By Frank J. Perez
Denying acts of genocide is morally irresponsible and dangerous, especially when it becomes entrenched in a country’s fabric. This is the case with Turkey. For over a century it has buried the truth about the Armenian Genocide, while attempting to persuade the world that a charnel house was never built nor occupied on its land.
An ad in last week’s Mercury News was an effort to perpetuate the falsehoods and dissuade inquiry into Turkey’s dark history. But indisputable facts underscore what scholars have declared was the 20th century’s first genocide.
The Armenian experience within the Ottoman Empire, as Turkey was formerly called, was one of marginalization, persecution and violence.
A Christian minority living in a Muslim country, Armenians historically lacked political clout and protection. Extortion by corrupt tax collectors, land theft and government-sanctioned kidnapping of young Armenian boys for military service and of young girls for satisfying war-weary soldiers was common.
Far removed from Istanbul — then the seat of power — Armenian enclaves formed in eastern Anatolia. Angry over their status as second-class citizens, dissident voices called for rebellion in the 1890s. The short-lived revolt was silenced by Kurdish mercenaries hired by the empire’s leader, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The killings, known as the Hamidian Massacres, resulted in over 200,000 deaths.
In 1908, the sultan’s rule ended with the arrival of the Committee on Union and Progress, or Young Turks, a political party that proclaimed, “A Turkey for Turks.” Nationalism was to eclipse ethnic divisions and religious differences. For once it seemed, Armenians would stand as equals on Turkish soil.
But when World War I erupted along the Eastern Front, inclusion gave way to exclusion, and later genocide.
The Young Turks blamed the country’s loses in battle on the Armenian soldiers within the ranks. Consorting with the enemy – Russia – was the charge. Stripped of weapons, the dishonored troops were assigned to work battalions. The government then extended condemnation to all Armenians, paving the way for a bloodbath.
On April 24, 1915, more than 200 Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and hanged. Sunday marked the anniversary, and for the 101 years since, Turkey has tried to stop the bleeding that pours from historically accepted versions of the truth.
The hangings led to systematic executions of Armenian community leaders and able-bodied men. Towns and villages were then liquidated, as their inhabitants were led on death marches. Ripped away from parents, children were “adopted” by Turkish families that changed their identities and often forced them into servitude. Indiscriminate rape was wielded as a weapon.
Nearly 60 percent of the Armenian population — 1.5 million — perished at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. While the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the accepted definition of genocide, didn’t exist in 1915, the historical record is clear that the Turkish government was complicit in genocidal acts.
Unlike Germany, Turkey has never acknowledged its blood-stained past. Denial is championed, while voicing culpability is criminalized.
Sadly, President Obama bolstered Turkey’s impunity once again, omitting the word genocide from a recent statement commemorating the events of 1915. Voters could change that by urging their representatives to pass House Resolution 154, a proposal calling upon the president to make Turkey finally own up.
The final destination for Armenians who survived the death marches was the Syrian desert, where their perpetrators forced them into a circular pattern. Walking aimlessly, thousands died.
Their sun-bleached bones dot the arid terrain still today — a reminder of lives lost and an exclamation point on the truth.
Frank J. Perez of Hollister is a world history teacher at San Benito High School who teaches about the Armenian Genocide and has developed an entire unit on genocide.