Armenians visit Ani these days

Ghostlands - Armenia and Turkey

His hike in the footsteps of humanity takes our reporter Paul Salopek through Turkey and Armenia. The region is persecuted to this day by its history and a brutal injustice. The two countries are still living in an age-old conflict: during the First World War, Christian-Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire were persecuted, raped, deported or killed. Around a million Armenians were killed. Armenians and historians describe the massacre as genocide, but the Turkish government does not recognize genocide. According to their version, the death toll was less than 600,000 and, in addition to Armenians, other population groups also suffered. The conflict is leaving its mark in an area in which many people lack the willingness to repent, forgive and forget.

A million Armenians - some say more, others less - were killed a hundred years ago in the Ottoman Empire. An empty stone tomb in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, commemorates this tragic event, the Medz Yeghern, the "great catastrophe" of the Armenian people. Every spring - on April 24th, the day the pogroms began - thousands of pilgrims climb the urban hill to this memorial. They parade past an eternal flame to pile up a small mountain of cut flowers. Less than a hundred kilometers north-west, across the Turkish border, are the ruins of an older monument that perhaps better corresponds to the bitter history of the Armenians: Ani.

Ani was the medieval capital of a powerful Armenian kingdom that had its center in Eastern Anatolia, on the great Asian peninsula that now makes up the essential part of Turkey. The empire extended to the northern foothills of the Silk Road. Its capital was a wealthy metropolis, where 100,000 people lived. Their bazaars overflowed with furs, spices and precious metals. They were protected by a high wall made of light-colored stone. Famous as the “City of 1001 Churches”, Ani could rival the splendor of Constantinople. It represented the prime of Armenian culture.

Today Ani is crumbling on a remote plateau - scattered debris from collapsed cathedrals, empty streets between yellow grass, a desolate, wind-blown landscape of ruins. I hiked there. I wander around the world. On foot I follow in the footsteps of our first ancestors who set out from Africa into the world. On my trip I have not seen a more beautiful or sad place than Ani.

“The Armenians are not even mentioned,” says Murat Yazar, my Kurdish travel companion, with astonishment. And really: On the billboards that the Turkish government put up for tourists, the builders Anis remain unnamed. That is on purpose. There are no longer any Armenians in Ani. Not even in the official histories. Ani is a memorial to oblivion.

One of the oldest and most persistent political conflicts in the world, a toxic stalemate, has kept Armenia and Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, trapped in bitterness, hostility and nationalist extremism for generations. This conflict basically revolves around the interpretation of a three-syllable word: genocide.

This word is laden with different meanings, with different nuances and controversies. The United Nations classifies genocide as one of the worst crimes: an attempt to wipe out entire peoples or ethnic or religious groups. But when exactly does this term apply? How many people have to be slaughtered for this? Which is more important: the deed or the purpose it served? What cruel calculation is used to arrive at a result?

The Armenian version of the events: The year is 1915. The First World War has been raging for nine months. Europe sends its youth into the fire. The vast, multicultural Ottoman Empire - the most powerful Muslim community in the world - has allied itself with Germany. A large Christian-Armenian minority, once so peace-loving and trustworthy that the sultans called them millet-i sadika, “Our loyal nation”, is falsely accused of rebellion, of taking sides with the Russian enemy.

Some Ottoman leaders decide to solve this "Armenian problem" through extermination and deportation. Armenian men are shot. There are mass rapes of women. Armenian villages and neighborhoods are occupied and looted. Corpses clog rivers and wells. Cities stink of decay. The survivors - columns of ragged women and children - drag themselves, forced by soldiers, into the desert regions of neighboring Syria. (Today just three million Armenians live in Armenia; eight to ten million are scattered in the diaspora.) The Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire is falling from around two million to less than 500,000. For most historians, what happened then is the first genocide of modern times.

"I am convinced that there is no episode as terrible as this in all of human history," wrote Henry Morgenthau Sr., the American ambassador to Constantinople at the time.

The Turkish government categorically rejects this representation. Your version of the "so-called genocide" goes like this: It is a time of absolute madness in history, a time of civil war. The Armenians certainly suffer. But that also applies to many other groups that are trapped in the fragmented Ottoman Empire: Greeks, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Jews, even the Turks themselves.

There is no systematic eradication plan. And when it comes to the death toll, the Armenians are exaggerating: it is less than 600,000. Moreover, many Armenians are traitors: thousands would have joined the invading Russian army.

