Istanbul Commemorates the Armenian Genocide
a personal observation by Jasper Mortimer
The music was haunting. As fifty people sat on the paving stones of Tunel Square, and about 150 others stood around them, we listened to an Armenian funeral dirge. Nobody spoke. The mood was solemn.
In the middle of the crowd a banner lay on the ground printed with the pictures of dozens of Armenians killed in 1915-18. The top of the banner said: “Saygiyla Aniyoruz” (We commemorate with respect).
People stood with long faces, deep in thought, as the dirge was followed by a woman singing a mournful song in Armenian. A large man in a navy-blue jacket held his face, his fingers on his lips. For a moment he appeared to be on the verge of crying. What was he thinking? Of how so many civilians could have perished?
Among those sitting on the ground was Rakel Dink, widow of the assassinated Armenian editor Hrant Dink. Mrs Dink had three photographs propped up against her knees: one of her husband; one of Sevag Sahin Balikci _ an Armenian who was shot dead by a nationalist while they were both doing their national service in 2011; and one of Ruben Sevak _ the doctor-writer who took Armenian poetry to a new level before he was killed in 1915, reportedly after spurning an offer to convert to Islam.
Some people in Tunel Square were not impressed by the music. The diners in the kebab restaurants went on eating and chatting, taking an occasional glance at the ceremony but otherwise unmoved.
A short walk up Istiklal Caddesi, I came to a phalanx of riot policemen. They were blocking a small group of counter-demonstrators. Twenty-seven members of the People’s Liberation Party were chanting “Murderer USA, get out of our country!” Their banner said: “The genocide lie of the imperialists is a plan to divide the people.”
It occurred to me that one had three faces of Turkey within a hundred metres of each other. The liberals who seek change but lack power; the nationalists who bang the drums of xenophobia and intolerance; and the ordinary citizens who just want to get on with their lives.
April 24 is regarded as the start of the genocide as it was on that evening in 1915 that the Ottoman authorities arrested about 250 Armenian doctors, engineers and lawyers in Istanbul.
This year’s April 24 commemoration nearly did not happen. One of the organisers, Levent Sensever of Say Stop (to racism and nationalism), said the Istanbul governor gave permission only on the afternoon of April 23. That left precious little time to advertise.
When the organisers began to mount the first commemoration of the day _ outside the building in Sultanahmet where the 250 Armenians were imprisoned in 1915 _ the police intervened. The officers said the word “soykirim” or genocide was banned and confiscated the banners. Three activists protested. The police detained them for a few hours.
Turkey has always denied that genocide took place. The official line is that about 300,000 Armenians died in ethnic clashes sparked by the Russian invasion of Turkey, in which a comparable number of Muslim Turks died.
One witness to the standoff in Sultanahmet on Tuesday was Nicolas Tavitian, the director of the Brussels-based Armenian General Benevolent Union Europe. He has been attending the Turkish commemorations since 2013. “This is the country where our ancestors came from and where our ancestors were killed,” he said.
“I can no longer (utter) ‘Armenian genocide’ in public, and that is a big step backwards,” he told me after the Tunel event.
Another step backwards was the fall in the numbers. The crowd in Tunel was only 200 people, a sharp drop from the 2,000 that attended the 100th anniversary ceremony in 2015.
The governor refused to allow the ceremony to take place in its normal place _ at the more popular Taksim end of Istiklal Caddesi, and his granting permission at the last minute must also have affected attendance.
Meral Cildir of the Human Rights Association said she was surprised by the police action. “(We) have been commemorating the Armenian Genocide every year since 2005 and we have never been prosecuted by the authorities before,” she told the press.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a clue to the source of the police orders when he issued a statement. After speaking of his sharing “the historical pain of our Armenian citizens”, he urged them to spurn those “who are trying to ignite hatred and hostility by distorting [our] shared past”.