An identity that endangers their life

‘Could it be the work of one individual?’ That is the question that occupied my thoughts in recent days. Four elderly Armenian women have been brutally attacked in Istanbul. And whatever the outcome of the police investigation – if any – there is one thing I am sure of: it is not the work of an individual.

The facts: in early December, an 87 year old woman of Armenian descent was found battered in her apartment. She was hospitalized for two weeks and lost vision in one of her eyes. On December 28, Maritsa Küçük, aged 84, was found stabbed to death in her apartment in the same neighbourhood, Samatya. At the beginning of January, on the day the Apostolic Christmas is celebrated, another woman of Armenian origin was saved from three individuals who attempted to kidnap her. And last week, 80 year old Sultan Aykar was attacked in her home, also in the Samatya neighbourhood. Samatya is known for its Armenian population, and it also has an important Armenian church.

Traitors

The police have so far not made any arrests. It could be that the attacks have been carried out by one person alone, and that it was a coincidence that the victims were Armenian. Even if that is the case, though, that is not the whole story. From which ever angle you look at it, this is again a tragedy for the Armenian community in Turkey. Also if the perpetrator(s) didn’t mean to specifically attack Armenians, this affects the community as a whole.

A community that has been treated as second class citizens for decades now in this country, and that is seen by many as  ‘traitors’. Kids learn it in school: Armenians are the enemies ‘from within’. It all dates back to more than a century ago, during the First World War. Armenians aspired to have their own country, and being Christians, just like Russians, who were fighting the Ottomans, they were collectively seen as enemies. We all know about the genocide that followed.

That’s what Turkey does to ‘enemies from within’: they are considered outcasts, they are never seen as full members of Turkish society and sometimes, they get killed, and then many people don’t really care. This month six years ago, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered, for the very same reason these women are being attacked now: being Armenian. The difference of course is that Dink spoke out and these women were just leading quiet lives, but their identity is the same. An identity that endangers their life.

Indifference 

Not only the hatred against Armenians is deeply rooted in this country, also the indifference towards the way they are treated is. That was shown in another way this week. PM Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet and replaced four ministers. One of the those he sacked was Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin. He was not what you call an asset for the country (read about him in this blog post), so that in itself was good news. But who was he replaced with?

The new Interior Minister is Muammer Güler. He was the governor of Istanbul in 2007. Yes, when Hrant Dink was killed. He was one of the officials who ignored the clear threat to Hrant Dink’s life. He became an MP after that, which effectively closed off any serious investigation into his responsibility for Dink’s death because he got parliamentary immunity. And now he is being promoted to minister.

Don’t be surprised if also these attacks on Armenian women will not be thorougly investigated.

Armenian church gets a real place in Diyarbakir

I do remember the church from before the restoration. I remember feeling sad about an Armenian church in the middle of the old city of Diyarbakir being totally dilapidated. The people once attending mass there were murdered in 1915, the witnesses of their former presence in the city destroyed. So it was really good to see the church of Surp Giragos (almost) fully restored now, and full of people attending a piano recital by Armenian-Canadian pianist Raffi Bedrosyan.

The church dates back to the fifteenth century and is built out of the big black stones that are so typical of old buildings in Diyarbakir. The church doesn’t look like a stranger in the city but fits in perfectly. Its renovation started in 2009, under the jurisdiction of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate. It was paid for with funds from Armenians in Turkey and abroad, and with financial contributions from the Diyarbakir and Sur (the old town) municipalities. The mayor of Sur, Abdullah Demirbas, has been a strident advocate of the rights of minorities in Diyarbakir, as has Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir.

Armenian-Canadian pianist Raffi Bedrosyan playing in the restored Surp Giragos church, 10 September 2012. Click to enlarge.

What I find remarkable is that both Demirbas and Baydemir have called on Armenians and other minorities to return to Diyarbakir. They want a city with cultural diversity, like in the old days. Baydemir was present at the concert, with his wife, lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, and in his speech he repeated his appeal. He got applause for it.

