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Turkey, Armenians and the word "genocide"

As Armenians stop to reflect on Ottoman-era mass killings, a survivor quietly moves on.

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.