Opinion: Lest We Remember

April 26, 2012
Source: International Herald Tribune

By Andrew Finkel

ISTANBUL — The other day Taraf, a Turkish language newspaper for which I write, ran a quarter-page ad depicting a pomegranate with a deep slash and the legend: “Some wounds do not heal with time.” The pomegranate is a symbol of the Armenian people, and in fine print you could make out the endorsement of many prominent Turkish Armenians for a gathering in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The ad didn’t bother to explain the purpose of the assembly, leaving the date and time — April 24, 19:15 — to speak for itself.

On Tuesday at the anointed hour, about 3,000 Armenian Turks and others sympathetic to their pain met to commemorate events from 97 years ago. Back then, another group of eminent Armenians was also rounded up in Istanbul, and that incident is remembered around the world as the start of a plan to eradicate the Armenian presence in Anatolia.

Unlike their diaspora cousins, most Armenians in Turkey do not demand that the killings of 1915 be officially recognized as a genocide. Wisely, they only ask that the Turkish government begin to undo a poisonous legacy of denial, which remains a barrier to Turkey’s democratic progress.

On Wednesday, another large gathering was held to commemorate blood that was also spilled in 1915. This one occurred at dawn on the Gallipoli Peninsula, in western Turkey, where during a nine-month campaign troops from France, Britain and their colonies tried and failed to knock the Ottoman Empire out of World War I. Over 130,000 soldiers were killed.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia addressed the crowd of foreign visitors and Turkish dignitaries who had come on this annual pilgrimage. She had only deep praise for her Turkish hosts. The defeated soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) “did not begrudge the victory of their enemy, which was hard fought for and deserved,” she said. “The Turkish honored our fallen and embraced them as their own sons.”

The ceremony occurred among the gravestones and memorials of the Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries and in the shadow of Turkey’s own war memorial: four massive columns topped by a concrete slab visible to the ships passing through the Dardanelle Straits. If the Commonwealth graves honor individual sacrifice, the Turkish monument looks as though its architects took literally an instruction to design a cornerstone of the Turkish state.

The defense of Gallipoli and the part played in it by Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — he famously ordering the men under his command “not to fight but to die” — is celebrated here as the birth of proto-nationalism in Turkey. In Australia and New Zealand, the Anzac graves also symbolize the birth of a nation but a birth marked by the loss of both life and innocence; World War I was those two countries’ first foray into great-power politics. Still, there and in Turkey today the encounter at Gallipoli is seen as something of a fair fight.

This leaves some Turkish officials to wonder out loud why the Armenians can’t be more like the Antipodeans. The answer, of course, is that in 1915 the Armenians were not an invading army but subjects of the Ottoman Empire. They were butchered or deported in the hundreds of thousands with the connivance of their own government.

The Armenians still have no public memorial in this country. In eastern Turkey, facing the future has meant overlooking the past, developing amnesia over trauma and shame. A huge statue of two figures poised to shake hands was supposed to be erected outside the city of Kars, on the Turkish-Armenian border. Intended as a gesture of reconciliation, the Monument to Humanity was dismantled on aesthetic grounds last year by order of the Turkish prime minister.

“Lest we forget” is the refrain in the “Ode of Remembrance” that the Commonwealth recites in memory of its dead on April 25. For Turkey, the mantra seems to be “Lest we remember,” as though oblivion, even about one’s own suffering, were the safer course.

Andrew Finkel has been a foreign correspondent in Istanbul for over 20 years, as well as a columnist for Turkish-language newspapers. He is the author of the book “Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.”