To question the official point of view is still risky in Turkey today. Turkish judges consider the expression “genocide” to be provocative, incitatory, and insulting to the state. Even celebrities like Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk have to be accused of denigrating Turkishness or the Turkish state when they talk about the great Armenian catastrophe. "It is our hope and our belief that the peoples of an ancient and unique geography, who share similar customs and traditions, will be able to speak to one another about the past and reasonably remember their losses together," said Recep Tayyip Erdo & # x11F; an 2014 in a speech that he, at that time still Prime Minister, had worded very carefully. What is the special power of the word “genocide”?

The Armenian diaspora has been funding lobbying campaigns for decades to persuade governments around the world to use the word when they talk about the events of the day. In April 2015, the EU Parliament asked Turkey to recognize the “genocide” of the Armenians.

In Diyarbak & # x131; r, a Kurdish city in eastern Turkey, I was conducting an interview (a fragile gesture of reconciliation) in a recently reopened Armenian church when a man came up to me. “Do you acknowledge the genocide?” He wants to know. He is an Armenian. He's upset. He stares me in the eye.

I am scared. I am in the middle of work. I'm going to tell him.

“I don't care,” he replies. "Do you acknowledge the genocide, yes or no?"

He repeats the question several times. What he is telling me is: “I am not a ghost. I am real, just like my story. "

The memory tells us: never forget! But in the end we always forget.

In a small town just beyond Yerevan, a wrinkled old man sits slumped on a sofa. His name is Khosrov Frangyan. Although it's not that cold at all, he has wrapped himself in blankets and a fleece jacket, put on a knitted hat and pulled socks over his knotty hands, because his heart and veins are ancient. He is 105 years old and one of those who survived the massacres. These frail old people, of whom there are few left, are revered as national heroes in Armenia today. Because they represent the last tangible link to the crime of 1915. Because they are a living reminder to all deniers.

“I was five when the Turks came,” croaks Frangyan. “They blew us up the mountain.” He tells his story. A legendary chapter in the genocide. About 4,700 residents of six Armenian villages in what is now southern Turkey fled up a coastal mountain called Musa Dagh. They let boulders roll down on their Turkish pursuers. They resisted for more than 40 days. The desperate waved a banner to draw the attention of the ships that passed on the Mediterranean coast: "CHRISTIANS IN NEED - SAVE US". As if by a miracle, French warships came to the rescue and brought them to Egypt, into safe exile.

Frangyan's brown eyes are watery and rimmed with red. Unlike some Armenian witnesses, he does not stop at the horror, the collective executions of parents, the mass rapes and the beheadings. No. His voice grows louder as he thinks back to the fruits of his lost village: “The gardens! My grandfather had fig trees - 50 meters high! I would like to eat these bananas right now! I want to keep those bananas in my memory! ”Frangyan's daughter, a middle-aged woman, shakes her head. She apologizes. The old man is sometimes confused. But he's not confused. I went to his home in the Turkish province of Hatay. I was standing between orchards full of mandarins and lemons near his old village. It really is a subtropical paradise. And from a hilltop I looked out over the same blue sea in which the warships dropped anchor.

A century ago, the French Navy saved Frangyan. But who will save the French seafarers from the dark side of man? Who will keep us all?

I wander around the world from Africa. I follow in the footsteps of our Stone Age ancestors. Wherever these pioneers appeared, other hominini who had previously lived there perished. They disappeared.

In Eastern Turkey I pass dilapidated Armenian farmhouses. I see old Armenian churches that have been converted into mosques, sitting in the shade of walnut trees - planted a long time ago by people who died on death marches.

"We fought the Armenians and many died," says Saleh Emre, the gruff mayor of the Kurdish village of Ta & # x15F; kale. Suddenly he becomes friendlier. “I think that was wrong. You belonged here. "

Muslim Kurds occupy a strange place in the violent history of Eastern Turkey. From a national border gendarmerie that did the dirty work for the Ottomans a century ago, they themselves have become a beleaguered ethnic minority that is demanding more political rights in modern Turkey. The victim status today connects many Kurds with their long-dead Armenian neighbors.

When is a genocide officially over? The act of mass extermination completely ended, documented, resolved? Certainly not with the last shot. When then? When the dead disappear as individuals from the chain of memory? Or when the last orphaned village gets a new population, a new language, a new name? Or does the genocide end only when repentance begins?

My travel companion Murat Yazar and I are moving forward at a snail's pace. We hike over the steppes that are gradually turning yellow, on which wolves run in front of us, stopping in between to look silently back at us over our shoulders, then trot on. We pass Mount Ararat. In the east, the 5,137-meter-high summit shines, covered with white snow. This mountain appears in the Bible as Noah's height anchorage. The beautiful volcano is sacred to the Armenians.

