Genocide Debate Haunts Turkey 100 Years After Armenia

Like Turkey’s government, Abdullah won’t bring himself to say the actions of his great grandfather a century ago amounted to genocide.

The 21-year-old Ankara student’s ancestor was among those who played a prominent role in the deportation that led to the killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as the Ottoman Empire crumbled during World War I. The centenary of the slaughter is being marked amid unprecedented international recognition that what happened was an act of genocide, to the fury of the authorities in Ankara who dispute the death toll.

“What happened was ethnic engineering,” said Abdullah, whose family name was withheld in case of reprisals. “Still, I don’t think my great grandfather made a mistake, he obeyed orders to relocate Armenians who rebelled against the state.”

As world leaders gather in the Armenian capital of Yerevan on Friday, Turkey’s denials have left the country increasingly isolated. Pope Francis and the European Parliament called on the government in Ankara last week to recognize the genocide, while Germany, Turkey’s largest trading partner in the European Union, is due to adopt the term for the first time on Friday.

Nektar Alatuzyan, 101, is among a dwindling group of survivors in Armenia. When Turks ordered the expulsion of residents of her village, her parents joined a band of Armenians who fought back for 53 days from Musa Dagh mountain in what became a legendary tale of resistance.

Putin, Kardashian

“Our house was full of weapons to defend ourselves,” said Alatuzyan, now almost blind and hard of hearing. “My father was a hero of seven villages.”

They escaped with their lives when a French ship on the Mediterranean coast rescued survivors of the revolt. Alatuzyan went on to have five children, 12 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren.

“The perpetrators of the genocide failed to achieve what they planned,” Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan told a forum in Yerevan on Wednesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Francois Hollande, whose countries both recognize the slaughter as genocide, will be among more than 60 delegations at Friday’s commemorations.

U.S. reality-TV star Kim Kardashian added to Turkey’s troubles when she stirred up global publicity about the genocide during a visit to Armenia, her family’s ancestral homeland, with her rapper husband Kanye West this month.

George Clooney brought Hollywood glitter to Armenian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan’s New York launch of the “100 Lives” project celebrating survivors in March.

Obama Pledge

Though he made a 2008 pre-election pledge to recognize the “Armenian genocide,” U.S. President Barack Obama is unlikely to use the term in his statement on the centenary, preferring not to alienate Turkey. The country hosts a U.S. air base at Incirlik and is a key defense ally in the Middle East.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will lead a presidential delegation in Yerevan and the U.S. will “urge a full, frank, and just acknowledgment of the facts,” according to a White House statement on Tuesday.

The genocide dispute is at the core of tensions between Armenia and Turkey, who have no diplomatic ties and face each other across a closed border. Turkey argues that, while atrocities took place, they were the consequence of war after some Armenians joined Russian troops fighting the Ottomans.

Gallipoli Clash

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan changed the date of a ceremony to mark the 1915 Gallipoli campaign to clash with the one in Yerevan, leading to a diplomatic tug-of-war with Armenia over attendance at the respective events. The British royal family and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be present for the Gallipoli memorial.

Turkey “can never accept such a sin, such guilt,” Erdogan said last week in reference to the genocide.

Some analysts say a tentative reassessment of the Turkish role has begun, however, pointing out that Erdogan offered Turkey’s first-ever condolences last year to descendants of Armenians killed in 1915.

“We remember with respect the innocent Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives and offer our deep condolences to their descendants,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a statement on Monday, while declaring that “reducing everything to one word” is “morally and legally problematic.”

Growing international recognition of the genocide is increasing pressure on Turkey “to more sincerely face its past,” Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, said by e-mail.

The Bandit

Abdullah said his relative, known as “Ali the bandit,” murdered an Armenian dignitary on the orders of Halet Bey, a member of the Ottoman parliament.

Pressure for change must come from the bottom up, according to Diana Yayloyan, an Armenian activist also studying in Ankara. Like Abdullah, she has also sought to challenge her upbringing in a conservative family that was driven from Turkey in 1915.

“In Armenia, we think that all Turks know the truth of genocide and they reject it,” said Yayloyan. “The problem is that the people in Turkey don’t know anything about it.”

All sides “need to uncover the past and learn from each other,” she said. “Then the politicians will follow.”

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