For the Turkish state, and many Turks, to admit their forebears committed genocide is something they will not even consider
BY MATTHEW MCALLESTER
Newsday Staff Correspondent
He had just been asked by a reporter if he acknowledged that the Armenian genocide happened.
“Uhhhh,” he said, “I acknowledge that people were killed.” He was silent again. “Many people lost their lives.”
More uneasy silence followed.
This from a man whose paternal grandfather was the only one of six ethnic Armenian brothers to make it back to Istanbul after being, as he put it, “deported to the Syrian desert” in 1915. They were among more than a million ethnic Armenians who suffered a similar fate at the hands of Ottoman Turks: They were rounded up, deported to concentration camps and, for the most part, killed.
“So severe has been the treatment that careful estimates place the number of survivors at only 15 percent of those originally deported,” the U.S. consul in Aleppo wrote to the State Department in 1915 in a dispatch quoted in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine. “On this basis the number surviving even this far being less than 150,000 ? there seems to have been about 1,000,000 persons lost up to this date.”
What Mesrob II, who will meet the visiting Pope Benedict XVI today in
Authors and journalists, including Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted for suggesting it took place. But for the 65,000 ethnic Armenians — mostly Orthodox Christians — who live in this country of 70 million Muslims, to speak publicly of genocide would not be just brave, but potentially suicidal.
“Probably the state wouldn't do anything directly except make some statement” if Mesrob was to say there had been a genocide, said Murat Belge, one of Pamuk's publishers and an organizer of an unprecedented conference last year in Istanbul about the genocide.
“Very likely he would be assassinated by some fascists,” continued Belge, who was himself prosecuted under a controversial law last year for writing critical articles about a court's ban on the conference. “The Patriarchate would be burned down. A lot of Armenians would be shot in their daily lives.”
Mesrob, in an interview at the well-guarded Armenian Patriarchate in
“It's not a matter of being silent about the issue,” he said. “It's a matter of how can you make friends with someone. Do you from the first moment simply confront the person?”
If it's not silence, then it's a pragmatic sort of self-censorship. Growing up, Mesrob's father never talked to him about what happened to the previous generation, he said. “I think they didn't want us to be at odds with our Muslim neighbors.”
That parenting method continues today among the ethnic Armenians in
The Turkish government's position on the events of 1915 is that the people who died in the region at the time died as a result of inter-ethnic fighting, disease and hardships caused by war.
More than 20 countries have officially recognized the genocide, as have a majority of the 50 states in the
Most Western historians agree the genocide happened. Last year, the International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote to Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about it, concluding: “We believe that it is clearly in the interest of the Turkish people and their future as a proud and equal participant in international, democratic discourse to acknowledge the responsibility of a previous government for the genocide of the Armenian people, just as the German government and people have done in the case of the Holocaust.”
Such an acknowledgement will not come easily or quickly — if at all.
“Until the 1980s there was a total loss of memory,” said a Turkish political powerbroker who requested anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity. “Nobody talked about this. It was the policy of the omnipotent state not to talk about anything negative.”
Last year's conference in Istanbul and a growing concern about the issue within Europe — a recent French law makes it a crime to deny the genocide happened — have moved Turkey slightly closer to coming to terms with its past.
“The skeletons are there and they have not vanished,” the Turkish powerbroker said. “Now we are going to open the cupboard.”
Egemen Bagis, foreign policy adviser to Erdogan, said in an interview that last year Erdogan made an offer to the Armenian president: Both countries would establish an independent investigative commission and open up all countries' archives in order to establish what happened.
“No other politician in
But when asked if he recognized that a genocide took place, Bagis responded quickly: “I don't.”
Source: Newsday, November 29, 2006