Turkey and the Armenian genocide: the next century

For the Armenian diaspora, today is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day—but not in Turkey. Perhaps members of the country’s Kurdish minority can help shake up a polarised narrative.

John Lubbock
24 April 2015

Dark heritage: a derelict Armenian church in Diyarbakir. All photos courtesy of the author.

Most of the coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide has concentrated on the Turkish government’s continuing refusal to recognise the organised massacre of over 1m Armenians as such. The centenary has arrived and the US has once again refused to call it genocide, though Germany and many others now have. Yet, after the international media attention passes, what can be done to seek reconciliation and recognition for the suffering of those who died?

Below the din of the angry debate, many Turks, Kurds and Armenians are working together to heal the wounds of 100 years ago. I followed Ara Sarafian, an Armenian-British-Cypriot historian, who is attempting to create spaces for communities to reconcile in the towns and villages where the massacres happened.


Ara Sarafian holds a forget-me-not flower at the site of a massacre of Armenians near Batman.

“In the morning, the government ordered us to kill them, and in the evening we shared their houses, fields, lands, money. Why did our ancestors kill them? They said ‘it’s only money’.” Barzan, our Kurdish guide in Bitlis, recounted this story as he pointed to a tree outside St Alberik Armenian monastery on the remote slopes of the windy Kurdish highlands in eastern Turkey. Gold-diggers have dug all the way under the roots from one side to the other, looking for money they believed Armenians had hidden as the massacres spread out across Anatolia.

Inside the remains of the monastery, 30 or 40 people sheltered from the intemperate weather, as locals who had come with us made a fire and Armenian women from the diaspora began a hymn which made the Kurds fall silent. The smoke from the fire stung the eyes, and the scene transported me temporarily to a time when members of diverse ethnic and religious groups had lived and worked together in this rugged landscape.


Sheltering by a fire inside St Alberik monastery.

On the way down the hill, a young Kurdish man helped one of the older Armenian women down the muddy slopes. “In my life I never thought a Kurdish man would be helping an Armenian like me”, she said as the young man sang Turkish love songs.

Sarafian organised this goodwill mission to Turkey’s Kurdish region to commemorate the 1915 tragedy. He told me he wanted to be a partner for Kurds who wanted to draw reconciliation from the legacy of the genocide and he hoped the example could inspire others to visit the lands of their ancestors.

Broken bridges

With some Armenian nationalists demanding reparations in the form of lands or money, Sarafian wants clarity on why recognition of the genocide is sought. If the goal is to end the pain of denial for the descendants of the victims, then this depends on a shift in internal Turkish politics. Those who retain the deeds of their lost lands should be able to go to court and receive compensation or the return of the lands they own, but there are also important Armenian sites which continue to crumble and require conservation. The latter would benefit everyone: the local population who could gain from tourism, Armenians who would see that the state took their suffering seriously and Turkey itself, which could mend its broken bridges with the Armenian state and people.

Recognition of the genocide is still a fundamental goal, but Sarafian believes that this will come only after a process of healing within Turkey which involves Armenians, Kurds, Turks and other minorities who suffered persecution. “If we can’t influence the [Armenian] diaspora by the example of being here, to take Turkey more seriously, to think about the issues more seriously and to take on the burden of engaging with these issues and opportunities, then we’ve failed,” he said.

For those still unwilling to accept the term genocide, there is little that will convince them otherwise. But slowly a younger generation of people in Turkey is coming to a fuller understanding of what happened: 9% of Turks favour a formal apology and the admission of genocide, another 9% favour an apology without using the term and 12% favour expressing regret for the Armenians who died.

Interestingly, another 23% favour expressing regret for all those who died, including Muslims who fled from the Balkans in the late 19th century due to the rise of European nationalism. Many Turks are descended from Balkan Muslims and, while understanding the ethno-nationalist violence of the period, feel that the concentration on Armenian suffering ignores their own narrative.

