Mothers threw their children in the lake rather than let the Turks have them

Ninety years on, Armenian massacres are still causing political fallout.

April 22, 2005
Source: Sunday Times (London)

By Jeremy Page and Anthony Browne

VARAZDAT was six when his family were driven from their home by Turkish troops in 1915. But even 90 years after Ottoman troops began the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenians, fear still flickers in his eyes.

As the family and 200,000 other Armenians fled east from their homes in Van, near modern Turkey’s eastern border, Turk and Kurdish forces opened fire from both sides. "They killed so many. Mothers threw their children in the lake. They said it was better to drown them than let the Turks have them," Varadzat Harutyuniyan told The Times.

Mr Harutyuniyan will join 1.5 million Armenians on Sunday in a march through Yerevan to mark the 90th anniversary of what many countries call the Armenian genocide. It will be the biggest event so far in a campaign to force Turkey to recognise the massacres as genocide, and to open diplomatic ties — and its border — with Armenia before joining the EU. And as Ankara prepares to begin EU entry talks in October, the Armenians are winning international sympathy.

"We remember the past with pain, but without hatred," President Kocharyan of Armenia told a conference on genocide this week. "For us it is difficult to comprehend the response of the Turkish side, which is represented not only by the denial of the past but also by the blockade of modern Armenia."

On April 24, 1915, the Young Turk regime had 200 prominent Armenians arrested at the start of what Armenians call a programme to eliminate them from the crumbling Ottoman Empire. About 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered by the Turks, or died of starvation and disease during mass deportations between 1915 and 1918.

Turkey denies responsibility, saying 300,000 Armenians and 500,000 Turks died in inter-ethnic conflict after nationalist Armenians sided with invading Russian troops. But a growing number of Western governments are rejecting the official Turkish line. A European diplomat described it as "baloney".

On Tuesday Poland joined 15 countries, including France, Canada and Switzerland, that have officially acknowledged the killings as genocide — a move that Turkey denounced as irresponsible.
"The truth must come out," said Lech Walesa, the former Polish President, at this week’s conference. "It is a just claim of the Armenians that Turkey’s entrance into the European Union should come after admitting genocide."

President Chirac of France has also insisted that Turkey recognises the genocide before entering the EU — not least because 400,000 Armenians live in France. Britain and the US have yet to follow suit, anxious not to upset a key Nato ally on the borders of Iraq. The British Government, a strong supporter of Turkey’s EU membership, says the issue is a "matter for historians".

But the powerful Armenian diaspora has been energetically lobbying the British Parliament and the US Congress, and pressing President Bush to use the "G" word in his annual message to the Armenian people on Sunday.

At the same time, pressure has been mounting within Turkey for a review of its official history after decades during which any public discussion of the issue was banned. Only last year the Government adopted an amended penal code making it a criminal offence to promote the idea that genocide had happened. In February the award-winning Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, told a Swiss newspaper that "one million Armenians were killed in Turkey", prompting one governor to order his books to be burnt.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, last week suggested setting up a joint commission to study the genocide allegations.

For Armenians, however, the offer came far too late. History, they say, is no longer up for debate. "I have no doubt the question of genocide will be on the agenda for the talks between the EU and Turkey," said Vardan Oskanyan, the Armenian Foreign Minister. "We, of course, would like the EU to put it forward as a condition."

The risk, however, is that right-wing elements in the EU and Turkey are now latching on to the issue to derail Turkey’s EU entry. On Wednesday the head of the Turkish Armed Forces, General Hilmi Ozkok, called on Armenia to drop the genocide allegations. The 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which established modern Turkey, "put an end to the baseless genocide claims politically and legally," he said.

Turkey’s state archive put out a list last weekend of more than 500,000 Turks it said were massacred by Armenians.

For the few remaining survivors of the massacres, time is fast running out. Last October there were 289 living in Yerevan. Today there are only 200.

At 102 years old, Gulinia Musoyan is too frail to leave her bed. But she is still determined to relate how Turkish soldiers forced her from her home in Kessab, near the coast, and marched her barefoot across the desert in 1915. "They were just forcing us to walk," she said. "We were so hungry and thirsty. At times I couldn’t walk at all."

Of the 6,000 who left Kessab, only 2,000 survived.


• Up to 1.5 million people were killed or died during deportation from Turkey between April 24, 1915 — when 200 prominent Armenians were executed — and 1917
• Up to a million Armenians were interned or died on forced marches to Mesopotamia and modern Syria
• The event is recognised as genocide by 15 countries including Russia, France and Switzerland, but not by Britain or the US
• The diplomatic dispute continues and the Turkish and Armenian borders remain closed