April 24th: Remembering the Armenian Dead
Posted: Wednesday, May 09, 2012 at 01:24 PM UT
On April 24, Armenians across the world will march, give speeches, attend church services and otherwise commemorate the official beginning of the terrible events known as the Armenian Genocide. On April 24, 1915, Turkish authorities in the Ottoman Empire rounded up close to one hundred leading Armenians in Constantinople (today's Istanbul) and deported them to Ayash and Chankari -- concentration camp equivalents to Auschwitz and Treblinka some thirty years later. Many were killed along the way in the most gruesome manner: beaten, stoned, tortured. Komitas Vartabed, Armenia's leading musicologist who recorded forever the folk and church music of Anatolia, went mad after barely escaping with his life. Led by the triumvirate of Talaat, Enver and Djemal Pasha over the next eight years, the so-called Young Turks -- a horde of thugs, killers and thieves that would not be seen again until the Nazis came to power in Germany in the 1940s — deported, raped, set on fire and other murdered three million Christians — almost the entire Christian population of the Ottoman Empire: 1.5 million Armenians, 1 million Pontic Greeks and 500,000 Assyrians perished in the conflagration that Armenians call the Medz Yeghern or Great Calamity.
The goal of the Young Turks was simple: to complete the eradication of the empire's Christians, which had begun some twenty years earlier under the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid and to expropriated their considerable wealth, in the process creating a pure purely Turkish state. As was the case with the Jews in Western Europe, Christians in the Ottoman Empire were allowed to trade money and charge interest on it and hence — for this reason and others — they quickly became the most advanced group financially and educationally, which bred huge resentment from the Muslim majority. The Ottoman Ballet, the Ottoman Opera and many of the Empire's finest cultural institutions were in fact founded by Armenians and the wealthy Amira group which controlled among other things the Ottoman mint, munitions, bread factories and other key institutions, while the Greeks handled much of the empire's foreign diplomacy, for example.
After the Armenian intellectuals had been eradicated — the community's symbolic head — the Turks were particularly ruthless in their eradication campaign: in village after village throughout what remained of the Ottoman Empire, Armenian men were separated from their women and either shot at close range or lit on fire in sulfur caves-primitive gas chambers. Entire congregations were burned alive inside churches during Sunday services. The women who managed to escape being raped and killed were sent on deportation marches with their remaining children into the Syrian desert -- a sure road to death that few escaped.
Today Turks continue to deny en masse that anything ever happened to its Christian minorities, even though pogroms against Christians and Jews occurred throughout the 20th century including after the imposition in 1942 of the Varlık Vergisi or wealth taxes on Jews and Christians which set exorbitant rates of over to 100 percent on minority wealth. The remaining Jews, Armenians and Greeks in Istanbul -- none of whom could pay such ridiculous fines -- were sent to a labor camp known as Aškale where most either perished or returned broken and unable to function anymore.
To return to 1915: During the Armenian Genocide, trillions of dollars of Armenian property and goods were expropriated and an entire ethnically Turkish and religiously Muslim middle class was formed. For Armenians, this was just a repeat of past events and attempts to genocidally remove them from their native lands. The Adana Massacre of 1909 and the killings instigated by Sultan Abdul Hamid — otherwise known as the Bloody Sultan — took place all over the Armenian Plateau from 1894-1895.
Most recently Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has gone on a charm offensive to try to convince the rather large and influential Armenian Diaspora to drop its claims against Turkey in a misguided effort at reconciliation. There can be no true reconciliation or friendship between the Armenian and Turkish people until the Turkish government publicly and officially apologizes to the Armenians — following in the footsteps — albeit belatedly — of Germany towards Israel and the Jews and the recent Australian prime minister's public apology to the Aborigines. This apology must be followed by proper monetary restitution to Armenians in Armenia and the Diaspora, and a complete return of lands, property and churches to Armenians. Turning the famed church of Aght'Amar on Lake Van into a museum owned by the Turkish government and flying Turkish flags around the church — as the Turkish government recently did — is a degrading insult to Armenians everywhere, even if the church has been renovated. Aght'Amar and the thousands of other Armenian churches across Anatolia — including those in the famed Armenian capital city of Ani — belong to Armenians, period. Turkey should also push for the killer and planners of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink's murder several years back to be jailed for life and begin a campaign in Turkish schools to tell the Turkish people the truth about what happened to their Christian minorities.
If Turkey does so, it can also set an example for other countries the Middle East such as Iraq, and Egypt where Christians continue to be persecuted and forced to leave their ancestral lands. Anything less is unacceptable. Turkey can delay, it can hem and haw and try to dissimulate, but the reality is that Armenians — and their Greek and Assyrian counterparts — have truth on their side; and as we have seen before in the course of human history, truth has a strange way of winning out, eventually.
About the author
Christopher Atamian is a writer, director, producer and translator. He has published several books and his essays and reviews appear in leading publications around the globe. He currently writes about the arts and politics. He has co-produced an OBIE Award winning play,Trouble in Paradise and participated as a video producer and director in the 2009 Venice Bienale. A native New Yorker, he still makes his home on the isle of Manhattan.