My great grandfather’s brother, Avedis Baboyan, used to carry a shiny pocket watch. On a hot day in the Summer of 1915, that watch saved his life – he bought his life with it. The Ottoman soldier who was set to kill him with his rifle chose to spare him, after he took the watch.
The story is real, and so is the story of Avedis’s sister, Satenik, who chose to throw herself into and drown in the Euphrates River. It would either be a clean death in the currents of the river, or a short existence scarred by rape, starvation and eventual death.
This year, Armenians around the world mark the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, a dark episode in modern human history. It started with the rounding up of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople on April 24, 1915 and their eventual murder. In May 1915, the Ottoman parliament enacted the Tehcir Law, effectively legalizing the confiscation of Armenian property and their “displacement”. Displacement in effect meant murdering men and forcing the women and children into marches deep into the Syrian desert, where most died out of starvation, thirst or simply, under the sword.
One-and-a-half million of my ancestors perished by orders of the Ottoman government of the time. For the Young Turk leaders, there was only one solution to the “Armenian problem”: their extermination and persecution out of Anatolia. The First World War provided the perfect backdrop: thousands were loaded on train carts and shipped to their deaths, women were raped, children were starved, and the list of barbarous acts is long. So disturbed was Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to the empire, that he wrote: “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”
There were heroes, too. Mehmet Celal Bey, Ottoman governor of Aleppo, saved thousands of lives by defying the orders of his government; he was relieved of his duties. Tens of other Turkish families harbored prosecuted Armenians, especially children, providing them with food and shelter.
In Turkey, openly discussing the Armenian Genocide could land you in jail. So far-removed from reality is today’s Turkish leadership that it accuses Armenians of rising up against the State, and murdering Turks in a civil war with thousands of casualties on both sides. Twenty-three nations, 43 US States and The Vatican have recognized the Genocide and have called on Turkey to reconcile with its past. Turkey uses its geopolitical capital in a turbulent region to blackmail allies – it threatened to close down the US Incirlik airforce base if the Congress ratified the bill recognizing the Genocide. President Obama, before his election, promised to openly recognize the calamity as Genocide. As President, he has used more timid language, also caving in to Turkish pressure.
In essence, Turkey is far from ready to objectively examine its past. Part of the challenge is coming to terms with the fact that some of its national idols, including Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, and other founders of the modern Turkish Republic, are accountable for some of the mass killings between 1915 and 1921. Another is the issue of reparations: property was seized from Armenians – the former presidential palace in Ankara was built over land confiscated from an Armenian family. Reparations will be a critical component of any reconciliation effort.
My great-grandparents found refuge under tents in Aleppo, Syria, and later at orphanages in Lebanon. As orphans, they eventually married and started afresh in a country that harbored them as refugees and treated them as equals. Since then, nothing has caused them more pain than repeated Turkish denialism, and the world’s willingness to let the Turkish government get away with it. Today, as we bear witness to minorities in the Middle East being repeatedly persecuted and driven out of their historic lands, it is time for all of us to speak up, loudly. Mr. Obama, too many US administrations have allowed Genocide denialism to flourish.
Just a week before the September 1939 invasion of Poland, Hitler reportedly asked his generals, “Who speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?” Even by Hitler’s admission, there is no credible deterrent to Genocide more powerful than the acknowledgement that nobody can get away with it. Sadly, we have a long way until we set up that deterrent. Meanwhile, thousands or maybe even millions will continue to die.
As I write this op-ed at a hotel lobby in Washington DC, I observe the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu near me, surrounded by a handful of his bodyguards. He is here at the invitation of Secretary of State John Kerry. I am willing to bet that he will spend most of his time lobbying against the use of the G word by President Obama. Mr. Çavuşoğlu, wouldn’t it be a better use of your time if you travelled to Armenia, and as the representative of your country outside its borders, offered an apology to the souls who were systematically massacred in Anatolia? You owe it to my great aunt Satenik and 1.5 million others.
For further reading on the Armenian Genocide:
- An Inconvenient Genocide by Geoffrey Robertson
- A Shameful Act by Taner Akcam
- The Burning Tigris by Peter Balakian
- The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
- Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian