As centenary of Armenian killings in Turkey approaches, progress toward reckoning creaks on

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 is no longer a taboo subject in Turkey and is now deemed merely controversial. But how does a country make peace with its past when it is unable to agree on a true historical narrative? Caleb Lauer reports from Istanbul on the shadows still cast by the events of yesteryear

Human rights activists sit behind pictures of Armenian victims at Taksim Square in central Istanbul last month during a demonstration to commemorate the 1915 mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. The annual demonstrations that began in 2010 are part of a larger transformation in Turkey. Osman Orsal / Reuters
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By the early evening of April 24, approximately 1,000 people had filed inside a ring of barricades in Istanbul's Taksim Square. Riot police, water-cannon lorries and plainclothes officers guarded the crowd in a thick protective perimeter.

The time of this gathering, 19.15, was significant: it stood for the year 1915 when, on the night of April 24, hundreds of Armenian leaders, intellectuals and artists were arrested in Istanbul. The operation heralded the start of what became known as the Armenian Genocide.

Plaintive folk music played over loudspeakers. Portraits of those Armenians who perished were held in the crowd's arms. Candles and red carnations littered the ground. A sign in Turkish said: "We won't forget. We won't let it be forgotten. It has been 98 years. We remember the victims of genocide with respect."

Gençay Gürsoy, a Turkish human rights activist, spoke over a public address. Within days of the first arrests in 1915, thousands were detained and exiled, and hundreds were executed, he told the crowd. Forced into the desert, leaving behind all they owned, the Armenians died of disease, starvation, or were massacred by the Ottoman "Special Organization".

"The first genocide of the 20th century was carried out in these lands," Gürsoy declared.

That this was said openly in the middle of Istanbul was not lost on anyone.

"Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to have commemorations here," said Benjamin Abtan, president of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

The question of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, once an untouchable taboo, has now become merely controversial.

The annual commemorations, which began quietly in 2010, are part of a larger transformation in Turkey. The army has been sidelined. Trials and investigations have helped a new group, led by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), consolidate power. Past coups and the alleged crimes of the so-called "deep state" are all under scrutiny. Despite Turkey's lack of press freedom, "history" has never been freer. Many in Turkey's civil society are pushing for an even wider reckoning with the past.

But they are about to come up against the centenary of the genocide in 2015. World leaders will make statements; parliaments will pass resolutions. Turkey has always responded harshly to such things. How will the government, or indeed any politician here, react during what will be a crucial election year?

Last month's commemorations began in Istanbul's Zincirlikuyu Cemetery. Cypress and cedar trees gave shade as 20 people paid their respects at the grave of Faik Ali Ozansoy.

The thin and simple headstone revealed nothing of Ozansoy's significance. Other than his name and dates (1870-1950) only his vocation was inscribed — a single word: poet.

In 1915 Ozansoy was the Ottoman governor of Kutahya, in western Turkey. When the order to deport Armenians arrived, Ozansoy refused and instead provided refuge.

Bouquets of white carnations and red roses lay on the grave's small patch of freshly weeded soil. Taking his leave from the grave, a man with long grey hair and an electric blue Gore-Tex jacket stepped up to the headstone and kissed it. Ara Sarafian, an Armenian-British historian and founder of the Gomidas Institute in London, took a final photo of the grave. "This man was an official in Kutahya," he explained to the watching cemetery guard. "He protected us in those days."

The Ottoman Empire long tolerated non-Muslims as second-class subjects. But as the empire lost territory to nationalist rebellions, as Muslims were massacred, and as European powers manipulated non-Muslim Ottoman minorities, the authorities turned to Muslim solidarity to stem the disintegration. One result was the widespread massacre of Armenians in the late 19th century.

By 1915, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) — better-known as the Young Turks — faced a desperate situation in east Anatolia, where the Russians, assisted by some Armenians, were pressing their advantage. The deportations, most historians say, were intended to destroy the Armenians and "solve the Eastern question"; most agree that approximately 1 million people died.

Just past noon on April 24, 2013, 200 people gathered at Sultanahmet Square and stood outside the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. The museum, closed for renovations, was originally the palace of Ibrahim Pasha, the 16th century Ottoman Grand Vizier and, until his recent demise, a central character of one of Turkey's most popular exports — the Magnificent Century soap opera.

In 1915, however, Ibrahim's palace was a prison and the day before the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli on April 25 to menace Istanbul in the battle that made the career of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first waves of arrested Armenians were held here.

Ninety-eight years later, the crowd set up panels listing dozens of Armenian place-names erased from Anatolia. Other placards read: "Armenian intellectuals were held here before they were put on their journey of death."

Plainclothes police stood at the edges; snippets of their conversation — "genocide", "citizen", "non-Muslim" — sounded like a seminar. Suddenly, shoves. A man was yelling the genocide was a lie. Immediately plainclothesmen extracted him from the crowd and walked him across the sunny square, a gaggle of reporters pursuing a drama that never materialised. The crowd sent the man off with a well-worn slogan: "Shoulder to shoulder against fascism!"

