What Armenians cannot forget, they are loathe to remember

[First published on www.thebigsmoke.com.au]

Anzac Day was a bitter day for Armenians. While Australia was commemorating the brave efforts of those who served in World War I, Armenians were coming to terms with a century of Turkey’s genocide denial.

On the night of 24 April 1915, Ottoman Interior Minister Talaat Pasha ordered over 200 Armenian intellectuals to be detained and deported. This was followed by the passing of the Tehcir Law by the Ottoman government, which authorised the deportation of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed during the death marches that ensued. This is the version of events accepted by historians.

The Anzac commemorations recognised the friendship and honour of the Turks during the Gallipoli campaign. But as Australian troops landed on the shores of Turkey in the west, Armenians were being marched to and through the Syrian Desert in the east.

Most Armenians alive today have a similar story to tell: their ancestors survived because they were warned of what was about to happen – planned deportations and murders.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founder and first President, consistently referred to the massacres as a “shameful act”. In an interview published in the Los Angeles Examiner in 1926, Ataturk said the Turkish leaders at the time were responsible for “… millions of our Christian subjects who were ruthlessly driven en masse from their homes and massacred”.

Today, the Turkish government acknowledges many Armenians were killed during World War I, but objects to the word genocide. “Genocide” is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group. The word genocide was coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent. His concept of the crime was based on the Armenian massacres of 1915.

Turkey denies the killings were orchestrated. Turkey says the number of deaths quoted by historians is inflated; they say the Armenians that died were casualties of war, no different from those of any other war; they say that both sides experienced great losses.

In Turkey today, journalists writing about the atrocities, particularly those who use “the g word”, may be prosecuted according to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which prohibits insulting “the Turkish nation”. Hrant Dink was one such Turkish journalist, receiving a 6-month suspended sentence in 2006 for his political view. Dink was assassinated in 2007 by a Turkish nationalist.

Dink was of Armenian descent and an advocate for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and human rights. He said, “There are Turks who don’t admit their ancestors committed genocide. But they are good people. So why don’t they admit it? Because they believe genocide is a bad thing, which they would never commit, and their ancestors never could have either.”

A recent survey of Turks revealed that only 9.1 per cent of those questioned think Turkey should apologise for the killings and describe the events as genocide. But no Turkish government will ever do so with such a low percentage of Turks holding this view. It will never happen, so Armenians need to stop asking.

Instead, Armenians need to appeal to the Turkish people. We need to educate them about what happened in 1915. They need them to know we cannot find peace without their recognition of these events. The 9.1 per cent needs to be 91 per cent, and then the Turkish government will have to follow.

It’s futile to appeal to the Turkish government. We should appeal to the governments of every other country. Currently 22 countries officially recognise the events as genocide. This is too few. We need all countries to unite and accept this historical fact.

One thing is certain: Turkey will be one of the last countries to recognise the killing of 1.5 million Armenians as genocide. But if other countries lead, Turkey will follow. Even if the Turkish government is against it, they will follow if it is the will of the Turkish people.

On 24 April, Armenians gathered in rallies around the world in commemoration of the genocide’s centenary. Many rallies marched to local Turkish consulates in protest of Turkey’s denial. But instead, perhaps we should be marching to our political leaders – we should march barefoot like those who were driven across the Syrian Desert in death marches. We should march to the leaders of every country and state that doesn’t yet recognise the genocide and ask them to acknowledge history.

Because after one hundred years of mourning, Armenians deserve to start healing.