Turkey, Armenians and the word "genocide"

VAKIFLI KOYU, Turkey — From the window of 97-year-old Avadis Demirci’s living room, the view stretches out onto a solitary cobbled road and the long view of history.

Unlike surrounding villages bustling with activity, here only the sound of birds and the occasional labored footsteps of another elderly resident interrupt the quiet.

Demirci’s walls are covered in the framed paintings of his artist son and portraits of his grandchildren. But his son no longer lives here. Like most others under the age of 50 he has left.

Perched on top of Musa Dagh, or Mount Moses, Vakifli is Turkey’s last surviving Armenian village — a relic of eastern Turkey's once large, prosperous Armenian community, which was decimated by the deportations and massacres of 1915 to 1918. And Demirci might well be the last Armenian survivor of this brutal history left on Turkish soil.

On April 24, groups will gather in town squares and city parks around the world to commemorate this first genocide of the 20th century, when more than a million Armenians were killed as the Ottoman Turk government purged the population. But in lonely Vakifli, the day will pass without ceremony. No candles will be lit, no speeches read. And Demirci will sit where he always does and quietly ponder all the memories that stretch out across the landscape.

Ninety-five years ago, when Demirci was only 2 years old, Turkish police units marched up to the village. The people from the seven villages around Musa Dagh took refuge on the mountain, armed with hunting rifles and pistols. There they stayed for almost two months, until rescued by an allied French warship which happened to be cruising the Mediterranean coastline when it spotted two large banners the Armenians had hoisted. After swimmers went out to meet the ship, the French called for back-up, transporting the entire population to an allied refugee camp in Egypt.

Musa Dagh was one of only four places where Armenians managed to organize an armed defense against forced deportations and slaughter by the Ottomans.

"I grew up hearing this story," said Demirci. Light from the window sharpens the delicate web of lines around his eyes, unexpectedly piercing when compared to the shrunken frailness of his body. "I was there, even if I was too young to remember."

For those of Demirci’s generation, stories of the brave ascent to Musa Dagh were legends passed down from their parents. The novel "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" — written by the Austrian Franz Werfel 18 years after the villager’s armed resistance — kept the story alive for later generations.

Armenians worldwide observe the 24th as Genocide Memorial Day, and the killings are recognized as genocide today by more than a dozen countries. But while the rest of the world begins to acknowledge the memories that Demerci carries with him daily, Turkey still vigorously rejects the claim.

Read about how the efforts of a small but effective Armenian lobby helped bring the U.S. and Turkey to diplomatic blows.

The politically delicate position of this isolated community has left them guarded when it comes to the mention of their ethnic origins. While proud of their identity, most would prefer not to make it a public issue.

Turkey has long been engaged in an aggressive campaign of forgetting, keeping any mention of the events of 1915 out of schools and official narratives and attacking those who choose to speak out.

Roger Smith, co-founder of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, believes that Turkey’s denial of the genocide is, for many Turks, more emotion than a question of facts. “They can't acknowledge that the country of their forebears did such awful things ... That their polity has as its basis the crime of all crimes: genocide.”

The vote by a U.S. congressional committee on March 4 to recognize the killings of 1915 as genocide has once again placed the Armenian issue squarely in the center of U.S.-Turkish relations, and prompted a furious mix of debate and dissent across Turkey.

It can be difficult to understand the degree to which denial of the genocide is ingrained in Turkish identity, where the killings are officially considered accidents of war.

“Every Turk is offended by being accused of the worst kind of crime imaginable,” said Kemal Cicek, head of the Armenian Research Group at the Turkish Historical Society. “They are also offended because the Turkish people are not racist, and genocide is a crime that only racists can commit.”

A similar line of reasoning was used recently by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to defend Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir against charges of genocide in Darfur. Erdogan heralded Bashir’s innocence, pronouncing: "A Muslim cannot commit genocide."

Here in Turkey, it is the absence of any reminders of what was once a thriving Armenian community that is most striking.

Successive governments have worked to destroy any evidence of Armenian existence — from the obliteration of their churches, libraries and institutes to the crude altering of official Turkish maps and schoolbooks. UNESCO, in a 1974 study, found that out of 913 Armenian historical monuments found after 1923 in Eastern Turkey, 464 had vanished completely, 252 were in ruins and 197 were in need of repair. Where memorials should exist there are instead open fields.

A trip to the "Hall of Armenian Issue with Documents" at the military museum in Istanbul reveals walls of photographs showing the mutilated bodies of Ottoman Turks, yet none of dead Armenians. Images of the long lines of Armenians being herded out of the country, or killed along the way, have no place in this museum.

“There are nasty stories in war times, just as you hear from Iraqis and Afghan people now. However we cannot write history only by relying on personal experiences,” said Cicek. “We should remember all casualties of the war, not only the Armenians.”

When denial is the official policy, speaking against the preferred version of history can come at a price. The shocking assassination of Hrant Dink, beloved newspaper editor and voice for Turkey’s Armenians, by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist in 2007 had many in Turkey pondering a choice between living in silence and living in fear.

Why, almost a century after the fact, is Turkey so persistent in its refusal to acknowledge a genocide?

“I think that the reason is a mixture of fear of the past, a reluctance to acknowledge guilt on behalf of your fathers and a general concern about the historical effect of such acknowledgment onto the legitimacy of the state,” said Guenael Mettraux, the author of “The Law of Command Responsibility” and representative of defendants before international criminal tribunals. “The very foundation of the state, its legitimacy, is at stake.”

There is, perhaps, an easier explanation: after 95 years of denial it will take real political capital to come forward about both the truth and the cover-up. “It is a web of the government's own spinning, and they may well feel caught in it,” said Smith.

But while Armenians can hardly be expected to set aside their bitter memories, many in the international community are beginning to question the tactic of congressional campaigns. The long-dormant debate over the crimes of Turkey’s past is pushing its way to the surface more strongly than it has at any time since the modern republic was founded in 1923.

Last December, a group of Turkish intellectuals circulated a petition that apologized for the denial of the massacres. "My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to, and the denial of, the Great Catastrophe that the Armenians were subjected to in 1915," the brief statement said. "I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them."

Just last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Turkey's  Washington-based diplomats to relay orders for the envoys to start “opening dialogue” with certain Armenian Diaspora groups in the United States and Canada.

With Turkey’s budding civil society beginning to question the state’s version of the events, some worry that pressure from Congress could make the truth more elusive by stiffening the resolve of nationalists.

“The attempt to write history with the law is a false illusion that might, if pursued, undermine the quality of justice,” Mettraux said.

Mettraux argues that international criminal law provides for ways to criminalize the conduct of individuals who have taken part in mass atrocities, not for passing judgment on history.

Still, Demirci remembers. Turning towards the window filled with bright sunshine, his movements seem suddenly tired. “I will be here, like always,” he said simply.