Skeletons in the Turkish closet: remembering the Armenian Genocide

Just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır in 2012 nearly 100 years after they were buried, Turkey’s past is haunting its future and demanding that we remember the tragic events of the Armenian Genocide.

24 April 2015

It was a few weeks after the New Year in 2012 when the skeletons of 38 human beings were discovered during an excavation in a restoration site in the İçkale neighborhood of Diyarbakır. The site where the remains were unearthed is the yard of the Saraykapı prison in İçkale, which was built in the 1880s during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamit II.

Saraykapı prison in İçkale was the site of horrifying forms of torture and murder of human beings in at least  three different historical instances: First of all, it was known as a place where members of the Armenian community of Diyarbakır were detained, tortured and killed in the spring of 1915. Secondly, it was used as the office of the public prosecutor as well as a detention area for holding arrested suspects after the 1980 military coup d’etat. Thirdly, the prison was used as the center for JİTEM (Jandarma İstihbarat ve Terörle Mücadele), a clandestine anti-terror organization formed within the deep state in the 1990s. The members of this organization were involved in the murder of many Kurdish activists. The prison was used as the headquarters of JİTEM where Kurdish activists were tortured and killed in the 1990s.

Following  the discovery of the skeletons, a debate emerged in the Turkish media about their identities. While some were claiming that they were the remains of the Armenians who were detained and tortured in this prison in the spring of 1915, others were almost certain that the skeletons belonged to some Kurdish victims. The list of victims who did not have a grave in their name was so long in the history of Diyarbakır that many surviving Kurdish families came forward hoping to give the remains of their loved ones a proper burial.

In an article that he wrote in Turkish in 2012, my colleague Ayhan Aktar, who was studying the massacres of Diyarbakır Armenians, suggested that it was very likely that these remains belonged to Armenians.

Aktar based his argument on a report penned by Thomas Mugerditchian who worked as a translator at the British Consulate in Diyarbakır. This report -titled The Diyarbekir Massacres and Kurdish Atrocities- was originally written and published in Armenian in 1919 (English translation published by the Gomidas Institute in 2013). Mugerditchian’s report is based on the recollections  of two surviving witnesses from Diyarbakır. Accordingly, it is claimed that in mid-April 1915, deserters from the Ottoman military were gathered from the Armenian neighborhood, and instead of being returned to their barracks they were placed in the prison in İçkale. In a couple of days, Armenian political leaders were also placed in prison. Soon, all the educated Armenians, namely doctors, lawyers, engineers, tradesmen, shop owners, civil servants, judges, and priests were gathered in the prison. It was in the yard of this prison that the human remains were unearthed. The debate about the identity of the human remains was eventually resolved by the report of the Institute of Forensic Medicine: the skeletons were at least 100 years old!

When I first heard  about the discovery of these skeletons in the site of the Saraykapı prison in İçkale, I was immediately reminded of a novel that I  read a few years ago. The novel authored by Edgar Hilsenrath titled Das Märchen vom letzten Gedanken (The Story of the Last Thought) is the story of the Armenians in the village Yedi Su in the province of Bakir before and after the 1915 deportations and death marches. This novel is distinguished by its author, Hilsenrath, who is a survivor of the Holocaust and therefore in an extraordinary position of being both an insider and an outsider to the phenomenon of the Armenian Genocide. In the novel, Armenians are portrayed by the Vali (Governor) of Bakir as people who are just waiting “to stick a dagger in our back,” an expression which was similarly used for the Jews in Nazi Germany (Dolchtosslegende).

The İçkale prison in Diyarbakır in the spring of 1915 is also described in the memoirs of Fâ’iz El-Ghusein (1917). El-Ghusein was a government administrator in Mamouret-el-Aziz in the 1910s. According to his account, he was later denounced as an Arab nationalist, tried and acquitted, but was dispatched to Erzurum accompanied by guards. When he reached Diyarbakır he was detained in prison for 22 days. It is possible to read about the torture that Armenian inmates endured in El-Ghusein’s memoirs.  It is also possible to read about the torture in this prison in Hilsenrath’s novel. My discovery of the overlap  between Hilsenrath’s novel and El-Ghussein’s memoirs was an amazing experience. I could see how the narration in novels and memoirs complemented one another, and helped one to visualize what had actually happened in a more detailed way. While inquiring into the atrocities committed in 1915 in this prison, El-Ghussein’s memoirs and Hilsenrath’s novel were filling the gaps in my imagination.

Barhana or Berhâne

Growing up in Turkey, I did not know about the Armenian Genocide until moving to Chicago, and later Boston, for graduate studies. My father is from Arapgir, a province of the city of Malatya. Lately, we had been having conversations about the Armenians that he had known during his childhood. He was born in 1929 and lived in Arapgir during his early childhood. My father’s childhood memories are filled with female Armenian acquaintances of the family who worked on the weaving loom, producing the famous Manusa fabric of Arapgir. One women (my father refers to her as Marisa Hanım) mended the broken arm of my father when he was a young boy by smearing a special mixture that contained pressed grape juice, and then wrapping it in a bandage. My father, a medical doctor who is well-known among his peers as a masterful surgeon, to this day remembers in amazement how this magical mixture had fixed his broken arm leaving no visible traces or pain in his later life.

