Monday, April 13, 2015

The Armenian Genocide

I am watching with interest public reactions to the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Starting on April 24, 1915, hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Turkey were arrested and subsequently executed at the inception of what became its largest campaign. Yesterday, Pope Francis became the first pope to describe those events using the term "genocide," predictably setting off a diplomatic uproar in Turkey, which has fabricated its own version of history. Although Turkey was still part of the Ottoman Empire at the time, the evidence clearly points to a deliberate plan for ethnic cleansing. A cover-up was supported by Mustafa Kemal, the George Washington of Turkey, after Turkey was founded in 1923, and that version of history has never been questioned by most Turks.

Many Armenian-Americans are observing closely to see whether Barack Obama will officially come out on this. In 2008, during his first campaign for the presidency, he said "I shared with Secretary Rice my firmly held conviction that the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence." However, Obama has been reluctant to use the word "genocide" in reference to Turkey since he became president. Turkey is a key ally in the Middle East and would be outraged, causing strategic repercussions in the area. Furthermore, Turkey has spent millions of dollars lobbying in Washington against a resolution in the House of Representatives that would officially label the event as genocide.

I don't have much at stake in this personally, though I am partly Armenian. My mother was 3/4 Armenian but did not have exposure to Armenian culture and considered herself Greek. She married an Englishman, making me 3/8 Armenian. I never thought of myself as ethnic at all when I was growing up, though it must be said that my physical appearance is somewhat Armenian and may have prejudiced some people against me over the course of my life. However, any prejudice would have been based primarily on appearance and not on any cultural associations. My mother's mother's father escaped an Armenian massacre in Turkey in the late nineteenth century and was already established in Athens by 1915. He came to dislike Armenians and wanted to disassociate himself from them; his wife was French/German. My mother's father's family was still living in Turkey just before the 1915 genocide, but they were tipped off and had time to sell their belongings and make their way to Athens via Bulgaria before the genocide reached them.

The situation is different for those cousins of mine who still live in Athens. They were Armenian on both sides, making them 7/8 Armenian. Here is my cousin Philip's account of what happened to their grandparents on their father's side: Krikor Boghossian's father [Philip's grandfather] was slaughtered by the Turks and his brother barely survived, being beaten up and tortured, before fleeing to Greece. My father arrived as a newborn baby with his mother in France in 1922 or 1923, but his mother soon went insane and died. He was raised in an orphanage close to Bordeaux, where he was found by his uncle, who brought him to Greece in 1938 (it seems that at that time Armenians traveled around Europe visiting orphanages, in an effort to assist reunifications of Armenian families; hence the word of my father's existence in France reached his uncle). Understandably, both of my Greek cousins are quite anti-Turkish. My other cousin, Isabelle, actively participates in the local Armenian culture.

In recent years I have done a little reading on the genocide. In particular I found Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide, by Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, quite affecting. The Armenians were suddenly deported from wherever they lived and forced to walk in caravans:

When the caravans reached the city limits, the men were often separated from the groups; gendarmes tied their hands and escorted them away from their families. Wives and children heard shots ring out, and then the gendarmes returned alone, forcing the remnant to resume their journey. (This was a typical scenario, although in some deportation groups men were allowed to remain with the caravan.)

The remaining deportees were marched in circuitous routes, through mountain passes and away from population centers. The destination for many caravans was Aleppo and, beyond that, the deserts of Syria–especially towns such as Der-Zor. But the more fundamental goal of the deportations appeared to be death through attrition. Turks were not allowed to assist deportees, on pain of imprisonment. And gendarmes were often sadistic, for example, refusing deportees access to water.

The actual butchering of deportees was often left to members of "Special Organizations." Created by an order of the Ministry of Justice and the Interior, these units were made up of criminals and murderers who had been released from prison in the Ottoman Empire. Morally suited to the task, they were led by officers of the Ottoman War Academy. Two nationalistic physicians, Drs. Nazim and Shakir, played a key role in organizing these killer units of chété, as they were called. Although these groups at first fought against Russians in the Caucuses, the Turks found a better use for them in massacring caravans of Armenian deportees. These men were heartless, butchering deportees in ravines and on narrow mountain passes, raping women and stealing what few possessions they still carried. Kurdish tribal groups were similarly encouraged to raid caravans. The gendarmes who were supposed to "protect" the caravans either disappeared during these attacks or joined in the assault.

In addition to Drs. Nazim and Shakir, other physicians were involved in the genocide. For example, Dr. Ali Saib was accused in postwar trials of having poisoned and gassed infants and children. Numan Pasha, also a physician, was accused of having poisoned sick Armenians in Erzerum, Sivas, and Erzinjan. Tevfik Rushdu, a brother-in-law of Dr. Nazim, had been responsible for disposing of bodies by putting them in wells and covering them with lime and soil.

As deportees continued on their enforced march, they began to encounter remnants of earlier caravans–the rotting bodies of deportees who had died of exhaustion were now littering the roadways. By this time, some caravan members were naked as a result of continual raids; others were walking skeletons. Survivors ate grass that grew along the roadside or picked grains out of animal manure. Many had dysentery or typhus. Their hair was filled with lice and they scarcely appeared human.    

Caravans that had started out with thousands arrived at Aleppo with hundreds, or even less. Deportation was a very effective method of genocide, although there is a great controversy about how many died. Armenians calculate that 1.5 million perished between 1915 and 1923. Some scholars believe the number was lower, perhaps as few as eight hundred thousand. Much of the discussion centers on the size of the Armenian population in Turkey at the time and whether to consider the period from 1894 to 1923 or the narrower time frame of 1915-16. An accurate generalization, however, is that approximately half of the Armenian population of Turkey died as a direct result of the genocide. Worldwide, one-third of the total population of Armenians died. Surviving Armenians included the several hundred thousand who were living in Constantinople and Smyrna who were not deported, children who were adopted into Turkish or Kurdish homes, perhaps three hundred thousand Armenians who escaped across the Russian border, and the pathetic remnant that survived months of deportation.

One startling aspect of this genocide is that it was specifically directed at Christians, yet British and American authorities, who were well aware of what was going on, did nothing to stop it. Records of the atrocities appear in a report prepared by the British historian Arnold Toynbee and in U.S. State Department reports. Many of the anecdotal records from survivors and other witnesses are even more gruesome than what I've included here. Since the deportations occurred during World War I, resources may not have been available to address the genocide. Even so, I find it appalling that, because we have so few allies in the Middle East, Turkey has been able to get off scot-free for a century. While the Armenian genocide was not the largest in history, it served as a model for Adolf Hitler and could be used so again. We'll see whether Obama rises to the occasion and uses the "g" word later this month: if he doesn't he will sink even lower in my estimation.

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