(AINA) -- After efforts of deterrence by the executive in May and obstruction of the 4th Istanbul Administrative Court on September 23rd, the conference entitled, 'Ottoman Armenians in the Final Period of the Empire: Scientific Responsibility and Problems of Democracy' has been successfully completed on the 25th of September. The venue of the event had to be changed from one university to the other and a three-day conference had to be telescoped to two days. The participants and audience had to pass through a barrier of slandering nationalist protestors throwing eggs and tomatoes. Yet two and half institutions deserve credit for standing behind academic autonomy, freedom of expression and culture of deliberation. The first is the government who spoke through the Prime Minister. His resolve dwarfed the initial resistance of the Minister of Justice who called the initiative "treason" and "back stabbing the nation" in May. The second is the university as an institution who defended the rights and liberties that make it a center and advocate of freedom. The third institution is the media; of course some of it, which is conscious of the fact that, this conference was not all about the Armenian issue that needs to be discussed impartially but it is rather a matter of democracy.
The speakers, or better deliberators, were all Turkish scholars serving at domestic or foreign universities to avoid prejudice against ill-willed foreigners. Among a sundry of topics some like, 'An Identity Squeezed Between the Past and the Present', 'Examples of Forgetting and Remembrance in Turkish Literature: Different Breaking Points of Silence', 'The Armenian Issue and Demographic Engineering', 'Scenes of Conscience through a Bitter History', 'From Heranush to Seher: A Story of "Salvation"', 'Mother Fatma, the Child of Deportation' and 'Thinking About the Stories of the Survivors of Deportation', suggest that the issues were not limited to just historiography and document rattling. That has been taking place for a long time. Both the Armenian and Turkish nationalists and 'official historians' have unfortunately narrowed down the discussion of this important matter to the acceptance or denial of "genocide". This radical stance has not only impoverished scholarship but has politicized the matter forcing individuals to take sides. In this ado, unfortunately the human side of the matter, the suffering of real human beings, no matter who they were, has been neglected. Indeed what we ought to start discussing is the human condition at the turn of the last century.
A multicultural society existed with different ethnic, linguistic and confessional groups. They were torn apart, their age-old relations were severed, an economy was shattered, the lives of ALL were changed irreversibly and forever. The majority of them had little to do with the fate they were forced to live through if they had not lost their lives in the chaos of World War One years.
I will not go on into the arguments of "clashing nationalisms", "securing the eastern-front where a war was waged with occupying Russian armies" or simply, "revenge of the Turks over the Armenians where a part of the Armenians took up arms and tried to carve out an independent Armenia by exterminating Turks in eastern Turkey". All of these are parts of the wider truth. But the truth is larger than that and larger than the lives of individuals or groups that were caught up in the turmoil of the decade between 1910-1920. Turks were recruited to go to the Libyan (or Tripoli) campaign in 1911 to be followed by the Balkan War next year that ended up by loosing all of the East European lands of the Empire in 1913. In the next year WW1 broke up that ended with the dissolution of three major empires of the time, the Ottoman being one. During that fateful decade, Ottomans lost 2 million soldiers. No one knows how many civilians perished during hostilities and following forced migration, by hunger and famine. But a rough estimate is that five million Turks or Muslims identifying themselves as Ottoman had to migrate into present Turkey and remaining territories. They left behind dead family members, their property and a life that had taken root on European soil in the past centuries.
They were frustrated, impoverished, uprooted and bitter. However, they had come to a friendly land where they were welcome and the government of the day compensated their loss to a certain degree. That is why they chose to forget. Did they forgive? Obviously not. Historical evidence shows that the ruling cadre in the last Ottoman decade was the government of the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks. The leading group, including the dictating triumvirate, Talat, Enver and Cemal Pashas of the Young Turks were basically of Balkan stock. When they moved the headquarters of their semi-secret organization from Selonica to Istanbul in 1912, they brought their feelings of loss, betrayal (by the non-Muslim peoples of the empire who had attained their independence through painful struggles for national liberation by fighting against Ottoman officers and officials who were mainly members of the Union and Progress.