Comparing the suffering of different groups feels wrong and the systematic nature of the massacres of Armenian (and Assyrians, Pontic Greeks and Chaldeans) was on a horrific scale hard to compare with the persecution of Ottoman Muslims in Europe. Remembering the terrible suffering of 1915 does not mean we don’t care about the suffering of other people; the persecution of Balkan Muslims was one of the factors which led to the genocide in the first place.

Legacy of oppression

On the way to Dudan (‘waterfall’ in Turkish), there was a reminder of the legacy of political oppression in the Kurdish region when the military police decided to stop our convoy of cars and demanded to see our passports. Luckily, we had lawyers from the Diyarbakir Bar Association with us, who managed to convince them to let us pass without incident.


Military police stop the group’s convoy en route to Dudan.

Dudan is the site of a massacre by Turkish soldiers of 10,000 women, children and elderly people in July 1915. A chasm opens there into which a stream gushes and it is impossible to see the bottom. After murdering the men and boys, the soldiers brought the remaining Armenians here and slit their throats before pushing them into the hole—some chose to jump.


The Dudan crevass, where up to 10,000 Armenians were killed by Ottoman soldiers.

Firat, a Kurd from the city of Batman, who works with Sarafian’s Gomidas Institute, told me why Kurds who lived in this area felt the need to push for recognition of the genocide within Turkey: “Now, people feel the pain that happened at that time. They tried to kill the Kurds also in this region, but they couldn’t because Kurds resisted against the state, but at that time Armenians were weaker and it was wartime. Now Kurdish people feel that pain like Armenian people. People in this region, they know the truth.”

The landscape of the Kurdish region is lush and dramatic, its people open and eager to begin a new chapter of their history after the suffering of the past half century. A common Armenian phrase is ‘we were the breakfast; you will be the lunch’. Now Kurds are fighting to stop the Islamic State dinner party ravaging the Levant; they are keen to make amends for not defending their Christian brothers and sisters in 1915.

Not all Kurds collaborated in the genocide, however. When we visited a small village near the city of Batman to pay respects at the grave of a local leader who refused to carry out the massacres ordered by the local governor in 1915, residents were touched to have so many people come to honour their ancestor. These exchanges are important, and could be the first step towards more people making a cultural pilgrimage to where their ancestors lived for millennia and died a century ago.

Political freedom

The progress made in highlighting and recognising the genocide, especially in the Kurdish region, is dependent both on the Kurdish peace process and the level of political freedom in the country generally. Ten years ago, authors like Orhan Pamuk were being prosecuted for using the word ‘genocide’; now it is commonly used by writers and politicians without any consequences.

The upcoming election is also vital to the fortunes of genocide recognition in Turkey. A party must gain 10% of the vote to win any seats at all under the electoral system , so small parties often stand candidates as independents. This time, the pro-Kurdish HDP party is gambling that it can get over the threshold.

If it succeeds, it is unlikely that the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will gain the seats he needs to install the executive presidency he craves, to cement his hold on power for another generation. But if it fails, there could be violence in the Kurdish region should people think that his Islamist AKP government used fraudulent means to shut the HDP out.

All of Turkish society wins or loses depending on the health of its political system. The authoritarian regime Erdoğan desires would put the religious conservative faction in a position of power which it would inevitably start to abuse even more than it already does.

For diaspora Armenians, there is much that can be done beyond criticising the Turkish government once a year. Diyarbakir is a beautiful city which in 20 years will probably be a major tourist destination. It has a beautiful old part and a progressive administration eager to work with Armenians to bring investment and tourism.

Sarafian’s work is calling those from the diaspora to come back to the lands of their ancestors, to see where they lived and to work with Kurds to save the Armenian cultural legacy that remains. There is so much opportunity to build a new, inclusive Armenian identity in touch with its roots, rather than carrying around the pain of the genocide and simply waiting for the Turkish government to decide one day to recognise that pain.

A lot of work remains. On the eve of the genocide anniversary, the bells of Sourp Giragos began to ring but were then cut short. Someone had told the church authorities to stop ringing their bells. Inside, hundreds of Kurds and Armenians had gathered to pay their respects. Little by little, it is becoming harder to deny what happened—but when recognition does come, it will be because Turks and Kurds have sought the truth for themselves, not because they have been forced to admit it.

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