But a tour guide, who had been describing the 3500-year-old Obelisk of Theodosius to a group of visitors nearby, clapped her hands with heavy enthusiasm.

Armenians actually killed Turks, she explained to her group, using words "us" and "them". She said what happened to the Armenians "cannot compare with what happened to the Jews in the Second World War". Turkey had opened its archives, "But no one came," she said. The tourists were impressed. One woman, in an American accent, was thrilled to see "history happening before our eyes".

"This is not just ignorance," Nicholas Tavitian, visiting Turkey as a member of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, said as we walked from Sultanahmet Square. "Ignorance does not pervade a country for 98 years as a result of negligence. It wasn't negligence. It was purposeful design."

Similarly, genocide denial in Turkey is not simply a refusal to believe truth.

After the First World War, the never-ratified 1920 Treaty of Sèvres showed how European victors intended to divide Anatolia. Nationalists, led by Atatürk, beat back the Europeans and founded a new republic in 1923. "Turkishness", bound up with Sunni-Islam, became the basis for the new society. Orthodox Christians inside the new Turkish Republic were sent to Greece; Muslims in Greece were sent to Turkey. "Turkification" continued for decades as non-Muslim Turkish citizens were progressively disenfranchised of property, wealth and security.

Talk of 1915 quickly leads to this massive, traumatic ethnic and economic redesign of the Balkans and Anatolia. It is a dangerous discussion for a state premised on a national (that is, Turkish) right to the land and its wealth. Not surprising, then, that such discussions, until recently, were pre-empted by official history and buried under the weight of schoolbooks, monuments, public holidays and images of the army.

Students in Turkish schools have been taught that non-Muslim minorities, because of their questionable loyalty, constitute "internal threats" to national security. According to this logic, genocide claims simply confirm Armenians' treacherous intentions to divide Turkey.

One tragic consequence of this mental environment was the murder of Hrant Dink.

Dink was the founding editor of the Armenian weekly newspaper Agos. In 2007 he was walking down a busy Istanbul street towards his office when an assassin shot him in the nape of his neck.

Dink's newspaper was revolutionary and controversial. Unlike Istanbul's Armenian-language newspapers, Agos was published in Turkish, the language of daily life for Armenians here. It was a vernacular newspaper for a divided, closed community, in a language all of Turkey could read. Many Armenians feared such exposure, but Dink argued that reconciliation might be achieved if Armenians explained themselves to their Turkish countrymen.

In 2004, Agos published a sensational claim — that Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Atatürk (and for whom Istanbul's second airport is named) was, in fact, an Armenian orphaned in 1915. Touching two taboos — the genocide and Atatürk — the reaction was immediate.

The Turkish Army General Staff, the governor of Istanbul, and the nation's spies all showed their teeth. Nationalists mobbed the Agos offices. "Hrant Dink is now the target of our rage and hatred," their leader declared.

Soon, Dink was convicted of "insulting Turkishness" based on a twisted reading of his column. Death threats flooded in. Friends begged him to leave the country. In his final column, published the morning he was killed, he wrote: "How real are these threats? Of course, it's not possible for me to know the truth."

Thousands marched in Dink's funeral procession through Istanbul. Given the numbers, most had to be Turks. The outpouring of grief and solidarity surprised many. The effect has lasted.

"Everything changed after his death," Özlem Dalkiran, a Turkish human rights activist said. "He achieved in death what he didn't in life."

Last month, 100 people, mostly Turkish students, half-filled a conference room at Istanbul's private Sehir University for a talk titled "What happened in 1915?" In 2005, a conference on a similar topic was attacked by nationalists, denounced by parliament, and sued. Last month's event passed without notice.

The genocide seemed a fact, so why hasn't Turkey accepted it, a student asked the panelists. (His guess was fear of reparations.) What does Turkish nationalism look like to foreigners, another asked. Does what happened in 1915 still affect person-to-person relations?

Seyyide Sifa Yilmaz, a 22-year-old psychology student, asked the panel how she was to believe Muslims could commit genocide?

Christians were "not trustable" and she didn't find the foreign panelists, which included Tavitian and Abtan, completely sincere, Yilmaz told me afterwards. "Why do they want to organise such an event in my country? We already have a Kurdish-Turkish problem. They will divide Turkey with this genocide question."

Social media, she said, was full of discussions which boiled down to a view that "if you accept the genocide, you are an idiot."

Still, she was reflective. "Until this conference, I did not believe there was a genocide, but now I will have to think about it." The reason? "We love this teacher," she said, referring to the panel moderator, Ferhat Kentel, a professor at Sehir University. If he believes it was genocide, then, Yilmaz said, she would have to consider the possibility.

"It is not necessary to say, or insist on, the word 'genocide'," Kentel said after the panel.

