Vicken Cheterian: Kurds replaced the Armenians

Journalist and historian Vicken Cheterian wrote a book which assesses the effects of Armenian genocide on global politics, academic research, Kurdish question, Turkish and Armenian societies during the process that has been going on for 100 years. Focusing mainly on the post genocide period, Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide considers Hrant Dink’s assassination as a milestone.

There are lots of books that tell and teach many things to you, but a book that can change the way you perceive and speed up the healing process of the society is a rare thing. Switzerland based journalist Vicken Cheterian’s newly published book Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide is a work that could trigger some radical changes. Chetarian considers the genocide as an event that still plays a role in today’s social and political environment, rather than a tragedy that happened in the past. And he emphasizes that this crime inflicts deep wounds not only locally, but also globally.

Putting forth that the genocide still continues with denial and the legitimization of crime and usurpation, Cheterian points out that there is 1915 behind many conflicts that is important for humanity, occurring not only in these lands but also in the whole world, such as democratization of Turkey, relations between Armenia and Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh question and Kurdish question. And he emphasizes the importance of contending the genocide in order to “fight with the dark forces”. We got together with Chetarian and talked about the hundred years of the Armenian genocide; we asked him to evaluate some striking points in the book for the readers of Agos.

In your book on the process that has been going on since the Armenian genocide, you consider Hrant Dink’s assassination as a milestone. Why is that?

I never had the idea of writing such a book. Because reading about the Armenian genocide was very painful to me. Now I realize that I tried to avoid this history for very long time. Both of my parents were born in Turkey and I was born in Beirut and I grew up during the war. In this context, I didn’t want to be associated with the people who had been massacred, deported, whose culture and civilization was destroyed. Each time I tried to read memoirs, I really suffered.

The idea of this book came from my publisher in London. We were discussing about my previous book and then he asked me: “Why don’t you write something about the genocide?” I answered spontaneously: “I don’t know how to write about the genocide, because there are a lot of good books on it. But what I want to do is to write about post-genocide period and what the humanity has done with this heritage.”

Then I realized that this subject is very much related to the current situation in Turkey. For years, I had been following –and personally knowing– people like Taner Akçam, Ragıp Zarakolu and Hrant Dink. In this book, I wanted to discover what made the subject of genocide come into prominence. Why did the intellectuals in Turkey or some people suddenly discover that this subject is very important for them? What were the changes in Turkey that brought back this subject about Ottoman Armenians and the way they were destroyed? And why did it take this long? Which conditions caused the Turkish intellectuals, artists and poets, who were aware that something was missing in their country, to keep silent till 2000s?

I started the book not with the assassination of Hrant Dink but with his funeral, which made all these people walk in the street shouting “I am Hrant, I am Armenian.” I consider this as a revolution in the public opinion in Turkey.

There is another question I am asking; when there is a crime in a village, a country or a society, what happens next if people pretend that this crime didn’t happen? Does the crime disappear? What happens to the criminal and the victim? I am trying to look at the effects of this crime. At the beginning, I thought that I would be focusing mainly on the Armenians. The crime, which has not been recognized, is keeping them in the victim position for decades. We know when the Armenian genocide started, but we don’t know when it’s finished because it is not recognized yet. But in the end, what really amazed me was to discover how much this subject affects Turkey.

You talk about a kind of awakening of the intellectuals in Turkey. Perhaps Hrant Dink’s assassination is one of the most important events that triggered it. Do you think that the public followed these intellectuals as opinion leaders?

The first chapter of the book is about Hrant Dink. He really changed the public opinion in Turkey about the question of Armenians. Hrant Dink is also very important, because he is the first Armenian in Turkey after 1915, who claimed his position in the society as an Armenian intellectual. He wanted to talk freely about what he thinks and feels about this question instead of hiding. At the same time, he was very careful. He was aware of the red lines in Turkey. But once he assumed this role, he had to go beyond those red lines, which eventually led his assassination.

I think Hrant Dink is a historical figure, because he did something that no one else has ever dared to do. But then, there are also other people such as Ragıp Zarakolu, Taner Akçam and Hasan Cemal. Ragıp Zarakolu is very important, because for many years, he published books and created a field in Turkey where scholars, historians, intellectuals could talk about this issue. Even if people were against his ideas, they still had to react to the body of literature he created.

Another important character is Taner Akçam. He is the first Turkish scholar who dedicates himself to a research on Armenian genocide. I wanted to see what made or enabled Taner Akçam chose this way.

Hasan Cemal is symbolically very important, because he comes from the side of perpetrators –the people who took the decision to kill the whole ethnic group. Why did Hasan Cemal decide to write his book called ‘1915: Armenian Genocide’? How did his intellectual journey bring him there? I think those people are the pioneers. With their courage, they triggered a change. But we didn’t reach the end of this journey.

You also point out the silence of the Armenian society in Turkey and mention how this situation has been changing. Not only the Turkish society, but also the attitude of Armenian people is changing...

There are different types of silences among the Armenians. There is the traditional Armenian diaspora, which was silent for 50 years, till 1965. This silence was not only caused by their trauma, but also by the fact that no one was ready to listen to them yet. There were censored. For example, Franz Werfel’s book ‘The Forty Days of Musa Dagh’ was going to be a Hollywood movie in 1930s. But as a result of the pressure of Turkish government, the Hollywood studio that bought the rights eventually gave up shooting the movie. The Armenian diaspora who survived the genocide was not able to talk to anyone about it; they could have only talked to each other. I think Armenians are very vocal about the genocide now, because they were silenced for 50 years.

