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.”
De Bellaigue says that the Turkish argument that the murder of Armenians was carried out by rogue gendarmes is “flawed.” He finds persuasive evidence that, at least in the case of Varto, a firman, or directive, ordering Armenian deportation existed. That word, firman, connotes “a death sentence emanating from Istanbul.” But, he writes, “Since no such edict was issued, certainly not openly, the firman of popular memory must have been a locally generated deportation order.” But what if the edict was issued secretly? Russell holds that “telegrams to provincial governors” coordinated “the extermination of the Armenians.” De Bellaigue is struck by the sterility of some of the arguments over evidence.
“The massacres did indeed take place,” he writes of the Armenians’ destruction,
many hundreds of them, big and small, and the victims’ bones slowly entered the soil. Nearly 100 years after the event we find ourselves in an absurd situation: two sides that have drawn themselves up, those who work night and day to prove that this was genocide, and those who strive equally hard to prove that it was not. This is a travesty of history and memory.
What is needed is a vaguer designation for the events of 1915, avoiding the G-word but clearly connoting criminal acts of slaughter to which reasonable scholars can subscribe and which a child might be taught. By raising knowledge about this great wrong, a way might be opened to a cultural and historical meeting between today’s Turks, Kurds and Armenians, for they were not alive in 1915, and need not live in its shadow.
And then, in the very next sentence, we find the self-mocking disclaimer of the skeptical reporter who knows that nuance has no place in this harsh and polarized terrain: “But no; this is the prattle of a naïf, laughable, unemployable.”
I sympathize. I have felt countless times the sterility of historical argument in conflict zones, its capacity to stir new bloodshed, its susceptibility to manipulation by the extremists who shout loudest. But de Bellaigue’s self-deprecation is misplaced. He sells himself short.
The United Nations convention defines genocide as certain “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The slaughter of Armenians was not planned with systematic rigor. It occurred against a backdrop of war, collapse of empire, and rampant suspicions. But it seems to me that de Bellaigue’s remarkable legwork in Rebel Land amply demonstrates that what the Turks did to the Armenians meets these UN criteria, just as they were met by what the Serbs did to the Muslims of Bosnia in 1992, and again at Srebrenica in 1995.
It may be understandable that Atatürk, taking power in 1923 and wanting to blot out what de Bellaigue calls “the old composite Ottoman identity” in order to create his modern Turkish homeland, sought to cover up the bloody stain from the old multiethnic Anatolia. He wanted to wipe the slate clean, hence the new capital in Ankara, “a bare hillock on which to build a new cult.” But modern Turkey, a success story overall, should acknowledge, at last, that the stain is there.
This would be no less than what the surviving Armenians of Turkey deserve. They live, as de Bellaigue writes, “in a state that forbids open debate of the events of 1915.” They are forgotten “amid the learned mudslinging and parliamentary bills and letters to the editor.” One such letter, Russell’s to The New York Review, has clearly provoked a measure of exasperation in de Bellaigue. The “priorities” of Armenians, he writes,
differ from those of Professor Russell of Harvard University; their objective is not to slam the word “genocide” down on the flat-backed head of the unrepentant Turk, to slam it down and slam it down again, but to live with dignity, and gradually to explore their past—in a state that regards them as full and complete citizens.
By writing Rebel Land, by digging deep into the scene of the crime and doing so with cool judgment, de Bellaigue has made the eventual emergence of such a state more likely.
But his book is about much more than a debilitating historical dispute. It is a wonderful exploration of a closed place of hostile gazes, where any stranger is seen as a spy, and where “the old curses of clan and sect” appear immovable. De Bellaigue’s portrayal of the women of Varto, caught in the blood feuds of their men, is memorable:
The history here teaches us that to be a woman is to accompany naughty, irascible, rather primal men. Even the sophisticated men here, those engaged in such cerebral pursuits as moving files around the mayoralty, are expected to exhibit the instincts, of carnality, atavism and violence, at which their sex excels…. There is no opium or bhang to conduct one to a stupefied humanism. The women must applaud their men, nurse their men, and defend them after they die their selfish, futile deaths.
No deaths appear more futile in these pages than those of numberless Kurds, a fractious people, long divided to their own detriment, whose resistance and suffering form part of the life of Varto. Over decades in Turkey coup follows coup. One general after another claims to be “keeping Turkey alive, and keeping it alive for the West.” In faraway Varto their Kemalist refrain—“Everyone bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship is a Turk”—only exacerbates violence, for it is precisely not as Turks that many of the people of Varto identify themselves. They are Kurds; some will fight. The nucleus of resistance is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, itself an organization capable of much violence and repression. From the mid-1980s onward its members took to the hills, joined by other Kurds from bases beyond Turkey’s borders. They face Turkish military and regional apparatchiks—every Turkish civil servant must spend at least five years in the southeast—whose only strategy for many years was the application of military force to a problem of culture and identity.
