100 years on Turkey faces global disgust at its refusal to admit butchering over a MILLION Armenians
- In 1915 the rulers of the Ottoman empire turned their hatred on Armenians
- The Young Turks persecution of the minority turned to unbridled savagery
- Modern Turkey faces disgust over refusal to admit the historic genocide
- WARNING GRAPHIC IMAGES
She was in bed when the soldiers came in the middle of the night and dragged her father out of the family home in Diyarbakir, a city in eastern Turkey.
The last thing little Aghavni (her name means ‘dove’ in her native Armenian) heard as she cowered in her room was his shout of defiance: ‘I was born a Christian and I will die a Christian.’ Not until first light did Aghavni dare to creep downstairs on that morning 100 years ago. ‘I saw an object sticking through the front door,’ she later remembered. ‘I pushed it open and there lay two horseshoes nailed to two feet.
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‘My eyes followed up to the blood-covered ankles, the disjointed knees, the mound of blood where the genitals had been, to a long laceration through the abdomen to the chest. ‘I came to the hands, which were nailed horizontally on a board with big spikes of iron, like a cross. The shoulders were remarkably clean and white, but there was no head. ‘This was lying on the steps, propped up by the nose. I recognised the neatly trimmed beard along the cheekbones. It was my father.’ The year was 1915. In the sprawling, beleaguered Ottoman Empire — an ally of the German Kaiser in the world war that had engulfed Europe and parts of Asia for nine months — the ruling Turks had turned their hatred on the 2 million men, women and children of Armenian extraction who lived within their borders.
The Armenians — who lived on the eastern edge of the empire ruled from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) — were Christians and had been since the year 301, making theirs the first nation officially to adopt Christianity, even before Rome. But here, among the Islamic Turks, they had long been second-class citizens, a persecuted minority. Now, as power in the land was seized by a junta of nationalist officers known as the Young Turks, persecution turned to unbridled savagery.
Those who weren’t put to death on the spot, their faith cruelly mocked — such as Aghavni’s father, a mild-mannered, cultivated spice merchant who spoke five languages — were hounded in columns, eastwards, into the deserts of Syria and Iraq to die. Their remains are long turned to dust, but the controversy that surrounds those terrible events is as alive as ever. Just this week at mass in St Peter’s in Rome, the Pope heralded the upcoming centenary of the first killings on April 24 by describing the slaughter of the Armenian Christians as ‘the first genocide of the 20th century’ — only to be ticked off by Turkey in no uncertain terms for inflammatory remarks.
Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Vatican and accused the Pope of spreading ‘hatred and animosity’ with ‘unfounded allegations’. The Turks take objection to the word ‘genocide’ — first coined in the 1940s to describe what the Nazis did to the Jews, but also ever since applied to the 1915 massacre of the Armenians. Not true, has always been the official response from Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s capital. Hundreds of thousands died in that era, they admit, (though they dispute the numbers are anywhere near as high as claimed). But this, they maintain, happened as a result of chaotic wartime conditions, civil strife, starvation and in response to Armenian violence, not because of a deliberate, officially organised and systematic plan to eliminate an entire people.
None of it, they continue to insist a century on, was sanctioned from on high. What seems to trouble the Turks is admitting that their country was founded in modern times on a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing.
They may also be concerned that an admission will bring an avalanche of demands for reparations and, at the very least, the return of land and wealth seized back in 1915. So they protest their innocence of genocide, even though historians who disagree have formed long queues over the years with convincing and detailed evidence that this is precisely what took place. So, too, have international lawyers, among them most recently Amal Clooney, the glamorous human rights barrister and wife of Hollywood actor George Clooney. In court in Switzerland earlier this year, she took up Armenia’s case and challenged a nationalist Turkish MP who maintained in public that the Armenian genocide was an ‘international lie’. There should be no doubting the reality of genocide that Armenian people suffered a century ago, she insisted.
Another celebrity rooting for the Armenians over the injustice they have suffered is, perhaps surprisingly, the reality TV star Kim Kardashian, whose ancestors were lucky to flee to the U.S. from Armenia just two years before the massacres.
Showing a serious side not normally seen, she says that ‘until this crime is resolved truthfully and fairly, the Armenian people will live with the pain of what happened to their families’. This week, she visited the country with her family to lay flowers at its memorial to the victims. In Turkey, to express such views is dangerous. Public debate is stifled by a law that bans ‘insulting Turkishness’ and has been invoked against those who speak out — including a Nobel Prize winner, whose books were burned by protesters.
