Armenian descendants emerge from shadows

A century after their forefathers were murdered, a hidden people are coming out of the shadows.

Descendants of the Armenians killed in the hundreds of thousands as the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the First World War, they are revealing themselves to their neighbours and startled historians, encouraged by the ever-changing shifts of Middle Eastern politics.

Virtually all grew up as Muslims, after their grandparents converted from the Armenian Orthodox faith or married to escape persecution. Hardly any speak Armenian and in many cases it was only on reaching adulthood that their parents even dared to pass on the knowledge of their ancestry.

“Until I was 18, I didn’t know anything about anything Armenian,” said one such woman, Guzide Diker, who grew up speaking Kurdish in a village in eastern Turkey. Like the rest of the family and everyone else in the area, she was brought up to be Muslim. Knowledge of the region’s long Armenian history in some places disappeared within two generations. “When I was 18, my older brother called me and with my mother told me I could choose what religion I wanted,” she said.

Today, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, as descendants insist on calling it, despite fierce opposition from the Turkish government. April 24, 1915, was the date the Ottoman authorities rounded up Armenian leaders in Istanbul, accusing them of conspiring with the western allies and Russia.

There followed an onslaught of unprecedented proportions as the empire tried to expel the entire Armenian population, numbering several million. In the east, where most lived, soldiers and Kurdish gangs — many of them bandits released from prison for the purpose — ambushed the long trails of humanity being herded into the Syrian deserts to the south, shooting and bayonetting as many men as they could, with countless women and children, too.

“My father was four, and saw five men spear his mother to death in front of him,” said Aydan Tut, a taxi driver, who still carries his father’s identity card showing his grandfather’s Armenian name. “He was saved by two Kurds on horseback who came and rescued him, saying the child should be spared.”

Those Kurds brought up the Armenian orphan as their own.

People lay flowers at the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan on April 21, 2015.

People lay flowers at the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan on April 21, 2015. KAREN MINASYAN / AFP/Getty Images

The diaspora’s historians say 1.5 million died. Those who survived the killings and the starvation that followed scattered, some to Syrian cities — where they remain, suffering new attacks in that nation’s civil war — some to what became Soviet Armenia, some to the West.

A handful of families remained fearfully in the larger cities of eastern Turkey, such as Diyarbakir, but in an atmosphere of hostility between Turks and Kurds, and toward Christian minorities, they gradually dissipated, too. A decade ago, only one elderly Armenian couple survived and claimed their Christian heritage in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in the country.

But then the politics changed again. As the Kurds emerged from decades of their own struggles with the Turkish government, they acquired more autonomy and their leaders announced that they saw the Armenians, with their long history of persecution even before 1915, as fellow victims of Turkish nationalism, rather than an enemy within.

The decision, made by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdish guerrilla force the PKK, has begun a profound shift in attitudes.

In a meeting in the town of Bitlis on Sunday to introduce a visiting delegation of Armenians from around the world to representatives of the Kurdish communities that killed their forebears, one Kurdish former mayor, Behvad Serefhangder, stood to make his own declaration of responsibility.

He said he had been brought up on tales of how local Kurds had ambushed a column of 600 men, tied them up and burned them to death. The same story is recorded in the accounts of survivors held in the modern Armenian capital, Yerevan. Now, he said, he wanted to open up his home to Armenians — it was a home his father had bought from a man who had seized it from the Armenians he had killed. Opening up the past in this fashion remains a sensitive matter, particularly in an impoverished region. Some “hidden” Armenians, including Tut, have begun legal cases to have the lands their families owned returned — the Armenians were generally richer than the sometimes nomadic Kurds, and plunder was a major motivation for the attacks.

If I walk down the street even now, 100 people will call me names. This is how it is. — Yavuz Kaya

Fear of having property taken away is a potent weapon for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, which has allowed greater autonomy for Kurdish politics but has also become the main rival for votes for the Kurdish parties.

In the small town of Mutki, near Bitlis, the visiting Armenians, led by Ara Sarafian, a British-Armenian historian, toured a hillside quarter that remains home to 300 descendants of just three survivors of the massacres. The group was welcomed by the local Kurdish mayor, while Onur Ay, a part Armenian, part Kurdish local lawyer, showed off the ruined house where he had been born.

Other “hidden Armenians” remained hidden, though, not coming out of their houses. When the party had gone, some younger men emerged to say that even now, and even though they might be three quarters or seven eighths Kurdish, old hostilities remained.

The aggression toward Armenians did not stop with the end of the massacres. They sat and listened to the tale of Bogas Tomasian, a full Armenian whose grandfather survived a massacre nearby because he was the village ox-yoke maker, and who said that growing up Armenian as a child meant constant bullying and violence. His family finally fled in 1963 and he now lives in Switzerland.

Onur Ay’s relations, when they did agree to talk, suggested that things had not changed much. “Even today, there is still a social stigma,” said Yavuz Kaya, the local headman. “As you can clearly see, of 300-400 of us, only a few youngsters have appeared to speak. The others are still too scared to embrace their Armenian identity.

“We are constantly humiliated. If I walk down the street even now, 100 people will call me names. This is how it is.”

The Armenians are coming out — there may be a million or more people in Turkey with Armenian ancestry. But it is still a slow process.