The conflict between Armenians and Turks goes back years. Armenia became under the rule of Turkish Government during the 15th and 16th centuries. But peaceful relations between Armenians and ottoman Muslims had long been the norm: despite acts of discrimination, Armenians were referred to as ‘the loyal millet.’
The history goes that much of the tension between the Turks and the Armenians arose during the late 1800s, which prompted by a desire for more civil rights for the Armenians, who the sultan viewed as a threat. By the 1890s, young Armenians, educated in the universities of Europe began to press for political reforms in the Ottoman Empire, calling for a constitutional government, the right to vote and an end of discriminatory practices such as special taxes levied solely against them because they were Christians.
Demands by Armenian political organizations for administrative reforms in the Armenian-inhabited provinces and better police protection from predatory tribes among the Kurds only invited further repression.The Armenians were the only nationality between Anatolian Turks and the eastern Turks (by the late 1880s there were approximately 2,500.000 Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire), so the government decided to eliminate them completely so that they could never threaten the heartland of this new empire. During the reign of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), a series of massacres throughout the empire meant to frighten Armenians and so dampen their expectations, cost up to 300,000 lives by some estimates and inflicted enormous material losses on a majority of Armenians.
In 1908, a group of modernization-minded officers – ‘the Young Turks,’ toppled the Ottoman Sultan. At first, Armenians welcomed the new regime, viewing it as a progressive alternative to Ottoman despotism. But who could imagine that the ‘Young Turk’ movement would be rapidly taken over by a small group of fanatical nationalists, headed by the triumvirate Enver Pasha, Jemal Pasha and Talyat Pasha, who would plot the Genocide of the Armenian population.
At the center of the Young Turk Revolution stood the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which was formed in 1895. The most ideologically committed party in the entire movement, the CUP espoused a form of Turkish nationalism, which was xenophobic and exclusionary in its thinking. Moreover, the Young Turk Government adopted a policy of Pan Turkism – the establishment of a mega Turkish empire comprising of all Turkic-speaking peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia extending to China, intending also to Turkify all ethnic minorities if the empire. Thus, the Armenian population became the main obstacle standing in the way of the realization of this policy.
In 1909, between April 1 and 14 the first mass killings of Armenians was carried out by Young Turks in the Vilayet of Adana and some 30,000 Armenians were slaughtered. Here a reported 4,437 Armenian dwellings were torched, resulting in the razing of nearly half the town and prompting some to describe the resulting inferno as a ‘holocaust.’ For the Young Turks, the Adana massacre proved a rehearsal for gauging the depth of Turkish animosity in the Turkish government towards Christian minorities and for testing their skills in marshaling those forces for political ends. Following the massacre in Adana, the destructions of Armenians became more intense.
In October of 1911 the Young Turks convened a meeting, where a decision was made on Ottomanization of all the citizens of Turkey by force, as it was clear that nothing could be achieved through peaceful means. And although the decision for the deportation of all Armenians from Western Armenia was adopted in late 1911, the Young Turks used WWI as a suitable opportunity to solve the Armenian Question. Talyat Pasha, Enver Pasha, Jemal Pasha and Behaeddin Shakir Bay and others became in charge of annihilation of Armenians. At first, Dr. Nazim, one of the movement’s leading ideologues, traveled throughout the vilayets (provinces) of the Ottoman Empire calling for the boycott of the Armenian businesses. Then Enver Pasha, the idol of the Turkish revolution issued the order to form special battalions. Later, these units of violent criminals attacked, looted and burned thousands of shops in Dyarbekir. In October 1914, mass killings of Armenians were reported in Erzurum and Zeytun, not to mention that in the provinces, the Armenian bakers were publicly charged for poisoning the bread of the Turkish Army. In February 1915, Dr. Nazimorganized a closed session of the CUP Central Committee, where he said that ‘if this purge is not general and final, it will inevitably lead to problems. Therefore, it’s absolutely necessary to eliminate the Armenian people in its entirety, so that there is no further Armenian on this earth and the very concept of Armenia is extinguished. We are now at war. We shall never have a more suitable opportunity than this.’ (Quoted in G.S. Graber, Caravans to Oblivion: The Armenian Genocide, 1915, pp. 87-88)
In April, 1915 the regular Turkish troops began the non-stop attacks on the city of Van. Under the leadership of Aram Manukyan the Armenians organized a heroic defense, which lasted 36 days, resulting in the death of 55 thousand Armenians. Later, a handful of unarmed Armenians desperately defended themselves in Shabin-Karahisar, the native village of the well-known Armenian General Andranik.
