Sunday, January 4, 2009
The country in the mountainous parts of the South Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, known to its people as Hayq (later Hayastan), is a land at a strategic location between two continents, the juncture of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. As is the way with such situations, the people inhabiting this strategic location often suffered foreign invasion, occupation and oppression. Despite periods of autonomy, over the centuries the Hai, the Armenians, came under the sway of various empires including the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Persian, and Ottoman.
The contemporary Hayastani Hanrapetut῾yun (Republic of Armenia), the successor state to the Armyanskaya Sovetskaya Sotsialisticheskaya Respublika (Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic), occupies only some of the Armenian ancestral lands and only one-fifth of the world's Armenian population lives within this "Eastern Armenia". The other parts of "Greater Armenia" are now within Türkiye Cumhuriyeti (the Republic of Turkey), parts of Iran and Syria.
Armenians are one of the world's most dispersed peoples. Large Armenian Diaspora communities can be found in Russia, the United States, France, Iran, Georgia, Syria, Lebanon, Argentina, Ukraine, and Poland. Smaller communities exist elsewhere within countries on each of our world's habitable continents.
Can the human condition as experienced today by an Armenian be understood without first learning what causes so many of them to have left their homeland?
No, one can only genuinely comprehend the current human condition as experienced by Armenians after reflecting upon the Hamidian massacres carried out by Hamidiye Alaylari in the 1890s on the orders of the then ruler of the Devlet-i Âliye-yi Osmâniyye (Ottoman Empire) Abdü’l-Hamīd-i sânî, and more so, only after reflecting upon what Armenians call the Mec Ejer'n (Great Calamity) -- the fatal forced relocation and tremendous massacres of a great many Armenians during the regime of the Jön Türkler (Young Turks) from 1915 to 1917.
Debate over what happened to Armenians in the last decade of the Ottoman Empire remains acrimonious about a century later, and its ramifications are wide-reaching. Diplomatic relations between the governments of Armenia and Turkey remain frozen because of the dispute. Every Turkish government for almost a century now has passionately denied that a genocide took place. Armenia insists on a Turkish confession for 'genocide' and an apology.
Many people around the world see Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide as a prerequisite for Turkey's admission into the European Union. Yet, the European Union has said Turkish acceptance of the Armenian genocide is not a condition for Turkey's entry into the bloc. In late 2007, President George W. Bush rebuffed a proposal before the United States Congress to pass a resolution formally recognising the genocide, for fear of jeopardising relations with Turkey, which is a key ally of the United States. Both Democrat presidential contenders, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama committed to recognising the Armenian genocide if elected President.
However, as noted by Onnik Krikorian, a freelance photojournalist and writer from the United Kingdom based in Yerevan, on his Frontline blog campaign promises should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Previous US presidents have reneged on their own campaign promises to recognise the genocide, and although President Obama is expected to buck the trend, remains to be seen what Barack Obama decides.
The dispute about whether it was a 'genocide' centres on the question of pre-meditation, that is on the degree to which the killings were orchestrated. Scholarship on the issue is dominated by two strands, both perhaps too often presenting argument that is too simplistic. The over-simplified arguments given on each side are then taken up in nationalistic slanging matches between those who care little for scholarship.
One of these two strands of scholarship is Turkish nationalist, and it does not accept the word 'genocide' as an accurate description of the events. This strand tries to deny that 'genocide' occurred, and contends that most of the Armenians who died were killed as a direct result of their rebellion (seen by Turks as treacherous behaviour and therefore warranting the relocation program, an ethnic cleansing measure which is generally not denied by them). Some who deny the Armenian genocide go as far as claiming that the high Armenian death toll was due to civil war among the Armenians. The arguments put forth by the deniers suffer from over-simplification, too often downplaying, for example, the connection between official decisions to implement a 'deportation process' and its horrific effects on those human beings who were subsequently 'processed.'
The other strand comes primarily from Armenian diaspora scholars. They argue that a genocide did, in fact, occur. The arguments presented by this side of the debate are sometimes also over-simplified, being framed in ways that understate some important situational factors. Sometimes overlooked or understated are issues such as the late 19th century decline of the millet system in the "Sick Man of Europe, the perceived "threat to power" posed by the Hay Dat idea taking hold at a time of "awakening" Armenian nationalism, the roles of the Dashnak and the Huntchakians, and that of the Kamavor, Fedayi - their call to arms: "Freedom or Death!"
It is clear, at least to those who choose to look, that the Armenians suffered in the last decades of their domination by the Ottomans. Under Sultan Abdul Hamid there was no day that in any Armenian city or village, some people were not murdered. In 1890, Hamid II created a a body of Kurdish irregular cavalry known as the Hamidiye. He created it to "deal with the Armenians as he wished." What followed were large-scale and widespread massacres of the Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, from Sasun in August 1894 to Tokat in February and March 1897. These were the first near-genocidal series of atrocities committed against the Armenian population within the Ottoman Empire.
