An Interview With British Journalist Robert Fisk

An Interview With British Journalist Robert Fisk
A meeting with the Middle East correspondent of The Independent of London

Horizon Weekly, Canada
April 14, 2006

By Aris Babikian

Earlier this year renowned British journalist Robert Fisk recently published
`The Great War For Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East,’ an
outstanding book on the recent history of the Middle East. In a 50-page
chapter on the Armenian Genocide, Fisk deftly condensed the 90-year-old
history of the Genocide with fairness, rendering justice to the victims and
to the survivors of the first genocide of the 20th century. The extensive
chapter covered the history, the circumstances, the betrayal, the cover up,
the denial, and the political intrigues behind the Armenian Genocide.

During his visit to Toronto to promote the book, we met him to discuss his
views on the Armenian Genocide.

Aris Babikian: Reading your chapter `The First Holocaust’ on the Armenian
Genocide, I was amazed by your ability to encapsulate the complex history of
the Armenian Genocide in 50 pages. Can you tell me how did you stumble on
the Armenian Genocide? What was your motivation in exploring the calamity?

Robert Fisk: The book is partly about the First World War and the results of
that war. I realized, because my father was a soldier in the First World
War – he took part in the Gallipoli landing, that the Armenian Genocide took
place in a context of that war, not a civil war.

When I first arrived to Lebanon in 1976, during the civil war there, I
become aware of the Armenian Community. Armenians were playing this
difficult role, being neither with the Christian Falange nor with the Moslem
and Palestinian militia. So I started to meet Armenians, at that stage – in
`76. There were still Armenian Genocide/ Holocaust survivors then. I call it
Holocaust with capital H, just like I call the Jewish Holocaust with capital
H. At that stage the Armenian Genocide was not my main issue. I was
covering the civil war. But then I went to Anjar. I saw this Armenian city.
I learnt about Mousa Dagh, and gradually while covering the Lebanese war,
the Iraq-Iran war, the Iranian Revolution, I noticed that always there were
Armenians on the periphery. The Armenian Community invited me to visit their
community centres in Tehran and in Northern Syria, in Kamishly. As the years
went by I learnt more and more about the Armenian Genocide and came to
realize clearly it prefigured the Jewish Holocaust, as well. It was a while
before I realized how closely it prefigured the Jewish Holocaust . . . the
fact that the rail cars, the box cars to transfer the Armenians by rail, the
fact that German diplomats had seen the Armenian Genocide, and later the
same scenes popping up in Eastern Europe – the killing of the Jews by the
Wehrmacht or the SS . . . it is clear lines of direct contact between that
Armenian Genocide and the second genocide of that century.

Then I went to the Syrian Desert and to Deir ez Zorr. This was in 1993. It
was a major photo story. I went with French photographer, to do pictures on
the Genocide and what had happened in the northern Syrian Desert. The story
is in the book. We went looking for this hill called Halgada. We knew about
it from an old Armenian lady . . . the location of where her family was
killed, next to the Khabur River. But there was nothing next to the Khabur
River. It was only when we got to the top of the hill that we realized the
Khabur River has moved about a mile to the east since 1915. Perhaps because
of the number of bodies in it. There must have been heavy rainstorms; I was
wondering around what must have been once an island in the river. Isabel
[the photographer] was walking down a newly cut hillside. She said: `Robert,
Robert come here.’ I went across the top of the hill. At first I thought
she was in trouble. As I walked towards her I saw the side of the hill was
lined with skeletons. Some of them with bits of materials on the bones. They
were tied together. I used my car key to pull the skull . . . there were
teeth of young people, of women and children, as well as men. So, we found
the killing fields.

Later on they took me up to these caves where the Turks had lit bonfires
outside to set the smoke into [the caves] and to asphyxiate Armenians in the
world’s first gas chambers. We made a huge report on this and, off course,
endured the usual hate mail from Turkey. At that time, we are talking about
1993, it wasn’t normal for British newspaper or any newspaper to do a big
investigation on the Armenian Holocaust. I saw it as an outrageous
injustice. You know the Jews of Europe have quite rightly received
compensation for their Holocaust. The Germans have owned up and constantly
apologized for that Holocaust. But the Turks don’t want admit to the
Armenian Genocide. They paid nothing, and they went on saying that it was
the fault of the victims and that there was no Genocide, anyway. I still
think that unless there is full acknowledgment by the Turkish authorities
that their Ottoman Turkish predecessors carried out the Holocaust/Genocide .
. . I think the outrageous nature of the denial of this Genocide–as a
political issue – is almost as deplorable as the actual genocide originally.

It’s outrageous that the American press, which exposed the original
Genocide, should have spent so many years recently giving the Turkish point
of view and denials. It is a shameful piece of journalism. Can you imagine
running a story saying that 6 million Jews died in Europe and many Germans
say it did not happen. We will never write that; we will never dream of
that.

AB : As a journalist, why you think that the international media has a
double standard when it comes to the Armenian Genocide – even though some of
these newspapers, you mentioned the New York Times, and here in Canada the
Globe and Mail, have plenty of archives on this issue.

