August 09, 2015

Centennial Commemoration of Armenian Genocide:

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE centennial commemoration to mark the mass killings of Armenians was observed in many parts of the world on April 24. In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, there was a solemn ceremony attended by world leaders, including the Russian and French presidents. Armenians all over the world remember the killings and mass deportations of Armenians from Turkey a hundred years ago as “the great calamity”. The Armenian government as well as the Armenian diaspora  have been working tirelessly to make the international community recognise the terrible fate that had befallen their people. There were posters with the words “forget me not” all over Yerevan and other cities with the caption, “We remember and We demand”.


Previous Turkish governments had initially refused to acknowledge that the Armenians who were once an important part of their country's mosaic were subjected to mass killings or forced expulsions. The present government under Recep Erdogan has tried to mend fences with neighbouring Armenia by accepting that many Armenians did pay with their lives in the events that occurred in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. But President Erdogan continues to insist that the government of the time did not commit the act of genocide against the minority Armenian Christians. Turkey now accepts that many Armenians were killed but refuses to accept the figure of 1.5 million claimed by the Armenians. Last year, Erdogan sent a message to the Armenian government expressing Ankara's condolences on the occasion of the April 24 anniversary. It was for the first time that the head of the government in Turkey had sent such a message. Erdogan in his message recognised the significance of the events of 1915 stating that what had happened was “inhumane”.  This year, Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutogulu, also declared that he recognised the pain of the Armenians and sent condolences to the descendants of those who perished in the massacres and forced repatriations.


On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government had ordered the mass arrests of Armenian intellectuals, activists, politicians and others connected to revolutionary parties. The 250 people who were arrested met a brutal end. A month later, the government in the fading days of the Ottoman empire, run by the “Young Turks”, as the Ottoman leaders, Mehmet Talat, Ismail Enver and Ahmet Cemal came to be known, had ordered the mass deportation of Armenians in Anatolia to far off cities like Aleppo and Mosul, to be held in concentration camps. The old, the young, women and children were sent on a death march through the searing Syrian desert. Before that there were massacres of men in their villages and towns. The government had said that the mass deportations were being carried out “as the Armenians had made common cause with the enemy”. According to historians, between 2000 and 2500 Armenian villages were completely destroyed. Turkey has continued to claim that the death marches were merely aimed at relocating the Armenians. The noted British historian, Arnold Toynbee along with other scholars, including Turkish ones, had written extensively on the atrocities inflicted by the Turkish government on the Armenians. The courage of many Turkish officials who chose to disobey the orders of the “Young Turks” are also documented. Governors who chose to disobey orders from Istanbul and fed and sheltered the refugees crossing the inhospitable desert were dismissed or assassinated.


 The official Turkish government line remains unchanged since the time of Kemal Ataturk. Modern Turkey came into being only in 1923. Ankara points out that many Turks also perished when First World War was being fought on Turkish soil. They reject the contention that the massacre of the Armenians was orchestrated by the government of the day and that their deaths should be seen in the context of the war that was raging. Turkey had aligned with Germany and had ended up on the losing side. The Turkish government at the time accused the Armenians of being a fifth column and were collaborating with the countries enemies, notably Imperial Russia, to split up the Ottoman empire. Russian forces had invaded Eastern Anatolia during the first War.


Turkish officials have said that a Commission of eminent historians should be set up to investigate whether or not the events of 1915 could be categorised as a genocide. The Turkish government has reasons to be wary. If the actions of 1915 are characterised as genocide by the international community, then there could be a heavy legal and financial burden to bear for the government in Ankara.  Because of the controversies surrounding the emotive issue, the border between the two neighbours, Turkey and Armenia has remained closed since 1994, though Turkey was among the first countries to recognise the Republic of Armenia after it declared independence in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The other major irritant in the relations between the two countries is the conflict in the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenian separatists have been in control of

the enclave which is inside the territory of Azerbaijan. Turkey and Azerbaijan have a close economic and political partnership.