"It is more important to acknowledge the massacres, deportations, and killings … 'Genocide' is a legal term. Why imprison the question within the law? People will say the French killed the Algerians, Americans killed the Indians. It takes the debate away from the issue … The question matters to Turkish society more than anywhere else. In Turkey it is a living question, not a sterile, legal question."

Dink himself used to emphasise reconciliation within Turkey over genocide recognition. The distinction has been controversial. Is the diaspora right to insist on genocide recognition before there is reconciliation between Turks and Armenians?

"What we want, first of all, is democracy in Turkey. We want to help people here to push the limits because the job is going to be done here. But it is wrong to say [the diaspora] has no business in this," says Tavitian. "Turkish ambassadors, politicians, officials, they're in my city, in Brussels. I can see their impact. They try to cancel my conferences; they try to have our monument dismantled. So saying it's not my business is wrong. Plus, this is the country where my grandparents came from and where my heritage still is. I have a legitimate right to take part in this conversation."

A Roma boy stood inside the police cordon on the evening of April 24, listening closely; he had flower tiaras for sale up one arm and a stack of cheap cowboy hats on his head.

Outside the perimeter, protesters had arrived. Their red flags — identifying the group as the People's Liberation Party — glowed in the setting sun. Their banners proclaimed the need for a "second war of independence" against "a new Sèvres". A man wearing a red cap and red pinafore denounced the Armenian Genocide as an imperialist lie. The whole thing was fairly underwhelming, conspicuous only in that such a small group was the only one to show up.

The commemoration ended. The crowd dispersed. Protesters packed up their banners and flags. The police formations fell out.

One of the last to leave was Robert Koptas, the editor-in-chief of Agos, successor to Hrant Dink. I walked back with him as he made his way to the newspaper's offices.

"The Armenian diaspora has an image of Turkey that is mostly incorrect," Koptas said. "[A foreign visitor] asked me how many people in the crowd tonight were Armenian. She was surprised when I told her only fifteen per cent or so," Koptas said. "The diaspora doesn't realise there is a basis for dialogue here."

And European countries, especially Germany (which equipped and trained the Ottoman army), are not examining the "huge role" they had in the genocide, Koptas said. "They only insist Turkey recognise the genocide." This bolsters nationalist rhetoric about foreigners interfering in Turkey. "And it works. There is a market here for that kind of argument."

"If you want to help Turkey, you can't start with April 24," he said. "You have to come in January, February, do some workshops … If you work at the grassroots level, you can have an impact here." And support for the recent French attempt to criminalise genocide denial only helped people such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was opposed to Turkey joining the European Union (EU). "If you are against Turkey joining the EU, then you can forget about genocide recognition in this country," he said.

Koptas said he tries to tell the diaspora that "If something is good for Turks and Turkey, it is good for Armenians."

Do they believe him? "No," he laughed.

We parted outside Agos, beside the plaque that marks where Dink fell when he was killed.

A few minutes later, on the platform of a metro station, a headline was shown on television: Barack Obama had said "Great Catastrophe", not "genocide" in his annual April 24 remarks.

At the Sehir University conference last month, a student had asked panelists whether what happened in 1915 still affected person-to-person relations. There are a few things that might stand as partial answers to the question.

That the American president might utter "genocide" on April 24 is a yearly fixation in Turkey as it would likely precipitate a diplomatic crisis of the first order. Obama postponed the reckoning again. At the same time, if Obama were to say the word "genocide", Armenians in Turkey would have to brace themselves for the likely nationalist backlash. This month, again a bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives to recognise the genocide; the tension will be prolonged.

Next week will mark the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic Republic of Armenia, the fragile state populated by refugees from the genocide that lived a short existence before the Soviet Union and Turkey split the territory and formed the border that would in a generation become a front line of the Cold War. A look at the map of the Democratic Republic of Armenia, like a look at the map of Anatolia as envisioned by the Treaty of Sèvres, shows how easy it is for some Turks to conclude foreigners covet Turkish soil. This has been the popular Turkish view of the truncated Armenia that emerged from the collapsed Soviet Union. The border between Armenia and Turkey remains closed, to the great disadvantage of the former. Turkish policy makers are no doubt weighing what can be gained or lost if they try to rekindle, so close to the genocide centenary, the failed 2009 attempt to normalize relations.

This month the Turkish Supreme Court ordered the retrial of Hrant Dink's murder. Lawyers have presented overwhelming evidence of organised crime, state negligence and complicity, yet six years later the trial is to start from the beginning. Is there much chance of a fairer trial as Turkey prepares to weather 2015? Along with portraits of famous Armenians that perished in 1915 and of Hrant Dink, commemorators at Taksim Square last month held portraits of Sevag Balikçi, a 25 year-old army conscript killed on April 24, 2011. His death has been ruled an accident. Lawyers argue otherwise.

As most Armenians in Turkey know, the shadow of 1915 still affects relations among people. But they also know that there is a basis for dialogue in the country.

Caleb Lauer is a Canadian freelance reporter based in Istanbul.