Out of Eden Walk
By Paul Salopek
January 23, 2015
What We Talk About When We Talk Aout Genocide
by Paul Salopek
Ani, Turkey 40°30'41" N, 43°34'06" E
`It was a--how do you call it in English?--a genocide? Yes? It was a
genocide,' says Murat Yazar. `My grandmother told my mother about it.'
My walking guide and I are wandering through Ani.
What is Ani? It is the ruin of a vanished world in modern Turkey: the
remote and beautiful site of a forgotten civilization--the
1,100-year-old capital of a once powerful empire. Relics of this Silk
Road city lie scattered across the sky-hammered mesas of far
northeastern Anatolia. Broken cathedrals. Rotting ramparts that defend
nothing from nothing. Empty boulevards that go nowhere. We roam this
colossal diorama of stillness, of eerie silence, Murat and I, as if
painted into a Dali dreamscape. We are talking about the disappearance
of Armenians from the region.
[Broken arch: a relic of ancient Ani on the closed Turkey-Armenia
border. Photograph by Paul Salopek]
In 1914, about two million Armenians lived in what is today Turkey.
They were a Christian minority under Muslim rule. Their history
reached back thousands of years. By 1922, just 400,000 remained.
What happened to more than 1.5 million people? Most were killed,
historians say. They were targeted for extermination. They were
marched into waterless deserts at bayonet point. They were
`My grandmother said they locked all the Armenians near the Euphrates
River into some houses,' Murat tells me. `Then they took them out at
night and pushed them into the river. They drowned them.'
It was eight months into World War I. Europe had begun to cannibalize
itself. The multicultural Ottoman Empire was dying in terrible spasms.
The Ottoman Turkish majority--whipped up by nationalist leaders and
enraged by the mass deportations and massacres carried out by former
Christian subjects against fellow Muslims in the crumbling fringes of
the state--wreaked revenge on their ancient neighbors: minority
Assyrians and Greeks, but mostly Armenians. They accused the Armenians
of being infidels. Of disloyalty. Of siding with the empire's
encroaching foes (the Russians and colonial Europeans). The knife hand
in this enormous crime? Local Kurds. Kurds shot and hacked Armenians
to death en masse. Kurdish gangs tore into refugee columns of starving
Armenian women and children. Kurdish villagers seized Armenian
property--abandoned farms, flocks, and homes.
We have been walking through the dim echoes of this calamity, Murat
and I, all the way across Anatolia. We seek shade in derelict houses
of Armenians--homes overgrown with trees, with weeds. We pass sturdy
churches converted to mosques. We skirt walnut orchards planted long
ago by the victims. Murat broods about this. He is a Kurd. I see him
grappling with history, with a legacy he cannot imagine, with the
`Once, I apologized to an Armenian man in Istanbul,' he tells me. `I
told him I was sorry for what my ancestors did.'
And how did the man react?
`What could he say?' Murat says, shrugging. `He said, `Thank you.''
We stand in a cold wind. A big sign at the entrance to the
archaeological ruins of Ani describe its long story. The text states
that the ancient and sprawling metropolis flowered under Bagratian
kings. The Bagratians were Armenian. Nowhere is the word `Armenian'
* * *
It has been dangerous for many years in Turkey to describe what
occurred in 1915 as a genocide. Turkish judges have deemed this term
provocative, incendiary, insulting, a taboo. Turkish writers and
journalists who deploy those three syllables can face charges of
slander against the Turkish state. One has been assassinated by
There is an official version of events. It goes like this: The
Armenians suffered, this is undeniably true. Yet they were just one of
many ethnic groups who felt the heavy blows of the imploding Ottoman
Empire. Their destruction was neither extreme nor systematic. It was a
war. And violence coursed both ways: Armenians perished, but so did
Turks, at the hands of rebellious Armenian mobs. Yet this narrow
reading of history has begun to show some cracks. In April, Turkey's
then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, became the first Turkish
leader to express formal condolences to the descendants of Turkey's
Armenians, who today live scattered across the globe. He spoke,
carefully, of the two peoples' `shared pain.'
Walking through the Kurdish hinterlands of Anatolia, one senses that
ordinary citizens are far ahead of him.
`We fought the Armenians, and many died,' says Saleh Emre, the
white-haired mayor of Kas Kale village. `I think this was wrong. They
belonged here.' Emre pauses. He sweeps a gnarled hand over the houses
of his tiny community. `This land used to be owned by an Armenian
trader. My father's uncles bought it cheap.' He allows this detail to
sink in. Then he ticks off the names of nearby Turkish towns that once
were dominated by Armenians: Van, Patnos, Agri. No Armenians live
there now. He stops short of using the word genocide.