After the events that the Turkish government had termed as ‘revolution of Van,’ the Armenians were declared ‘internal enemies’ of the Ottoman Empire. On the 24th of April in 1915, the first phase of the Armenian massacres began with a classic act of ‘elitocide.’ Under the cover of what was publically called a ‘resettlement program,’some 600 Armenian notables, including poets, intellectuals, and religious and community leaders in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), were arrested, tortured and executed. Such famous Armenians as Siamanto, Ruben Sevak, Daniel Varuzhan, Grigor Zohrap and other progressive minded intellectuals turned into the victims of the Turkish sword. This is why Armenians worldwide commemorate the April 24th as a day that memorializes all the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Also on that day five thousand of the poorest Armenians were butchered in the streets and their homes.
After getting rid of intellectual leaders, Turkey implemented the second phase of the genocide. Having conscripted some 300,000 Armenian males into the army, the Ottoman Turkish authorities later disarmed and killed them. The weapons collected from Armenians were distributed in neighboring Turkish villages. Next, there were mass arrests of Armenian men throughout the country by Turkish soldiers, police agents and bands of Turkish volunteers. The men were tied together with ropes in small groups then taken to the outskirts of their own town and shot dead or bayoneted by death squads.
The third phase of genocide comprised of massacres, deportations and death marches of Armenian women, children and the elderly, who were ordered to pack a few belongings and be ready to leave home, under the pretext that they were being relocated to a non-military zone for their own safety.Convoys consisting of tens of thousands of people were driven hundreds of miles toward the Syrian Desert known as Der Zor. The deportations were disguised as a resettlement program and the brutal treatment of the deportees made it apparent that the deportations were mainly intended as death marches. Besides, the policy of deportation surgically removed the Armenians from the rest of society and disposed of great masses of people with little or no destruction of property. So it was very easy for Muslim families to move into the homes of deported Armenians and seize their property.
It was during the deportations when the gender-specific abuse took place. Many died of starvation, but most of them were killed on the march in extremely barbaric fashion. The deportees, walking barefoot over mountain passes and through deserts, were regularly whipped, clubbed, beaten and sexually abused by their guards. Morphine overdoses was used to kill children. An Armenian woman from Mush told that 8 to 10-year-old girls were raped in front of the other deportees and subsequently shot since they could not walk as a consequence of the abuse. Everything depended on ‘the whim of the moment.’ Taking this into account, Armenian mothers would intentionally cut their own hair or keep the faces of their daughters dirty to make them look like unattractive and ugly with a hope to keep them from being raped.
Other gender-specific violations on death marches also include the numerous examples of women giving birth and having to leave their new-born to die, whether out of exhaustion or desperation. There are also several examples when pregnant women were having their wombs opened to cut out still unborn children. This perhaps not only meant to terrorize, but also to symbolize the complete destruction of the victim group, including the most vulnerable.
Abundant are examples of altruistic behavior by the deportees, as when mothers or grandmothers gave whatever food or water they had to the children, or when mothers decided to stay and die with their children rather than abandoning them.
One of the survivors of the genocide told that in Harput and Mesre the people had to endure such terrible tortures, as their eyebrows being pulled off, their breasts cut off, their nails pulled out, their feet cut off, or they hammer nails into them, just as they do with horses. The soldiers then would cry: ‘Now let your Christ help you!’
An American missionary testified to see, while traveling from Malatia to Sivas, an endless number of disfigured corpses all along both sides of the road for 9 hours running. According to the testimony of an Armenian survivor, Mustafa Sidki, Der elZor’s police chief, ordered some 2,000 Armenian orphans carried to the banks of the Euphrates, hands and feet bound. They were thrown into the river two by two to the visible enjoyment of the police chief who took special pleasure at the sight of the drama of drowning. Moreover, the Turks throw them off cliffs, crucified them and burned them alive.The roadside corpses and emaciated deportees were a shocking sight for foreigners working in Turkey.Eyewitnesses included German government liaisons, American missionaries, and U.S. diplomats stationed in the country.
In July 1915, there were virtually no Armenians remaining in Bitlis, Van, Dyarbekie, Sivas and Erzerum, only a part of the orphan boys were converted to Islam and adopted by the Turkish families.
