We were all from Digranakert

‘Apologizing’, Abdullah Demirbas told me in an interview last week, ‘doesn’t weaken you. It makes you stronger.’ We were talking about (what else these days?) the commemoration of the Armenian genocide. Most stories you read about it these days deal with how the Turkish state handles this black page in its history: defiant, in denial, harsh, without love. The Kurds show that there is another way.

Hamidiye cavalry

Hamidiye cavalry

It’s not often that you read about the contribution of the Kurds to the massacres of a century ago. That contribution was huge. Not only by the infamous Kurdish Hamidiye cavalry, which participated in the mass killings in collaboration with the Ottoman army, but also by Kurdish citizens, many of whom were made to believe that they’d go to heaven if they killed seven Armenians. It is on these lands, which we now call Southeast Turkey or North Kurdistan, that many Armenians were slaughtered.

The people from this region, nowadays mostly Kurds, often know the exact places were Armenians were killed. A citizen from Diyarbakir told me that her grandmother remembered a hill by a village, where men were slaughtered with axes and shovels, to save bullets. And, on a short trip to Bitlis this weekend, I heard of a square in Bitlis town centre where a protestant church was standing (the remains are still there), now just opposite of the municipal building, which was reportedly once an Armenian school. On that square, the Armenian men were gathered, this spring a century ago.

Never hesitate

What I also heard is the word ‘genocide’. Kurds never hesitate to use the word, because they don’t doubt for a second that that’s what happened. What is being debated though is how guilty the Kurds are.

Many of the massacres were carried out by the Hamidiye cavalry, who took their orders from Istanbul. At a small panel depicting the genocide late last year in Diyarbakir, I heard a man say that he would not apologize for the Kurds’ part in the genocide. He said: ‘It’s the Hamidiye cavalry that carried it out; they were collaborating with the state. I see them as an example of the authorities’ habit of using Kurds in their wars, just like today’s village guard system. Why should I apologize for that, as a citizen? Will our children or grandchildren have to apologize for the murders of the village guards one day? No way.’


An Armenian cross stone, khachkar in Armenian, next to a dilapidated Armenian church in Por village, Bitlis province. The cross stones by this church are one of the few remaining in Turkey. (pic by me)

This, however, seems to be not the general view among Kurds. Many do agree with the view that the Hamidiye cavalries were used by the Ottoman state to divide and rule and that this bears resemblance to the current village guard system, but then draw another conclusion: they do feel the need apologize. After all, Kurdish citizens murdered too, or they stood by and watched, or took belongings, houses and lands from the Armenians as soon as they had left. One of the people I interviewed in Diyarbakir said: ‘I am ashamed of what my ancestors did. If there is anything I can do to soften their pain, I will do it, and an apology is one of those things.’

The Kurdish political movement has the same stance, and several high profile Kurdish politicians, like Abdullah Demirbas (former mayor of the old city of Diyarbakir), Osman Baydemir (former mayor of the metropolitan municipality of Diyarbakir and now candidate for parliament) and Ahmet Türk (veteran Kurdish politician), have apologized numerous times. Baydemir called on Armenians to return to Diyarbakir, or to Digranakert, as the city is called in Armenian.

Not too impressed

What I found remarkable though, is that the Armenians I talked too weren’t too impressed by the Kurdish apology, like two Armenian women from Istanbul who were on a round trip through the southeast, and two from Yerevan who were in Diyarbakir. They highly appreciated the Kurdish stance, but added: ‘The apology is more important for the Kurds themselves than for us.’

Maybe that is true. After the Armenians and the Assyrians, the suffering of the Kurds started in these lands. I heard several viewpoints about this over the last couple of days to the effect that that the Armenians knew the authorities so well and felt what was coming for the Kurds. One woman in Diyarbakir told me her grandmother remembered the Armenians saying: ‘The thread always follows the needle’, and Abdullah Demirbas quoted Armenians from the lore of history: ‘We are breakfast, you will be lunch’.

As soon as the Turkish republic was founded, it began. In 1925, the Seikh Said rebellion was harshly put down, followed by the suppression of smaller rebellions and resistances in the Kurdish region, culminating in the Dersim massacres of 1937 and 1938. Just as some Armenians felt what was coming for the Kurds, the Kurds knew what was coming to them. Therefore, I don’t accept the version of history in which there was a ‘rebellion’ in Dersim. Dersim may have been secluded but the Alevi Kurds knew perfectly well about the genocide of the Armenians and what was in store for themselves. Seid Riza tried everything to lead a resistance against the inevitable, in vain.


An Armenian church in a small village by lake Van, now used for storing hay. (pic by me)

Abdullah Demirbas pointed out to me that the Kurds resisting now and in the past, and the Kurds helping Armenians instead of joining and enabling the ethnic cleansing, are in his eyes more conscious of their Kurdish identity than those who cooperate with or don’t resist the state. ‘If you feel secure about your identity, you have no need to massacre or suppress others.’

This is, I think, why the Kurds need to apologize for their role in the Armenian massacres. The latest Kurdish resistance, which started some thirty years ago, has brought the Kurds a more solid Kurdish identity, and based on that, they want to build a truly democratic society in which other people also feel safe enough to be themselves. Including Armenians, even though there are hardly any left on these lands. To be able to go forward, to really build this society without being burdened with a bloody past which hasn’t been dealt with, it is essential to face the past. And when you face the past genocide, apologizing is the inevitable next step.

Monday evening in the Diyarbakir municipal theater, there was a concert by the American-Armenian musicians Onnik and Ara Dinkjian, a father and son whose ancestors came from Diyarbakir. Before the concert, a documentary film was shown about the father and son and their emotional trip to Diyarbakir a few years ago. They played music with roots in the city of their grandfathers and grandmothers, there were Armenians and Kurds in the hall, there were not enough seats for everybody, people were standing, sitting on the stairs between the seats, people were dancing (also Kurdish halays!), recognizing the rhythms of these lands. The municipality organized it, to contribute to giving the Armenians a place in the city again, but also – this is what I strongly felt – to help come to terms with the violent Kurdish past. The reconciliating, strengthening energy was amazing. For one evening, everybody was from Digranakert.

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