Also present in the church was a group of elderly Armenians from the United States on a ‘roots trip’. Over the weekend, they attended a mass at the Armenian church on Akdamar island, in Lake Van, not too far from Diyarbakir. I talked to one of the women from the group during the concert – yeah, sorry, it wasn’t all silent anyway, people were walking in and out of the church and were whispering, kids couldn’t keep quietly, which really all just added to the good atmosphere – and I asked her what she thought of Baydemir’s call to return to Diyarbakir. ‘I think it’s amazing’, she whispered in excitement, ‘considering all that has happened here in the past’.

But of course I wanted to know if she would ever consider living in the land of her ancestors. ‘No’, she replied without thinking. ‘Not because of the Turks of course, that would be no problem. But you know’, she continued, seemingly not talking only about herself but about other people like her as well, ‘we have very comfortable lives in the States, we are not prepared to give that up.’

Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir calls on Armenians to return to Diyarbakir, his wife, lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, translates his words to English. Pianist Bedrosyan behind the couple. 10 September 2012. Click to enlarge. (and sorry for bad picture quality…)

After the concert, I talked to an Armenian who now lives in Kusadasi, on the west coast of Turkey. He was originally from Siirt province, east of Diyarbakir. I asked him if he would return to his roots permanently. ‘Oh I come here all the time’, he answered. ‘My life is in Kusadasi now, but my daughter lives here, I have family in Siirt, in Kurdistan (he meant North Iraq, FG), in Syria, in Canada. That’s how it is with Armenians, they are spread out all over the world because of what happened in this region. I will keep coming here and the concert was good and the place is beautifully restored, but I won’t come back to live here.’

The church is not in use as a place to have mass every Sunday, for that there are too few Armenians left. And the wish of the municipality to have more Armenians in the city again is not likely to be fulfilled any time soon. But there will be a concert in the church from now on every month, it was announced. That’s great: it will give the historic building a real place in the vibrant city of Diyarbakir.

Here is a really good pic of the church during the concert, on the site of Diyarbakir municipality. (I’m on the right, fourth bench from the back, second from the right ;-))

Three anonymous Christians

Have you ever heard of Necati Aydin, Ugur Yüksel and Christian Tilmann Geske? Small chance you have, bigger chance you haven’t. They are three Christians (two Turkish, one German) who were brutally tortured and murdered in the East-Turkish city of Malatya in April 2007. This Monday, the court case against the killers and accomplices will resume. The murder is in many ways similar to the murder of Hrant Dink, a few months earlier in 2007. For Hrant, thousands took to the streets with good reason to scream out for justice. No such thing will happen on Monday for Necati, Ugur and Christian. Nobody knew their names before their deaths, nobody came to know them afterwards. I wonder: will their anonymity influence the court case?

I don’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing that no crowds will take to the streets on Monday. In the end, of course, it’s not about how many people cry out for justice, it’s about whether or not justice is done.

Like I said, the Malatya murders and the murder of Hrant Dink are in many ways similar. Both Dink and the three Malatya victims belonged to groups that are deeply mistrusted throughout Turkish society: Armenians – the group to which Dink belonged – have always been considered ‘traitors’, Christians have always been considered part of a foreign conspiracy aiming to weaken Turkey. The murders were carried out by young nationalists, but it was clear from the very beginning they were not acting alone, but were pushed by others to kill and that they were protected by the state after they committed the crime.

Dig deeper 

Also, the court cases can be easily compared: they are mainly aiming at the ones who carried out the murders, not at the accomplices or the ones protecting them. For some time, it seemed the Malatya murder case was going in the right direction because the prosecutor was willing to dig deeper, but he was suddenly taken off the case – one may wonder why, of course. This Monday, most probably anew indictment will be ready, and then it will be clear if the new prosecutor is willing to connect the case to (part of the) Ergenekon case. Both the Dink case and the Malatya case are believed to have been carried out by Ergenekon, part of the ‘deep state’ that will do anything to protect the state.

The Dink murder, the Malatya murders and the Santoro murder (he was a Roman Catholic priest who was murdered in the North-Turkish city of Trabzon in 2006, which is also the home town of the killer of Hrant Dink) are believed to be the last murders carried out by the deep state – the Ergenekon investigations started soon after the Malatya murders, and then the killings stopped.