RF: You know, the Globe and Mail carried an article by me about the Genocide
and deleted the word `Genocide’ and included `tragedy.’ When I talked to
them I was told that it was done by an editor… as if that is an excuse.

AB: Why do you think so much of the international media has a double
slandered on this topic?

RF: Because Turkey is in NATO and because the media have this balancing act.
They don’t associate the Genocide with the Holocaust. That is why I call it
the Armenian Holocaust. Also, because journalists think they are giving
balance to everything. Anyone who denied anything gets in the newspaper his
denial. He gets 50% of the story. Which is ridiculous. We wouldn’t allow the
Germans to deny the Jewish Holocaust; why would we allow the Turks to deny
the Armenian Holocaust? And it is also the gutless sense of American
journalism, to go along with the authorities. The attitude is this: since
the U.S administration is not prepared to call it a Genocide that’s
sufficient for us not mess with our Turkish allies our, NATO ally. Right? We
need them for their air bases. So, why upset them? Look what happened to
France. The moment the National Assembly brought the Armenian Genocide to
the table and said it happened, they lost so much, so many economic
agreements [between Turkey and major French companies] including weapon
agreements were cancelled. Lockheed and Boeing are not going to support the
recognition of the Armenian Genocide. So it is very much an economic thing.
The fact that the New York Times, which exposed the Armenian Genocide in the
first place, should now spend so many paragraphs to Turkish denials is
amazing.

AB: Do you think that the concept of uniqueness of the Holocaust in certain
circles within the Jewish community and the Jewish diaspora has anything to
do with the issue of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide?

RF: We know that Shimon Perez has publicly stated it was not Genocide. It is
in my book. He was admonished, quite rightly so, by Israel Charny, the
Holocaust scholar. He [Charny] does not want to be associated with the Perez
statement. Mr. Charny is a very moral man. Over and over again, even the
Israeli ambassador to Yerevan announced that it was not Genocide.

The Armenian Genocide issue is very straightforward. It happened, and people
are denying it and those who deny it are wrong. I told the San Francisco
Bay Area Armenian Community four, five years ago, that there was one way to
turn the story around – changing the narrative back to reality. It’s for
Armenians to honour those brave Turks who helped Armenians during the
Genocide. Here are these brave Turks . . . we dare the Turks to honour their
brave men…

AB: You are right. Many Turks did help Armenians during the Genocide.

RF: I have suggested to Armenians to do what the Israelis do – honour brave
Gentiles who saved Jews. Let’s honour Turks who helped the Armenians, who
upheld the honour of the Turkish nation when the Turkish Government was
destroying its own Armenians. I don’t know what the Armenians have done
[about this idea]. The Turkish Government will have a big problem if this
becomes a major issue. Are they to honour brave Turks who upheld the honour
of their nation or are they to despise them and honour the men who destroyed
the honour of the nation by killing the Armenians? These are major moral
issues. I don’t think at the moment that Armenians have really looked on
this issue the way they might. But again, it’s for Armenians to decide. I am
not Armenian.

AB: When it comes to Armenian Genocide denial, you least expect the Israeli
state to be a party to denial. Their policy on such a moral issue is ironic,
considering the Jewish Holocaust and its deniers.

RF: Israel puts Israel first as Armenians put Armenians first. But the fact
that you have someone like Shimon Perez adopting the Turkish line on the
Armenian Genocide is astonishing. It is not astonishing because the Israelis
demand the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust. It is unique in terms of
numbers but in terms of structural, political, direct physical relationship
the Armenian Genocide is Genocide as is the Holocaust. It was a clear
attempt to eliminate the Armenian people as a people, as a nation. It was
similar to the Holocaust. Turks managed to do their best to thrash
Morgenthau. But look at all the other reports. Look at the photographs. Look
at Armin Wagner’s pictures. I point, in my book, documents never quoted
before – from Britons, showing the women walking naked to Deir ezz Zor.
British readers wrote to me, with their long-dead fathers’ notebooks,
written in their handwriting about this material. They were never published
before. They did not tell a lie. They were not dreaming when they wrote in
their notebooks.

AB: Is it the economic, military, intelligence alliance between Turkey and
Israel that makes Israel join Turkey in denying the Armenian Genocide?

RF: And Turkey and the United States.

AB: There are many righteous Jews in support of Armenian Genocide
recognition.

RF: Yes there are. Armenians who live in Jerusalem and speak Hebrew call it
the Armenian Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust. The Jerusalem Post wrote
fine articles about the Armenian Genocide. And The Jerusalem Post being
pretty right wing Israeli paper.

AB: You now see many countries coming forward, acknowledging the fact of the
Genocide. Even Germany recently passed a very strong resolution, even though
they did not use the word Genocide.

RF: You are getting there. You are getting there, slowly but surely.

AB: Can we conclude that these current alliances and denials are not based
on moral or historical facts but on short-term political and economic
factors?

RF: Of course. Of course.