Armenia has also been angered by the decision of the Turkish government to shift the dates of the centenary ceremony of the First World War battle of Gallipoli from the traditional date of March 8 to April 24-25, this year. Armenian authorities naturally viewed this as a Turkish diplomatic maneuver to distract attention from the “genocide remembrance” ceremonies that were held in Yerevan on April 24. World leaders were forced to choose between the two ceremonies. “Genocide recognition” has become one of the key components of Armenia's foreign policy. In Armenia, nearly every family has been affected by the events of 1915. In the Armenian version of history, which is backed by many scholars, the Ottoman rulers under the cover of war had masterminded the genocidal plan. The Bosnian Serbs have been held guilty of committing genocide by the International Court of Justice for a crime committed in the 1990's, involving the deaths of less than a thousand people. The Court found the Serbs guilty of killing 8000 men and deporting 25,000 women and children in Srebrenica. The Armenians would very much want the international community to rectify what they consider as a historic travesty of justice.


Hrant Dink, the Turkish journalist of Armenian descent who was assassinated by a right wing nationalist in 2007, had argued against using international forums to persuade the Turkish government and civil society to acknowledge the reality of the Armenian genocide. Dink had urged an open dialogue among Turks on the events of 1915 and called for closer relations with Armenia so that both sides could find it easier to comprehend and understand the complex events that led to the tragedy of 2015. Dink had acknowledged that the Turks too had to pay a heavy price along with the Armenians in those tumultuous years.


In 2008, some Turkish intellectuals started an online initiative, “I apologise” which asked the government to recognise the 1915 genocide and issue an apology to the Armenians. More than 32,000 Turks signed the petition. Many more Turks have started openly to recognise the significance of April 24 by holding private meetings. The main Kurdish opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has issued an apology to the Armenian people and restored an Armenian Church in Diyarbakir. The worst atrocities against Armenians were carried out in Kurdish areas of present day Turkey. Ten years ago, it was a crime in Turkey for citizens to say that the events of 1915 were equivalent to a genocide. Hrant Dink was branded a traitor by nationalists for trying to bring about reconciliation between Turks and Armenians and paid with his life.


Pope Francis had described the events of 1915 as “an immense and senseless slaughter” that is “widely considered as the first genocide of the 20th century”. The Pontiff at the same time called on Turkey and Armenia to take up the path of reconciliation again. The Russian president described the events that occurred a hundred years in modern day Turkey as “a mournful date, related to one of the most horrendous and dramatic events in human history, the genocide of the Armenian people”. He stressed that the international community has a duty to ensure that atrocities on such a scale never happen again. The European parliament too issued a statement calling on Turkey to recognise that the events of 1915 did indeed constitute an act of “genocide”. The Austrian and German parliaments also seconded the views of the European parliament. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon described the 1915 events as “an atrocity”.  American President, Barack Obama shied away from using the word “genocide” while making his traditional April 24 speech on the Armenian massacre. He however did describe the slaughter as “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century”. When he first ran for president, Obama had promised Armenian Americans that if elected he would make the “genocide issue” a priority. As a senator, Obama had co-sponsored a resolution calling for the use of the word “genocide” while describing the events of 1915.


President Erdogan has been dismissive of the statements made by the Pontiff and President Putin. He described the Pope's statement as “nonsense” and repeated that historians have not yet come to a conclusion about what had taken place in 1915. He issued a statement declaring that “using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey and turning this issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible”. Only around 24 countries have as yet recognised the “genocide” against the Armenians. Only two countries, Turkey and Azerbaijan categorically deny that a genocide against the Armenians ever happened. As for Erdogan, playing the nationalist card at this juncture will help his party in the parliamentary elections scheduled to be held later in the year. In Anatolia, where the ruling AK party gets most of its support, memories of the failed attempt by Britain, France and Germany to carve out the territory after the First World War are still alive.