Archive for the 'Hidden Armenians' Category

The Independent: Hidden Armenians

Robert Fisk has another moving and provoking column on the Armenian Genocide in The Independent:

“”It’s a tiny book, only 116 pages long, but it contains a monumental truth, another sign that one and a half million dead Armenians will not go away. It’s called My Grandmother: a Memoir and it’s written by Fethiye Cetin and it opens up graves. For when she was growing up in the Turkish town of Marden, Fethiye’s grandmother Seher was known as a respected Muslim housewife. It wasn’t true. She was a Christian Armenian and her real name was Heranus. We all know that the modern Turkish state will not acknowledge the 1915 Armenian Holocaust, but this humble book may help to change that. Because an estimated two million Turks – alive in Turkey today – had an Armenian grandparent.


As children they were put on the death marches south to the Syrian desert but – kidnapped by brigands, sheltered by brave Muslim villagers (whose own courage also, of course, cannot be acknowledged by Turkey) or simply torn from their dying mothers – later became citizens of the modern Turkey which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was to set up. Yet as Maureen Freely states in her excellent preface, four generations of Turkish schoolchildren simply do not know Ottoman Anatolia was between a quarter and a half Christian.

Heranus – whose face stares out at the reader from beneath her Muslim headscarf – was seized by a Turkish gendarme, who sped off on horseback after lashing her mother with a whip. Even when she died of old age, Fethiye tried to record the names of Heranus’s Armenian parents – Isguhi and Hovannes – but was ignored by the mosque authorities. It was Heranus, with her razor-sharp memory, who taught Fethiye of her family’s fate and this book does record in terrible detail the now familiar saga of mass cruelty, of rape and butchery.

In one town, the Turkish police separated husbands, sons and old men from their families and locked the women and children into a courtyard with high walls. From outside came blood-curdling shrieks. As Fethiye records, “Heranus and her brothers clung to their mother’s skirts, but though she was terrified, she was desperate to know what was going on. Seeing that another girl had climbed on to someone’s shoulders to see over the wall, she went to her side. The girl was still looking over the wall; when, after a very long while, she came down again, she said what she had seen. All her life, Heranus would never forget what came from this girl’s lip: ‘They’re cutting the men’s throats, and throwing them into the river.'”

Fethiye says she wrote her grandmother’s story to “reconcile us with our history; but also to reconcile us with ourselves” which, as Freely writes, cuts right through the bitter politics of genocide recognition and denial. Of course, Ataturk’s decision to move from Arabic to Latin script also means that vital Ottoman documents recalling the genocide cannot be consulted by most modern-day Turks. At about the same time, it’s interesting to note, Stalin was performing a similarly cultural murder in Tajikistan where he moved the largely Persian language from Arabic to Cyrillic.

And so history faded away. And I am indebted to Cosette Avakian, who sent me Fethiye’s book and who is herself the granddaughter of Armenian survivors and who brings me news of another memorial of Armenians, this time in Wales. Wales, you may ask? And when I add that this particular memorial – a handsome Armenian cross embedded in stone – was vandalised on Holocaust Memorial Day last January, you may also be amazed. And I’m not surprised because not a single national paper reported this outrage. Had it been a Jewish Holocaust memorial stone that was desecrated, it would – quite rightly – have been recorded in our national newspapers. But Armenians don’t count.

As a Welsh Armenian said on the day, “This is our holiest shrine. Our grandparents who perished in the genocide do not have marked graves. This is where we remember them.” No one knows who destroyed the stone: a request for condemnation by the Turkish embassy in London went, of course, unheeded, while in Liverpool on Holocaust Day, the Armenians were not even mentioned in the service.

Can this never end? Fethiye’s wonderful book may reopen the past, but it is a bleak moment to record that when the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was prosecuted for insulting “Turkishness”, Fethiye defended him in court. Little good it did Dink. He was murdered in January last year, his alleged killer later posing arrogantly for a picture next to the two policemen who were supposed to be holding him prisoner. It was in Dink’s newspaper Agos that Fethiye was to publish her grandmother’s death notice. This was how Heranus’s Armenian sister in America came to read of her death. For Heranus’s mother survived the death marches to remarry and live in New York.

Wales, the United States, even Ethiopia, where Cosette Avakian’s family eventually settled, it seems that every nation in the world is home to the Armenians. But can Turkey ever be reconciled with its own Armenian community, which was Hrant Dink’s aim? When Fethiye found her Aunt Marge in the US – this was Heranus’ sister, of course, by her mother’s second marriage – she tried to remember a song that Heranus sang as a child. It began with the words “A sad shepherd on the mountain/Played a song of love…” and Marge eventually found two Armenian church choir members who could put the words together.

