Friday, November 09, 2007

Ethnic cleansing

November 10, 2007
Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka
By Gamini Akmeemana

The Armenians were deported en masse and massacred by Turkey during World War I. The survivors and descendants, now living in the former Soviet republic of Armenia, remain barred from returning to their homeland by successive Turkish governments, who continue to officially deny the massacre.

Interestingly, the word genocide, now commonly identified with the killing of Jews by the Nazis during World War II, was first used by Winston Churchill while referring to the massacre of the Armenians.

Not only has Turkey denied that this, first mass scale ethnic cleansing of the 20th century, ever took place. The Soviets who established a republic in their territory for the survivors pursued a policy which led to the destruction of invaluable evidence of the genocide. Stalin banned the Tashnag Party, a key element in Armenian politics. Survivors destroyed evidence - photographs, diaries, letters etc. - because the Soviet secret police began to associate such material with Tashnag political actitivity.

The result is that written and pictorial evidence of the genocide, which killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, is scarce. Despite this, the Museum of the Armenian Genocide near Yerevan, the capital of the Armenian republic, has on display a collection of unique photographs which show graphic evidence of the mass deportation and the genocide.

The photographs, which had never been shown in public till recently, were taken by employees of the German Deutsche bank in 1915 - when Ottoman Turkey had entered World War I on Germany's side - to send to the bank's head office as proof of their claims that the Turks were massacring their Armenian population. A German engineer sent one photo of Armenian men being led to their execution by the Turkish police.

The bank officials were upset that the Turks were using the railway built with German money to deport the Armenians to distant concentration camps. The railway network was built for military purposes, not genocide. Interestingly, apart from the civilians who took the photographs and alerted their superiors, German soldiers sent to modernize the Turkish army too, witnessed these massacres.

Armin Wegner, a second lieutenant, took photographs of dead and dying Armenian women and children (the young women were almost all raped before being killed). But such conscientious acts were rare. Other German officers who witnessed the massacres remained silent, and some of them became Nazis who took part in massacres of Jews and other peoples during World War II.

In 1915, Turkey claimed that the Christian Armenians were supporting Britain, France and Russia - the Ottoman empire's opponents during the war. Officially, it was claimed that the Armenians were being merely deported to areas where they wouldn't be a security threat.

The decision was hardly a hasty one. An elaborate ethnic-cleansing plan had been drawn out earlier. The war provided the excuse the Ottoman government was looking for. Entire families and communities were forced out of their homes and sent on death marches. The men were shot or killed with axes, and the women and children driven out into the desert to die of thirst, starvation and disease. Mass graves are still being discovered today, some as far as Syria (then part of the Ottoman empire). There were so many people to be killed that the Turkish military often sought the assistance of Kurdish tribesmen in their grisly task.

The idea was to destroy the Christian Armenian minority as a people, pure and simple. This is starkly similar to the Nazis Final Solution for the Jews - that every Jew should end up in the gas chambers. In Sept. 1915, Turkish Interior Minister Talaat Pasha cabled to his subordinate in Alleppo, Syria, that: "You have already been informed that the government…has decided to destroy completely all the indicated persons (Armenians) living in Turkey…their existence must be terminated, however tragic the measures taken may be, and no regard must be paid to either age or sex, or to any scruples of conscience."

The above is an order the Nazis would have been proud of. Recent research has revealed that Turkish officers often produced "doubles" of their genocide orders. In other words, telegrams asking their subordinates to make sure that Armenians were properly fed and sheltered during the "resettlement" were sent alongside the death-sentence orders.

Luckily, some of the books published following the genocide have survived. Captain Sarkis Torossian, a much-decorated Armenian officer of the Turkish army, was sent to fight the British in Palestine but was horrified to find thousands of dying Armenian refugees in the Syrian desert. Incredibly, he found his own sister among them and rescued her, but his fiancée died in his arms.

"I raised Jemileh in my arms, the pain and terror in her eyes melted until they were bright as stars again, stars in an oriental night…and so she died, as a dream passing,' Torossian wrote in a book published in the United States in 1929.

After this terrible shock, he defected from the Turkish side, and fought with T. E. Lawrence's Arab militias against the Turks.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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