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What We Talk About When We Talk About Genocide

Photograph by Paul Salopek
Photograph by Paul Salopek
Eight-hundred-year-old laments: a church fresco in the proto-Armenian capital of Ani, Turkey.


What We Talk About When We Talk About Genocide


by Paul Salopek


Ani, Turkey 40°30’41” N, 43°34’06” E


“It was a—how do you call it in English?—a genocide? Yes? It was a genocide,” says Murat Yazar. “My grandmother told my mother about it.”

My walking guide and I are wandering through Ani.

What is Ani? It is the ruin of a vanished world in modern Turkey: the remote and beautiful site of a forgotten civilization—the 1,100-year-old capital of a once powerful empire. Relics of this Silk Road city lie scattered across the sky-hammered mesas of far northeastern Anatolia. Broken cathedrals. Rotting ramparts that defend nothing from nothing. Empty boulevards that go nowhere. We roam this colossal diorama of stillness, of eerie silence, Murat and I, as if painted into a Dali dreamscape. We are talking about the disappearance of Armenians from the region.

Broken arch: a relic of ancient Ani on the closed Turkey-Armenia border. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Broken arch: a relic of ancient Ani on the closed Turkey-Armenia border. Photograph by Paul Salopek

In 1914, about two million Armenians lived in what is today Turkey. They were a Christian minority under Muslim rule. Their history reached back thousands of years. By 1922, just 400,000 remained.

What happened to more than 1.5 million people? Most were killed, historians say. They were targeted for extermination. They were marched into waterless deserts at bayonet point. They were slaughtered.

“My grandmother said they locked all the Armenians near the Euphrates River into some houses,” Murat tells me. “Then they took them out at night and pushed them into the river. They drowned them.”

It was eight months into World War I. Europe had begun to cannibalize itself. The multicultural Ottoman Empire was dying in terrible spasms. The Ottoman Turkish majority—whipped up by nationalist leaders and enraged by the mass deportations and massacres carried out by former Christian subjects against fellow Muslims in the crumbling fringes of the state—wreaked revenge on their ancient neighbors: minority Assyrians and Greeks, but mostly Armenians. They accused the Armenians of being infidels. Of disloyalty. Of siding with the empire’s encroaching foes (the Russians and colonial Europeans). The knife hand in this enormous crime? Local Kurds. Kurds shot and hacked Armenians to death en masse. Kurdish gangs tore into refugee columns of starving Armenian women and children. Kurdish villagers seized Armenian property—abandoned farms, flocks, and homes.

We have been walking through the dim echoes of this calamity, Murat and I, all the way across Anatolia. We seek shade in derelict houses of Armenians—homes overgrown with trees, with weeds. We pass sturdy churches converted to mosques. We skirt walnut orchards planted long ago by the victims. Murat broods about this. He is a Kurd. I see him grappling with history, with a legacy he cannot imagine, with the haunted landscape.

“Once, I apologized to an Armenian man in Istanbul,” he tells me. “I told him I was sorry for what my ancestors did.”

And how did the man react?

“What could he say?” Murat says, shrugging. “He said, ‘Thank you.’”

We stand in a cold wind. A big sign at the entrance to the archaeological ruins of Ani describe its long story. The text states that the ancient and sprawling metropolis flowered under Bagratian kings. The Bagratians were Armenian. Nowhere is the word “Armenian” written.

*          *           *

It has been dangerous for many years in Turkey to describe what occurred in 1915 as a genocide. Turkish judges have deemed this term provocative, incendiary, insulting, a taboo. Turkish writers and journalists who deploy those three syllables can face charges of slander against the Turkish state. One has been assassinated by ultra-nationalists.

There is an official version of events. It goes like this: The Armenians suffered, this is undeniably true. Yet they were just one of many ethnic groups who felt the heavy blows of the imploding Ottoman Empire. Their destruction was neither extreme nor systematic. It was a war. And violence coursed both ways: Armenians perished, but so did Turks, at the hands of rebellious Armenian mobs. Yet this narrow reading of history has begun to show some cracks. In April, Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, became the first Turkish leader to express formal condolences to the descendants of Turkey’s Armenians, who today live scattered across the globe. He spoke, carefully, of the two peoples’ “shared pain.”

Walking through the Kurdish hinterlands of Anatolia, one senses that ordinary citizens are far ahead of him.

“We fought the Armenians, and many died,” says Saleh Emre, the white-haired mayor of Kas Kale village. “I think this was wrong. They belonged here.” Emre pauses. He sweeps a gnarled hand over the houses of his tiny community. “This land used to be owned by an Armenian trader. My father’s uncles bought it cheap.” He allows this detail to sink in. Then he ticks off the names of nearby Turkish towns that once were dominated by Armenians: Van, Patnos, Agri. No Armenians live there now. He stops short of using the word genocide.

