Officials and Society in Eastern Turkey Confront Legacy of the Armenian Genocide

Officials and Society in Eastern Turkey Confront Legacy of the Armenian Genocide 01 May 2015

Centennial Marked in Bitlis, Diyarbakir and Beyond

While Turkey’s central government goes out of its way to question and deny the veracity of the Armenian Genocide, some regional and local officials have chosen a different path. In Diyarbakir, municipal officials quietly renovated an Armenian church. Just two years ago, the city’s co-mayors joined the London-based Gomidas Institute in a public event to mark the anniversary of the genocide. This year, other cities followed suit, while Diyarbakir hosted a major march and rally.

Bitlis asks, What happened to Armenians?

BITLIS, Turkey—In Bitlis on April 19, 2015, Turkey’s most prominent civil rights advocate, Ismail Beşikçi, participated in a public commemoration titled, "What Happened to Bitlis Armenians?” Among the 200 or so people present were the co-mayors of Bitlis, Hüseyin Olan and Nevin Daşdemir Dağkıran, who recently renamed one of the city’s streets after William Saroyan; the Fresno-born writer’s parents had been driven from Bitlis.

A highlight of the event was an exhibit of photographs from the collection of one Özcan Erboy. The event was co-organized by the Gomidas Institute, the Bitlis Bar Association, and the Human Rights Association (IHD), and hosted by the municipality.

The Bitlis event included a panel discussion. Panelist Ara Sarafian of the Gomidas Institute said, "Turkish politicians have continued to treat the Armenian issue as a political football; and the Armenian state has made its own questionable demands against Turkey.” In contrast, "What we are doing in Bitlis is an alternative approach based on sensitivity and understanding, speaking the truth, and standing for the rights of all people in this region.”

Enis Gul of the bar association focused on the destruction of Armenian cultural properties. Noting that private individuals owned many churches, he proposed on a new legal initiative to remove such properties from private ownership, and to make a new effort for their protection.

Mr. Besikci spoke about his military service in the Bitlis area in the early 1960s. Having seen many empty Armenian and Assyrian churches everywhere, he began asking questions. That, he said, was his first exposure to the reality of the Armenian Genocide. He also stated that much of modern Turkish wealth was built on stolen Armenian and Assyrian wealth.

During the question-and-answer period, local notable Behvat Şerefhanoğlu pointed out that the venue for the event formerly housed Mount Holyoke College, and the entire quarter, except five houses, used to be inhabited by Armenians. He recounted stories told by his uncle about one caravan of 600 Armenian men, who were tied up and eventually burned near the city.

Tsolin Nalbantian, a professor at Leiden University, who was accompanied by more than a dozen students and staff, tweeted: "In awe of #Bitlis commemoration for #Armeniangenocide. Apologies, recognitions, & reconciliation.”

Mutki Mayor Leads Genocide March

MUTKI, Turkey—In Mutki, a town adjacent to historic Sasun, Mayor Özcan Birlik on April 20, 2015, received a group organized by the Gomidas Institute. Speaking in Kurdish, the mayor condemned the Armenian Genocide and said that the current residents of the region, the beneficiaries of confiscated Armenian properties, must be "good custodians” of the cultural heritage left behind and must welcome Armenians – whether they are coming to visit or live here – warmly and with open arms.

The mayor then led a procession through town, pointing to locations and artifacts of Armenian interest.

Stopping at his own childhood home, the mayor said his family had bought it from sheikhs who had been given title to confiscated Armenian properties in 1915. These sheikhs had saved some Armenians so that they would have labor for their newly stolen land. The descendants of those Armenians still live in Mutki, which has a substantial Moslem Armenian population. They include the mayor’s wife.

The mayor and dozens of local residents – including several Armenians – accompanied the Gomidas Institute group to the Aghperig monastery, where they lit a bonfire and danced the Dances of Sasun.

Commemorations at Massacre Sites

KADINKO, near Batman, Turkey—Commemorations of the Armenian Genocide were held at two sites of horrific massacres in 1915 and at the graveside of a Kurdish leader who shielded Armenians.

On April 22, 2015, around 250 people visited the Du Deng (Dudang) chasm near Çüngüş (Chunkush). The chasm was the site of the massacre of around 10,000 Armenians in 1915. Many had their throats slit before being thrown in; others chose to jump. At the commemorative event, Raci Bilici, head of the Human Rights Association (IHD Diyarbakir) and Nursel Aydoğan, member of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, spoke. The event was co-organized by the Gomidas Institute, IHD, and the Diyarbakir Bar Association.

On April 23, 2015, a group of around 60 organized by the Gomidas Institute visited Kadinko, where over 630 Armenians from Diyarbakir were massacred on the orders of the governor in 1915, Dr. Mehmet Reşid. They saw the place off the Tigris River where gendarme handed the Armenians over to Kurdish bandits for slaughter.

The group also paid their respects at the graveside of Mehmet Mishte, a leader of the Reshkota Kurds, who refused to carry out Governor Reşid’s genocidal orders and protected Armenians. The Armenians who enjoyed his protection established the Qamishli community in Syria.
Diyarbakir: Commemorations at Three Churches

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey—On April 24, over a thousand people participated in a march and rally in Diyarbakir to mark the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. The march began at the old city’s Mardin Gate, through which Armenians of the city had been sent to their deaths in 1915, and ended at the ruins of Surp Sarkis Armenian Church. The main speaker was the leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, MP.

Mr. Demirtaş said, "I wish that we could set aside the discussion about if it was a genocide or not, and could just put the corpses in the ground to rest. I wish we could only accomplish that.”

Other speakers included mayors, members of parliament, and Ara Sarafian* of the Gomidas Institute, which co-organized the event. After the event, a group of visiting Armenians, including Professors Tsolin Nalbantian of Leiden University and Elyse Semerdjian of Whitman College, sang Der Voghormia* in the church ruins.

On the previous evening, April 23, a concert had been held at the renovated Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir. The acting Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul had not sent a priest although the enormous church was going to be – and was in fact – full to capacity. Whereas the Catholicos of All Armenians had ordered all Armenian churches to peal their bells 100 times on the eve of April 24, the acting Patriarch had banned the pealing of church bells in Turkey that evening. Mr. Sarafian and the author of this report did in fact peal the bells 15 times at which point they were stopped by the church trustees.

The local Assyrian church held an Armenian and Assyrian Genocide memorial mass on April 24 and allowed Armenians to peal the church bells 100 times.

—Vincent Lima
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