AB: There are some Europeans who are using the issue of Armenian Genocide as
a pretext to block Turkey’s entry to the European Union. Under the
circumstances, wouldn’t it be wiser for the Turkish Government to come to
terms with the Armenian Genocide issue?

RF: Of course it would. You know, an increasing number of Turks are
admitting it. I gave a lecture in Sabanci University [Istanbul] a year ago
and mentioned the Armenian Genocide. A former Turkish army colonel stood up
at the end and said: `You are right.’ When I was covering the Turkish
earthquake, in 1999, I talked to large number of seismologists and civil
servants. During a big dinner gathering in Istanbul, I raised the Genocide
issue. `You are absolutely right. It happened. We did it. We should
acknowledge it,’ they all said.

AB: Why is it that they do not come forward?

RF: Because of ultra-nationalist arrogance. Because the ultra-nationalist
elements in the Turkish society, which identify with Moustafa Kamal Ataturk,
altough Ataturk himself, in interviews, said that the people responsible for
the Genocide should be hanged. He knew it had happened. `Our Christian
citizens,’ he called Armenians. There is a newspaper interview with him
which I have a copy in English.

AB: Is it the Los Angeles Examiner interview?

RF: Yes.

AB: You know, some Turks now deny that Ataturk did give such an interview.

RF: I have the original. I have seen the original newspaper and I have a
photocopy. It is real, of course.

AB: Recently we have witnessed some Turkish scholars and intellectuals
questioning the Turkish Government’s policy of denial. Some have been
threatened, blackmailed . . .

RF: They have suffered for it. They have suffered for it.

AB: What do you think of this phenomenon? How far it will go?

RF: They cannot be stopped. Once you open the door to discussion, you cannot
close the door again. People lose their fear. If any element loses its fear
you can not inject fear into it again. Once historical scholarship loses its
fear . . . you cannot lock it back again. So, it is out of the bag. The door
is open. You can only move forward. You can not go back. Even if you lock up
all the scholars it becomes bigger strain and there will be more scholars.
It is little bit like water coming under the door. You can seal the bottom
of the door, but eventually it will come from the top of the door. Why it
happened [Turkish scholars researching the Armenian Genocide]? I don’t know.
I hate journalists who talk through the top of their heads on subjects like
that. I am sure it’s like the situation in the U.S. where Turkish
scholarship has contaminated American universities through the system of
Turkish Government sponsorship of chairs of Turkish studies. So more and
more Turkish academics, younger academics, have been trained to work abroad
and learn the necessity of starting scholarship outside the politically
accepted dogma. I will give you practical example. A young Turkish girl who
must remain anonymous. She was a student who came to work in America. And by
chance she lived in a U.S. city with a large Armenian community. She started
to take an interest in the Genocide. Until then she had believed that what
had happened in 1915 was a civil war. Armenians had suffered; Muslims had
suffered. Then she started interviewing Armenians. And talking to Armenians
she realized that there was a genocide. She started cataloguing the stories
of the Armenians in Turkish. Two years ago she turned out in southeast
England, to talk to a very old lady who had seen children set on fire by
Turkish gendarmes. I interviewed her. She is in my book. In the book I
mentioned the letter she had received from a Turkish woman who said that she
was so sorry for what her people had done. That Turkish woman is preserving
the Genocide records in Turkey in Turkish.

So it is out. You cannot go back no matter how the nationalist opposition
fights it.

AB: What do you think of the Turkish integration into the European Union?
Will the Genocide recognition play a big role whether Turkey is admitted?

RF: The problem around the European issue is this: Europeans who don’t want
Turkey in the European Union will use the issue of the Armenian Genocide not
for your view but for there’s. You might think they would stand up for
freedom of information and force the Turks to indulge in the truth. They
will be working from the principle that the Turks will not recognize the
truth. Therefore, they will keep them out of the European Union. That is a
big danger for Armenians. You will have `friends’ of the Armenians who
demand Turkish recognition of the Armenian Genocide as a condition of entry
to the European Union, in the hope that the Turks would refuse to recognize
and thus Europeans will be able to keep Muslim Turkey out. That’s about
their interests. My theory is that if Turkey joins the European Union many
Armenians, who have European passport, can claim compensation for the
property taken from their ancestors.

AB: Did you receive complaints about your writings on the Armenian Genocide?

RF: Yes. I have received anonymous phone calls from Turks; probably calling
from London, saying `why do you hate the Turkish people?’ I had one or two
complaints from the Turkish Embassy sent to my paper. But we reply most
vigorously to them, saying `don’t waste our time writing letters and saying
the truth isn’t the truth.’

AB: Armenians in the diaspora are facing an uphill struggle, lobbying to
bringing this matter to the attention of the international community.

RF: You have done a lot better than the Palestinians. The Armenian diaspora
is very wealthy, compared to other minorities whose history has been denied.

AB: What do you think of the reconciliation talks between Turks and
Armenians, without Turkish Government’s acknowledgment of the Genocide?

RF: It sounds strange to me. Unless the Turkish Government recognizes the
Genocide what you got to reconcile about?

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