Many people will remember the enormous demonstrations after the assassination in Istanbul of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, exactly one year ago today. The fighting spirit that could be felt at the time amongst Turkish Armenians seems to have faded away now. The Armenian community, which became more visible because of Dink, has largely closed itself off again. Young people are the exception: “The more people make themselves heard, the smaller the chance that one of will become a target, like Hrant.”
Sibil Çekmen (24, student) is standing in the small exhibition space in downtown Istanbul with a headset on her ears. She is listening to a speech by Hrant Dink at a conference held to discuss the mass killings of Armenians almost a hundred years ago. . It’s only a small part of the speech, but it helps to keep Dink’s voice alive. Next to the table with the headsets containing Dink’s speech lay another eighteen headsets, on which well known Turks read columns and articles by Dink. A total of nineteen headphones because it was on the 19th of January last year that Hrant Dink was shot to death.
Besides being a journalist, Hrant Dink was also an activist: he pleaded for openness and freedom of speech, mostly about the problematic history of Armenians in Turkey and, before that, in the latter days of the Ottoman Empire. He was not afraid to call the mass murders in the beginning of last century ‘genocide’, which made him controversial, because Turkey officially denies any genocide. Still, Dink’s first goal was not to get the mass murders recognized as genocide. He called on Turkey, but also Armenians in Turkey and in the diaspora and western governments to start a dialogue instead of legislating for or against the use of the word ‘genocide’. Only dialogue and reconciliation between Turks and Armenians could give Armenians a chance to assert their identity with pride once again. Dink was often misunderstood: he was prosecuted and convicted for ‘insulting Turkishness’and killed by a young nationalist who read in the paper that Dink ‘insulted Turkish blood’.
Expand the openness
The murder shocked not only the Armenian community, but the whole of Turkey, and people in many other countries too. In the aftermath of the murder, many mourned at the place where Dink was killed – on the pavement in front of the office of Agos, the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper that Dink founded and of which he was editor in chief. On the day of the funeral a procession of tens of thousands of angry Turks of many ethnic backgrounds passed through the streets of Istanbul. The Armenians among them were unanimous in their will to maintain and expand the openness that Dink brought to the Armenian community.
Aris Nalci, chief reporter at Agos, admits that he is disappointed at the lack of visible action by Armenians in the past year: “The first anniversary of the murder is coming up. On that day, what I would most like to do is to visit every Armenian in the city to call upon them to take more action.” The only exception, he says, is the younger generation. “Maybe they can achieve something in the coming years. But something should have happened this year. After the murder there was so much interest, we should have made better use of that.”
Make a difference
For Sibil Çekmen, who came up with the idea of a sound installation with spoken text by Dink, the murder was a turning point. Before, she was like many Armenian young people: she went to an Armenian school and after that went to university, she visited church and read Agos at home; she knew about the invisibility of Armenians in Turkey but never felt she could make a difference. “After the murder, I reacted to a notice in Agos seeking new young reporters. That resulted in a group of young people coming together to carry out projects that draw attention to Armenians. To me it felt like an obligation to become active. The luxury of doing nothing was over.”
The sound installation is the first project to draw attention. Every day dozens of people come to listen. Her father, says Sibil, has mixed feelings about his daughter’s initiatives. “He is afraid something might happen to me when I stick my neck out”, she explains. “That’s not such a strange fear of course. For many Armenians, the assassination of Dink proves again that it’s dangerous to show yourself as an Armenian in this country. But I think the more people make themselves heard, the smaller the chance that one person will become a target, like Hrant.”She points to something else: “For my generation, the killing of Hrant Dink is the first disaster we have experienced at first hand. The mass murders we only heard of, just like discriminating tax laws in the past and violence against Armenians in the fifties. My hope is that this is my first, but also my last disaster. After the murder, older people thought: you see, nothing will ever change in this country.”
And where nothing changes, where it is dangerous to show yourself, you withdraw. Besides Armenian schools and hospitals, there are many cultural events. On a Friday night the anniversary of an Armenian hospital is celebrated with a concert by an Armenian pianist and an Armenian soprano, attended mainly by elderly Armenians. The next day a gathering in an Armenian graveyard, in memory of the founder of an Armenian boarding school, after which a communal meal. Monday night:a performance by an Armenian dance group, which consists mainly of young people and, according to many, also functions as a marriage market. On these sorts of occasions, everybody knows everybody, and only a few are willing to talk about the closedness of the Armenian community. Madeleine Arslanian, 85, is willing to talk: “The murder of Dink and the investigation into the murder, proves that nothing has changed. The murderer was arrested, but a deeper investigation of the power-brokers behind the murder is not being carried out. Of course, that’s for a reason.”
Break the atmosphere
In Hrant Dink’s office, over the last year nothing has changed. Karin Karakasli (35), writer and columnist for Agos and close friend of Dink, takes me to the office to be able to talk in peace. “We use this room for small meetings. We don’t want to break the atmosphere that Hrant left here.”
On the wall there are pictures of old Armenian families, of friends and well known Armenians, art, a clock with famous Armenian churches on it. On a shelf along the wall are prizes and decorations that Dink got for the way he worked tirelessly to improve relations between Turks and Armenians, to make history openly debatable and to promote freedom of speech. After his death, two pictures are added showing the enormous demonstrations coinciding with the funeral. In a shed behind the office there are high piles of back issues of Agos. On one of the piles lies a round black placard of the sort that people held up high during the funeral procession: “Hepimiz Hrant Dink’iz”, (“We are all Hrant Dink”). Karin Karakasli is still as devastated by the murder as she was a year ago. “Agos was founded in 1996 and in the early days Hrant asked me to join the paper. ‘I will broaden your view”, he said. And that’s what he did. It has been a decade of unprecedented hope. Now I have no more reason to be optimistic about the faith of Armenians in Turkey. Of course, I have to go on, I have to write, I can’t let Hrant down. But sometimes I don’t know where to find strength.”