March 18, 2000
Historic events are ultimately interactions between people like you and me. That's why it can be exciting when people do great things - and horrifying when they do terrible things. And that's why too, there are often different versions of historic events - because the people involved are telling the stories from their own perspective, in their own way.
Has someone ever hurt you - only to later deny that what they did ever happened? Or maybe they made it sound like you deserved it? Can you remember how you felt?
On a much, much bigger scale, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people living in Turkey during the early 1900's is an example of this. Those people were Armenians, a Christian minority in a predominantly Muslim country - and the fact that an enormous amount of men, women and children died horrible deaths is undisputed. However, exactly how many people died and why - is still in dispute between the Turks and Armenians.
An Introduction to Armenia
Armenians have lived in the area around Mt. Ararat (the mountain where Noah's Arc is said to have landed), specifically between the Euphrates river in Turkey and the Caucus Mountains in Russia, for about 3,000 years. Their country was the first to officially accept Christianity - even before the Roman Empire did so in 300AD. From the early 1500s to the early 1900s Armenia was split in two - with the western half part of the huge Ottoman Empire and the eastern half under Russian domination.
For about 400 years Armenians lived in harmony with Turks under the Ottoman Sultans. While Turks were Muslim and Armenians were Christian - the two peoples were able to live and work together. Armenians lived peacefully in separate communities and villages, and were allowed to keep their national institutions, preserve their culture, religion and traditions.
Towards end of 1800s all this began to change. The idea of nationalism was sweeping Europe, causing people to want their own independent countries. The huge Ottoman Empire; which, at its height, controlled not only Turkey but the countries of the Balkan Peninsula; the islands of the eastern Mediterranean; parts of Hungary and Russia; Iraq; Syria; Palestine; Egypt; part of Arabia; and most of North Africa; was feeling the same pressure. Groups throughout it's were demanding independence. The Empire was beginning to crumble.
This nationalistic movement affected Armenians as well. Working for self-determination and an independent Armenia, revolutionary Armenian parties and groups developed within Turkey.
The main difference between Armenians and other minority groups seeking independence from the Ottoman Empire is that Armenians lived in Turkey - the heart of the Empire. For the Ottomans, giving Armenians independence was impossible "I would sooner allow to sever my head from my body than to permit the formation of a separate Armenia," said Sultan Abdul Hamid II, last of the Ottoman Sultans.
As the Ottoman Empire became weaker and weaker towards the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, the differences between Turks and Armenians - religious, cultural and economic - began to stand out. In addition to their fight for independence, many Armenians had sided with Russia during the Russo-Turkish War in 1877-78. Because of this, and added religious and social differences, Armenians became an easy target for Turkish hostilities.
From the 1890s to 1909, hundreds of thousands of Armenians, those involved in the fight for independence, as well as innocent victims, were killed in massacres ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Then, in 1908, a revolutionary party called the Young Turks replaced the Sultan's government. At first, this new government promised equality for minorities in the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and was supported by Armenians. Later on, however, extremist and nationalist groups took control. Their goal was a united, homogeneous Pan-Turkish state - ideally one that spread from Turkey, through Armenian lands, and into Central Asia.
In 1914, Turkey entered World War I -- joining Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria (the Central Powers) in the fight for dominance against the 28 countries of the Allied Powers, which included Russia, France, England and later, the US. Now, Armenia stood in the way between the Pan-Turkish ideal -- and was also a prime area for battle between Turkey and Russia. And it didn't help that many Armenians sided with Czarist Russia, seeing the Russians as "saviors" from Turkish oppression.
Over the next eight years, from 1915-1923, virtually the entire Armenian population of Turkey was wiped out. The numbers range from the official Turkish claim of 600,000, to the United Nations statistic of over 1 million, to the Armenian assertion that over 1.5 million people were killed. To Armenians and their supporters, these deaths were a "genocide" -- the systematic attempt to wipe out all Armenians in Turkey. Almost every Armenian family today has a personal tale of murder and horror. To this day, 80 years later, the Turkish government denies that this event was a systematic "genocide" and calls that claim "an Armenian myth". They officially insist that the numbers of people killed are smaller than what has been reported, and were a result of internal strife, a well intentioned need to "relocate" Armenians from out of a war zone and fears about Armenians joining up with the Russian side during World War 1. Regardless of the causes, motivations and exact numbers - the fact remains that this event was one of the largest and most brutal massacres of a single group of people in history.
The Turkish government began by rounding up and killing hundreds of Armenian political and intellectual leaders in 1915. They asked all Armenians to donate their personal weapons for the war effort. All the Armenian males between the ages 18-40 were mobilized into the Ottoman Army and placed into labor battalions. Here they were either killed outright or worked to death. Next, all the women, children and elderly left in the villages and towns were rounded up and "relocated" to the deserts of Syria. During this time, the occupants of entire villages were brutally massacred. Detailed personal accounts exist of torture, burnings, rapes, mutilations and decapitations - including bloodcurdling tales of the slaughter of pregnant women and infants. Many of the people who survived to tell these tales only did so because they were left for dead - often beneath the bodies of family members.
The Turkish government today takes no responsibility for the events. Their website states that the "large number of Armenian casualties occurred…mainly to disease, harsh weather, exposure, and hunger."
For Armenians, the relocation to Syria was a government organized "death march" from their homes into an uninhabitable desert. The few survivors and eyewitnesses recount tales of horror where people were starved, dehydrated, raped, and murdered along the way. Only one tenth of the deportees survived the march into the desert where they were then left to fend for themselves.
At the end of WWI, under pressure from the Allies (American and European governments), the Turkish government held war crimes trials and condemned to death the leaders responsible for the massacres. The Turkish court concluded that the leaders of the Young Turk government were guilty of murder. It maintained that the genocidal scheme was carried out with as much secrecy as possible and that a public facade was maintained of "relocating" the Armenians. The Young Turks were condemned to death for "the extermination and destruction of the Armenians."
In an interview published on August 1, 1926 in The Los Angeles Examiner; Ataturk, the founder of Modern Turkey and new Turkish leader; stated, "These leftovers from the former Young Turk Party...should have been made to account for the millions of our Christian subjects who were ruthlessly driven en masse, from their homes and massacred."
What does it matter if the Turkish government acknowledges that the massacres occurred? Why would it matter if the Turkish government admitted to planning the execution of hundreds of thousands of Armenians? Why would it matter that any government or group of people acknowledged a pain that they have caused others? Why would it matter that your friend apologized for something that she or he did to hurt you?
Because healing and forgiveness are not possible before this acknowledgement is made. And people will continue to hate and hurt each other until the facts are put into the open and the reasons are understood. This is important not only for the victims, but 80 years later, for the descendents of the perpetrators. Neither party can heal and move on until the painful topic is openly and honestly discussed.
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