Istanbul’s Armenians mark genocide centenary
In 1915 1.5m were killed and now the small community struggles to keep identity alive
Pictures of Armenians killed in Istanbul in 1915 at a rally to commemorate the anniversary of the mass killing. Photograph: Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images
The speaker begins to recite a list of names, but his voice is drowned out by the din of the morning traffic. He persists.
As commuters hurry past and shopkeepers look on, bemused by the unfolding scene, he reminds the small crowd of their reason for gathering here, at No 87, Cumhuriyet Street. The building behind him was once home to Komitas, a celebrated Armenian composer, and it was here that he was arrested exactly 100 years ago – recorded by Armenians as the first day of the genocide – before being deported to Anatolia with 300 other notables.
Komitas has his own statue in Paris, but there’s no plaque to mark the historical significance of the Istanbul site, so the organisers have brought their own – a plastic sheet, which they place temporarily on the doorstep. The crowd, many of them dressed in black, cover it with red carnations.
At the back of the crowd is Ayda (51), a teacher from an Armenian family in Istanbul. She didn’t tell any of her colleagues she was coming to the commemoration. “I would be an outcast,” she says. “Or maybe it’s just the fear that’s in my genes.”
‘Plan to deny and forget’
Ayda belongs to a small, discreet community of about 60,000 Armenians still living in Istanbul. A modest network of schools, newspapers and cultural centres helps keep their heritage and language alive in the city, but the community is scattered and many of its members are fearful of drawing too much attention to themselves.
Ayda sent her daughter to folk dance lessons and Armenian language lessons, but she has forgotten most of what she learned. Ayda herself admits to having long wanted to remain at a distance from her fellow Armenians, “maybe to be assimilated, to feel part of the majority”.
The commemorations of recent days have been an act of remembrance, but also, in the eyes of organisers, a call for justice. The Turkish state rejects the conclusions of historians that the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 amounted to a premeditated attempt to destroy a people, and vehemently contests the use of the word genocide. Disagreeing with the official version can be interpreted as a crime.
For Selin Mengü (33), whose Armenian mother instilled in her a keen sense of her identity, Turkish recognition of genocide would be symbolically important.
More significant still would be better ties between Turks and Armenians in daily life. A good place to start would be the “nationalistic” education system, she says, in which history books present Armenians as the “enemy within”, conspiring with the Russians against the Ottoman Empire during the first World War.
“On the Turkish side of my family, they have no problem with Armenians – they love my mum and me – but when it comes to the government recognising it, they become really defensive. It becomes something we don’t want to talk about. Somehow, I think they just don’t want to feel responsible.”
The Komitas event was one of several Armenian commemorations to take place in Istanbul in recent days.
The largest gathering was a candlelit vigil on Friday night, off Taksim Square, where a large crowd shut down one of the city’s busiest shopping streets for almost two hours. They sat on the street, applauding speeches that referred openly to the events of 1915 as genocide. At 7.15pm the whole street fell silent. Friends and family members hugged one another. Many wept. Further along the street, hemmed in by police, nationalist demonstrators chanted “We did not commit genocide. We defended our native land.”
As he joined dozens of fellow Armenians on a boat bringing the group up the Bosphorous between events, Samson Ozararat cut a quietly contented figure. A retired Turkish-born Armenian, Ozararat was part of a group of 14 Armenians and Turks who met in 2000 to plan a commemoration in Istanbul.
The first event took place in 2005, but this year, he pointed out, the state authorised multiple events and provided police protection. “This is new. This is progress,” he said.
Further tentative shifts have taken place. The Turkish government has begun to hand back confiscated Armenian church property. The assassination in 2007 of the Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink set off a wave of revulsion across Turkey, and a number of Armenian candidates are expected to win seats in the elections on June 7th.
But for many Armenians, the fear lingers. Early last Friday, ultra-nationalists placed a mock commemorative wreath at the door of the Hrant Dink Foundation, a rights group named after the slain journalist. In a video recorded outside the premises and later posted online, they warned: “One day we will come in the night without warning.”
Hermine Sayan, a retiree who works at the foundation, says such threats don’t frighten her. Dink’s killing “paralysed” her at first, but in time she felt emboldened, more assertive: “Let them kill me, I thought.”
It had a similar effect on a younger generation of self-confident Armenians in Turkey, she believes, whose pride in their identity contrasts with the attitude of her parents’ generation, who would rarely speak about the events of 1915.
If Turkey were to recognise those events as genocide and apologise to the Armenians, Sayan says, she would feel respect for the state where she was born and has lived most of her life. Not that it would salve all wounds.
“Every time I go to bed at night, I think about those little kids who were taken. Who took care of them? Were they loved? If Erdogan gives me a million dollars in compensation, I’ll still think about these things.”