Turkish lawyer, writer and human rights activist Fethiye Cetin, the author of the memoir entitled “My Grandmother”, says that when her 70-year-old Armenian grandma Hranush was talking about her roots it felt like easing the burden she had been carrying on her frail shoulders for years. She was “emptying her soul” during the declining years of her life trusting Fethiye with what she had kept in the dark depths of her memory. Talking about it soothed grandma Hranush’s pain, and the legacy inspired her granddaughter’s first book.
“My grandmother got liberated from that burden. Our people used to say that in order to be free of that burden one has to talk about it. My Hranush grandma developed also another way, she found women like her, they’d lock the door and talk for hours. At the end of her life she told me. Regardless of how difficult the story was, I feel lucky to have learned the truth,” Cetin said during a meeting at Civilitas Foundation last week, as part of “Up the Hill” Armenian-Turkish joint project.
Her grandma had many grandchildren but trusted her story only to Fathiye for one reason: “I was 24, a socialist, was against the government policy in many issues and always voiced my objections. I was saying that I’d fight for rights and justice. Knowing all that she trusted me.”
Years later her grandmother’s nephews invited her to visit the USA. She put flowers on her grandma’s parents grave, saying: “I apologize to you for all those who gave you that pain, who divided your family.”
Cetin, who was also Hrant Dink’s attorney and a political prisoner, says she feels guilty.
“I wasn’t the immediate participant of the 1915 massacre, but continued the denialist policy, because I still kept silence even after having learned a lot. And then I wrote this book. When writing I cried all along: crying and writing, that process was therapeutic for me. I wrote and felt more at ease. I wrote and put it aside. For a long time I was unable to read it, just like a runner who has finished a marathon is so tired he can’t even see,” recalls Cetin.
Some time later she heard one of the Turkish politicians speak about Turkey’s policy of denial and without waiting any longer sent her book to a publisher. “My Grandmother” became a reason and a path for many Turkish citizens to reveal that their grandma or grandpa were Armenian; it helped them rediscover their Armenian identity.
Cetin’s grandmother, Hranush Gadaryan was born in Harpap, people knew her as a Turkish Muslim. She was an eyewitness and survivor of the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide. Before she died she confessed to her granddaughter that she was by birth an Armenian Christian. She had been taken away from her parents, who got killed, to be raised as a Muslim by a Turkish military official and was given a Turkish name Seher. Cetin’s parents died early, so she was raised by her grandparents.
“We were a Muslim family, lived in one of the villages of Diarbekir. My grandmother’s story which had a lot of pages to be ashamed of, I had not read in any textbook. I entered a law faculty to become an attorney. I was aware that denying was a grave sin, by which we were further insulting the holders of that pain. I started believing that the truth was what my grandma had told me. I realized that there was a need to fight for the rights of Armenians and other ethnic minorities in Turkey,” she said.
Cetin says that she is not afraid to openly speak up for Armenians in Turkey.
“I can say one thing: nothing can be solved by being afraid. If you are just, and want to fight for justice, you have to also consider the consequences. What is the worst that could happen? My life will be taken away. But if you are fighting for justice and have a goal, you feel that your body is not that important. No big difference whether it happens now or ten years later. I live with that burden and that heavy weight, and the right way is to fight,” she says.
After her book was published, Cetin received a call from a young lawyer from Harpap village who invited her to go visit. The only surviving relics left from the Armenians that once populated it were dried out springs standing out for their unique architectural solutions.
The springs of Harpap got renovated with Hrant Dink foundation’s initiative. The Turkish culture ministry pitched in to help finance the repair.
“Now the springs are alive again, with waters flowing gaily. We did that for the peace of the souls of those who were either murdered or displaced from their birthplace. I found my grandma’s house and planted trees in the courtyard. When digging the earth we kept coming across stones from the ruins of her house. With every hit of the spade it felt as if the earth was hurting and moaning. We named the trees: Hranush, Khoren, Iskuhi, Hovhannes, Armine, Lusine, Zeinab. Conversations with the villagers opened a road through which we were able to talk about history, face that history and the pain it holds, and we shared that pain,” recalls Cetin.
After the opening of the springs people started telling about their grandparents who were Armenian by birth. Cetin is convinced that the Turks should gradually accept the tragic events of the past. It won’t happen immediately, it won’t be easy at first, because it’s been denied for almost a century, however the path they have paved, they hope, will make the process easier.
“I believe that all this will have political consequences. True, right now we are unable to change the state [policy], but I value highly any change that has come forth in the society. Even if the government apologizes, it won’t mean much if the citizen of that country does not share that pain. I value when people apologize for themselves,” she says.