The annual Armenian Genocide commemorative event that the Istanbul branch of Turkey's Human Rights Association (IHD) and the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM) planned to hold on April 24 -- which they have been holding every year since 2005 -- was blocked by police, who seized the placards and banners about the genocide and carried out criminal record checks on participants. Three human rights activists were detained and then released.
In an exclusive interview with Gatestone, Ayşe Günaysu, an activist with the IHD's Commission Against Racism and Discrimination, said that "on their way to police station, the detainees were made to listen to racist songs containing hostile words concerning Armenians."
The annual event commemorates the April 24, 1915 round-up, imprisonment and eventual slaughter of more than 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul by Ottoman authorities -- and the unfolding of the Armenian Genocide. The victims were brought to a prison, now a building that houses the Museum of Turkish Islamic Art (Türk İslam Eserleri Müzesi). The Armenians were then taken to the Haydarpaşa railway station, where they were transported to Anatolia for their ultimate extermination. According to Günaysu:
"During our commemorations, we showed the crime scenes. We exposed the museum of Turkish Islamic Art and the Haydarpaşa railway station as crime venues. We read out loud and then recorded the names of more than 2,000 Armenian cities, towns and villages destroyed during the genocide. We wrote down their names and exhibited them on show boards. So, we not only commemorated the deaths, but also tried to share the truth about the genocide with the people of Turkey."
Since 2010, the IHD has gathered at Haydarpaşa railway station for the commemoration. This year, there were plans to hold the event at the Sultanahmet square. Günaysu said:
"We do not ask for the permission of the office of the governor of Istanbul to commemorate the genocide. We only call them on the phone and inform them of the hour and venue of the event. Our banners read 'Genocide! Recognize! Beg Forgiveness! Compensate!' in English and Turkish. The police told us we could hold the event on condition that we do not use the word 'genocide.' But we said we would not engage in self-censorship and gathered at the square of Sultanahmet to commemorate the genocide victims. We had also prepared a genocide commemoration press release, but we could not read it out or distribute it to the press due to police intervention. The police also seized our banners and the photos of the Armenian intellectuals arrested on April 24, 1915."
The IHD press release, which the police prevented from being distributed, read, in part:
"At the root of all evils in this country lies the genocide committed against the Christian peoples of Asia Minor and Northern Mesopotamia, against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks.
"Now, we once more bow with respect before the memory of the Armenian, Assyrian/Syriac and Greek victims of the genocide. And we, the descendants of the genocide perpetrators, repeat our feeling of shame for not being able to prevent the continuation of the genocide through its denial and successive waves of destruction through generations."
Sadly, Turkish aggression against the remaining Armenians continues. On December 28, 2012, an 85-year-old Armenian woman named Maritsa Küçük was beaten and stabbed to death in her home in the neighborhood of Samatya, one of the largest Armenian communities in Istanbul.
"... during the police intervention and detentions at the genocide commemoration in Sultanahmet, Küçük's daughter, Baydzar Midilli, screamed: 'My mother is a genocide victim, yet you still say there is no genocide?!' As members of the police department started walking towards her, apparently to detain her for protesting, Eren Keskin, a human rights lawyer, stopped them and told them that Midilli's mother was murdered for being an Armenian. A police chief then prevented the officers from arresting her."
On April 24, 2011 -- the 96th anniversary of the genocide -- Sevag Balıkçı, an Armenian doing his compulsory military service in the Turkish army, was shot to death by a Turkish nationalist. His killer has yet to be brought to justice. During last month's commemoration, seven years after his murder, Balıkçı's family and friends stood by his graveside in Istanbul to pay tribute to him. According to Günaysu, police officers told those gathered at the grave that they were not allowed in their speeches to mention the word "genocide":
"There were a lot of armed police officers at the cemetery. While people were praying, the police were about to intervene. Two activists asked the police to respect those praying and mourning. Fortunately, the police listened, and moved a slight distance away from the congregation."
The Christian genocide in Ottoman Turkey lasted for 10 years -- from 1913 to 1923 -- and targeted Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and other Christians. It resulted in the annihilation of around three million people. Although a century has passed since then, it is still a bleeding wound for the victims and their descendants. The online newspaper Artı Gerçek recently reported that the bones of victims are still visible in a lake in in eastern Turkey.
Armenian civilians, escorted by Ottoman soldiers, marched through Harput to a prison in nearby Mezireh (present-day Elazig), April 1915. (Image source: American Red Cross/Wikimedia Commons)
Locals named the lake "Gvalé Arminu" (the "Armenian lake") after the massacre of more than 1,000 men, women and children that took place there 103 years ago. According to the report, only two children, hidden by villagers, survived. Even the bones that are revealed when the lake dries up in the summer have not led to an investigation by Turkish government, which continues to deny the genocide and attempts aggressively to silence those who try to speak out about it.
On April 24, the government-funded Anadolu Agency (AA) ran a story headlined: "The source of Income of Armenian Lobbies: the Genocide Industry," alleging that the Armenian diaspora and the republic of Armenia make false claims about "the Armenian genocide lie" for financial gain.
On the same day, the AA ran a separate story: "Turks recall escaping from Armenian oppression." According to Turkish myth, it was actually the "treacherous" Armenians who persecuted Turks; and the Turks were acting in self-defense to rid themselves of murderous Armenians. A widespread Turkish claim is, "They deserved it".
The lies and state propaganda, which hold the victims responsible for their own annihilation, are what enable the ongoing Turkish persecution of the country's remaining Armenians, including the conversion of their churches into mosques and the digging up of Armenian graves and churches by treasure-hunters who search for gold.
The Turkish government must stop.
Uzay Bulut is a journalist from Turkey and a fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. She is presently based in Washington D.C.