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Deportation or Genocide Essay
April 2005 issue
(An online Turkish journal)
Deportation in Essence or So-Called Genocide ... Does it Really Matter?
By Yigit Bener
Translated from Turkish for ANN/Groong
Exile or genocide? Massacre or self-defense? Should the historians decide or the politicians?
We are watching the debate as if we were watching a soccer match. Although we keep getting scored against, we still haven't lost our faith saving the game using new tactics: If we could just get our official history accepted, we are sure that we will have a great victory... We are proud. We are motivated. We get excited by the cues of our cheerleaders, and we wave our flags in support of our representatives on the playing field. Our anger overflows against the overcrowded opposing side in the stadium and the biased referees who keep making decisions unfavorable for us, and we mix angry profanities into our cheering and booing. And if somebody from our side of the stadium supports the opposing team, we really fly off the handle: while the most primitive among us wish to lynch them, our intellectuals condemn them as nationless. See, that's because this is a national cause. We are in the right, we are united, and we absolutely want to win the game.
Frankly, we aren't interested in exactly what happened in 1915; we leave the details to historians to sort out; besides, as ordinary people, we don't have much to say about those details. We believe in our elder experts: whatever is in our archives must be the truth!
In any case, the important thing is to disallow the mention of the word "genocide" without the "so-called" qualifier, and to define the event as "exile", `internecine fighting', and hopefully even more ambiguous, obscure terms that are hard to find in ordinary dictionaries. When we substitute those words, we will have won, you see.
Even if we assume that we are historically correct, and that our official thesis is accurate, and that it contains the truth and only the truth, don't you think there is something fishy and troublesome in the hostile attitude and the demeanor of a football fanatic that we adopt every time this issue comes up? The efforts of some of our retired diplomats and state historians to reduce what happened in 1915 to some "technical definition" or some arcane problem of legalese, their cold-blooded assertions that the real number of dead wasn't 1.5 million as the Armenian nationalists claim, and that "only" 300,000 were killed, mentioning it with a smirk on their faces, as if they just made a really clever move ... Don't you discern the crassness, rawness, and shamelessness in all that?
Even if we are content with our official numbers, are we so far removed from our humanity to forget that we are talking about the murder of THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND citizens of this country, including women, children, the old and the sick? In other words, let's assume that the Armenian nationalists are lying and slandering ... but don't you think we have at least a rudeness problem? When talking about the death of so many people in front of the whole world, don't you think we should at least use a more humane, more respectful language? So where are our famous customs and traditions that we are so boastful of?
Aren't we going to think about the meaning of the numbers we are willing to admit? After saying "The number of dead was just three hundred thousand; those Armenians are really exaggerating", is it easy to continue where we left off to wax lyrical about "how right we are in this national issue" with the same self-confident tone without thinking of the horror this number represents, without taking a moment to sincerely feel sorry, without sorrow, without wishing "condolences" to the grandchildren of the victims, and without feeling a particle of discomfort?
Are we ever going to face the forgotten human reality hiding behind the terms in our official thesis? For example, aren't we ever going to ask the question: "Just what does 300,000 people mean?". What kind of a number is 300,000? Is it close to the number of dead in the recent tsunami disaster in Asia? Or twenty times the number of dead in the Golcuk earthquake? Sixty times the number of Kurds killed in Halabja by Saddam? Twice the number of Turks in Cyprus? The size of a city like Chorum or Sivas?
If the number of dead in 1915 is "only" three hundred thousand instead of 1-1.5 million, can we sleep well at night? Does the image of three hundred thousand corpses put side by side look insignificant when viewed from a distance of 90 years? Are the lives of three hundred human souls that cheap?
Besides ... let's say that our official thesis is correct and those people that died were not systematically killed wholesale because of their being Armenian (that is, they were not subject to genocide or ethnic cleansing), and that they died inadvertently due to disease, accident, and one or two acts of banditry during a forced relocation. Does it really make that much of a difference in terms of the humanitarian and political responsibilities of the government?
