29 ապրիլ, 2015 19:55

Officials and Society in Eastern Turkey Confront Legacy of the Armenian Genocide

Remembrance ceremony around Cumgus mass grave Commemorating the centennial of the Armenian Genocide at Du Deng near Çüngüş, site of the killing of 10,000 Armenians in 1915. April 22, 2015. Photo: © Julia Buzaud.

Centennial Marked in Bitlis, Diyarbakir, and Beyond

While Turkey’s central government goes out of its way to question and deny the veracity of the Armenian Genocide, some regional and local officials have chosen a different path. In Diyarbakir, municipal officials supported the renovation of an Armenian church; Bitlis renamed a street after William Saroyan; and Mutki made its first contacts with diaspora Armenians. Just two years ago, Diyarbakir's co-mayors and other bodies joined the London-based Gomidas Institute in a public event to mark the anniversary of the genocide. This year other cities followed suit, while Diyarbakir hosted a major march and rally.

Bitlis asks, What happened to Armenians?

In Bitlis on April 19, 2015, Turkey’s most prominent human-rights advocate, Ismail Beşikçi, participated in a public commemoration titled, “What Happened to Bitlis Armenians?” Among the 200 or so people present were the co-mayors of Bitlis, Hüseyin Olan and Nevin Daşdemir Dağkıran, who recently renamed one of the city’s streets after William Saroyan; the Fresno-born writer’s parents had been driven from Bitlis.

A highlight of the event was an exhibit of photographs from the collection of one Özcan Erboy. The event was co-organized by the Gomidas Institute, the Bitlis Bar Association, and the Human Rights Association (IHD), and hosted by the municipality.

Opening the “What Happened to Bitlis Armenians?” event on April 19, 2015, Enis Gul (l.), Ismail Beşikçi, Özcan Erboy (partly obscured), Ara Sarafian, and guest Samson Ozararat. Photo: © Julia Buzaud. Opening the “What Happened to Bitlis Armenians?” event on April 19, 2015, Enis Gul (l.), Ismail Beşikçi, Özcan Erboy (partly obscured), Ara Sarafian, and guest Samson Ozararat. Photo: © Julia Buzaud.

The Bitlis event included a panel discussion. Panelist Ara Sarafian of the Gomidas Institute said, “Turkish politicians have continued to treat the Armenian issue as a political football; and the Armenian state has made its own questionable demands against Turkey.” In contrast, “What we are doing in Bitlis is an alternative approach based on sensitivity and understanding, speaking the truth, and standing for the rights of all people in this region.”

Enis Gul of the bar association focused on the destruction of Armenian cultural properties. Noting that private individuals owned many churches, he proposed on a new legal initiative to remove such properties from private ownership, and to make a new effort for their protection.

Bitlis 2 Behvat Şerefhanoğlu had the audience in tears as he spoke about the brutal destruction of the Armenians of Bitlis. His father Adil was mayor when William Saroyan visited the city in 1964. April 19, 2015. Photo: © Julia Buzaud.

Mr. Besikci spoke about his military service in the Bitlis area in the early 1960s. Having seen many empty Armenian and Assyrian churches everywhere, he began asking questions. That, he said, was his first exposure to the reality of the Armenian Genocide. He also stated that much of modern Turkish wealth was built on stolen Armenian and Assyrian wealth.

During the question-and-answer period, local notable Behvat Şerefhanoğlu pointed out that the venue for the event formerly housed Mount Holyoke College, and the entire quarter, except five houses, used to be inhabited by Armenians. He recounted stories told by his uncle about one caravan of 600 Armenian men, who were tied up and eventually burned near the city.

Tsolin Nalbantian, a professor at Leiden University, who was accompanied by more than a dozen students and staff, tweeted: “In awe of #Bitlis commemoration for #Armeniangenocide. Apologies, recognitions, & reconciliation.”

