Sept 5 2014
Near a Turkish school, 10,000 dead Armenians are still ignored
By Chris Bohjalian September 5 at 5:31 PM
Chris Bohjalian's most recent novel, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,"
was published this summer.
The three-story Yenikoy elementary school rises from a plateau like a
mesa in south-central Turkey. It is the only building for miles, its
exterior walls a pale yellow reminiscent of sweet corn. But the
playground swings and slides beside it are a full-on rainbow of
crayons: The bright blue of a cerulean sky. The crisp red of a fire
engine. The orange of a traffic cone.
Surrounding the playground, however, is a black wrought-iron safety
fence. Why? Because the school and playground sit at the edge of a
ravine that is easily a hundred feet deep. At the bottom of the ravine
is the Dudan Crevasse, a vertigo-inducing gash that plummets at least
another 350 feet.
I have visited the area twice in the past two years. In May 2013, the
first time I went, the school did not exist. By this August, it had
sprouted from the earth like a dandelion.
When I returned to the ravine and saw the school, I was enraged. My
anger was not driven by the idea that adults had built a playground
beside a dangerous ravine or by the fact that the building despoils an
otherwise pristine natural landscape -- though both are true.
I was furious because that ravine is the final resting place for an
estimated 10,000 of my ancestors, the Armenians of Chunkush, which is
the village beside Yenikoy. In the summer of 1915, Turkish gendarmes
and a Kurdish killing party marched virtually all of the Armenians who
lived in the area to the ravine. There they shot or bayoneted them and
tossed the corpses into the crevasse.
Eventually, three out of every four Armenians living in the Ottoman
Empire were systematically annihilated by their own government during
the First World War: 1.5 million people.
Turkey has a long history of denying the Armenian genocide. But the
figures don't lie. Outside of Istanbul, the nation was ethnically
cleansed of its Armenian Christian minority. In 1914, according to
Armenian Patriarchy census figures, there were 124,000 Armenians in
the Diyarbakir province, which includes Yenikoy and Chunkush; by 1922,
there were 3,000. Today there are but a handful, all descendants of
the survivors who were raised as Muslims and sometimes referred to as
There are no markers or memorials in Turkey that commemorate the
myriad sites of the slaughter. (There are in Syria, then the edge of
the empire, where many of the Armenians were killed.) Imagine
Auschwitz without even a signpost; imagine Buchenwald without a
plaque. It isn't easy for diasporan Armenians such as myself to find
the sites in what once was our homeland.
But we do. There are plenty of eyewitness accounts; there are plenty of memoirs.
Some of us make pilgrimages to such places as the Dudan Crevasse to
pay our respects to the dead. We visit the remnants and rubble of the
churches that as recently as 99 years ago were active, vital and
vibrant congregations. We bow our heads. We say a prayer. We gather
the garbage that grows like moss beside the altars.
When my friends and I have asked the Kurdish villagers what they
believe happened once upon a time at the Dudan Crevasse, usually their
answers suggest a near-century of denial and obfuscation. Sometimes
they tell you some people died there, but they don't know who or why.
Sometimes they insist they know nothing. And once a pair of
middle-school-age girls told a friend of mine, "Some Armenians fell in
There is the stone skeleton of a massive Armenian church in the
village and the shell of an Armenian monastery on the outskirts. If
you ask the locals where the 10,000 Armenians of Chunkush went, some
will tell you with a straight face that they moved to the United
I do not know the thinking behind the placement of the Yenikoy
elementary school. But I have my suspicions. I would not be surprised
if next year when I visit, the crevasse has been filled in: the
evidence of a crime of seismic magnitude forever buried.
The irony, however, is this: It will no longer take complex directions
or GPS coordinates to find the 10,000 dead at Dudan. All you will need
to tell someone is to visit the Yenikoy elementary school. Go stand by
the playground. The dead are right there.