“My mother never missed the village dances,” Marge remembered. “She loved to dance. But after her ordeal, she never danced again.” And now even when the Welsh memorial stone that stands for her pain and sorrow was smashed, the British Government could not bring itself to comment. As a member of the Welsh Armenian community said at the time, “We shall repair the cross again and again, no matter how often it is desecrated.” And who, I wonder, will be wielding the hammer to smash it next time?””

Turkey: Hidden Armenians Suffer in Tokat

Genocided, Islamized, assimilated, and few – Tokat’s handful of hidden Armenians in this northern city of Turkey still face institutionalized and societal discrimination. Local Turks don’t give them daughters to marry, and the local government doesn’t give them jobs to work. The only Armenian monument, a cemetery, is full of garbage and human waste left by its usual visitors – vandals looking for gold.

Amberin Zaman, Turkey’s reporter for The Economist, has published a column in the Turkish-language Taraf  (July 10, 2008) detailing what she saw in a town once rich of Armenian life and culture. In her own words (translated by Amberin Zaman):

Recently I was in in Tokat, known as the breadbasket of Turkey and for its lush green vegetation. Tokat has been a city with a significant Armenian population, especially before 1915. […] Armenians living in the sancak of Tokat numbered 22, 733. There were seven Armenian churches and a monastery. Between 1910 and 1912, the magazine Iris was published first as a weekly, and later as a monthly newspaper. There were Armenians here, even if not that many, up until the 1960s. [According to the Dictionary of Toponymy of Armenia and Adjacent Territories, there were 400 Armenians in the 1930s and 40s – Blogian.] But today it is almost impossible to find traces of them. Their churches, houses, and schools have all been destroyed. Those who have remained are trying to continue their lives under the Muslim identity. But of course everyone knows they are Armenians.

The “secret” Armenians of Tokat, whose numbers are not known, are having problems. One man caught between his two identities who spoke to us on the condition that we not give his name said that the biggest problem was trying to find girls for their sons. “The Turks gladly take our daughters,” he said, “so our girls are very lucky.” But there is no one for our sons, because Muslims don’t give their daughters to Armenians.” (According to widespread interpretation in Islam, while it is fine to take on a non-Muslim girl, the same is not true of boys.) When we asked whether the boys could find Armenian girls to marry, the man shook his head. The reason is that Armenians, in a very modern practice, do not allow intermarriage to families of relatives going back seven generations. “Because our numbers are so small, we are all related in one way or another, so there are no eligible girls.” That being the case, the boys tend to migrate from Tokat, while the girls become assimilated.

Another problem that has cropped up in recent years is that Armenian residents can no longer get work from the municipality. While in the past the Armenians, who have been forced to work in the handcraft professions, had been able to get contract work from the municipal authorities, they complain that they have not been able to get work since the AKP came to power in Tokat. “They only give work to their own kind,” one said bitterly. Although we were unable to look into this further or confirm it with non-Armenians, there is one shame of the AKP municipality in Tokat that is clear for all to see.

The condition of the Armenian cemetery, the last remaining evidence of the existence of Armenians here, is a complete disaster. As soon as you go through the open, rusted door, you come across human waste, broken beer bottles, and all kinds of garbage. The condition of the graves, which we documented on film, is heart-wrenching. Most of them have been swallowed up by grass, while many of the gravestones that are visible are broken. Some of the headstones have been completely destroyed.

“People still come here to look for gold,” said Muharrem Erkan, a Tokat tour guide and one of the local directors of the Pir Sultan Abdal Association.

We didn’t get a chance to find out who is legally responsible for upkeep of the cemetery ? the Armenian Foundations? the municipality? — or what the laws and regulations say about this. But in fact that’s not what is important. Even non-practicing Muslims know that one of the fundamental principles of Islam is to show tolerance toward other religions. Tokat’s AKP Mayor, Adnan Cicek, needs to correct this human disgrace. He needs to get a lock for the gate, paint it, clean out the garbage, trim the grass, and for God’s sake plant a few trees and flowers there. We know that Mr. Cicek, who was deemed worthy of the title of Mayor of the Year, can succeed in getting this done, especially since the rest of the town is beautifully kept and perfectly orderly. It’s too late for those who have died, of course, but let us at least show respect to those of our Armenian citizens who remain here. NOW! PLEASE!