On the other hand, in the Soviet Union, there was another kind of silence, because Stalin repressed the memory of genocide. As a leader criminal himself, he didn’t want it to be commemorated, talked about and researched in his empire. There was also a strong alliance between the Soviet Union and Kemalist movement. Kemalist movement used to receive money, arms and weapons from the Soviet Union to fight against the French and British troops.

Finally, there is a longer silence within Turkey. Even within Turkey, there are different silences. Silence of the Armenians in Istanbul is different than the silence of the Armenians in Bitlis, Diyarbakır, Antep, and Islamized Armenians from the countryside of Anatolia. Now, there are a handful of people who are coming out and reclaiming their old Armenian identity and we don’t know how this process will evolve in the future.

In relation to this issue, you mention the Armenian origins of people in Hemşin, Rize in your book. In your opinion, how will revealing this kind of alternative narratives about the past affect the process?

Now, the process of democratization of Turkey and breaking down the wall of silence goes hand in hand. These people who were silenced for years will gradually come to light and reclaim their Armenian identity. However, it should be pointed out that they follow different path while doing that. For instance, I didn’t only reclaim the Armenian heritage in Diyarbakır and Gaziantep, but also I met with people who returned to Armenian Apostolic Church. Another group was researching their Armenian origins, but didn’t abandon Islam. In addition to this, there are people in Hemşin living in the highland of Northern Anatolia who protected their native language Armenian, though they were converted to Islam in 17th century. Even though they don’t want to convert to Christianity, their awareness about their Armenian past and cultural origin increases. And this is an extraordinary situation that defies the totalitarian ideology that repressed this nation during the dark 20th century.

What is happening in Turkey in 2015, the 100th year of genocide? What do you observe?

I think Turkey has moved forward, but it is still hesitating. Turkey will provide the justice when it feels ready. Once Turkey starts to respect its own citizens, then it will also be able to show respect to its former citizens that were systematically murdered. But Turkey is not there yet. It has moved away from the Kemalist model, but we don’t know where it’s going now.

The genocide doesn’t linger in the past; it is still with us. Although it happened 100 years ago, we haven’t got over this experience. Turkey accepts that something happened and there were victims. In April 2014, Prime Minister Erdoğan expressed his condolences to Armenians and this was the first time that a Turkish official recognized the sufferings of the Armenians. But still, it was a very strange way to recognize this, because the soldiers who died because they fought against each other or the murderers were put in the same position as the victims of the genocide. The act of killing can be either legitimate or a crime. I think the prime minister had failed to make a distinction between the crime and fight between the soldiers. Up to now, the Turkish officials have not taken the responsibility of the genocide.

Also the Turkish society has not reached the point to recognize that what happened in 1915 is important not only for the Armenians, but also for Turkey in general. Today, it is important to Armenians, Turks and Kurds in different ways. For Armenians, it is a matter of recognition and by stopping the pain, having a symbolic justice. Because genocide is so enormous that, there is no way for real justice. But for Turkey, it is a question of democracy. You cannot have democracy in this country, if the state considers massacring 100 thousand people and taking their property as legitimate. There can’t be rule of law in such a society.

What do you think is the next step for Turkey?

I think different power groups will recognize the importance of the genocide of Assyrians and Pontic Greeks along with the Armenian genocide in 1915. It is important not just for Armenians, Kurds and Turks but also for the humanity, because the global political culture has suffered enormously from this event. The level of our political has really dropped away. If we don’t recognize and attain the knowledge about what happened in the past, we will not be able to fight against those dark forces in all societies. So, in the next decade, we have to come together and figure out how we can fight together against those crimes that were committed in the past and will be committed in the future.

You think that the solution of problems with the Armenians is closely related to the problem with Kurds. There is a chapter in your book that is titled “Kurds: From Perpetrator to Victim”. In this chapter, you also write that the regions that the Armenians once lived became Kurdish territories in the historical context. Could we elaborate on that, considering the current political situation of the Kurdish Movement in Turkey?

I think this issue is related to the democratization and closely related to the Kurdish question in Turkey. It is also related to the relationship between Armenia and Turkey, and Nagorno-Karabakh question. When you dig deep enough, you find out that 1915 has been there and it has played a very negative role in all these issues. By fighting for the recognition of 1915, we also fight against this culture of justifying crimes against humanity.

The Kurdish question in Turkey emerged right after the destruction of Assyrians and Armenians that lived in the southeast region of Turkey. And this shows that the problems cannot be solved by resorting to violence, because violence creates a crime culture and leads to more suffering. There is a somewhat metaphysical aspect of Kurdish history: in 1915, they were perpetrators and they became victims in 1920. In many respects, Kurds replaced the Armenians. Even their demographical features are parallel to that of Ottoman Armenians. For instance, half of the society lives in the poorer east and the other half lives in the metropolis in the west. Today, Kurds are in the quest of rule of law instead of discrimination, just like the Armenians were in 19th century. The Armenians have lost in 1915, because their demand for reform was responded by destruction. I hope that the Kurds won’t be facing the same threat and become one of the main forces in the process of democratization of Turkey.  

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Tuğba Esen