A painful 2015 in Turkey can serve for a better future

A painful 2015 in Turkey can serve for a better future

The year we have left behind was the 50th anniversary of the deportation by the Turkish government of one of the most ancient populations of Anatolia, the Istanbul Rums. The year we entered marks the 100th anniversary of another tragedy of another of Anatolia’s ancient population, the Armenians.

The Greeks of Anatolia, or Rums, were first subjected to mass migration in 1923 following an agreement over a population exchange between Turkey and Greece at the end of the War of Independence. Most Turks would know about it since it was based on an agreement between two states. Then came the Sept. 6/7, 1955, Pogrom; which has also led to additional numbers of Rums leaving the country. While old generations would know about it, young generations are less informed about it.

But what happened in 1964 is even less known in Turkey.

“The Turkish government, unable to interfere in Cyprus, took it out on the Rum in Istanbul. The ‘Agreement of establishment, commerce and navigation’ signed in 1930 between Greece and Turkey was unilaterally annulled and the Rum who were citizens of Greece were asked to leave immediately. But Rum of Greek nationality (the établis) and those of Turkish nationality having been completely interrelated, some 30,000 more Rum followed the 12,000 that were originally deported. Thus the Rum, the most ancient population of Istanbul, were for the most part removed from their city. From this perceptive, 1964 may be seen as the last link in a long chain of homogenization starting with the Young Turk governments of the 20th century,” read a call for papers for an international conference organized by Bilgi University last November.

“They were forced to leave with only 20 kilos and 20 dollars; as if they were some tourists that came to Turkey for a visit,” said İlkay Romain Örs, one of the organizers of the conference.

As is also the case with many other dark pages in our history, be it the Armenian tragedy or the Dersim massacres of the Alevis, the sufferings of the Rums were added to the other skeletons in the closet.

“The 1964 migration of Rums took place rather not too long ago, yet it is one of the least known and least studied. Oral history has not been generous to the 1964 event and remaining Rums rather kept silent, they did not want to attract attention,” said Romain Örs from Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations.

The slow awakening from a sort of deep winter sleep about our past started in the 1990s. It was the decade when important reform steps were taken to reach European Union standards and Turkey started to gain self-confidence, so it is no coincidence that, albeit at a slow pace, Turks started questioning some of the most unpleasant episodes in their history.

“The initial reaction of Turkish democrats was to approach the subject from a nostalgic point of view. However, that eventually became a real confrontation with the country’s past taboos. The forced migration of Armenians and the ethnic cleansing in 1915, the forced population exchange in 1923, the Wealth Tax in 1942 and the Istanbul Pogrom of Sept. 6-7, 1955, were the most prevalent topics tackled.  Even so, some issues are yet to be sufficiently analyzed academically. The deportation of Jews from Thrace in 1934, forcibly Islamized Armenians, and the deportation of Rum in 1964 are those ones,” read the call for papers.

The conference organized together with the Babil Association, Center for Asia Minor Studies and the Ecumenical Federation of Constantinopolitans, and funded by Open Society Foundation, aimed to shed light on the sad event of 1964 and to encourage further study.

Why do we have to remember? What’s the purpose of scratching old wounds? “Nothing stays hidden; we cannot run away from them forever and pretend they never happened. It is better to deal with these issues when they are still fresh in our minds. We need to learn the lessons from our past mistakes so as to not repeat new ones.”

Remembering unpleasant things is an unpleasant and painful exercise indeed. 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian tragedy, will be a painful year in this respect, but it will be a healthy exercise for a better and peaceful societal mindset.