beside prepared graves.

Narin Kurumlu bears a Turkish name and is indeed a Turk, but she is also Armenian, one of the few people of her race whose family clung onto their land – Turkish land – amid their people’s persecution.

“I am a Turk but I call this a genocide,” she said. “It is the truth. I am a tour guide and I was trained by the Turkish tourist people. Yes, I go to Van and the old Armenian areas. I don’t go into details and when I’m asked about the genocide, I say the figures are disputed. I say that some think it was a million and a half Armenians killed, but that it was at least a million.” I ask her to write down her original Armenian family name. “I’d rather not,” she says. “There are good reasons for this… they listen to my phone and they read my e-mails.”

These were perhaps the most deeply moving – and distressing – words uttered among the small crowd of truth-tellers outside the Anatolia station yesterday. All were escorted – at a distance, of course – by a small posse of Turkish state police, some in uniform. They were not there to threaten the brave Turks or the brave Armenians. They were present to ensure that no-one else threatened them, the sort of people, for instance, who murdered Hrant Dink eight years ago. For that would take the headlines away from another ceremony, wouldn’t it? And remind the world that the 130,000 Allied and Turkish dead of Gallipoli were outnumbered by one and a half million civilian dead whose genocide we must still obediently deny.

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