Full-scale massacres and deportations of Armenians continued throughout 1916 and occurred with lesser intensity until 1923. Temporary relief for some Armenians came as Russian troops attacked along the Eastern Front and made theirway into central Turkey. However, the troops withdrew in 1917 upon the Russian Revolution. There were many Armenian survivors along with the Russian troops that settled in among fellow Armenians already living in the province of the former Russian Empire. Totally, nearly 500,000 Armenians gathered in this region. Reverend Vartan Hartunian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, remembers that during 1920, 1921, when he was a child of 5 to 6, he witnessed an Armenian church in which there were two thousand Armenian men, women and children taking refuge. The Turks surrounded the church and poured kerosene all around and set the church on fire, ready to shoot anyone who came out of the building.
World War I ended in November 1918 with a defeat for Germany and the Central Powers including Turkey. The Young Turk triumvirate; Talyat, Enver and Jemal abruptly resigned their government posts and fled to Germany where they had been offered asylum.However, a group of Armenian nationalists devised a plan, known as Operation Nemesis, to track down and assassinate the leaders of the genocide. In 1921 Talyat Pasha was assassinated in Berlin by Soghomon Tehlirian. Enver Pasha also fell from an Armenian in 1922 in a battle of Tajikistan. And Jemal Pasha was assassinated in 1922 in Tiflis by an Armenian Tzagikian. Efforts were made to restore Armenian territory, but without success.
The material losses of Armenians were truly enormous. The statistics shows that the population of 66 towns and some 2,500 villages of Western Armenia was slaughtered; 2,350 churches and monasteries were looted and destroyed and over 1,500 schools and colleges were ruined. The Western Armenia was deprived of its native population, the Armenians that used to be its permanent inhabitants for more than two thousand years. For many decades, the horrors inflicted upon the Armenian people were little-known in the outside world. “Who today remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” mused Adolf Hitler in 1939, as he ordered a merciless assault on the civilian population of occupied Poland. Taking into account all victims from the end of the 19th century, their number exceeds 2 million. In the early 1920s the Armenian population went from 2 million to virtually zero in Anatolia.
The Ottoman Empire ruled over all of Anatolia and significant parts of Europe, North Africa, the Caucasus and Middle East for over 700 years. Lands once Ottoman dominions today comprise more than 30 independent nations.
The Turkish government today denies the Armenian Genocide and does not acknowledge the enormity or scope of these events. The fact of admittance will mean that Turkey will have to respect the legitimate claims of Armenian people on their territories and material indemnification for the caused damage and suffering.
Genocide denial – the last stage of genocide, threatens everyone. It fuels current genocides and emboldens those who would commit future atrocities. If more attention had been centered on the slaughter of these innocent men, women and children, perhaps the events of the Holocaust might never have taken place.
The Genocide of Armenians has been recognized and condemned by the international community at various levels, starting from individual intellectuals to entire nations and countries.
April 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish government and denied to this day by its successors. And every year, on April 24, Armenians all over the world commemorate the murder of more than 1.5 million Armenians. 135 memorials and monuments dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide have been identified in 25 countries around the world, the largest of them being the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia’s modern capital. Built in 1966, the memorial is made of a series of 12 circular slabs forming a circle that symbolize 12 lost provinces (Armenian provinces in Turkey) and one 130-foot arrow-shaped stele of granite, reaching to the sky that marks the survival and spiritual rebirth of the Armenian nation. A 300-foot wall lists names of towns and villages where Armenians were known to have been massacred.
The Genocide Monument in Yerevan is dedicated to the memory of one and a half million Armenians who perished in the first genocide of the 20th century, at the hands of the Turkish government as victims of the Armenian Genocide.
In Tsitsernakaberd, one can also find the Armenian Genocide Museum, opened its doors in 1995, concurrently commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Genocide. Planned by architects S. Kalashian, A. Tarkhanyan and sculptor F. Araqelyan, the museum is a sacred site that embraces and reflects the memories and values for Armenians worldwide. It houses several large exhibitions, administrative, engineering and technical spaces. The exhibition space is over a thousand square meters, occupying three indoor halls and one outdoor hall and a halfway.The museum provides guided tours in Armenian, Russian, English, French and German.
Seventeen films documenting the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in English have been made. Among them five films that appeared at the turn of the 21st century (all of them by non-Armenian filmmakers) are well worth noting.They include: “I Will Not Be Sad in This World” (2001) – is about the daily life of a 94-year-old survivor of the Armenian genocide; “A Wall of Silence” (1997) – focuses on the recognition of the genocide by the Turkish government; “The Armenians: A Story of Survival” (2001); the documentary films “The Great War” and “The Shaping of the Twentieth Century” (1997) – about Armenian history and World War I respectively, both with short sequences about the Armenian genocide.