The old man peers east across rolling sunlit plains, across
brass-colored pastures, across grassy paradise blighted by memory,
toward the nearby country where some survivors fled. `I would like
visit to Armenia,' Emre says. `Armenians were our neighbors.'
* * *
The scene: a church courtyard in Diyarbakir, the cultural capital of
Sourp Giragos is the largest Armenian church in the Middle East. It is
newly renovated, mostly with donations from the remnant Armenian
community in Istanbul. It is a monument to hope, to reconciliation,
one of a few such gestures taking root in the Kurdish zones of
Anatolia in a hundred years. (In a distant town called Bitlis, the
Kurdish mayor has named a street after William Saroyan, the
Armenian-American writer.) People bustle about under a massive bell
tower. They are sweeping fallen leaves. Serving coffee at outdoor
tables. Chatting. Some light candles. A few are Muslim. Most are
Armenian Orthodox Christians. Aram Khatchigian, a caretaker, has been
Custodian of memory: Aram Khatchigian in the rebuilt Sourp Giragos
Armenian church in Diyarbakir, the Kurdish cultural capital in Turkey.
Photograph by Murat Yazar.
`Until I was 15, I believed I was a Muslim, a Kurd,' Khatchigian says.
`After that, I started to feel a change in my heart.'
He explains how he excavated his hidden past. How he learned that his
grandfather, a boy of 12, and his grandfather's younger sister, a girl
of 9, were actually Armenian--the only ones in their immediate family
to survive the killing fields around Diyarbakir, where a `pungent
smell of decaying corpses' filled the air. The boy and girl hid under
a bush until a Muslim Kurdish farmer took them in, saving their lives,
caring for them as his own children, giving them his name. They
converted to Islam. `All Armenians still living did this,' Khatchigian
says. `They would be killed otherwise.' Then a man stalks up to our
table. He has been listening.
`Do you recognize the genocide?' he demands. He looks into my eyes.
I am conducting an interview, I tell him.
`I don't care,' he says. `Do you or don't you recognize the genocide?'
For some Armenians, this consuming question has become everything--the
lynchpin of a national struggle, almost of a modern identity: Turkey
and the world must finally acknowledge that a true genocide, legally
defined, unfolded in Anatolia. Vast amounts of energy and money are
poured into this lobbying campaign by millions of Armenians in the
diaspora. (At least 21 countries now officially accept the Armenian
genocide as fact. The United States and Israel, valuing diplomatic
ties with Turkey, aren't among them.)
Armenian-American author Tomani Meline describes the suffocating
effect of this bitter political debate on her life:
`To some Armenians, recognition means reparations from Turkey: to the
true zealots, land; to the slightly more pragmatic, money. To most, it
simply means the official usage of the word genocide. To me, it came
to mean that I could no longer stand to attend any Armenian gathering,
because it seemed that whether it was a poetry reading, a concert, or
even a sporting match, it was always, ultimately, about the genocide.'
At the church in Diyarbakir the stranger sits down at our table.
He repeats his question again. And again. Khatchigian stares down at
his shoes, embarrassed. I lay down my pen. We wait.
[`I don't care. Tell the world I'm Armenian.' But she changed her
mind, and here in Dyarbakir she did not want her face to be
photographed. Photograph by Murat Yazar.]
* * *
A giant red Turkish flag flutters above the archaeological site at Ani.
The city's ancient ruins toe the ledge of a canyon. On the other side,
within easy walking distance, lies the small Republic of Armenia.
Nobody ever crosses. The border between the two nations has been shut
for years by mutual suspicion and hostility. Ani is a dead end.
We strike out, Murat and I, heading due north.
We tug our brave cargo mule across sodden winter fields around Kars, a
Turkish city that in the 1890s was 85 percent Armenian. Murat asks its
startled residents if any Armenians yet remain. A Turkish citizen, and
a minority Kurd wrestling with his own questions of cultural
endurance, Murat always asks. I watch him plod head, interrogating the
past for answers. A lanky man, wistful, questing. With a camera slung
over his parka. Black Anatolian mud cakes under his boots. I can only
shake my head in wonder.
Killers or victims, there are no chosen people. There are simply
people. And the dead. And what you do with your pain tells the world
who you are.