 

Mutki Mayor Leads Genocide March

In Mutki, a town adjacent to historic Sasun, Mayor Özcan Birlik on April 20, 2015, received a group organized by the Gomidas Institute. Speaking in Kurdish, the mayor condemned the Armenian Genocide and said that the current residents of the region, the beneficiaries of confiscated Armenian properties, must be “good custodians” of the cultural heritage left behind and must welcome Armenians – whether they are coming to visit or live here – warmly and with open arms.

Mutki 3 A bonfire inside the remote Aghperig Monastery, an hour’s hike up the mountains of Sasun, where visitors, local Kurds and Armenians went April 20, 2015, on the occasion of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. Photo: © Julia Buzaud.

The mayor then led a procession through town, pointing to locations and artifacts of Armenian interest.

Stopping at his own childhood home, the mayor said his family had bought it from sheikhs who had been given title to confiscated Armenian properties in 1915.These sheikhs had saved some Armenians so that they would have labor for their newly stolen land. The descendants of those Armenians still live in Mutki, which has a substantial Moslem Armenian population. They include the mayor’s wife.

The mayor and dozens of local residents – including several Armenians – accompanied the Gomidas Institute group to the Aghperig monastery, where they lit a bonfire and danced the Dances of Sasun.

Commemorations at Massacre Sites

Commemorations of the Armenian Genocide were held at two sites of horrific massacres in 1915 and at the graveside of a Kurdish leader who shielded Armenians.

On April 22, 2015, around 250 people visited the Du Deng (Dudang) chasm near Çüngüş (Chunkush). The chasm was the site of the massacre of around 10,000 Armenians in 1915. Many had their throats slit before being thrown in; others chose to jump. At the commemorative event, Raci Bilici, head of the Human Rights Association (IHD Diyarbakir) and Nursel Aydoğan, member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, spoke. The event was co-organized by the Gomidas Institute, IHD, and the Diyarbakir Bar Association.

Kadinko 1 Ani Babadjanian, a descendant of Armenians from Sasun, was part of a group of students from Leiden University commemorating the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. She is shown at a site where over 600 Armenians from Diyarbakir were slaughtered. April 23, 2015. Photo: © Vincent Lima.

On April 23, 2015, a group of around 60 organized by the Gomidas Institute visited Kadinko, where over 630 Armenians from Diyarbakir were massacred on the orders of the governor in 1915, Dr. Mehmet Reşid. They saw the place off the Tigris River where gendarme handed the Armenians over to Kurdish bandits for slaughter.

The group also paid their respects at the graveside of Mehmet Mishte, a leader of the Reshkota Kurds, who refused to carry out Governor Reşid’s genocidal orders and protected Armenians. The Armenians who enjoyed his protection established the Qamishli community in Syria.

Diyarbakir: Commemorations at Three Churches

On April 24, over a thousand people participated in a march and rally in Diyarbakir to mark the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. The march began at the old city’s Mardin Gate, through which Armenians of the city had been sent to their deaths in 1915, and ended at the ruins of Surp Sarkis Armenian Church. The main speaker was the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, MP.

Mr. Demirtaş said, “I wish that we could set aside the discussion about if it was a genocide or not, and could just put the corpses in the ground to rest. I wish we could only accomplish that.”

Other speakers included mayors, members of parliament, and Ara Sarafian of the Gomidas Institute, which co-organized the event. After the event, a group of visiting Armenians, including Professors Tsolin Nalbantian of Leiden University and Elyse Semerdjian of Whitman College, sang Der Voghormia in the church ruins.

On the previous evening, April 23, a concert had been held at the renovated Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir. The acting Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul had not sent a priest although the enormous church was going to be – and was in fact – full to capacity. Whereas the Catholicos of All Armenians had ordered all Armenian churches to peal their bells 100 times on the eve of April 24, the acting Patriarch had banned the pealing of church bells in Turkey that evening. Mr. Sarafian and the author of this report did in fact peal the bells 15 times at which point they were stopped by the church trustees.

The local Assyrian church held an Armenian and Assyrian Genocide memorial mass on April 24 and allowed Armenians to peal the church bells 100 times. 

- Vincent Lima