One Vartolu Kurd, Mehmet Can Yuce, ended up in the notorious military jail in Diyarbakir in the early 1990s. Here, “aside from the usual techniques of food and sleep deprivation, electric shocks, the falaka and severe beatings, inmates were sodomised with truncheons and forced to eat faeces and rats.” Between 1984 and 1999, according to Nadire Mater, a Turkish journalist cited by de Bellaigue, more than 2.5 million Turks served in the undeclared war zone. What they saw was terrible: burning and vicious depravity as village after village was “cleared.” One infantryman concluded:
The state wants this to go on. For, if the state attended to the cultural, linguistic and racial rights of these people, and improved their living conditions, there would be no war.
To some degree, now that the coups in Anatolia have ceased and democracy has taken root with the cold war’s end, the Turkey governed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has attempted, at last, to recognize some of these Kurdish rights. Erdogan represents a break from the “Deep State” that is the military-secular repository of Kemalist anti-Kurd orthodoxy. Islam is, in theory, a tent under which Turk and Kurd may gather. The European Union has put pressure on Erdogan to allow Kurdish self-expression as one condition for the ever-delayed—and now perhaps unachievable—Turkish entry into the European Union. On one of his last visits to Varto, de Bellaigue finds eastern Anatolia “changed for the better,” now that the AKP has “checked the brutality and excess, pensioned off the torturers and reined in the Special Teams.” Some Kurds, he finds, are even ready to vote for the AKP.
But one lesson of Rebel Land is that history’s wounds close only with great difficulty. A US-prodded drive for Turkish-Armenian détente, which led to the signing last year of two “normalization protocols,” has foundered—over the old G-word. Erdogan’s so-called “Kurdish opening” is not leading to the self-government Kurds hoped for. It is a safe bet that more will die in a conflict that has taken 40,000 lives since 1984. After recent PKK attacks near the Iraqi border, Erdogan has vowed to “pay the price” to “annihilate” the organization allegedly led from prison by Abdullah Ocalan. The chief of the PKK—an organization branded a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union—has retorted that his calls for dialogue were ignored.
Such a downward spiral will scarcely surprise de Bellaigue. Ocalan, “a dumpy fellow” nicknamed Apo, is portrayed in these pages as a “megalomaniac, a dangerously isolated autodidact.” His followers appear brainwashed. One young Kurdish woman, raised in exile in Scandinavia, is so full of “the incandescent wisdom of her leader” that she begins every sentence by quoting him. De Bellaigue concludes that “she has been pitted like fruit, her self-ness gouged out and stuffed with Apo’s rage.” Rebel lands—places where “the science of history has been so abused and neglected that it barely exists”—breed such arid anger. Exile is no less fruitful in this regard.
Some of the most powerful passages in Rebel Land concern exile. De Bellaigue describes the Turkish Armenians, Sunni Kurds, and Alevi Turks (all indistinguishable Turks to the Germans) scattered across the Berlin district of Kreuzberg and the town of Wuppertal, all of them orphaned in some form or another. To their loss de Bellaigue brings a fine sensibility and a particular empathy. His own mother, he writes, never “quite knew where she belonged,” having emigrated to Canada and returned to England before taking her own life when he was thirteen. As an adult, “I slowly, almost without realizing it, detached myself from any sense of collective destiny.” Until fatherhood brought an abrupt desire to instill in his children “a sense of belonging” and prompted in the author a hankering for “a place where I belong, from which never to stir.”
What, after all, all these decades later, is left of Varto, a town that is a victim of historical neurosis? It is a mirage to those who have left it, a house of shadows to those who remain. “Varto is no longer the district of Varto in the province of Mus,” de Bellaigue writes,
but the sum total of various diasporas: a Gundemir Armenian speaking from upstate New York; the PKK fundraisers in Berlin; scattered cousins in Yerevan and the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq. In time, with the indifference of the generations, even this Varto will cease to exist for its component parts will have drifted further downriver and been washed into the featureless ocean that someone once, with sublime optimism, named the global village.
From Yerevan, the capital of the little Republic of Armenia where a genocide memorial stands on a hill, Mount Ararat in Turkey is visible. De Bellaigue describes the view in this way: “To the west, on the other side of the Turkish border, there rises the glowing, incandescent, inaccessible past: Mount Ararat, Armenia’s eternal symbol, in enemy hands.” Has the author done justice to this mountain he clearly loves—“the skirts of Mount Ararat” were the scene of a joyous vacation with his Iranian fiancée—and so uncovered E.H. Carr’s objective shape within a contested symbol? I think he has come as close as is possible. For in the environs of Varto a mountain is not just a mountain, it is metaphor, and a blood metaphor at that.
It was in Yerevan that an angry Armenian showed de Bellaigue a silver belt bought from a Kurd on a visit to a village near Varto. The belt, inscribed in Armenian and dated 1902, was perhaps looted in 1915 during one of those scenes of mayhem and slaughter that de Bellaigue describes. It haunts the author. Now back in a terraced house in London, surrounded by “reassuring things” inherited from his mother, busy instilling that sense of belonging in his children, he asks himself a question:
Supposing these people, these things, were wrenched away from me by an ancestral enemy, supposing that I were robbed of everything in a matter of minutes—I suppose that I too would disregard those principles, of love and forgiveness, that were instilled in me painlessly as a child, and abandon myself to insatiable rage.
September 30, 2010