My requiem for Armenians
Exactly a century ago, a dark episode began in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Around 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Istanbul and deported to Anatolia, never to return. The real catastrophe began a month later. The Union and Progress government, the Young Turk Party that took over the empire with a military coup in 1913, passed an Expulsion Law, giving itself the authority to deport anyone deemed a threat to national security.
Armenians were the real target. Soon, in almost every city and town in eastern Anatolia, they were forced out of their homes and destined to the far and arid Syria. In some places, they were transported by trains, but most were forced to march for hundreds of kilometers, often without food and water. Many perished on the road, out of famine, dehydration and disease. (The photos showing these victims, especially starving children and babies, are painful for anyone with a conscious.) In other cases, there were massacres committed by the locals, driven either by hatred or the lust to confiscate the victim’s properties.
In total, at least 600,000 Armenians, and probably more, perished in 1915, in one of history’s most tragic ethnic cleansings. I, as a Muslim Turk, feel only pain and remorse for those tortured souls.
Yet, the same memory also leads me to ask why this great catastrophe took place, and how my nation created it. A combination of fear and nationalism was the driving force. In 1915, the Ottomans were at war on three deadly fronts (with the British and the French at Gallipoli and the Middle East, and with Russia in the east), and Armenians were increasingly seen as in league with the enemy. The Ottoman elite, and especially the Balkan-originated Young Turks, had seen how the Greeks and Bulgarians ethnically cleansed great portions of their Muslim populations during their national uprisings. Now they feared the same thing would happen in Anatolia, with an independent Armenia emerging under Russian tutelage.
The “pre-emptive” logic of the Young Turks can be seen in the memoirs of Halil Menteşe, a close friend of Talat Paşa, the mastermind of the whole tragedy. In the summer of 1915, he visited Talat at his home, and found him miserable. “I got telegrams from Tahsin [the governor of Erzurum] telling about the situation of the Armenians,” Talat explained. “I could not sleep all night. It is not something that the human heart can endure. But if I did not do this to them, they would do it to us.”
I heard the same logic from my own grandmother as well, who lived in Yozgat where Armenians were mass-murdered in 1915. “There was a rumor that the Armenians would ally with the Muscovite to kill all the Muslims,” she once said. “Then the elders stormed the Armenian church and found many guns and ammunition. This, they thought, proved the rumors.” What followed, my grandmother would sadly add, was the “kesim,” or “the slaughter,” of the Armenians – who, alas, probably piled those weapons out of fear as well.
In the Turkish mind, this if-we-did-not-do-this-to-them-they-would-do-it-to-us logic was also reinforced by the atrocities Armenian militias committed against Muslims when they had a chance for “revenge” due to the Russian advance on the eastern front. Turks kept on remembering these horror stories, whereas most Armenians only remembered their pain. We humans, after all, have a tendency to remember our own losses rather than those of others.
But now, I believe, is the time to be fairer. For our part, I think we Turks have made a terrible mistake for decades by totally overlooking the enormous suffering the Armenian people went through in 1915. It is time for us to remember those innocent souls with remorse and respect. It is also time for us to apologize to their grandchildren. I, for my part, do. I also hope that, after a century of isolation, we Turks and Armenians may begin to look beyond the political war over a legal term, and begin to see each other in more human terms.
NOTE: This is a revised version of a piece first published in this column five years ago.