We all know what "never again" means. These new rulers of the Ottoman terrain promised the remaining lands not become a second "Macedonia" as they called the bulk of the Balkans. They made a conscious effort to prevent a second catastrophe by adopting the method of demographic engineering. There were two aspects of this engineering: 1) Removal of the Christians; 2) Mixing of the non-Turkish Muslims. The first method was territorial; the second was demographic engineering. The Bulgarians living in Edirne and in Thrace (European part of Turkey) was sent to Bulgaria or exchanged with Turks who felt victimized and wanted to go to Turkey. Deterring Greeks from remaining in Western and Black Sea regions was realized without overt exertion of force but with a convincing determination. The policy was to cleanse the Aegean littoral off Greeks 50 kilometers into the heartland. This policy reached its peak point by population exchanges with Greece in 1924.
Territorial mopping concerning the Armenians was put into effect with the official policy of deportation. It was an announced and acknowledged government policy of the time. However, territorial sterility was not only directed to these largest Ottoman peoples, it encompassed all Christian peoples, large or small including the more peaceful Assyrians in the southeast. How could the vengeful and wrathful Young Turks could know that by scaring off the peaceful Christians they would allow the Kurds to have sole control of southeast Anatolia and the 'later Turks' would have to put up with the unruly behavior of the more favored Muslims?
As regards the non-Turkish Muslims, the ratio of one-to-ten or 10% was observed when they were moved from places where they were more crowded into wider Turkish communities where they would be a controllable minority. This plan was put into effect and the Armenians faced the harshest fate of all because there was no receiving state willing to compensate for their loss like the Bulgarians and the Greeks. From the day when Armenian deportation has started the event is no more a political matter born out of the exigencies and vagaries of the day and its power struggles. It is a human condition, which imposes on all of us, on all human beings, the responsibility to understand and to reconcile with.
The present Turkish government bears no responsibility to what the adventurous Young Turks who led the Ottoman State into demise had done to the peoples whom they ruled over. They did not only deport Christian subjects, they sent armies totaling two million recruited from among Muslims to three continents and watched them perish in pursuit of their ambitious scheme of creating a Turanian Empire out of Turkic peoples. They depleted the Turkish stock of the motherland too. The conference drew attention to these (other) angles of the last decades of the empire during which the Armenian disaster took place. It was not particular to the Armenians. It was a human tragedy staged by an adventurous cadre who valued their imperial design more than human life, without distinguishing between that of their own or others. Their Machiavellian political methods justified the means they used for their exalted end that never succeeded but consumed the lives of millions as well as their own.
What befalls on us is to acknowledge what happened to the Ottoman peoples of the time and why? No nation or nationality, no adherent of any creed can claim that those fateful years are the mark of history that denotes only their losses and grief. This is a shared calamity that we all lived through and bare responsibility for, some much less, some much more. Those days are left behind, not to be forgotten though. We must remember what has taken place; what ambitions, policies or impossible dreams have led to such large scale suffering then, so that we do not commit the same mistakes again. However, our primary duty is to understand what role our forbearers played and what we can do to ease the pain of those who still suffer today because they feel that their wounds are psychologically bleeding.
We need a little empathy just like the former Minister of Health, Mr. Cevdet Aykan has said in the "Memories and Witnesses" section of the conference said: "In 1915, Tokat was a part of the Sivas Province. According to the 1908 Sivas Population Registrar, there were 240 Muslims, 24,000 Armenians, and 14,000 Greeks in the province. The population of Tokat at the same time was 28,000. Of this number 8,600 were Armenian and they were all living peacefully together. When the news of deportation reached Tokat and Sivas, the Turkish and Armenian community leaders got together and sought for a solution. The Armenian merchants and artisans transferred their property to their neighbors and trusted their spouses and daughters to Turkish families with mock weddings. Those who were sent away never came back". Mr. Aykan has told this story as a witness and added the most honorable statement: "I am telling these to pay back my moral debt to my Armenian citizens".
This sentence tells all. Now, both the Armenians and Turks must get together not to accuse each other for the injustices of the past and how much suffering their great parents have inflicted on the other. Humanistic stories can be produced just s much as inhuman ones like officers committing suicide not to carry unjust orders or neighbors hiding forbidden citizens forsaking their own lives. No, what we ought to discuss is how we can heel the wounds that is no body's monopoly. If we do not want to carry the burden of history we must unload our feelings and expectations by cleansing our thoughts and souls from vengeance and hatred and wish for dialogue, which we can hopefully turn into an agenda for peaceful coexistence and mutual history building. Can we do it? Restless minds and souls only produce hatred and violence. Let us leave the souls of our grand parents alone to rest in peace. They have suffered enough and they do not want to be awakened to fight another war just because we want them on our side.
By Dogu Ergil