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.
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.
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?