Another writer was gunned down in the street in Istanbul by an offended ultra-nationalist, who shouted ‘I shot the infidel’ as he delivered the fatal shot. Turkey has also been accused of belittling the Armenian centenary by bringing forward its commemorations of Gallipoli, the bloody 1915 battle on the Turkish peninsula, from the traditional April 25 date to clash with the April 24 memorial.
Outside of Turkey, the position is strangely confused. Around two dozen countries acknowledge the truth of the Armenian genocide, despite often strong-arm diplomacy by Turkey to dissuade them and put Ankara’s gloss on past events. They will be greatly heartened by the Pope’s stance. But others have chosen to sit on the fence, notably the United States, unwilling to cross swords with a Nato ally that is geographically so close to Russia.
Before coming to office, President Obama promised his nation’s one million people with Armenian roots that he would recognise that genocide had occurred, but has not yet dared to utter the word, hiding behind the less-damning Armenian phrase ‘Medz Yeghern’ — the great crime or the great catastrophe. Yet, ironically, it was an American who first made the world aware of what happened. Back in 1915, Henry Morgenthau was the U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and on his desk in Constantinople landed reports from American consuls in far-flung Turkish cities, documenting massacres and death marches.
He concluded: ‘I do not believe the darkest ages ever presented scenes more horrible.’Unleashed on the Armenians, Turkish policemen and soldiers ransacked Christian churches and handed bishops and priests over to the mob. Community leaders such as doctors and teachers were hanged in batches on gallows in town squares. An American missionary reported seeing men tied together with their heads sticking through the rungs of a ladder to be lopped off with swords.
Torture was commonplace, Morgenthau maintained as he studied the evidence. ‘They would pull out eyebrows and beards almost hair by hair, extract fingernails and toenails, apply red-hot irons and tear off flesh with pincers, then pour boiled butter into the wounds.’Crucifixion was treated as a sport. ‘As the sufferer writhes in his agony, they would cry: “Now let your Christ come and help you”.’When orders were given to assemble all the Armenians and march them out into the desert, Morgenthau had no doubt that this was ‘the death warrant to a whole race’. Moreover, he said: ‘In their conversations with me, the authorities made no particular attempt to conceal the fact’.
He wrote graphically of how men were taken from their ploughs, women from their ovens and children from their beds to join ‘the panic-stricken throng’. Young men were strung up or shot — ‘the only offence being that they were Armenians’. Convicts were let out of prison to help with the killings. Locals joined in, too. In Ankara, all Armenian men aged 15 to 70 were bound in fours and led out to a secluded valley, where Turkish peasants hacked them to death with scythes, spades and saws.
‘In this way, they exterminated the whole male population.’ For six months, as the enforced exodus went on, Morgenthau reported, roads and tracks were crowded with lines of Armenians. ‘At first, all I could see was smoke. Then I saw the fire coming off their bodies, and their screaming became unbearable.
‘The children were being whipped furiously now, as if the burning mothers had excited the soldiers, and they admonished the children to clap faster and faster, telling them that if they stopped they, too, would be set on fire. ‘As the women collapsed in burning heaps, oozing and black, the smell of burnt flesh made me sick and I fainted.’ On the death march out into the desert, Aghavni remembered how women were openly tortured and abused. ‘If a woman would not readily submit to sex, she was whipped and, if she tried to run away, she was shot.’ She could only watch in horror as a girl resisted and a policeman took out his sword, ripped open her dress and then slashed off her breasts. ‘They fell to the ground and she bled to death next to them.’ Aghavni survived her ordeal — one of the few to do so. She lived, eventually making her way to America to give her first-hand account of a genocide that the Turkish authorities are still adamant did not take place.
Armenia survived, too, as a country — becoming independent for a while after the break-up of the Ottoman empire, before being sucked into the maw of the Soviet Union for 70 years, from which it emerged as a state in its own right in 1991. This week, Turkey’s president declared that Armenians pressing Turkey to recognise massacres as genocide are simply trying to score points against his country. ‘Their aim is not to search for the truth, but to attack Turkey and cause it harm,’ he contends.
But such defiance flies in the face of history. Arnold J. Toynbee, a British intelligence agent at the time (and later a distinguished historian), wrote that ‘all this horror was inflicted on the Armenians without a shadow of provocation’.
He heard, back then, the Turkish argument that there was a war on and the Armenians were traitors, ‘but such excuses are entirely contradicted by the facts’. ‘None of the towns and villages from which they were systematically deported to their death were anywhere near the hostilities. The Ottoman Government cannot disguise its crime as a preventive measure.’ Toynbee wrote this in 1916. That in 2015 Turkey is still insisting on rewriting history should concern us all — not least because in a world where Islamic forces are, once again, brutally targeting Christians in the Middle East and Africa, the lessons of the past need to be faced and finally learned.