Overwhelming demand 

So you can say that the way the murders are handled in court says something about how much the deep state is still keeping a firm grip on state institutions, like the judiciary. In the Santoro case, the 16 year old murderer was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment soon after the assassination in 2006, for the rest no probe was carried out, even though there were leads that he didn’t act on his own. In the Dink case, nobody dared or wanted to make the case much bigger than the actual murderer and the man inciting him to kill. Despite the overwhelming demand for justice from thousands and thousands of people. Or because of the public outcry? I do wonder if the judiciary is even more afraid to ‘give in’ to demands for justice when they are so loudly heard, and while the whole nation is watching the system closely.

The Malatya murders are less high profile. Monday, most probably a new indictment will be read. It will make clear to what extent the prosecutor will widen the case beyond the five main suspects. The lawyers of the victims’ families are hopeful, I heard. Will the prosecutors dare to be brave, now that they are watched less closely, now that not tens of thousands are protesting, now that they are handling the case of three anonymous Christians instead of a (posthumous) famous Armenian?

If you have any thoughts about the influence of publicity attracted by a case on the prosecutors’ braveness: the reaction field is open!

Rakel

The conference on the history of the Diyarbakir region, held last November in Diyarbakir, came to an end. The final word would be for Rakel Dink, widow of Hrant. The Hrant Dink Foundation was one of the organizers of the conference. She came forward, and whereas everybody expected a speech, she started to sing. A Kurdish song. She sounded and looked so vulnerable. That song sung by this Armenian woman who grew up in a Kurdish community, brought the history of the Diyarbakir region back to heartbreaking human proportions. Many people couldn’t hold back their tears.

The life story of Rakel Dink, (maiden name Yaghbasan), is a remarkable one. She was born in a village in the southeast of Turkey, the daughter of a leader of an Armenian clan, known as the Ermeni Varto clan. Several families of the clan escaped from the genocide in 1915 and settled in the Cudi mountains, in the present-day province of Sirnak. They lived there for twenty five years, isolated from the outside world.

When they finally came down from the mountains, they found the lands they had lived on had been taken over by Kurds. They partly assimilated with them: over time, for example, they came to speak Kurdish better than Armenian, and they started dressing in traditional Kurdish clothing. But at the same time the clan life persisted: there were no intercultural marriages, and, being very religious, they kept respecting Christian traditions. That’s the society Rakel was born in, in 1959. Her father sent her to Istanbul when she was nine years old, to get an Armenian education – she was the first child to leave the lands the clan came from.

In Istanbul, Rakel lived in an Armenian orphanage. That is where she became Armenian again, rather than a Kurdish-speaking Armenian. That is where she met Hrant. They grew up together and eventually got married – her father resisted the marriage for some time because Hrant was not a clan member. They had three children.

Rakel is now the only Ermeni Varto clan member who still lives in Turkey. The whole clan moved to Istanbul some decades ago, and moved to Belgium about thirty years ago to escape the hardening stance towards Armenians in Turkey. Exactly five years ago today, Rakel became a widow.

Support

Before her husband was brutally killed, Rakel was not very much in the foreground. She stood behind her husband. Now, the circumstances force her to be more visible. She spoke to the thousands and thousands of people who attended the funeral of her husband, and after that, she gave speeches more often. In public, at conferences, in court (of which you can read an example here). Before every court hearing, the group ‘Friends of Hrant Dink’ organized gatherings to demand justice, and Rakel would always be there. It always hurt me to see these pictures. Her face in such agony. Look at this picture, from when Hrant was still alive.

I would want to ask Rakel if she feels lonely. She is seperated from her clan and family due to the way Turkey, her home land, has treated Armenians, it’s own citizens. Her husband got killed for the very same reason. No justice has been done in the court case against the killers, again for the very same reason. There are many people who support Rakel, and today in the walk to commemorate her husband there will be thousands marching with her. Does that give her enough strength to not feel intensly lonely? Or would she never describe herself as lonely in the first place, because she is rooted in such strong traditions and in such strong family ties that she always feels connected? She is a very religious woman: till what extend does religion help her to cope, and did she ever, if only for a second, lose her faith in God?