Even if we assume that our official thesis is correct, aren't we going to ask those questions: Weren't the killed the citizens of the state that took the decision of exile? Weren't they under the protection of that state? Did the officials that made the decision to hastily remove such a huge number of civilians from Northeastern Anatolia to remote locations on foot really not know that a significant portion of them would die on the road? (furthermore, if we are saying that "not all of the exiled died", implying that a small proportion of them died, then we have to admit that the number of people forced into relocation was much, much higher than three hundred thousand!) Could they really not see what was about to happen?
If the decision to exile them was taken with the full knowledge of its consequences, was it not an act of cruelty? And if the responsible officials were unaware of the consequences of their decisions, and did not act with ill will, shouldn't they still be held accountable for such a terrible, terrifying decision that resulted in the deaths of three hundred thousand citizens? Isn't that decision itself a big enough crime? Aren't we going to question how much the "pasha"s cared about the lives of the civilians they accused of collaborating with the enemy when they led their own troops to oblivion in Sarikamish? Aren't we going to protest the mentality behind the decision for the forceful relocation?
It can be said that the rulers of the period had not taken that decision in a vacuum, and that it had a reason. Of course, the third leg of our official thesis states that, during wartime, Armenian organizations collaborated with the Russian and British imperialism, massacred Turkish villages, and that the decision for the expulsion was taken in self-defense.
But shouldn't we remind ourselves that the war in question was not a righteous war of independence, but a global war of imperialistic interests in which tens of millions of people died pointlessly? Under these conditions, when the rulers of the state sacrificed 90,000 soldiers in Sarikamish for their rabid adventures of Turanism, can we pretend that some elements of a crumbling empire would not be contemplating independence? Furthermore, how honest is it to close our eyes to the fact that the Ottoman rulers were collaborating with German imperialists, who were at least as ruthless and savage as the British and the Russians, and whose army general staff had considerable influence in the Ottoman army, and then turn around and accuse Armenians of collaborating with imperialists? Were "we" really so innocent in that war?
But even if we don't consider such arguments, assume that our official thesis is entirely truthful, and assume that Armenian bandits duped by the imperialists rebelled against their government and that they massacred the Muslim population ... Can we really ascribe the crimes of Armenian bandits to the entire Armenian population? In other words, even if there was a civil war, can a "collective punishment" resulting from "collective guilt" be defended at all?
If we look back into the past, can the reasons cited in our official thesis, which are used to justify the decision of forced expulsion that caused the death of three hundred thousand civilians, be still justified? If we analyze the events by contemporary standards of a nation of laws --even if we take wartime conditions into account-- can the actions of Armenian political organizations justify the forceful relocation of the entire Armenian civil population under the conditions of war? Can such a decision, regarding its essence and its humanitarian consequences, be still defended today?
Even if the official narrative is entirely truthful, as the citizens of today's Republic of Turkey, a country that signed the European convention on human rights, looking at it through the prism of a democratic regime of a country of laws, shouldn't we have declared that a decision that resulted in the death of so many people cannot be defended under any circumstances? Is it really so easy to trivialize what happened as a "simple tragedy" without accepting the above, and without facing the logical consequences of our thesis regarding the values we pretend to have today?
Even if we suppose that Armenian claims are libelous, don't you recognize a brusqueness that should bother every Turkish citizen of conscience (let alone the grandchildren of the killed), an ugly lack of respect for the memory of the deceased, and an unbelievable lack of concern about the feelings of their relatives when you see the spokespersons of the official Turkish thesis, their accusing of the victims, their demeanor in defending what was done, and the way they express their contempt of Armenians?
As long as we discuss the matter in this way, what difference does it make if it was a "so-called genocide" or an "exile in essence"?
Is this really about objecting to "unfair accusations of genocide"? Or, can it be that our inability to show the slightest respect to the memory of those who died in 1915, and our inability to express the smallest heartfelt regret are indications of something else? Say, do you think there is an entirely different mentality lying under spewing hatred towards the grandchildren of those that died, defending a decision that caused so much death, and glorifying the rulers of the time as heroes?
