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Revealing ‘Turkey’s Hidden Past’

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Agence Vu/Aurora Photos
A girl standing on the ruins of an Armenian church in Diyarbakir, Turkey, August 2007; photographs by Kathryn Cook from her series ‘Memory Denied: Turkey and the Armenian Genocide,’ which was awarded the Aftermath Project’s 2008 grant for photographic work documenting the aftermath of conflict and can be seen in War Is Only Half the Story, Volume II, published by the Aftermath Project last year

Christopher de Bellaigue was once a Kemalist. Living in Istanbul as a foreign correspondent he absorbed the views and prejudices, subtle and less so, of the Turkish Republic and its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This modern state, created in 1923 through an act of ferocious will, has shown a fetish- istic attachment to its founder, whose portrait is still displayed in shops throughout the country. The mythologizing devotion betrays a measure of insecurity. It is related to the persistence of the very fissuring pressures—not least Kurdish nationalism—that Atatürk subdued to create his unitary nation-state from the many-shaded ruins of the Ottoman Empire. As a district governor in the eastern town of Varto blithely tells de Bellaigue early in Rebel Land:

We have no minorities in Turkey. A lot of people talk about minorities, but we don’t have them. It’s out of the question to have minorities. There is no discrimination in Turkey.

De Bellaigue’s Kemalism never went that far. He is too sharp an observer to believe that the genius of Turkey’s warrior-founder could somehow homogenize Anatolian diversity. Still, he writes,

During my time as a journalist in Turkey, writing from my Kemalist perspective, the aspirations of the Kurds for independence or autonomy had seemed presumptuous and unwise. I doubted whether this, in fact, was what many of them wanted.

The author’s presence in Varto, as close to Iran as his beloved Istanbul is to Greece, is an act of contrition for this former view. Deluded, he decides, by life in the swinging Turkey of Istanbul’s Taksim Square, de Bellaigue chooses to investigate veiled Varto (“a name like a cleaning detergent”) to launder his illusions. This troubled eastern town—“a district of widows visiting gravestones,” of a color that is “mellow and valedictory,” a place of tangled history and religions and ethnicities where death speaks “with a numbing authority to its congregation”—becomes a place for him to examine his own views and to explore another Turkey, the one Atatürk and his successors tried to conjure away.

Skepticism toward the Kurdish na- tional struggle is not the only piece of Kemalist lore de Bellaigue absorbed. Atatürk built his state and status on his reversal, through force of arms, of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which had granted the Kurds a state in Anatolia. Another nation—the Armenians—was also granted a national homeland in Anatolia at Sèvres. Like the Kurds, they saw it vanish in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne after Atatürk’s victorious military campaign against those—Greeks prominent among them—ready to feast on post-1918 Ottoman leftovers.

So began an epic struggle over memory, specifically Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkish memory. It endures to this day. For not only did Armenians lose the slice of what became modern Turkey that was promised to them at Sèvres—they also lost control of history to the victors. And official Turkish history, in the name of Turkish honor and in defense of Turkish territory, glossed over a great crime, the mass slaughter and deportation of Armenians in 1915. To some degree, de Bellaigue now believes, he too, during his time in Istanbul, glossed over it. Just to what degree exactly lies at the core of Rebel Land.

If there was a single catalyst to his book, it is to be found in a sentence used by de Bellaigue in an essay called “Turkey’s Hidden Past” published in these pages in 2001. That sentence was: “A Turkish identity had emerged out of the ethnic conflict, particularly the conflict between Turks and Armenians, some half a million of whom died during the deportations and massacres of 1915.” This prompted an outraged response from James Russell, a professor of Armenian studies at Harvard. “Three times that many were murdered, in a premeditated genocide,” he wrote of the Armenians. Turkey was “an edifice erected on a lie.” De Bellaigue, in his view, was as morally iniquitous as a Holocaust denier, and The New York Review was little better for publishing his essay:

If a reviewer wrote that only a third of the actual number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust had died, or that their deaths came about because they had rioted, or elected to make war against the German government, would you print it? No.

Russell “had a point,” de Bellaigue concedes in the prologue to Rebel Land: “I had been charmed by the Turks and perhaps intimidated by their blocking silence.” But was Russell entirely right? The answer, he decided, must be sought in Varto, for “I write about small things,” and this is a place where history has been less a science than a weapon: “Vartolus use the past to acquit their ancestors and string up their enemies.” De Bellaigue will answer his conscience as he answers Russell: “‘Armenians? What Armenians?’ I am here to prevent the people of Varto from being able to say this.” Setting his aim for truth where the fog of polemic has prevailed, he quotes the Cambridge historian E.H. Carr: “It does not follow that because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.”

I should declare my sympathies here. I, too, have been drawn to write about small things in provincial towns caught up in the savagery that often attends the breakup of a multiethnic polity. Perhaps journalists of a certain bent find in the detailed evocation of the personal agony beneath sweeping upheaval a way out of the hard confines of their craft, and an impressionistic but still searching alternative to the historian’s footnoted endeavor.