Strength

Rakel Dink tops the list of people in Turkey that I would love to interview. But she doesn’t give interviews. Not until the court case against the murderers of her husband is over. The case came to an end this week. But the verdict denies what everybody knows: the state was behind it, and it got inspired by the state ideology that doesn’t accept anybody who doesn’t fit the one size fits all identity of being a (Sunni) Moslim and a Turk.

The lawyers of the Dink family are determined to push through and go as far as they can to get the truth out and the perpetrators punished. I wonder how many more years before the case can really be closed. I wonder what the outcome will be, and if and how it will help reshape Turkey. Will it eventually give Rakel the feeling that justice is done? To her husband and herself, to her community and the country she too is a daughter of? For now, the questions remain unasked, unanswered. I wish her all the strength she needs.

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?

Missing Hrant

Stratos MoraitisFrom now on I will now and then publish guest blog posts on this website, written by Turkish journalists. The first guest blog post is written by my friend Stratos Moraitis, who corrected me by saying he is not a Turkish journalist but a journalist with a Turkish passport. He is Greek, he writes for Greek (and sometimes American) media. And he was a good friend of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered today four years ago. This blog post is in his memory.

It has been four years since Hrant Dink, a prominent Armenian journalist in Turkey, has been assassinated. It has been four years, much has been said about his murder, including by myself, but none of these words went beyond the usual ears that are ready to absorb pain and injustice.

After four years, I find it appropriate to put the death into perspective, even though the pain is still very young, and a day does not pass without remembering what a difference his presence made in the lives of people who knew him. But it is essential now to analyze this event in the light of the continuum called Turkish politics.

In modern democracies, state is a product of an unwritten social contract. But when we use that term our imagination materializes it into a form of written agreement. It is not. It is an evolving set of values which we attribute to ourselves as a people. And as this set of values evolve with the needs of modernity, democracy expands. In this geography however, expectations of the majority was shaped in the late 19th century within the framework of a disintegrating empire. And deification of these values upon the value set of the republic later on prevented significant changes in the perception of people for the identity of their state and even themselves

Many people today protest, write, talk and even cry for Hrant. These actions are in fact despite themselves. Come tomorrow, many of those will go back to their original set of values where thoughts could be perceived as a threat to their state which they think is a separate entity that protects them from the harms of an imaginary outer sphere.

Contrary to their beliefs, Hrant was just not a martyr. He was a martyr because he fought so that he could be the last martyr. Yes he was about freedom, but he was about fraternity as well. He was above the ever-going social contract, and so the state couldn’t afford to live with his ideas continuing to question and criticize their ideological existence.

He was an exception. Not only for Turkish population at large, but also for Turkish Armenian society which is mostly silent and fatalist. (All puns intended, even extended to Greek minority) Yet he was able to say “democratization will take away the veil in front of the eyes of Turkish people”.

Now Turkish state cares for one thing concerning Dink murder: to put everything under the same veil and make all the evidence disappear slowly to clear all threat to their existence.

Yes, I agree, Hrant Dink and people like him are threats to the Turkish state the way it is programmed to function. If democratic people will increase in numbers in this country, it will not be able to continue its fascist policies, or it will have to fight against its own people, which is what it did in its recent history.

But today, even four years later, it is still not about politics. At least for me.

When a good person dies, he takes a piece of your hope with him. A part that nothing will replace. I do not only “remember” him. I simply miss him. Not only his ideas or ideals. Maybe even more, I miss my friend. I miss a guy named Hrant Dink.

And I do not wish, even one day, my recognition of inevitability of his assassination, to come first in my thoughts. I know my pain won’t go away. And it’s my choice, too. I will miss him, and everyday, his memory will be a part of me. A bitter-sweet smile will replace my tears. As I will see him smiling with irony to my desperation.

I will miss his smile.

Church or museum?