In fact, that is the crucial point: The official thesis and the manner in which it is defended rely on a line of thought that goes beyond trying to explain what was done 90 years ago, and extends into justifying "Armenians deserved what was done". Sometimes even that defense really gets out of hand and degenerates to a nonchalant "So what if we did it? We would do it again today". The problem is that the flag bearers of the official thesis appear to share the same ideology and the same sort of nationalism of the Ottoman rulers of that time. In other words, they seem to defend their own mentality and ideology by defending the forced deportation. Perhaps that is why they are so hostile, as they would be when caught in the act.
Do the creators of that narrative, who try to establish the supremacy of the chauvinism of Enver and Talat Pashas, an ethnic nationalism that is capable of not only sinking a huge empire, but also of destroying the Republic as well, realize that they go beyond even those who took the decision of forced deportation? Because, if those decision makers did not make that decision for the purpose of annihilation, as the official thesis claims, they could try to defend themselves by saying "If we knew so many people would die, we would not have done it". However, current defenders of that decision have no such excuse as they know what the consequences were: 90 years after a long-gone war, they still find the sacrifice of three hundred thousand civilians justifiable! Furthermore, their hateful rhetoric that accuses the Armenians for what happened to them has neither the excuse nor the cover given by "wartime conditions". The inability to display a humanitarian, rational behavior even after ninety years can only be explained by a certain ideological outlook, a well-known "deep state" mentality: a paranoid, aggressive, racist nationalism that views anyone who is not a "Turk" and does not think like them as enemy, and that intimidates the population by the purported existence of perennial internal and external enemies.
Those behind such rhetoric will say that Armenians also approach the matter with hostility, and from a nationalist/chauvinist angle, view history with a bias, and that especially the diaspora Armenians have turned the issue into a "raison d'etre", and add that Armenians also killed Turks during those times. They will also remind about ASALA's terror campaign for revenge, and the murders committed by them.
But is criticizing the chauvinism of one side, and talking about its acts of murder, equivalent to supporting the other side's chauvinism and excusing their acts of murder? Can't one be against all kinds of chauvinism and murder? Besides, the logic of nationalism and chauvinism is the same everywhere and they feed off one another; therefore there is no reason to suppose that Armenian chauvinism is any more humanitarian than Turkish chauvinism. This much is certain: there can be no good excuse for any massacre or any terrorist act. There is no "good" or "innocent" side in an inter-ethnic conflict. Regardless of his nationality, a murderer is a murderer. And every nation produces murderers. An Armenian that slaughters a Turk is a murderer, just as a Turk that slaughters an Armenian is a murderer. Whatever the pains endured by whomever, an entire nation cannot be declared "murderer", and a "collective guilt" of an entire people cannot be accepted.
On the other hand, let us not forget that whenever the murderers had lots of power, weapons, a state apparatus, and an army they caused that much more harm to humanity!
Apart from everything else, if we don't want to create conditions that lead the way to new massacres and fester new feuds and perpetual hatred by using the past events as excuses, all sides should hold their murderers to account, even if the crimes were committed against the "other" side. Every people must deal with its conscience itself, and face its own history. No one has the right to justify their shameful acts by using the acts of the "other side".
Now if we turn to ourselves, even our official thesis admits that three hundred thousand people died as a result of the decision to forcefully exile civilians. When are we going to understand that we cannot get anywhere with an ideology that defends or excuses a massacre, and even tries to present it as "righteous"!
In other words, it is not necessary to accept the Armenian theses, to pronounce the "genocide" without the "so-called" qualifier, or to talk about one million dead in order to move away from the ugly, shameless demeanor adopted by the majority of the defenders of the official thesis. The confessions contained in the official Turkish thesis are horrible enough!
In order to really be able to discuss the Armenian question, Turkey first of all must deal with its own official thesis, the confessions it contains, and manage to face those sad truths. Looking into the official Turkish thesis without putting on our chauvinistic glasses will suffice to show us that we need to approach the Armenian question from an entirely new perspective, and an entirely new attitude. Simply facing what has been admitted in our official thesis will force us to move towards a more humane and more ethical level.
