Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sins of Our Fathers

December 26, 2007
Mahvish Zehra

The more Turkey denies the 1915 genocide of Armenians, the less the world believes it

Watching movies can be an educational experience. I have come across many interesting facts about history, different places, and life in general from watching movies. And wittingly or otherwise, they have left lasting impressions. Take the Jewish Holocaust for example; I don't think any person exposed to the media is ignorant of it. Every person reading this will have knowledge about the Holocaust, and be naturally against all the factors that brought it about.

For me, movies like 'Life is Beautiful' with the adorable Roberto Benigni, and the ways he tries to conceal from his young son the horrors of the concentration camp they are in, form a part of my impressions of the Holocaust. The destitution of the Jewish people captured by Adrien Brody in 'The Pianist', and the ruthless and coldly calculated extermination of the Jews shown in many other movies, form the major body of Holocaust knowledge that people are exposed to. While the Jewish people rightly deserve the sympathy of the whole world, why may I ask, the same sympathy is not afforded to other peoples similarly persecuted?

About two years ago, I stumbled upon a very interesting movie that I have not been able to forget. It was about another holocaust, one that happened around 1915, of a people I had not heard much about before: the Armenians. The film is titled 'Ararat', after Mount Ararat where biblically, Noah's ark came to rest after the flood. The Armenians call it 'Our Ararat' and see it as a symbol of their history and resistance. It is located in eastern Turkey and since 1920, some claim, it has been officially closed to the Armenians across the border from visiting it.

Armenians trace their history back to at least 2000 BC. They are one of the oldest Christian nations in the world, and the first nation to have adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD. Only about one-fifth of Armenians live in present day Armenia, the rest scattered about the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. Members of rock band, System of a Down, and singer Cher, are some famous Armenians.

Preceding the genocide of 1915, the Turks and Armenians lived in relative peace with each other. No doubt, the Armenians lived as second-class citizens in the Ottoman lands due to their Christian status. As the Ottoman Empire's power was deteriorating, revolutionary and nationalistic sentiments grew among its peoples. The Armenians, as a major Christian majority, desired independence as other Christian nations had received. They also clearly remembered the widespread killings they had been subjected to in the 1890's and in 1909, when they had demanded more rights and security from the Ottoman government. The Turks viewed the Armenians as getting in the way of their nationalistic aspirations, and under the pretext of 'disloyalty', planned out the genocide of 1915.

Ararat shows very graphically the treatment meted out to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks, which resulted in the mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians. The Director, well-respected Canadian, Atom Egoyan, seems less concerned about winning awards or being a success at the Box Office then about making a lasting impression on his viewers. Scenes showing an Armenian woman being raped by a Turk while her toddler daughter clings to her ankle, or adolescent girls being burned alive, seem to scream out against the silence around the genocide. A silence being borne by Armenian descendants such as Egoyan, for more than 90 years.

Walking away from the film, one is not left untouched. It reminds one of the Jewish Holocaust in many ways. The cold and calculated extermination of the Armenians, and the brutal methods that were used in the process, bring to mind the Jewish concentration camps and gas chambers. Researchers have unearthed that Armenians were killed with hammers and axes to save ammunition. There were mass drownings and live burnings. Internationally renowned expert on the Armenian genocide, Professor Vahakn Dadrian, has produced a document written by General Mehmet Vehip Pasha, commander of the Turkish Third Army, who visited an Armenian village and found all the houses packed with burned human skeletons. General Pasha wrote in the document, "in all the history of Islam, it is not possible to find any parallel to such savagery."

It is not the point, of remembering and rehashing past events, to make a show and drama out of misery. Or to carry out performing rituals of our fathers we fail to understand anymore; it is to learn lessons. To make a vow to ourselves not to let anything remotely close to that event happen again. If we, people of today, have any reason at all to claim to be better than those of yesterday, it is because we have before us their mistakes and faults to learn from.

They say the similarities of the Armenian genocide with the Jewish Holocaust are not coincidental. There were many Germans present in the Ottoman lands who were witness to the mass killings and deportations, and thus carried back accounts to the rest of the world. Hitler thus had full knowledge of the genocide, and used it to learn from while planning out his own. For example, while ordering the mass extermination of the Polish, before the invasion of Poland, he is known to have said: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

The Turkish government denies any genocide took place, and claims that the Armenian killings took place during a time of political turmoil and fighting during World War One. To call the mass killings 'genocide' or even to speak of them in Turkey could leave you facing charges, as Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk discovered. In 2005, during an interview with a Swiss newspaper, Pamuk said: "A million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I'm the only one who dares to talk about it". These remarks left him facing 3 years in prison for 'public denigration of Turkish identity'.

Recently, Turkey finds itself embroiled in the Armenian genocide issue, as the U.S House of Committee approved a resolution, calling the 1915 Armenian massacres genocide. Turkey viewed the resolution as an insult and threatened the U.S that "great harm" would be done to their bilateral ties. Turkey is a very important U.S ally in the Iraq War, providing key logistical support to U.S troops in Iraq. Support for the resolution has since faltered as the U.S is more concerned about keeping good relations with Turkey, than taking the risk of passing a resolution that only recognizes the genocide, and nothing more.

The point of accepting responsibility for past sins, I repeat, is not to make a show out of misery. It is to learn lessons and better ourselves, so that those mistakes may never be repeated: of causing such misery, or letting it happen while we stand idly by. As Turkey plans an offensive into Northern Iraq against Kurds, who have been struggling for independence for years, it may seem poised to repeat the sins it denies so vehemently. The worst kind of sin is the one we refuse to acknowledge as a sin at all.

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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