Newspaper article International New York Times

Turkey's Century of Denial ; over 1 Million Armenians Were Killed, but Country Insists It Wasn't Genocide

Newspaper article International New York Times

Turkey's Century of Denial ; over 1 Million Armenians Were Killed, but Country Insists It Wasn't Genocide

Article excerpt

Nearly 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, during World War I. Turks mostly do not believe the mass killings were planned.

The crumbling stone monastery, built into the hillside, stands as a forlorn monument to an awful past. So, too, does the decaying church on the other side of this mountain village. Farther out, a crevice is sliced into the earth, so deep that peering into it, one sees only blackness. Haunting for its history, it was there that a century ago, an untold number of Armenians were tossed to their deaths.

"They threw them in that hole, all the men," said Vahit Sahin, 78, sitting at a cafe in the center of the village, reciting the stories that have passed through generations.

Mr. Sahin turned in his chair and pointed toward the monastery. "That side was Armenian." He turned back. "This side was Muslim. At first, they were really friendly with each other."

A hundred years ago, amid the upheaval of World War I, this village and countless others across eastern Anatolia became killing fields as the desperate leadership of the Ottoman Empire, having lost the Balkans and facing the prospect of losing its Arab territories as well, saw a threat closer to home.

Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials embarked on what historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century: Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, some in massacres like the one here, others in forced marches to the Syrian desert that left them starved to death.

The genocide was the greatest atrocity of the Great War. It also remains that conflict's most bitterly contested legacy, having been met by the Turkish authorities with 100 years of silence and denial. For surviving Armenians and their descendants, the genocide became a central marker of their identity, the psychic wounds passed through generations.

"Armenians have passed one whole century, screaming to the world that this happened," said Gaffur Turkay, whose grandfather, as a young boy, survived the genocide and was taken in by a Muslim family. Mr. Turkay, in recent years, after discovering his heritage, began identifying as an Armenian and converted to Christianity. "We want to be part of this country with our original identities, just as we were a century ago," he said.

The 100th anniversary will be commemorated on April 24, the date the Ottomans rounded up a group of Armenian notables in Istanbul in 1915 as the first step in what historians now agree was a wider plan of annihilation. Armenians from Turkey and the diaspora are preparing to gather in Taksim Square in Istanbul to honor the dead. They will also hold a concert featuring Armenian and Turkish musicians.

Similar ceremonies will be held in capitals around the world, including in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where Kim Kardashian, who is of Armenian descent, recently visited with her husband, the rapper Kanye West, to highlight the genocide. That the European Parliament and Pope Francis recently described the massacres as a genocide adds to the pressure on Ankara.

The Turkish government acknowledges that atrocities were committed but says they happened in wartime, when plenty of other people were dying. Officials stoutly deny there was ever any plan to systematically wipe out the Armenian population -- the commonly accepted definition of genocide.

Ankara is not participating in any of the memorials, nor does it appear ready to meet Armenian demands for an apology. Instead, on the same day of the genocide anniversary, the Turkish authorities scheduled a centennial commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli, an event that helped lay the foundation of modern Turkish identity.

The anniversary comes after several years in which the Turkish government seemed to be softening its position. With the flourishing of new civic society organizations, the government became more tolerant of views of history that differed from the official one. …

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