Armenians raised some self-defence. The Hay Heghapokhakan Dashnaktsutiun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), founded in Tiflis (Tbilisi in modern day Georgia), organised in 1894 various efforts to help the people of Sasun defend themselves against Hamidian purges. The Armenians of Sassoun confronted the Ottoman army and their Kurdish irregulars, but succumbed to superior numbers. The Sultan's men then burned the cathedral of Urfa, in which three thousand Armenians had taken refuge.
By 1896, the Ottomans had turned their attention on the Armenians of Van. At the start of that year, in his report to his ambassador in Constantinople, the British Vice Consul Major Williams speaks of a large number of Armenian villages "which have been looted ... Generally speaking the situation is very bad; the Armenians are everywhere in a state bordering on panic, afraid lest the spring will bring still further disasters ... ." The report he wrote in February speaks of Kurds killing the Armenians and Turkish military commanders practically condoning these murders.
To restrain the Kurd Hamidiye, Armenians began to organise retaliatory surprise raids, some open combat actions. Some resorted to the tactics of terrorism, aiming to intimidate the perpetrators of terrible acts against their people and those who supported those acts. After a week of fighting, the Sultan sought assistance from Western powers to end the fighting, in exchange for the safety of the Armenians in Van. Following negotiation making clear that they were acting only in self-defense, the Armenians agreed to leave for Persia escorted by Ottoman troops. En route they were massacred. Before the month was over, hundreds of villages were destroyed and 20,000 Armenians in Van were killed.
The massacres of Sasun and Spaghank in May 1900, Diarbekir in November 1900, Mush and Sasun, again, in September 1901, and Bitlis and Van in January 1902, seem to have faded from collective memory outside of Armenian traditions where we have tended to overlook this series of massacres and concentrate on the events of 1915.
Regardless of his effort to eliminate the threat he perceived, power was soon taken from the Red Sultan. The revolution was not one launched by the Armenians, but rather by Jön Türkler (Young Turks). In July 1908 the political structure of Empire was forever changed. Within a year, the Armenian population, empowered by the Sultan's dismissal, began organising politically in support of the new government, which promised to place them on equal legal footing with their Muslim neighbours.
In 1909, a military revolt directed against the İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti (Committee of Union and Progress) had seized Istanbul. While the revolt lasted only ten days, it had precipitated a month long massacre of Armenians in the province of Adana. The forces loyal to the Sultan wrested control of the governnment out of the hands of the secularist Young Turks, and Abdul Hamid II had briefly recovered his dictatorial powers. According to one source, when news of a mutiny in Istanbul arrived in Adana, speculation circulated among the Muslim population of an imminent Armenian insurrection. Initially mobs attacked the Armenian quarter in Adana, killing a few thousand Armenians over the next two day. Then the violence against Armenians spread out into the wider district. The manner in which the massacres were carried out was eerily reminiscent of that of previous massacres. By the end of the month as many as 30,000 Armenians were reported killed.
The massacres inflicted by Turks and Kurds on Armenians in these years before the 1915 atrocities are recalled by Armenians as the "Great Massacres." Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed in pogroms which were executed to scare a population believed to be on the verge of seeking independence, back into submission. They were designed to strike a severe blow to Armenian efforts to organise politically. They occurred in peacetime, with none of the exigencies of war invoked as justification for the 1915 'deportation process' and its deathly consequences. They reflected, in effect, an almost totally one-sided war waged on the Armenians by the forces commanded by a man who feared the Armenians becoming increasingly confident, prosperous, independent, and, perhaps in time, ready to rise and fight to become free to govern themselves.
Then came the Great Calamity, inflicted upon the Armenians after Enver Pasha blamed Armenians for the defeat of his forces in the Battle of Sarykamysh. In 1914, there were just over 2 million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire, the majority in the Armenian homelands (what is now eastern Anatolia). By 1918, no more than 100,000 were left in those lands, and over half a million refugees were scattered across the Middle East, South America, Europe and the Soviet Union.
I've no doubt there will be continuing debate about whether the Great Calamity was genocide or otherwise. It has become a question now closely connected to the issue of identity -- Armenian and Turkish.
The Turkish state tries hard to keep mention of 'Armenian Genocide' out of Turkish historiography; its founding myth denying not only a genocide of Armenians, but the very existence of non-Turks in Asia Minor. Identifying Armenian killings as genocide is considered an insult against Turkish identity, a crime under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. It has prevented a normal dialogue in which the genocide question can be openly discussed.
News Archive for Armenia
Wikimedia Atlas of Armenia
Amnesty International: Human Rights in Armenia
Global Peace Index Rank 2010: 113
Human Development Index: 0.777 (Rank 2008: 83)