The old man peers east across rolling sunlit plains, across brass-colored pastures, across grassy paradise blighted by memory, toward the nearby country where some survivors fled. “I would like visit to Armenia,” Emre says. “Armenians were our neighbors.”

*          *           *

The scene: a church courtyard in Diyarbakir, the cultural capital of Turkey’s Kurds.

Sourp Giragos is the largest Armenian church in the Middle East. It is newly renovated, mostly with donations from the remnant Armenian community in Istanbul. It is a monument to hope, to reconciliation, one of a few such gestures taking root in the Kurdish zones of Anatolia in a hundred years. (In a distant town called Bitlis, the Kurdish mayor has named a street after William Saroyan, the Armenian-American writer.) People bustle about under a massive bell tower. They are sweeping fallen leaves. Serving coffee at outdoor tables. Chatting. Some light candles. A few are Muslim. Most are Armenian Orthodox Christians. Aram Khatchigian, a caretaker, has been both.

Custodian of memory: Aram Khatchigian in the rebuilt Sourp Giragos Armenian church, old city of Diyarbakir, Turkey. Photograph by Murat Yazar.

Custodian of memory: Aram Khatchigian in the rebuilt Sourp Giragos Armenian church in Diyarbakir, the Kurdish cultural capital in Turkey. Photograph by Murat Yazar.

“Until I was 15, I believed I was a Muslim, a Kurd,” Khatchigian says. “After that, I started to feel a change in my heart.”

He explains how he excavated his hidden past. How he learned that his grandfather, a boy of 12, and his grandfather’s younger sister, a girl of 9, were actually Armenian—the only ones in their immediate family to survive the killing fields around Diyarbakir, where a “pungent smell of decaying corpses” filled the air. The boy and girl hid under a bush until a Muslim Kurdish farmer took them in, saving their lives, caring for them as his own children, giving them his name. They converted to Islam. “All Armenians still living did this,” Khatchigian says. “They would be killed otherwise.” Then a man stalks up to our table. He has been listening.

“Do you recognize the genocide?” he demands. He looks into my eyes.

I am conducting an interview, I tell him.

“I don’t care,” he says. “Do you or don’t you recognize the genocide?”

For some Armenians, this consuming question has become everything—the lynchpin of a national struggle, almost of a modern identity: Turkey and the world must finally acknowledge that a true genocide, legally defined, unfolded in Anatolia. Vast amounts of energy and money are poured into this lobbying campaign by millions of Armenians in the diaspora. (At least 21 countries now officially accept the Armenian genocide as fact. The United States and Israel, valuing diplomatic ties with Turkey, aren’t among them.)

Armenian-American author Tomani Meline describes the suffocating effect of this bitter political debate on her life:

“To some Armenians, recognition means reparations from Turkey: to the true zealots, land; to the slightly more pragmatic, money. To most, it simply means the official usage of the word genocide. To me, it came to mean that I could no longer stand to attend any Armenian gathering, because it seemed that whether it was a poetry reading, a concert, or even a sporting match, it was always, ultimately, about the genocide.”

At the church in Diyarbakir the stranger sits down at our table.

He repeats his question again. And again. Khatchigian stares down at his shoes, embarrassed. I lay down my pen. We wait.

"I don't care. Tell the world I am Armenian." But she changed her mind, and did not want her face to be photographed. Diyarbakir, Turkey. Photo by Murat Yazar.

“I don’t care. Tell the world I’m Armenian.” But she changed her mind, and here in Dyarbakir she did not want her face to be photographed. Photograph by Murat Yazar.

*          *           *

A giant red Turkish flag flutters above the archaeological site at Ani.

The city’s ancient ruins toe the ledge of a canyon. On the other side, within easy walking distance, lies the small Republic of Armenia. Nobody ever crosses. The border between the two nations has been shut for years by mutual suspicion and hostility. Ani is a dead end.

We strike out, Murat and I, heading due north.

We tug our brave cargo mule across sodden winter fields around Kars, a Turkish city that in the 1890s was 85 percent Armenian. Murat asks its startled residents if any Armenians yet remain. A Turkish citizen, and a minority Kurd wrestling with his own questions of cultural endurance, Murat always asks. I watch him plod head, interrogating the past for answers. A lanky man, wistful, questing. With a camera slung over his parka. Black Anatolian mud cakes under his boots. I can only shake my head in wonder.

Killers or victims, there are no chosen people. There are simply people. And the dead. And what you do with your pain tells the world who you are.


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