It is impossible to seriously discuss the extent to which Armenian claims are true before understanding and sharing their pain, facing the human dimensions of the matter, and adopting a more humane attitude. We can never enter into a healthy dialog with the grandchildren of the "the other side" as long as we do not adopt an ethical approach to the events of 1915, the breaking point of our shared history. Indeed we cannot solve these problems without establishing a constructive dialog towards reconciliation among the grandchildren of all the sides that belong to various chapters of this land's history. And we haven't been able to for ninety years anyway!
Besides, let us not forget that some of those grandchildren with whom we have to reconcile are still the citizens of our country; they are Armenians of Turkey and are part of the national totality we define as "us". If Turkey is not a country that belongs to a single ethnic group, if it is truly a secular, unitary country based on the supremacy of the law, how can an exclusionary, insensitive, and unconvincing history on their ancestors be written?
Whatever was experienced in 1915, if we are not acting with "genocidal mentality" today, and our aim is not the complete erasure Armenian existence from this land, we cannot forget that the Armenians of this country are equal citizens of the Republic of Turkey, that since the Armenians in our neighbor Armenia share ancestry with them they share ancestry with us, and that we can only write our common history by coming together in that effort. Moreover, it is helpful to remember that even those diaspora Armenians, with whom we are so angry, are the grandchildren of the people who once lived on these lands, that their origins are in this soil, and that in their essence they are of this soil, and that they are our people and our relatives.
Objecting to the chauvinism and hostile manners of our side will encourage the other side to do the same, and will help those with similar, reconciliatory mentality. If we truly want to solve this problem, we need to abandon the "genocide match against the opposing team" mentality, and approach our common history from a humane perspective and with a view to understand, share, and transcend, rather than with the "war" mentality.
Besides, let us not forget that the ones that are going to ultimately decide on these issues are not the historians, the politicians, or the diplomats. The ultimate arbiters are those among the people of these lands who can judge the events of the past relying on their conscience. That is, we will decide, together, collectively. If the peoples of this land cannot agree on what transpired in the past, and cannot forgive one another, none of the diplomatic "victories" will have any meaning to anyone.
It is not necessary to be a historian, an archivist, a specialist of international law, or a retired diplomat. Because the problem is not "was it deportation or genocide?", or some other legal/technical matter. From a human perspective, as far as the pain suffered by people, what they have lost, and what we have lost are concerned, there is no difference between deportation and genocide! The fact is that, of the Armenians, who constituted a significant part of the population before the First World War, only a relative handful remain on these lands. Therefore, in terms of its consequences, there is no difference between deportation and genocide. Even if the Turkish and Armenian theses describe what happened in 1915 differently, there is no difference in terms of its human cost.
In order to understand what we lost in 1915, we need to be able to look into people's faces, not into the archives. Archives form a dimension that interests historians. Documents, treaties, conventions are of course important in the workings of a state. But in order to face our history, instead of looking at moldy, dusty documents in archives, we need to look into the eyes of our people, and manage to see their heartache.
The problem is that, even if we manage to convince everyone with our thesis, that would not bring back what we lost in 1915. Just as the symbolic apology resulting from having the genocide thesis accepted, or the decision of an international forum or an international court, or the compensation that may be paid can never bring back what we have lost ...
Because, regardless of whether you call it deportation, genocide, massacre, or internecine fighting, and regardless of whether you call it ethnic cleansing or a "tragedy", in the end "We" are the losers. In every war, in every division, in every separation, in every population-exchange, in every wave of emigration, every time a village was emptied, in every massacre, in every assassination, in every enmity, we, as the people of this land, lost, became less, became poorer. We killed one another, and we lost the "we" that gave his soil its richness.
So, there is nothing Turkey can win in the "genocide game". On the contrary, as long as we continue discussing the issue with a chauvinistic language and attitude we will forever lose the grandchildren of the Armenians we lost ninety years ago. We will have poisoned a new generation of Turkish and Armenian youths with inhuman hatred. We will have lost the right to be a civilized society.
Instead, if we can get rid of our chauvinistic blinders when looking at our past, if we can face what all of our people have lived through and the pains they suffered, if we share those pains, and if we manage to see what's lost as our loss, and if we accomplish that today, then maybe tomorrow we can win back the "we" that we lost yesterday, and reconstitute it with a new, common struggle.
It is still not too late to regain that richness.