A Century of Silence: A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath

Raffi Khatchadourian, A Century of Silence: A family survives the Armenian genocide and its long aftermath. The New Yorker, 5 January 2015. “My grandfather spent most of his life in Diyarbakir, a garrison town in southeastern Turkey. Magnificent old walls surround the city; built of black volcanic rock, they were begun by the Romans and then added to by Arabs and Ottomans. In 1915, the Ottomans turned the city, the surrounding province, and much of modern-day Turkey into a killing field, in a campaign of massacres and forced expulsions that came to be known as the Armenian genocide. The plan was to eradicate the empire’s Armenians—“a deadly illness whose cure called for grim measures”—and it was largely successful. The Ottomans killed more than a million people, but, somehow, not my grandfather.”

There was no real reckoning for the perpetrators of the genocide; many of them helped build the modern Turkish republic, founded in 1923. The violence may have been over, but its animating ideology persisted. As İsmet İnönü, the President of Turkey from 1938 to 1950, said, “Our duty is to make Turks out of all the non-Turks within the Turkish country, no matter what. We will cut out and throw away any element that will oppose Turks and Turkishness.” The state cut away Armenians from its history…. This policy of erasure was called “Turkification,” and its reach extended to geography: my grandfather’s birthplace, known since the days of Timur as Jabakhchour (“diffuse water”), was renamed Bingöl (“a thousand lakes”). By a law enacted in 1934, his surname, Khatchadourian (“given by the cross”), was changed to Özakdemir (“pure white iron”)….

For nearly a century, the Turkish state has denied the Armenian genocide—until recently, you could be prosecuted even for referring to it—and so any inquiry into such things would have been fraught. But not long ago a curious thing happened. Diyarbakir, breaking with the state policy, began to indicate that, once again, its people wanted it to serve as a shared homeland. The centerpiece of the city’s experiment in renewal is a cathedral that once touched all the city’s Armenian inhabitants, my grandfather among them….

The news of the city’s changed atmosphere came quietly, five or six years ago, with the unlikely talk that Sourp Giragos was going to be rehabilitated as a functioning church—even though there was no congregation for it anymore. Then, in 2011, an item in the Armenian Weekly (which has arrived at my parents’ house for as long as I can remember) made clear that the talk was real. “Sourp Giragos Opens to the Faithful,” it noted, adding that the structure “stood as defiant as ever to the forces suppressing freedom in Turkey.” Several hundred people turned up for the reconsecration, nearly all of them having flown in, mostly from Istanbul, or from abroad. Diyarbakir’s mayor, Osman Baydemir, told the Armenian visitors, “You are not our guests. We are your guests.” Abdullah Demirbaş, the mayor of the city’s old district, where my family had lived, even made reference to the great taboo—the genocide—saying, “Our grandparents, incited by others, committed wrongs, but we, their grandchildren, will not repeat them.”

Hundreds of people began coming to Sourp Giragos every day, the visits minor acts of curiosity, atonement, remembrance, a reckoning with a distant Armenian identity. Some came trying to piece together family history, lost stories of survival. Last April [2014], I packed a bag…and made the journey, too—to solve the mystery of my grandfather’s survival, if possible, and to learn how the cathedral had been resurrected, how the city had so unexpectedly changed, and how a century of contested history could finally appear to be resolved…. The municipality’s welcoming atmosphere, and its willingness to challenge orthodoxies about the genocide, is in many ways a Kurdish story….

In 1915, in Diyarbakir, Kurds were among the main executors of the genocide; members of prominent Kurdish clans helped plan the massacres for the Ottoman bureaucracy and grew rich by the seizure of property. In the countryside, Kurdish tribal chieftains carried out the killings with pitiless savagery. But then, not long after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk formed the modern Turkish republic [1923], the Kurds themselves became the objects of Turkification, as the state initiated a process to eradicate their culture. The irony was not lost on foreign observers: “It is a curious trick of fate that the Kurds, who were the principal agent employed for the deportation of Armenians, should be in danger of suffering the same fate as the Armenians only twelve years later,” the British Ambassador in Ankara reported, in 1927…. In time, the Diyarbakir Kurds began to recognize that their role in the genocide was a kind of original sin in their modern political history….

The ascendancy of Recep Erdoğan, of the Justice and Development Party, to the office of Prime Minister, in 2003, initially signalled a new willingness to confront Turkish political orthodoxies. In Istanbul, the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink founded Agos, a newspaper—and when Dink was assassinated, in 2007, a hundred thousand people protested, many holding up signs that said, “We are all Armenians!” Thirty thousand people also put their names to a statement of apology, which read, “My conscience does not accept the denial of, and the insensitivity toward, the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and I share the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.” The Ministry of Culture restored an important Armenian cathedral on an island in Lake Van.