Churches are hot news these days in Turkey. Yesterday a mass was held at the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross in the eastern province of Van; some weeks ago a religious service was held outside the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Sümela in Trabzon province. And last week, a group of Greeks from the United States were set to come to Istanbul to pray in the Aya Sofia, the top tourist attraction.

I talk of churches now, but it would be more correct to speak of museums. Because both the Armenian church and the Greek Orthodox monastery as well as Istanbul’s Aya Sofya are officially museums, belonging to the Turkish state. Officially, it’s not allowed to perform religious ceremonies in museums. So when a believer comes and lights a candle, an official comes an blows it out. That is, unless the state gives special permission for a ceremony, as happened in Sümela, and yesterday in Van. Both places of worship have permission now to have a religious service once a year.

Over the last couple of years, more and more churches have undergone renovations paid for by the Turkish state. The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross in Van was one of them, and across the country other, usually less famous, churches are being saved from total dilapidation. After renovation, they are always turned into a state museum. That’s an easy way to hinder any religious activity and totally control what does and doesn’t happen in religious buildings. What it comes down to is this: churches become a tourist destination, or just a renovated building not many people are interested in. They are considered part of Turkish cultural heritage.

The state never allows a church to get its original purpose back. Or for the building to be officially owned by the religious group that once – generally before the foundation of the Turkish republic in 1923 – had the use of it. On one side, this has to do with the secularism that applies in Turkey: the state controls religion, mosques are owned by the state and Turks follow the state version of Sunni Islam. Other religious foundations are not allowed to legally exist. Neither Christian foundations, nor Muslim ones, which for example causes big problems for the large group of Alevis, a path in Islam.
If the state were to allow Christian congregations to officially exist, then Muslim groups other than the state Islam would also demand rights, and that’s the last thing the secular republic wants. In fact, strict secularists fear that that would be the beginning of the end of the Republic of Turkey as we know it.

On the other hand, allowing churches to function as churches (including the ringing of church bells, mass whenever there is a need for a mass, a cross on top of the dome or tower) brings out fear in some Turks that the places will be used for ‘political reasons’. If the Armenian church in Van gets the right to function fully as a church, there is a good chance it will become a place of pilgrimage. Before the mass killings of Armenians almost a hundred years ago, huge numbers of Armenians lived in the region, and they are all dead or gone now. The church could be used in the efforts of (diaspora) Armenians to get their claims that at the time genocide occurred recognized.

The same goes for the Monastery in Trabzon. Many Greeks lived in the Black Sea Region. During World War I they were subject first of all to ethnic cleansing and later, after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, to the population exchange between Turkey and Greece. Many so called ‘Pontus Greeks’ left the region when they saw what was happening to Armenians at the time. Reviving the old culture could stir up some historic and nationalist sentiments, both on the Greek and on the Turkish side.

These fears are understandable and not unrealistic, but is that a reason to restrict the freedom of religion? Not in my view. What if the Turkish state and citizens could take the sting out of the whole matter by speaking openly about history in these regions of Turkey? Not only really acknowledge the deaths among Turks around the time of the First World War (yes, there were, that is often forgotten), but also acknowledge that in the end, Turkey was ethnically cleansed. Firstly to try to save the Ottoman Empire and later to build the Turkish nation state. If the members of all communities that used to live in Anatolia and in small numbers still live here, felt that their grievancess were really heard, there would be no need to use sacred places for political purposes.

To come back to Istanbul’s Aya Sofia, mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. Greek-Americans planned to come to pray in the building. They were all ready to come, but the Ministry of Culture made very clear that praying in the building would not be allowed and would be considered a provocation. In the end the group was wise enough to decide not to come. Wise? Yes, wise. Aya Sofia was built as the Cathedral of Constantinople in the sixth century, and was the largest cathedral in the world for about a thousand years. It became a mosque when the Ottomans took over in 1453. The Aya Sofia is of great significance for the history of architecture, for the Byzantine area and for Christianity and Islam. The decision of Atatürk to turn it in a museum in 1936 was the only right one.

