TURKEY’S KURDS SEEK FORGIVENESS FOR 1915 ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
Assyrian International News Agency AINA
Dec 13 2013
“The Armenian population is melting.”
This bleak assessment was pronounced by Sahak Mashalyan, an Armenian
Orthodox priest, during a recent Sunday mass at the Asdvadzadzin
church in Istanbul. Reeling off the statistics: 482 funerals, 236
baptisms and 191 weddings, the black-robed cleric solemnly intoned,
“These figures point to a community … that is dying.”
Little over a century ago, the Armenian Patriarchate put Anatolia’s
Armenian population at more than two million. In 1915, tragedy struck.
Estimated figures vary, but between 800,000 and a million Armenians are
thought to have been slaughtered by Ottoman forces and their Kurdish
allies in what many respected historians call the first genocide of
the 20th century. Turkey vehemently denies any genocidal intent. The
official line is that most of the Armenians died from hunger and
disease, as they were forcibly deported to the deserts of Syria amid
the upheaval of the collapsing empire.
The ruling Islamic Justice and Development Party has done more than
any of its pro-secular predecessors to improve the lot of Christian
minorities and to encourage freer debate of the horrors that befell
them. Yet it has also showered millions of dollars on international
lobbying firms in a vain effort to peddle the official version of
events. A steady trickle of nations continue to recognize the events
of 1915 as genocide. Turkey’s biggest worry is that on the centenary in
2015, the United States will risk wrecking relations and follow suit.
In Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeastern province of Diyarbakir, global
diplomacy does not figure in the calculations of Abdullah Demirbas,
the mayor of the city’s ancient Sur district. A maze of narrow cobbled
streets lined with decrepit stone houses, Sur used to be known as
the “neighborhood of the infidels” because of the large number of
Armenians, Syrian Orthodox Christians and Jews who once lived there.
Since being twice elected to office on the ticket of Turkey’s largest
pro-Kurdish party, Peace and Democracy (BDP), Demirbas, a stocky former
schoolteacher with an easy smile, has thrown himself wholeheartedly
into making amends for the past.
“As Kurds, we also bear responsibility for the suffering of the
Armenians,” he told Al-Monitor over glasses of ruby-red tea. “We are
sorry, and we need to prove it.” As a first step, Demirbas launched
free Armenian-language classes two years ago at the municipality
offices. “They were an instant hit,” Demirbas said. Many of those who
enrolled were thought to be “hidden Armenians” or the descendants of
those who converted to Islam to survive.
One such “hidden Armenian,” a gnarled octogenarian called Ismail,
confided to Al-Monitor that his father’s real name was Leon.
“They wiped out his entire family, out in the fields,” he said as he
awaited an audience with Demirbas. The old man’s voice cracked with
emotion. “My father was rescued by a Turkish officer and became a
Muslim. But though, praise God, I am a good Muslim too, praying five
times a day, I know I am not accepted,” he added. “In their minds,
I am always the son of the unbeliever.”
The Kurds’ role in the killings has been well documented, increasingly
now by the Kurds themselves.
Egged on by their Ottoman rulers, Kurdish tribal chieftains raped,
murdered and pillaged their way through the southeast provinces where
for centuries they had co-existed, if uneasily, with the Armenians and
other non-Muslims. Henry Morgenthau, who served as US ambassador in
Constantinople at the height of the bloodshed, described the Kurds’
complicity in his chilling 1918 memoir Ambassador Morgenthau’s
“The Kurds would sweep down from their mountain homes. Rushing up
to the young girls, they would lift their veils and carry the pretty
ones off to the hills. They would steal such children as pleased their
fancy and mercilessly rob all the rest of the throng. … While they
were committing these depredations, the Kurds would freely massacre,
and the screams of women and old men would add to the general horror.”
Osman Koker, a Turkish historian who has chronicled Armenian life
through a rich collection of postcards and photographs predating 1915,
reckons more than half of Diyarbakir’s population was non-Muslim
before the violence began.
“Most of them were Armenians, now there are none,” Koker told
Al-Monitor in an interview. Hashim Hashimi, a former member of
parliament and a Sunni Muslim spiritual leader with a robust following,
told Al-Monitor, “Sadly, many imams were convincing people that if
they killed an infidel they would find their place in heaven and be
rewarded with beautiful girls.” This meant that thousands of Syrian
Orthodox and other Christians were not spared, either.
In 2009 Demirbas and Osman Baydemir, a fellow BDP politician and the
mayor of Greater Diyarbakir, decided to help with the restoration of
an Armenian Orthodox church that had lay in ruins for decades in Sur.
Baydemir donated a third of the costs of restoring Surp Giragos to
its former magnificence. In 2011 the church, said to be the largest
Armenian church in the Middle East, opened its doors as a fully
functioning house of worship.
Ergun Ayik, an Armenian entrepreneur and philanthropist who runs the
Surp Giragos Foundation, told Al-Monitor that the BDP mayors “went
out of their way to help us,” even providing the church with free
utilities and security guards. A new museum of Armenian culture that is
due to open by the end of 2013 within the Surp Giragos complex under
the sponsorship of the Greater Diyarbakir municipality should also
help draw tourists, not to mention thousands of “hidden Armenians”
thought to be scattered across the southeast.
Silva Ozyerli, an Armenian activist from Diyarbakir who left for
Istanbul in the 1970s, has agreed to donate some family treasures,
including a silk nightshirt, several finely embroidered tablecloths
and a pair of engraved copper bowls to the museum. Ozyerli voiced
her enthusiasm for the project in an interview with Al-Monitor.
“You know why it is dear to me?” she asked a tinge of defiance creeping
into her voice. “It is because everything in that museum will show
people that not too long ago, Diyarbakir was every bit as Armenian
as it was Kurdish, if not more so.”
By Amberin Zaman AL Monitor