Turkey’s Armenians: The Ghosts of 1915

Source: The Economist

Istanbul — Marissa Kucuk was a little old Armenian lady who lived on her own in Samatya (pictured above), a picturesque neighbourhood of Istanbul where Christians and Muslims used to rub along peacefully. On December 28th Ms Kucuk, 85, was found dead in her apartment. She had been stabbed, repeatedly. Relatives said a crucifix was carved onto her naked corpse.

Last week, a masked assailant attacked another elderly Armenian as she was entering her apartment. He punched her in the head. When she fell to the ground he began kicking her. “My mother’s mouth was filled with blood…the neighbours came to the rescue when she screamed for help and the man fled,” Maryam Yelegen, told AGOS, a Turkish Armenian weekly.

The attack marks the fifth in the past two months against elderly Armenian women (one has lost an eye). All of the attacks took place in Samatya, which is home to some 8,000 Armenians and the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate. Opinion remains divided as to whether these are organised hate crimes targeting non-Muslims or just random theft. Istanbul’s governor, Huseyin Avni Mutlu, insists that it was the latter. “The incident was inspired by robbery, there were no racial motives. Be sure we will find the perpetrators. Good night,” he tweeted to some 100,000 followers.

Some of the victims were, indeed, robbed. The Turkish police are said to be concentrating their investigation on a man in his thirties as a potential suspect. Turkey’s Human Rights Association remains unswayed. “The attacks were carried out with racist motives,” it concluded in a report that was published last week.

Either way, the attacks have dredged up memories of the mass slaughter of about a million Ottoman Armenians in 1915. “The attacks highlight the unbearable heaviness of being Armenian in Turkey,” says Khatchig Mouradian an Armenian activist and academic who lost ancestors in the killings.

Academic opinion worldwide tilts towards the view that these constituted genocide. Turkey refutes this saying the majority died of illness and hunger during forced deportations to the Syrian desert. Those who dared to challenge the official line (among them Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s sole Nobel laureate for literature) have faced prosecution and death threats. But none as much as Hrant Dink, the outspoken Armenian journalist who founded AGOS as a platform for unfettered debate about 1915. He was murdered in 2007 by an ultra-nationalist youth outside his office in the heart of Istanbul.  Mr Dink’s family insists that the killer was acting under orders from rogue ultra-nationalist elements within the security forces, who, in turn, were probably linked to a Byzantine plot known as “Kafes” or Cage.

Scores of suspects, including three admirals tied to Kafes are being tried on charges of conspiring to murder Christians in Turkey. Their alleged aim was to intimidate Christians into leaving for good, place the blame on Turkey’s Islam-tinged Justice and Development (AK) Party and thus lay the ground for the army to intervene.  The 2007 murders of three Christian missionaries in the eastern province of Malatya (their throats were slit) are believed to be part of Kafes. Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer for the victims, sees parallels between the Kafes plot and “the ultra-nationalist mentality informing 1915” which tends to view “citizens of Armenian descent as disloyal and untrustworthy.”

Fresh evidence emerged last week suggesting that local gendarmerie officials kept thousands of pages worth of files on missionaries and other Christians in Malatya. But the defence argues that the evidence was “sexed up” by prosecutors as in the Sledgehammer case, another alleged coup plot. Independent forensic experts have supported these claims.

In any case Mr Cengiz says had the Kafes suspects not been brought to trial attacks against Christians would have continued. Many credit AK for easing pressure on non-Muslims. A small but vocal group of Turkish historians now openly talk about genocide. Bookstores have entire shelves devoted to the topic. Tens of thousands of illegal migrants from the neighbouring Republic of Armenia with which Turkey has no official ties work in Istanbul, as the authorities look the other way. “Reconciliation” projects between Turks and Armenians have become so commonplace that hawks on both sides no longer blink.

Yet the message from the government is somewhat mixed. Mehmet Nihat Omeroglu, the controversial judge who upheld a conviction of Mr Dink for “insulting Turkishness”, was recently sworn in by the parliament as the head of the newly created ombudsman institution. The case was widely publicised and helped to whip up nationalist fervour against Mr Dink. Mr Omeroğlu apparently has no regrets. “We made our decision on this case on the basis of our conscience,” the ombudsman told Radikal, a liberal daily.