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Turkey wrestles with century-old legacy of Armenian massacres

DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY: When as a child Nezahat Eleftos discovered a bundle of photographs stashed in a family chest, her grandmother made a confession: some showed her Christian brothers who perished in mass killings in southeast Turkey during World War One.

For nearly four decades, Eleftos tried to guard her grandmother Zarife’s secret that she too had been born a Christian Armenian – and not a Muslim Kurd like all her neighbors in Onbasilar, a village set in the rocky hills of Turkey’s Diyarbakir province.

“But they knew. They insulted us, called us infidels,” said Eleftos, 48, her greying hair tucked behind a white scarf.

Eleftos is now ready to talk about her family’s Armenian origins as attitudes in the Kurdish community change. “Now Kurds are the friends of Armenians. I am proud to be both,” she said.

A century after the killing of Zarife’s brothers and hundreds of thousands of other Armenians in Ottoman Turkish lands, stories like Eleftos’s are cracking a wall of silence among Kurds, who make up 20 percent of Turkey’s population.

Kurds are helping to rebuild churches, putting up Armenian candidates for national elections and apologizing for their forebears – who participated in the massacres in return for promises of Armenian property in this world and a place in the next for killing non-believers.

Crucially, the Kurds recognize the massacres that began 100 years ago this week as a genocide. This contrasts to the rest of the country, where most Turks reject Armenian assertions that 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered in a genocide.

Most Western scholars and two dozen governments also regard the events of 1915 as a genocide against a civilization that flourished in what is now modern Turkey for four millennia.

Turkey, which has no diplomatic ties with Armenia, argues that as many, if not more, Muslims died in the turmoil of a war that destroyed the Ottoman Empire. The modern Turkish Republic was built on its ashes in 1923.

The dispute flared this month when Pope Francis called the massacres a genocide, prompting Turkey to summon the Vatican’s envoy and recall its own. Germany is set to use the term genocide on April 24, the date in 1915 when it began.

This has angered President Tayyip Erdogan, who implied he could have “deported” the 100,000 people Armenian nationals living in Turkey. The choice of words was emotive: Most Ottoman Armenians died during their deportation to the Syrian desert.

HIDDEN FOR A CENTURY

Yet some survived, changing their names, religion and culture to hide their origins. As many as 200,000 Armenians assimilated to stay alive, said Taner Akcam, a rare Turkish genocide scholar and historian at Clark University in Massachusetts. A million or more of their descendants may live in Turkey, though precise numbers are unknown.

Most of these “Islamicized Armenians” were young women taken as second wives or orphaned children, like Zarife, who was 12 in 1915. She watched armed men line up and shoot seven siblings before fleeing to the hills, where Eleftos’s grandfather, a soldier, found her. He entrusted her to a Kurdish family, and when he returned, he married Zarife, by then a Muslim.

“She did not want to share her story. She was still afraid, she felt shame. I kissed her hands and begged her to tell me,” Eleftos recounted.

Such testaments make history harder to deny in the southeast, said Abdullah Demirbas, the Kurdish mayor of the ancient Sur district in the city of Diyarbakir.

Diyarbakir, where a third of the population was once Armenian, was a center of the World War One killings. Demirbas said his community had began to recognize the wrong inflicted on the Armenians after the 1980s and 90s, when the Turkish army and Kurdish militants fought in the region. About 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, died before a ceasefire was declared in 2012.

“This is why there is self-recrimination. If we hadn’t been foolish, it wouldn’t have happened to us too,” Demirbas said outside the 19th century church of St Giragos, which was restored in 2011 with help from the city.

RECONCILIATION

The Middle East’s largest Armenian church, St Giragos served a dwindling congregation until the last priest departed in 1985. Now 300 or more descendants of survivors, a handful of whom have converted to Christianity, have emerged in Diyarbakir.

During an Easter service at St Giragos, which stands in Sur’s walled warren of medieval streets, 40 people received communion from a priest sent by the patriarchate in Istanbul.

It is part of a wider reconciliation between Kurds and Armenians. Unlike the rest of Turkey’s parliament, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) recognizes the genocide.

Garo Paylan, 42, is one of three Armenians running on the HDP ticket in a June general election, hoping to become the first Armenian lawmakers in half a century. The two biggest parties are also fielding one Armenian candidate each.

Paylan traces his political awakening to 2007, when Hrant Dink, the editor of the Armenian newspaper Agos, was shot by a teenage gunman who was later linked to the security forces.

“Hrant was cut down trying to shed a light on the genocide, making the lie unsustainable … People saw that until this 100-year-old wound heals, Turkey will be crippled,” Paylan said.

After Dink’s murder, the government stopped prosecutions for use of the term genocide. Cultural events on 1915 sprang up, and dozens of books published abroad were translated into Turkish.

NEW TONE

The government’s tone toward Armenians has softened, and last year Erdogan expressed condolences for the loss of life.

For the first time, a cabinet minister will join services on Friday’s anniversary at the Armenian Patriarchate, which has stopped short of using the term genocide, opting instead for “Great Calamity”.

Turks believe calling the deaths genocide would mean admitting a historical lie. They say there is no evidence central authorities ordered the violence, a crucial point as the men who founded modern Turkey had previously served the empire.

“We would have to accept that a significant number of our founding fathers participated in the genocide or became rich from pilfering. It’s very difficult for any nation to declare its liberation heroes were murderers and thieves,” Akcam said.

Fears that other groups, such as Assyrians and Greeks, could also clamor for genocide recognition, and worries about onerous reparations are further deterrents, Akcam said.

This month, lawyer Cem Sofuoglu filed a suit for a client seeking access to state archives to search for assets in the eastern city of Van where most of his family was killed in 1915.

The client asked to be identified only by his new baptismal name of Sahak. The family learned from Sahak’s grandmother their roots were Armenian and their property in Van had been seized.

Sahak discovered that his great-aunt, who fled Van in 1915, had been posthumously stripped of her citizenship in 1964. Sahak has since successfully petitioned for it to be reinstated but has been denied documents that could prove there was property.

“She died alone in a pauper’s grave, tossed away,” he said. “They may never admit it was a genocide, but they cannot deny my family existed. I bear witness.”

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