Wednesday, April 23, 2014

April 2014: The Armenian Genocide – 99 Years

This April 24th marks the 99th Anniversary of the start of Armenian Genocide.  April 24, 1915 was a Saturday.  It was a few weeks after Easter.  It was on this day that the Turkish government arrested 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals. They were taken to prisons in the interior of the country and many of them were killed in the ensuing weeks.  This arrest and murder of these intellectuals and leaders made a subjugated and downtrodden people leaderless and less able to mobilize, organize, or advocate against the massacres and deportations they were soon to be subjected to.
The Turks today bristle against the use of the word Genocide.  Armenians believe that Genocide is exactly what it was.  Arresting and killing the leadership of the people as the first act seems to have involved planning and premeditation which is a prerequisite for the crime of genocide.  Mehmet Talaat Pasha, part of the triumvirate of Young Turks that were running the country, was a cunning strategist and tactician.  He was also a telegraph operator.  He ran the operation, the Genocide of the Armenians, by telegraph dispatching directive and getting reports on the progress.  This is further evidence that it was a premeditated and planned operation.  The goal of this operation was the removal of Armenians to largest extent possible out of what is today the Republic of Turkey. 
The Hairenik Association is in the process of digitizing their catalog of books and selling them as eBooks.  The first was The Legacy by Arshavir Shiragian.  Arshavir Shiragian was a true Armenian hero.  He was part of a group of Armenians that dedicated themselves to tracking down and killing those responsible for the Genocide.  It was a very good readable narrative book.  As with most Armenian books about the Genocide, there are disturbing passages.  Here is such a passage that has profoundly affected me. 

Thousands of young Armenian provincials who had come to Constantinople to work as laborers—hamals, doorkeepers, messengers—were jailed and eventually deported and killed. These poor young Armenians had left their families behind in their villages. Some of them had walked hundreds of miles to get to the big city. In Constantinople, they willingly did the most menial and hardest of jobs, working a 13-hour day for the equivalent of ten dollars a month. Most of this money was sent back to their wives to buy food for their children, to their parents to buy seeds or a new farm animal. They lived with their compatriots in miserably crowded quarters in the most squalid sections of the city. Nearly all of them were uneducated and formed the lowest economic class of Armenian society. But they were young and strong and incorruptibly Armenian and Christian, and the Turks regarded them as a threat to Turkish rule. It was easy for the Turkish police to round up these 5000 men in one night and hustle them off to jail and death. On April 25, not one of these men was at his usual station in the city and not one of these men ever came back. Perhaps on their long death marches in the interior, some of them were briefly reunited with their families. The mass deportations had begun.

We know about the 250 or so leaders and intellectuals that were rounded up that evening and eventually killed.  The Armenian people lost writers and statesmen such as Krikor Zorab, Siamanto, Taniel Varoujan, and Roupen Zartarian   As a people we were beheaded.  Those that were most capable of organizing the people and more importantly those that were best able and most suited to communicating with the rest of the word were taken out of the picture.  We commemorate the Genocide on April 24 because these arrest and murders were the first act in our national tragedy. 
I did not know about the disappearance of the 5,000 poorest of the poor.  These humble migrant workers did not have an easy life.  They had come to the big city, took the most menial jobs that no one else wanted, lived in squalid conditions, worked hard, and sent money to their families in the villages of the interior.  Maybe I had not read the right books or listened to the right speeches or lectures but, I simply did not know about these martyred souls.  I have read or heard about the many atrocities and horrors that befell our people.  These stories made me feel any mixture of sad, angry, vengeful, victimized, and anguished.  The disappearance of these men that I had never heard of made me feel very empty.   These men, these nobodies, who disappeared with no one knowing their names or stories, they have become the symbol of April 24 for me.
As we are just one year away from the 100th Anniversary of the greatest crime, the great tragedy, that befell our nation.   There are a few precious survivors still with us.  Those precious few, who are at least 99 years old, were newborns or toddlers during those dark days of our history.  They have no recollection of their ancestral homes.  Amongst the rest of the Armenian Nation, none of us personally knew any of those that were killed in or died as a result of the Genocide.  My parents know the names of relatives, aunts, uncles, and grandparents they never met.  They knew the names of these relatives from their parents.  They knew some bits and pieces about their lives and personalities.  I know some of the names but that is all.  To my children and their children, our family members that did not make it are for all practical purposes abstractions.  This is the stark reality and it pains me to even write the words.  I cannot imagine anyone even knows the names of any of those anonymous 5,000 men that were rounded up in Istanbul on April 24, 1915.
Time is on the side of the denialists and the Turkish government.  They are probably thinking that if they can weather the 100th Anniversary without admitting to anything more or making any concessions, the worst the Armenians can politically and diplomatically do will be behind them.  They are counting on this crime against the Armenian people becoming more history than an active issue or cause.  Then, if they so choose, they can regret the way the United States regrets any crime against the Native Peoples of this continent.  Regret without much else.
The crime against our people was devastating.  The first immigrants here were rebuilding their lives, starting families, and building churches and community centers.  They were not really capable nor did they consider political activism with regard to Genocide recognition and restitution.  We did not wake up as a people until 1965, when my parents' generation, the first generation of Armenians born in the US after the Genocide, decided to commemorate the anniversary.  With the commemoration came the political activism to demand recognition and restitution from the Republic of Turkey.  We have been a thorn in Turkey's side ever since.
While the Turkish Government has maintained their stoic denial over the years, there has been more discussion amongst academics and in the media there.  Some Armenians are feeling some encouragement because some Turks are acknowledging the truth.  The Kurds who were complicit with the Turks in the Genocide have admitted regret in what their grandfathers did.  They have faced their own issues with the Turkish government as second class citizens of the country... and they are Moslems. 