But the limits to these gestures were unmistakable. The state had renovated the Lake Van cathedral, but as a museum; for three years, it would not allow a Mass to be held there. Turkification had not fully abated….

No one knows the true size of this hidden [Armenian] population across Turkey, and estimates range from thirty thousand to three million; the secret identities are only now starting to emerge….

Built upon an embankment overlooking the Tigris, the Citadel [a part of the old city] once contained a prison, official buildings, gardens, a church, and a mosque. A later addition was an office for the special-intelligence branch of the gendarmerie…. A century ago [1915], the Citadel was a departure point for the deportations of Armenians: forced marches, the vast majority ending in death. Mass violence was buried in the city like strata of rock. My grandfather used to say that in 1915 he heard screams from the Citadel; the dead, he had recalled, were dumped onto blood-soaked earth below.

A century after the Armenian genocide, many details of its origins remain obscure. The pervasive state denial has corrupted access to official archives—with some closed, and others open in limited ways—and forced upon the research the distortions of politics. Key Ottoman records are missing or have been destroyed. Still, it is clear that the violence of the genocide flowed from deep streams of political insecurity. Hitler spoke of Germany being “broken and defenseless, exposed to the kicks of all the world.” His Ottoman counterparts felt a similar civilizational crisis.

In 1908, a group of reformers called the Young Turks emerged from the empire’s periphery and began to wrest control from the sultan. Pragmatic, fractious, and ideologically malleable, they came to power promising greater freedoms and imperial unity; they named their political party the Committee of Union and Progress (C.U.P.). But the empire that they sought to unify was inexorably unravelling. Within several years, they settled on a principle called Turkism, which envisioned an ethnically unified state. The idea was to create “an ideal homeland that gathers in all the Turks and excludes foreigners.”…

On April 24th [1915], in Istanbul, more than two hundred Armenian intellectuals—poets, doctors, writers, members of parliament—were arrested and, with a few exceptions, killed. The date marks the official shackling of the empire’s salvation to genocide. Convoys were directed into Diyarbakir Province or on into the Syrian Desert, to camps where people were massacred or allowed to die from privation. Eventually, the genocide became its own rationale. When the U.S. Ambassador implored the Interior Minister to reverse course, he was told, “The hatred between the Turks and the Armenians is now so intense that we have got to finish with them. If we don’t, they will plan their revenge.”

Like many Armenians outside Turkey, I grew up in an atmosphere where the desire for revenge was not always easy to separate from the desire for justice. In community centers, it was often possible to find posters of Armenians who had murdered Turkish officials during a spate of political assassinations in the seventies and eighties. They were heroes—fedayeen—and children were encouraged to honor them, to write to them if they were in prison. The idea of reconciliation was unimaginable. Any distinction between Kurds and Turks was immaterial; they were the same, worthy of the same suspicion, mockery, and hatred….

İkram Sevim, a law clerk….spoke of 1915: “The Armenians taken away were saying, ‘We have animals up on the mountain, and if you don’t milk them then the animals will suffer.’ We didn’t say anything. They were looking after their animals, and we were not looking after them.”…

My thoughts turned to my grandfather. The more I learned about his survival, the more precarious it seemed. Most of the survivor stories I had heard from Armenians in Diyarbakir were of children—orphaned, or spared with their mothers—who were taken in by Turks or Kurds. My grandfather had survived as an adult, relatively openly, sheltering other Armenians in a way that doesn’t seem to have been completely disguised….

Perhaps he was not prominent enough to be put on the keleks [branches piled atop inflated goat skins] and robbed, as the city’s wealthiest Armenians were. But he had not been deported and killed on a roadside, either. Certainly, he had useful skills. In a telegram, Reşid reported that two hundred Armenian craftsmen had been allowed to remain in the province, because they were valuable to the military. My grandfather, as far as I was able to learn, never made things for the Army. But my father and his siblings say that he provided Western garments to members of the city’s Kurdish and Turkish élite, even as they were planning the massacres. In essence, he was bartering for his life.

There is a story that all my grandfather’s living children recall: as the killings and deportations were winding down, he received an unwanted invitation from the vali [regional governor] himself. He was brought before him, and the vali asked, Why are you still alive? When my grandfather explained that he was a master tailor, someone produced a bolt of fabric. Make me a coat, the vali said. My grandfather saw that there was not enough fabric, but, realizing that he could not refuse, he took it home and proclaimed that the family would live or die by this coat. He worked desperately. When the coat was finished, he brought it to the vali, who tried it on and said that it was good—but then, just as my grandfather was leaving, the vali called out, “Wait! I would like these buttons to be covered in fabric, too.” My grandparents struggled to cover the buttons, using whatever scraps were left. Then my grandfather returned with the coat, and he was spared.