611) Turks and Armenians

The morning of Nov. 26, 1915 was just another day at the front for Mustafa, son of KaraoÄŸlanoÄŸullarından Hüseyin. Mustafa was only 27 and served in the Ottoman Third Army, 37th regiment, 2nd battalion, 4th squadron on the eastern front in EleÅŸkirt. He was from a small village called Oymide near Çubuk, a county north of Ankara, and was sent to fight the invading Russian army..
Those were critical days of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was fighting a war of existence in the heartland of Anatolia. He was killed in combat on that day by Armenian forces serving in the Russian army. Mustafa, son of KaraoÄŸlanoÄŸullarından Hüseyin, was my great grandfather.

There is nothing extraordinary about the story about my grandfather. Many Turks have similar stories to tell. Many of them like my family have suffered from the tragic episodes of World War I. So did the Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire who were residing in the eastern provinces, which had become a war theater. They were resettled in areas that were deemed less sensitive at a time of war. Many of them were harshly treated, robbed and killed throughout the journey. It was a sad affair for the citizens of the Ottoman Empire, be they of Christian or Muslim origin.

Independent reports are unmistakable about the prevailing poverty, desperation and lawlessness in the region. Turks, Kurds, Armenians and occupying Russians collided on the eastern Anatolian front in the midst of a raging war. For us Turks, those days constituted an existential struggle against the invading Russians that entered eastern Anatolia with a distinct sense of vengeance and psychology built up since the days of Peter the Great. For Armenians also those were existential days.

Unfortunately, my mother never got to meet her grandfather as he died on that fateful day long before she was born. I remember my grandfather being proud about a letter which acknowledged the service of my great grandfather by the Turkish General Staff. However, I also saw many times the sense of loss and sorrow in his eyes when the issue came up. There is no doubt that the sense of loss and sorrow is equally saddening to those Armenians who died in eastern Anatolia during those momentous years. To this day Anatolia has not been able to recover from the cultural and social loss of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.

That said, we Turks never felt the need to draw attention to our losses of those dramatic years. We view ourselves as the sons and daughters of a great multiethnic empire. An empire whose millions of citizens were forced to migrate from the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East to their last refuge -- Anatolia. The ethnic milieu that makes up today's Turkey carries with it the hardships, sufferings and losses of those millions of Turks who had to leave their land, property and memories in their villages and cities that were home to them for centuries. Off they were forced to migrate from Adygea, Kosovo, Crete, Thessaloniki, Damascus and many other Ottoman territories.

We made a new start with the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and understood that the empire was no more. We recognized that we should disassociate ourselves from the memories of grandeur and imperial thinking that extended Ottoman rule from the gates of Vienna to the holy city of Mecca. We also buried our losses in our memories and chose to open a new page in our national psyche. We know that others too, the Armenians in particular, suffered immensely from the upheaval of the eastern front of World War I. However, the fact that we did not choose to propagate our losses and suffering from that tragedy does not mean that it did not occur.

The international discourse on the Armenian issue has acquired such a one-sided and fixed interpretation that dissenting or questioning voices are even barred from presenting new historical evidence. An increasing number of historians are coming forward with evidence that would at least warrant an intellectual debate on the issue. Worse, the issue is consistently being utilized for domestic political consumption in Western national parliaments. The Armenian diaspora's obsession with ?genocide recognition? only serves to poison the relationship.

Normalization of relations between Turks and Armenians requires recognition that both Turks and Armenians suffered immeasurably from the events in 1915-1916. Ironically, the push to qualify the events of 1915 as ?genocide? take place at a time when the Turkish debate on the issue is most lively and liberal. The Turkish intelligentsia is intensely debating the issue. There is no doubt that the publication of Talat Pasha's private archive by the daily Hürriyet will shed further light on the events of 1915. We have yet to see a similar willingness from our Armenian colleagues to help unearth what occurred in 1915-1916. For instance, our Armenian colleagues rarely acknowledge the revenge killings of Armenians who served in the invading Russian army. Also, we have yet to see Armenian criticism of the terror unleashed by ASALA in the 1970s and 1980s, which claimed the lives of dozens of Turkish diplomats.

All in all, the future of Turkish-Armenian relations should not be reduced to the acknowledgement of a legal term whose retrospective applicability is rather questionable. Although I mourn the loss of my great grandfather, I understand that those events occurred in a particular war context. Neither my great grandfather nor the Armenian killing him had control over the reshaping of the entire region in the fall of 1916. Turks and Armenians need a fresh start that finds common solace in the recognition that both sides suffered immensely and the future can only be built upon that premise.

April 26, 2006
Opinion by Suat KINIKLIO�LU



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