Remembering the Armenian Genocide — in Turkey

ISTANBUL — Just past 1 p.m., backed by tall conker trees and a crowd of a hundred people in the light rain, mobbed in front by a pack of cameramen and photographers, a white-haired, white-goateed priest began to pray and sing over the grave of Sevag Sahin Balikci.

Balikci died on April 24, 2011. A court ruled he had been accidently shot by another conscript while they both fulfilled mandatory military service. But lawyers for the Balikci family say he was murdered — an Armenian killed by a Turkish ultranationalist on the day the world commemorates the Armenian Genocide.

And so, on the third anniversary of his death and the ninety-ninth anniversary of the genocide, which Turkey does not recognize, some of the Turks, Armenians, Kurds, and international visitors that lead commemorations here in Turkey joined the Balikci family to pay their respects.

“This crowd here shows that we are not alone,” Garabet Balikci, Sevag’s father, told me just before he took his place beside the priest at his son’s graveside. The family is awaiting a decision from Turkey’s top appeals court on whether to overturn the verdict that the death was an accident. “We want to find justice, of course. We are waiting for the truth to come out. And I’ll keep struggling for this until the end.”

"We are waiting for the truth to come out. And I’ll keep struggling for this until the end."

At the time of what is now known as the Armenian Genocide, Armenians constituted one of the main ethnic and, as Christians, religious minorities in the Islamic but pluralistic Ottoman Empire. On April 24, 1915 leaders of the Armenian community in Istanbul were rounded-up and deported to Anatolia. Most perished. The arrests marked the beginning of the genocide. Soon most Armenians in the region had been deported from Anatolia to the Syrian desert, where they starved, died of exposure, or were killed by Ottoman and affiliated forces. Commemoration of these events are new in Turkey. Only a few years ago, calling what happened in 1915 a “genocide” would draw dangerous denunciations and legal prosecution.

But there is an increasing openness here to discuss history in more critical, and less sacred tones.

“In the Turkish psyche, there’s, I think, a visceral understanding that the Armenian genocide was one of the founding pillars of the creation of a Turkish-based republic,” Raffi Hovannisian, onetime foreign minister of Armenia, said as we walked from the cemetery to a metro stop. Activists are “challenging the official [line…trying] to demonstrate the connection,” he said. “That’s why I’ve come to salute these brave voices in Turkish civil society.”

Zisan Tokac is a leading activist with Turkey’s Say Stop to Racism (Durde) organization, a general-interest anti-racism group which, with Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD), organized most of the 24 April events in Istanbul. A devout Muslim, Tokac said at the cemetery that “it’s clear that [Sevag Balikci’s] death was linked with the genocide.”

“Nobody has said anything like that for the last ninety-nine years in this country.”

This year’s genocide commemorations were preceded by a surprising message from Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, posted April 23 and translated into a number of languages, including Armenian.

“The 24th of April carries a particular significance for our Armenian citizens and for all Armenians around the world, and provides a valuable opportunity to share opinions freely on historical matter,” the 600-word text begins. “[W]e wish that the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”

“Nobody has said anything like that for the last ninety-nine years in this country,” Zisan Tokac said, echoing a sense of reserved encouragement felt by many here.

“The tone has changed, but the content has not,” said Benjamin Abtan, leader of a delegation of European human rights organizations. Still, Abtan was encouraged. “The debate is much more mature,” he said, even compared to what it was a year ago.

The prime minister’s message did reprise familiar government positions: a “joint commission” of historians should study the era he said, and not only Armenians suffered during the First World War. Critics say a joint commission would be redundant — decades of research has been done; in addition, they say, “genocide” is not about relative suffering. What happened, they say, was a result of a deliberate policy to destroy the empire’s Armenians.

“I think Erdogan’s use of the word ‘condolences’ is very nice on the Western ear,” Hovannisian said. “I don’t need a condolence. I’ve lost a homeland. I need recognition. The Armenian nation needs meaningful measures and restitution.”

An unfortunate coincidence, Talat Pasa and Enver Pasa, two of the triumvirate leading the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and the alleged architects of the genocide, are buried in a park only a few hundred yards from the Armenian cemetery where Sevag Balikci rests.

At a quarter past seven in the evening, the main commemoration began. Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, was blocked-off by a thousand people seated on the street. As has become the custom, people held portraits of the Armenian leaders arrested in 1915. They also held portraits of Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007. His wife sat at the front of the crowd. They held portraits of Sevag Balikci; his father, too, sat near the front. Riot police provided a cordon.

Plainclothes police with walkie-talkies and leather jackets gathered on the rooftop terraces and in windows overlooking the street. Down the road, red flags of Turkey’s People’s Liberation Party marked a tiny protest: The Armenian genocide is an American lie, they say, a wedge driven into society.

Next year comes the centennial, when Turkey is sure to face commemorations, communiques, and resolutions from around the world. In 2012, French legislation criminalizing denial of the Armenian Genocide prompted Turkey to recall its ambassador. More diplomatic crises could lie ahead.

At the gathering Thursday night, a short speech reinforced the message on the large sign, decorated with candles and carnations, laying at the head of the crowd: the Armenian genocide would not be forgotten. Names of lost Armenian leaders, their occupations, their hometowns, were read. Quiet, sober applausecame in conclusion. The police fell out; Istiklal Avenue bustled again with foot traffic.