Aya Sofia cannot serve as a church anymore, nor as a mosque – as some Muslims would like. Many other old churches in Turkey, and their congregations, would be done more justice though if they could serve their original purpose again. As cultural heritage of the people who used to live on this soil.

Real human rights concern

I’ve had some emails this week about the House Committee on Foreign Affairs voting on the ‘Armenian Genocide Bill’. Both groups pro and anti informed me about their stance and some asked me to write letters to the Committee to support their point of view.

Now the resolution is accepted. I always thought I was against it mainly because politicians shouldn’t decide about history for political reasons. That still stands, but a few days ago I read an opinion by columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz on this and I would like to share it. It totally matches what I thought but could never put into words. In short: if only there was a real human rights concern behind these kinds of legislation. Click here and read!

Hrant Dink – three years after the murder

I was in an eye hospital for on an assignment when I heard the news: Hrant Dink had been killed. There were TV screens in the hospital, and I couldn’t stop watching, wishing my Turkish was better, wishing I could understand what exactly was going on. But the biggest news, that Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink had been shot dead, was clear enough from the images alone: you saw just his feet sticking out from beneath the sheet that covered his dead body.

İt was January 19th 2007. I spent the following days at the scene of the murder: in front of Agos, the newspaper Dink founded and of which he was editor in chief. I spoke to many people and published my first report from Turkey  – I had arrived in Turkey just three weeks earlier. I still remember those days as some of the most impressive in my life.

And now, three years later, where do we stand? Has the murder been solved, have those responsible been punished? Not by a long shot. Hrant Dink’s lawyers published a report drawing the conclusion that they are exactly where they were three years ago. Only the actual killer, Ogün Samast, is behind bars. Everybody knows who neglected intelligence reports about the threats against Dink’s life, but even though at first they were investigated, the cases against all these guys have been dropped. They all still have responsible jobs in, for example, the police force. What can we conclude, other than that inside the state apparatus, nobody gives a damn about justice in this horrible murder case.

May Hrant rest in peace.

Blue-red-green flags

The football part of the match between Turkey and Armenia is totally uninteresting: both countries have already failed to qualify for the world championships in South Africa. But still, the tension is rising in Bursa, the city not too far from Istanbul where the match will be played tonight.

The Armenian President Sarkisyan will come to watch, as Turkish President Gül did last September when the first qualifying match between the two countries was played in Armenia’s capital Yerevan. The term for it is ‘football diplomacy’, and Sarkisyan would only come to Bursa if there was an agreement on restoring the official ties between the two countries. A few days ago, a deal was signed in Zürich, and even though many issues between the countries need to be resolved, Sarkisyan kept his word and booked a ticket to Bursa.

It seems there will be a tense atmosphere in the stadium tonight. Not everybody in Turkey welcomes the deal, because Armenia is still occupying Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan where many Armenians live. Turkey closed its border with Armenia over that issue in 1993, since Turks and Azeris are brother nations with the same language and cultural and religious background. The deal with Armenia, many people say, is a betrayal of Azerbaijan.

So it was not so wise, I’d say, for the authorities in Bursa to forbid people to take Azerbaijani flags to the match: that triggered people’s fanaticism. One person decided to place a fast-tracked order for 5000 Azeri flags to challenge the prohibition, and someone else decided to take the flag ban to court. The authorities reacted by lifting the ban, but of course by now people’s minds are made up: I predict there will be a lot of blue-red-green Azeri flags in the stadium. Also because Bursa fans (since Turkey is a big country, it will mainly be local fans from Bursa in the stadium) are known for their nationalist stance. They showed that again recently when their team played against Diyarbakirspor, a team from the Kurdish southeast of the country, by chanting nationalist slogans and waving nationalist banners, protesting the government initiative to solve the Kurdish issue by democratic means.

There will be 2000 police on duty around the stadium tonight. Tight security for Sarkisyan, although it was decided he will not be sitting behind bullet-proof glass. Many Turkish flags, many Azeri flags, maybe here and there an Armenian flag. Slogans, banners. But please, no violence. Has there ever been more excitement about a match that is, on the sports level, so totally unimportant?