One day, in the midst of our conversations, my father uttered the word “barhana.” He used the word in referring to a female Armenian acquaintance of the family called Eugenie who had arrived to Arapgir from Erzincan. Eugenie lived alone, and was responsible for spinning a thread bobbin. My father said that Eugenie arrived in  Arapgir during barhana. He was using it as the “turning point” for the region in reference to the deportation of the Armenians. He was not sure about the meaning of the word, but he knew that it had a negative connotation. A quick search led me to find out that the word means a procession of people in caravans, in Turkish. Barhana meant the deportation of Armenians. A more advanced search revealed that the word barhana means “to augment” in Urdu. An even more detailed search led me to find out that barhana also means “naked” or “bare” in Urdu. It was obvious that barhana was a word that my father had heard in his childhood, an expression used for the Armenian Genocide. My colleague and dear friend Ayhan Aktar told me that his mother used a similar word. He suggested that the correct spelling of the word could be “berhâne” rather than barhana and it is used to refer to a ruined and desolate house, or a mansion in Ottoman Turkish. There is no doubt that both ways of spelling seem to refer to people who are left either naked, bare, or with a ruined house. 

A strange cultural dilemma in Turkey: pride coupled with low self-esteem

The history books that I remember from my primary and secondary school years were filled with heroic stories of national figures. You were expected to derive a sense of pride in them. At some point in my adult life, I realized that many people in Turkey had developed a sense of pride in their national history thanks to the national education system. Nevertheless, they did not think very highly of themselves. I believe that such a sense of pride, coupled with a low sense of self-esteem, is one of the significant cultural dilemmas in Turkey. While on the one hand there is a sense of pride in ancestors and/or the national flag, there is at the same time a low sense of self -esteem. I always wondered about the origins of this paradox. Could it be that people knew and did not talk about the atrocities on this land? Could it be that they knew what happened was wrong but were channeled not to reflect about it? Could it be that they were encouraged to forget what cannot be forgotten? Could it be that the land itself kept whispering words about past atrocities, while the history books were boisterously claiming national victories?

Today, we know that the history of no land can be hidden under its soil. It is unearthed sooner or later, just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır about 100 years after they were buried.

In 2015, some of us are grieving and commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in an effort to put an end to one hundred years of denial, as well as justification of these atrocities in this country. Throughout Republican history, these atrocities were either absent from history books, or were justified as mutual casualties of war.

Recent academic efforts towards remembering the past in Turkey

In the course of the past decade there has been a significant rise of academic activities in Turkey that opt for acknowledging and remembering these atrocities. On September 23-25, 2005, three universities in Turkey - Bilgi University, Boğaziçi University and Sabancı University - jointly organized a pioneer conference on the theme of Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy. This was a historically important conference; a turning point changing the nature of the historical studies in Turkey. Those who were present at that conference still remember vividly Hrant Dink’s moving remarks. He was assassinated 16 months later. I have referred to his remarks in a piece that I wrote after his assassination.

After the assassination of Hrant Dink on January 19, 2007, the number of studies and conferences on Ottoman Armenians began to multiply in Turkey. In the course of the past couple of years, the Hrant Dink Foundation has been organizing pivotal conferences in specific cities such as Diyarbakır in 2011, and Mardin in 2012. There was a conference on Islamized Armenians held at Boğaziçi University in 2013, and a conference on Sealed Gate: Prospects of the Turkey-Armenia Border in 2014 held at Ankara University - both organized by the Hrant Dink Foundation. Many institutions, including Boğaziçi University and Sabancı University faculty members, have been organizing Hrant Dink Memorial lectures and workshops.

The conferences held in Turkey portray the unwavering effort on the part of some scholars to remember and come to grips with past atrocities in Turkey. In 2015, it is all the more important to learn about the lost and wounded lives during the Armenian Genocide, and understand that their loss had left Turkey impoverished and barren. It is also important to learn about the misdeeds of those who were the perpetrators of this genocide, and to put an end to the celebration of these perpetrators as heroes by giving their names to main streets and schools in major Turkish cities.

Why remember?

In the course of such academic attempts to remember and come to grips with the past you often hear some people say: “what good does it do to remember such atrocities; it all happened a long time ago; why can’t we just move on and look to the future instead?”  Therefore, many scholars find themselves having to explain why it is important to remember the past and the merits of a critical approach to history. There could be several answers to such questions:

First of all, it is important to remember in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Georges Santayana provided this insight in 1905 to all of those who eventually found themselves in a position to come to grips with the unprecedented atrocities of the twentieth century. In  The Life of Reason or the Phases of Human Progress (1905: 82, vol.1) Santayana wrote: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Following the footsteps of Santayana, it is then possible to say that it is important to remember in order to retain knowledge, which in turn gives one the ability to move from infancy to maturity.

Secondly, it is important to remember in order to envision the future. In a brief article in Psychology Today (June 17, 2013), Ira Hyman uses the expression “remembering the future.”  He maintains that: “Constructing the future relies on the same memory capabilities. We use information from past events and general knowledge, stir that information into new forms, and construct a memory for a future event…Imagining the future, for example, involves many of the same brain areas as remembering the past….Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to live without imagining the future.” Therefore, it is possible to say that it is important to remember the past in order to be able to envision the future.

In the conclusion of her book Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2009: 169), Margaret MacMillan reflects on the role that history can play for the present. She says: “Humility is the most useful lesson that the past can provide the present…If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility, skepticism, and awareness of ourselves, then it has done something useful.” The prospect of humility as a more widespread human attribute, instead of feelings of national grandeur, is definitely another argument in support of efforts to remember past atrocities. It may lead to the replacement of an overbearing national pride and arrogance with a decent sense of  self-esteem.

This article stems from the Campagna-Kerven Lecture delivered by Ayşe Kadıoğlu at Boston University in April 2014.


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