It was through Vlasenica, a small town in eastern Bosnia whose Muslim population (of Ottoman descent) was slaughtered or evicted by the Serbs at the outbreak of the Bosnian war in 1992, that I sought to understand the forces at work in Yugoslavia’s brutal unraveling. I wanted to grasp how neighbors, previously at peace, changed their views of each other as ethnic hatred more and more possessed them. De Bellaigue chooses Varto, a modest town ringed by mountains, south of the eastern city of Erzurum, over seven hundred miles from Istanbul, a place where Kurds, Armenians, Ottoman Muslims, and Alevis (a sect of heterodox Muslims reviled by many among the Sunni majority) managed to live together over centuries. It is impossible not to think of post–cold war Yugoslavia’s demise in reading his powerful evocation of the suspicions rampant as the Ottoman Empire, “the sick man of Europe,” entered its death throes in World War I.

By 1914, the Armenians were, as he notes, “the biggest Christian minority in an empire whose other Christian subjects, predominantly in the Balkans, had mostly achieved independence.” Arriving in Anatolia, Muslim refugees from the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 brought tales of Christian brutality and Western support of Christian irredentism in southeast Europe. At the other edge of the ailing empire, some Armenians had fought alongside their fellow Christians, the Russians, in routing the Ottomans at the Battle of Sarikamis in northeastern Anatolia in December 1914. “It is possible,” de Bellaigue writes,

to describe the first months of 1915, as the Russians prepared for their offensive, as a time of sizing up, of forced smiles and concealed intentions. What, the Ottoman Muslim thinks to himself, is going on inside the head of my Armenian neighbour? He professes loyalty to the sultan, but what will he do when the Russians start to advance? Will he slit my throat? Hadn’t I better slit his first?

This unease about who will unsheath the dagger first strikes me as entirely plausible. Certainly, it was the prevalent atmosphere as Serbs, Croats, and Muslims found their borders and mental worlds shifting in the 1990s, with virulent nationalisms filling the vacuum left by communism. But the monstrous is always to some degree unimaginable to those who have not yet experienced it.

Ordinary people going about their daily lives seldom envisage wholesale slaughter. So it was for the Armenians of Varto in 1915, the Jews of Berlin in 1933, and the Muslims of Vlasenica in 1992. De Bellaigue puts it this way: “Many Armenians buried their heads in the warm sands of optimism and denial; it was unconscionable that the Ottoman government, whether by commission or omission, intended their destruction.”

Which was it, omission or commission? De Bellaigue is a delight to read, his prose at once sensuous and precise; his observations, often touched with melancholy, combine a keen eye with a probing mind. But the allusiveness of his intelligence—as well as something fatalistic in that melancholy—makes it difficult for him to come down hard and fast on such a question. Truth has many shades, he finds. Not least in Varto, a place as shadowy as Orhun Pamuk’s Kars in the novel Snow, and as many-layered. De Bellaigue observes that behind many a Varto political story “lies a second, of jealousy and pride, and behind that a third, of dishonour and lust.”

Armenian historians have no doubts: 1.5 million Armenians died during the 1915 deportation—massacred, starved, lost to rampant disease and exhaustion—in an act of unprovoked state-sponsored Turkish genocide. De Bellaigue, after combing through Varto’s past, has no doubts either that a brutal, covered-up crime was committed. His chronicle of the elimination, in the spring and summer of 1915, of the Armenians of Varto and nearby Hinis is devastating. Based in part on the testimony of a teenage survivor, Meguerditch Darbinian, de Bellaigue’s account reconstructs the bloody history of this “guilt-ridden land,” letting the particular speak to great effect:

Some hellish images reach us: the primate of Hinis, pulled off his horse and beheaded; the ground covered with corpses; Sunnis and Alevis fighting over the carts, loaded with possessions, that the Armenians had been driving before them. Among the survivors was a woman who hid in the nearby woods and later strangled her baby for fear that it would give her away with its crying.

Turkey has done its best to avert its eyes from such scenes. Professor Yusuf Halaçog˘lu’s Armenian Deportation, published in 2001, provides an example of Turkish historiography at its whitewashing worst. Halaçog˘lu believes that no more than 30,000 Armenians died in the deportations. De Bellaigue writes, “It is hard to find in Armenian Deportation a single instance of an Ottoman official behaving cruelly or negligently towards the Armenians.” He observes with distaste Halaçog˘lu’s visceral loathing for the Kurds and his tendentious linking of the Armenian question of the early twentieth century with the Kurdish question of the early twenty-first century. Armenian Deportation puts it this way: “By supporting a certain terrorist organization trying to set up a Kurdish state…what was, in the past, demanded under the rubric ‘Armenian reform,’ is now being demanded for the Kurds.” This, for de Bellaigue, is history as neurosis.

And yet things are not neat and tidy. Where are the written orders that would prove Turkey’s state-sponsored genocide? There have been forgeries, as demonstrated by Turkish scholars. What evidence may exist, as de Bellaigue notes, is “in the hands of the party that has most to lose from its dissemination.” Survivor accounts suggest that the mechanism of extermination was “subject to local vagaries such as the disposition and character of the local tribes, administrators and military commanders.” It seems “irrefutable” that some atrocities were also committed by Armenians—that “many thousands of Muslims were slaughtered by the Armenians during and after the First World War.”

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