Stories of suffering from Armenians and Turks

For the second time, Turks commemorated the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 yesterday, the day on which the mass killings, or genocide, are commemorated worldwide. In both Istanbul and Ankara a few hundred people went onto the street to mark the occasion, for example by reading out the names of Armenian intellectuals who were deported from Istanbul and perished. One of the organizers, lawyer, writer and human rights defender Orhan Kemel Cengiz, tweeted why he thought this was important, one reason being that Turkey needs to hear the stories of Armenians. Their stories are a lost part of our history.

It’s rather brave to organize such a commemoration in a country that doesn’t talk very openly about these events. The debate is usually lost in fights over whether it was ‘genocide’ or not, according to one of the two definitions genocide has: was it all orchestrated from above? (The other definition concerning whether a large part of a population was exterminated, which is definitely true in this case.) In this debate, you usually hear the extremes: on one side the Turks saying it was not genocide, on the other side the Armenians claiming that it was.

Turkish suffering

This commemoration was not about those claims, but about stories of suffering being told. The Armenian suffering is not part of the national consciousness here, and the commemorators think that needs to change. Some Turks react to that very strongly, and ask for example why are they focusing on the Armenian suffering and leave the Turkish suffering out. For an outsider, that might seem somewhat ridiculous: the Turkish suffering? It was the Armenians who were massacred, right? True, but in and around the First World War, hundreds of thousands of Turks died as well. In Turkey that story is very well known, but outside of Turkey it’s hardly ever heard.

Now put yourself in Turkish shoes. The voices that get the most attention internationally are those of, for example, the Armenian diaspora in France and especially the United States, who focus on the ‘recognition of the Armenian genocide’, by Turkey but also by the American government and many other governments in the world. They seem to be not interested in making peace, but only in increasing the polarisation on this issue. Many Armenians in Turkey are against handling the matter in this way: most of them think exchange and communication is the key to bringing Turks and Armenians back together again, both inside and outside Turkey. But you hardly ever hear their voice.

Bad guys

The suffering of Armenians needs to be heard in Turkey. But the suffering of the Turks should be heard by the international community. Many Turks get more polarized over the issue, because they feel they are always pictured as the bad guys, whereas those years were tragic for everybody. Why is their suffering never recognized by anybody?

I think the Turks have a point. Listening to each other’s stories should be an exchange, not a one way street. The hundreds of Turks who yesterday commemorated the Armenian mass killings in Ankara and Istanbul, are taking important steps towards mutual understanding. Isn’t it about time Armenians in the diaspora, the ones that have been the loudest Armenian voice in the debate, contribute to making the voice of the Turks heard internationally?

10 replies
  1. Karnig
    Karnig says:

    I think you are missing quite a big distinction.

    Armenians died as a result of genocide. Turks died as a result of war. There is a difference; a big one.

  2. Christoph
    Christoph says:

    thank you Fréderike for writing about this issue. I was surprised because it was the first time that Turky sees itself as a victim. I got the point that many turkish people were killed – that is a sad thing. In China Millions were killed as well during the Cultural Revolution. Did a genocide of turkish people take place? In my opinion the armenians are claiming that the events during WWI were a genocide – which is true.

  3. Richard
    Richard says:

    Millions of German civilians lost their lives in and around World War 2. Are you asking the Jews and Gypsies to stop seeking justice for the Holocaust because of it?

  4. Fréderike Geerdink
    Fréderike Geerdink says:

    Thanks for reactions!

    @Karnig: Of course there is a distinction, but my point is beyond that. It’s not about genocide or not-genocide, it’s about human suffering.

    @Richard: I would never ask anybody to stop seeking justice, and of course also in this blog post I don’t suggest that. The comparison you make is actually interesting: do we picture Germans solely as ‘the bad guys’ when it comes to this issue? No, we don’t, we recognize that the war was horrible for the Germans too. That understanding helps everybody to find justice and move on.

  5. Richard
    Richard says:

    A few points:

    Nobody denies that Turks suffered during WW1 but the Republic of Turkey continues to deny that Armenian (and Assyrian) citizens of the Ottoman Empire were exterminated as a result of government actions at the time.

    You cannot have dialogue without contrition. Germany, of course, has admitted the Holocaust and made amends. Turkey has not. This is the root of the issue. If Turkey ends the official denial, apologizes, and makes some kind of reparation there will be all kinds of dialogue.

    By the way many Turks resisted the genocide and saved their Armenian fellow citizens. Many Armenian families have such stories.

    Finally do not think that this is an issue driven by a few fanatical diasporans. All Armenians, in the Diaspora, in Armenia, even in Turkey, consider that Turkey must end its campaign of denial.

  6. A Friend
    A Friend says:

    I am afraid that both sides have suffered, but in a much different way from one another.

    Turkey lost some territory due to bad millitary campains by Enver Pasha, they also lost a lot of men who were willing to fight for their empire in the Caucauses.

    Yes a few Armenians did in fact cross the border into Eastern Armenia, but sadly the government made a big rumor out of it that it was all the Armenians that were against the Turks, instead of just those few that went to their Eastern brothers.

    So its sad that the Young Turks made everyone turn on the Armenians, it wasn’t the Turkish people’s faults, it was their government that mislead them. Just like it wasn’t the German’s fault that Hitler mislead them.

    I’m sure if all the Turks knew what really happened to the Armenians, they would not be ok with it.

    Trust me there are evil people and good people wherever you go, this world if full of mostly good than evil. Even if Turkey did give the land back to Armenia, it would not make a lick of difference, there would still be pain. Land cannot substitute pain and loss.

    But yes I know what its like to feel that pain and guilt. I am a white woman, my people the Anglo Saxtons have caused pain not only to the Blacks and Hispanics, but also to the Native Americans. We took their land away and they fought us hard, but in the end it wasn’t enough, we forced them to assimlate with us, forced them to change their names, convert them to Christianty and even forced them to speak English.

    Although they now live on reservations, I am afraid the damage has yet to turn around for us White folk. We have to live with the fact that we caused other races and ethinic groups pain. Yes its a horrible thing, but I learned from it, I learned to be more compassionate. I mean I can sit around and say, “Why did my people do that? How could they be so heartless?” but I can’t waste my time doing it, the only thing I can do is make things better.

    It also doesn’t matter if Turkey reconises this genocide or not, the damage will still be there. Even though Germany apologised to the Jews, the Jews are still frightened that they’re going to be exterminated again, that is why they continue to talk about the Holocaust, so that nobody will forget. Thats why Armenians talk about what happened to them, they’re terrified not just for themselves but other peoples as well.

    But ever since I watched “The Lark Farm” I couldn’t even look at another Holocaust picture without comparing the two. In the end it makes no difference, Armenians should just be happy with the land they have, yah its easy for me to say since I’m not Armenian, but at least they have land. The Kurds don’t have a homeland of their own, neither do other ethinic groups.

    I just hope that one day the Turks will be able to utter the word genocide whether or not it was a genocide. I mean in America I can talk all I want about what happened to the Native Americans and I will end up just fine, nobody has to believe me or they can.

    Also if any of you believe that there was in fact a genocide, then go with your instincts its your strongest weapon. I also want to thank the Turks who think there was a genocide and are actually trying to voice some concern, you have no idea how much this means to your people and to humanity! Also to the Turks who saved many Armenians from certain death! I thank you guys too!


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