There is something magic about 100 years.  We have a magnificent opportunity in 2015 to make an impact and garner international support.  While we, as Armenians, will not stop our activism in regards to Genocide recognition and restitution, the rest of the world may decide to care a little less simply because this arbitrary milestone has been passed.  This is a concern of a few Armenian leaders I have had a chance to discuss this with.
Certainly, we will have our commemorations next year.  They will be on a grand a scale as we can make them.  We will involve as many world leaders and dignitaries as we possibly can.  But, what will be the result?  Will Turkey continue to win by ignoring our demands and applying heavy political pressure on any country that passes ceremonial resolutions recognizing what happened to the Armenians?  I am fairly certain that will be Turkey's strategy. 
Meanwhile, the Armenian community in Syria has been driven out of their homes there with little prospect that they will return... especially if the worst of the rebels win.  Armenians have been targeted not necessarily for destruction but more so to be driven out from their homes.  The rebels do not care where the Armenians go; they just want them out of Syria. Armenians from Syria have gone to Beirut, Canada, and the Republic of Armenia.  While not overtly saying it, the Turks are probably glad to see this.  In the recent attacks in Kessab, the insurgent Al Qaeda forces staged and launched their attacks from Turkey most definitely with Turkish complicity.  It is very disconcerting and very real.  Armenians around the world have protested loudly with no real results. 
The Armenians in Aleppo, Kessab, and other northern Syrian cities are close to the cities and villages that Armenians were driven from 100 or even years ago.  Their proximity gives more credence to our claims than say Armenians living in Los Angeles, Paris, New York, Syndey, or Buenos Aires.  Kessab is one of the oldest and one of the few Western Armenian villages that still survives.  When the current Syrian-Turkish border was drawn in the 1930's with the departure of the French, Kessab fell on the Syrian side and the Armenians got to stay in their ancestral homes.  Musa Dagh ended up on the Turkish side.  Most of the Musa Dagh Armenian's left with the vast majority ending up Ainjar, Lebanon. 
Armenians do not trust the Turkish Government and the Turkish leaders.  There was a post from TRT Hayeren (the Turkish State website in the Armenian language started a few years ago).  The post was an Easter greeting from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  I shared the post on Facebook with the simple message:  "See he really is a nice guy..."  Of course, I was being facetious… really facetious.  The folks, all Armenians, who posted comments were very harsh.  Some may have even thought I was serious in calling Erdogan a nice guy.  Ninety-nine years and a few generations removed and our emotions are still very raw. 
Our emotions are raw for one reason. There has been no closure.  Certainly, for the most part, we have flourished in the diaspora.  Most of us are living wonderful lives, perhaps better lives than if we can stayed in our rural homelands.  As stated above, we a two or three generations removed from the land and crimes that occurred 99 years ago… and we still need, want, and deserve closure.  This is how deep the wound is in our collective psyche and it is still an open wound.
The need for closure is not just limited to the Armenians.  Turkey needs it as well.  A few weeks ago, Congressman Adam Schiff of California read a beautifully written Open Letter to the Turkish People on the Armenian Genocide.  This letter was read on the floor of the House of Representatives.  Yes, Adam Schiff represents the heavily Armenian 28th District that includes Glendale and Hollywood.  His message, YouTube of Schiff Speech, is clear and captures what Armenians want and need but also what he and I believe Turkey needs too. 
The Armenian-American singer, Serge Tankian, also wrote an open letter.  It was published in Agos newspaper, the Turkish Armenian weekly that was edited by Hrant Dink, Asbarez Tankian artice.  His message is simply that he wants the Turkish people to truly find themselves.  
Rasim Ozan Kutahyali wrote a very thoughtful piece in Al Monitor
The real murderer is the mindset, not a nation, that justifies the extermination of ethnic or religious groups from an allegedly lofty purpose. It is such a revolting, results-oriented mindset that has made possible all massacres and genocides, deeming all means legitimate in achieving a purported sacred end. In regard to the events of 1915, this morality- and conscience-deprived mindset emerged in the avatar of the Young Turks ideology, embodied in Talaat, a man who saw people as mere objects in his population-engineering designs.
So, that’s my personal story. I no longer deceive myself. What happened in these lands in 1915 was a great tragedy, a genocide against Armenians, a crime against humanity. Every “but …” argument about this crime makes me nauseous.

Read more:
Al-Monitor article
There are similar sentiments being expressed in the Turkish media.  An April 22, 2014 article in Today’s Zaman, Today's Zaman article, Orhan Kemal Cengiz wrote the following words:

If one day we can fully, honestly confront this past and all these tragedies that took place in this territory, I believe our relationship with ourselves and with others will be changed forever.

Maybe then we will have completely different identities that will bring an end to
the one hundred years solitude of our souls. Maybe then we will be free.

We have one year until the 100th Anniversary.  Let’s hope, pray, and work for closure… then we will all be free. 

I thought I was done with this letter.  I was just about to send it out and post it on my blog when there was a late breaking story.  Prime Minister Erdogan released a statement going further than any other Turkish Prime Minister has ever gone.  He admitted inhume treatment, Armenians killed by Ottoman soldiers, and offered condolences to the children and grandchildren victims.  Reuters Article
I was torn between two reactions.  The first was that there was renewed hope in a Turkish Prime Minister taking such a step.  The second was wondering what kind of chess move they were making with this announcement.
Most Armenians do not trust the Turks and believe this is the first step to some kind of plea bargain to do away with calling what happened a genocide once and for all.  We shall have to see how this plays out.

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