Turks confront dark chapter of Armenian massacres

FEATURE-Turks confront dark chapter of Armenian massacres

By Ayla Jean Yackley

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The secret guarded by Turkish writer Fethiye
Cetin’s family for three generations is now helping to break a
nation’s silence over one of its darkest eras.

Cetin’s late grandmother Seher was not the typical Muslim woman she
seemed. She was born with the name Heranoush, the daughter of
Christian Armenians before internecine violence during World War One
tore the family apart.

Seher’s story is now a book that tells how, at the age of 9, she
watched Ottoman soldiers storm her village in eastern Turkey, rounding
up the men before slitting their throats. The women and children were
forced on a march to Syria.

Most died of disease and starvation along the way. Seher was snatched
from her mother by a military officer, who raised her as a Muslim
among eastern Turkey’s largely Kurdish population.

For many Turks, Cetin’s heart-rending book “My Grandmother,” published
in November and now in its fifth edition, has put a human face on a
20th century tragedy that has largely become political polemic between
Turkey and its neighbor Armenia.

“This issue has been debated in terms of numbers and terminology, and
the people who suffered were forgotten. My aim was to tell the human
story,” said Cetin, a 55-year-old lawyer.

Armenians around the world on Sunday mark the 90th anniversary of the
start of what they say was a genocide perpetrated by Turks that
claimed 1.5 million Armenian lives.

Turkey, founded upon the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, denies a
systematic campaign to annihilate the Armenians. It says hundreds of
thousands of Turks as well as Armenians died in partisan fighting amid
the chaos of the empire’s collapse.

TABOO SUBJECT

As the country prepares to start European Union entry talks later this
year, it is forced to grapple with a subject that was strictly taboo
to date. Some European politicians have called on Turkey to
acknowledge the killings were a genocide, and the EU wants to see
Turkey open diplomatic relations with Armenia.

Proudly nationalistic, most Turks see recognition as tantamount to
admitting a historical lie.

“A vast majority cannot accept this, and they have no reason to,” said
Gunduz Aktan, a former senior diplomat. “This creates tension, and
it’s normal for there to be nationalist reaction.”

Death threats against Turkey’s most celebrated novelist Orhan Pamuk,
who said earlier this year that a million Armenians had been wiped
out, reveal the pitch that fervor has reached.

Turkey’s 65,000 ethnic Armenians are “on a knife’s edge,” anxious the
debate may spark a backlash against the beleaguered community, said
Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos.

“We never deny our own history. But Armenians are unable to discuss it
for fear it will harm the community’s existence.”

Schoolbooks here describe Armenians as a kind of fifth column, pawns
of imperialists who attacked Turks, and say Armenians died during a
mass expulsion.

“If we acknowledge the genocide, we have to declare some of the heroes
of the Turkish Republic were murderers and thieves,” says Taner Akcam
of the University of Minnesota, one of a handful of Turkish scholars
who argue genocide was committed.

“But we will never have an open, democratic society without
confronting the historical injustices.”

END OF A CULTURE

There are signs of growing curiosity about this shadowy chapter in
history. “People are beginning to ask, ‘What really happened? Where
did all of the (Armenians) go?”‘ said Dink.

What is difficult to dispute is that the strife, followed by decades
of assimilation and poverty, contributed to the end of Armenian
culture in eastern Turkey, where it had thrived for more than 3,000
years.

Massacres “happened in front of everyone’s eyes. They were deported
through villages. People saw them dying on the road. Those collective
memories have now been triggered,” Cetin said.

EU-inspired reforms allowing freer speech have spurred some
discussion, albeit limited, in the media and among intellectuals of an
issue that could have previously brought prosecution.

Istanbul’s normally taciturn Armenian patriarch earlier this year
called the atrocities of 1915 “the Great Disaster.”

Still loath to admit wrongdoing, the government has nevertheless
called recently for an international probe and the Turkish parliament
held an unprecedented debate on the issue.

Cetin said she resisted publishing her book until she felt the climate
in Turkey had improved enough to tolerate it.

Like her granddaughter, Seher too was at first reluctant to share her
story, only telling Cetin when she was 70 years old.

But she never forgot the tragedy. Though Seher no longer spoke
Armenian, she remembered family names for more than a half-century and
asked Cetin to locate her surviving relatives in the United States.

Seher’s children gave her a Muslim burial when she died in 2000. Her
legacy to Cetin is “a rich identity. Sometimes I feel Armenian,
sometimes Kurdish and sometimes Turkish.”

04/26/05 08:00 ET

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