“Chosen trauma”, the political psychologist Vam & # x131; k Volkan uses this term to describe an ideology in which grief becomes the core of identity - for individuals, for entire nations. The chosen trauma unites societies that have been dehumanized by mass violence. But it can also fuel an inward-looking nationalism.

I'm dragging myself from Turkey across the Lesser Caucasus to Georgia. I take a break in Tbilisi, then I take a night train to Yerevan. It is April 24th, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

Billboards adorn the capital of Armenia. On one of them are various weapons - a scimitar, a rifle, a hatchet, a noose - arranged in such a way that they look like a "1915". The least combative symbol of mourning is the most impressive: the forget-me-not. Millions of purple petals that adorn Yerevan's parks and median strips. The flowers appear on banners, stickers, pins: blossoms of genocide. “Remember and challenge” - this is the slogan of remembrance.

But what do you ask?

That is the key question that the Armenians are asking themselves. Is the past a guide? Or is it a trap?

Apostolic Bishop Mikael Ajapahian from the Armenian city of Gyumri says: “In Armenia there is no hostility towards Turkey. We don't blame the people there. But Turkey has to do everything, really everything, so that the wounds heal. "

Elvira Meliksetyan, women's rights activist from Yerevan, says: “We don't know what we want. If everything reminds us of our past problems, we are losing the future, right? We don't have a strategy. The eternal sacrifice makes us recipients of alms. "

Ruben Vardanyan, billionaire and philanthropist, says: “100 years later we are the winners. We survived. We are strong. So next we should say thank you and give something back to the people who saved us, including the Turks. 100 years ago some of their grandparents protected our grandparents. We need to link these stories together. ”(Vardanyan donated the Aurora Prize to honor silent heroes who saved others from genocide.)

There is a torchlight procession. Photo exhibitions. A concert by an Armenian diaspora rock band from Los Angeles. Diplomats, academics, activists and ordinary people crowd at the mountain monument with the eternal flame for the dead. At a conference on the prevention of genocide, an American historian soberly pleads for Turkish reparations payments. It is "not an absurd or minor concern" that Turkey should cede the six traditionally Armenian provinces of the Ottomans to Armenia. (Germany paid more than $ 70 billion in compensation to the victims of the Nazi crimes.)

The most poignant story I hear on my trip to Armenia comes from a young man with huge eyes.

“I was a baby, maybe a year old. I was in hospital, terminally ill, with pneumonia - I think it was pneumonia. The doctors couldn't do anything. A Turkish woman in the maternity ward saw my mother cry. She asked her if she could kid me. Then she unbuttoned her dress. She grabbed my ankles and lowered me down her body. As if she were giving birth to me again. She did that seven times. She said prayers and called: 'Let this child live!' "


"I got well." He shrugs. "The Turkish woman saved my life."

Ara Kemalyan, an Armenian soldier, tells me this story in the trench about 250 kilometers southeast of Yerevan. Gunfire reaches my ear from afar. For more than 20 of his 38 years, Kemalyan has been a fighter from the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region facing the soldiers of the central government of Azerbaijan - his former friends and neighbors.

Since the late 1980s, when the Armenians separated from the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic, around 30,000 people, mostly civilians on both sides, have died in the clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. This poisonous little war crippling the Caucasus has practically nothing to do with the older violent incidents in the Ottoman Empire. Yet Kemalyan still describes the Azerbaijani midwife who saved him by magic as an enemy "Turkish woman". The ghosts of 1915 keep his heart occupied.

Before I leave these ghost lands, I'll go back to Ani. To the medieval ruins in Turkey. The monument of denial. This time I am looking at it from the Armenian side of the border.

The closed Armenian-Turkish border is one of the strangest in the world. Turkey blocked its crossings in the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1993 out of sympathy for Azerbaijan. The Armenians also shut down theirs, also under pressure from the diaspora, which is opposed to normalizing relations with Turkey. Turkey demilitarized its side of the border many years ago. The Armenian side, however, is guarded by the Russian army, which is part of the defense pact with Russia - this is how Moscow maintains its influence in the strategically important region. The sight is surreal: Armenian barbed wire fences and Russian watchtowers stand in front of wide, open fields in Turkey. Russian and Armenian soldiers look on Turkish shepherds. The shepherds wave.

“I always keep my stove burning in the kitchen,” says Vahandukht Vardanyan, an Armenian with rosy cheeks. Her farmhouse is across from Ani, on the other side of the barbed wire fence. "I want to show the Turks that we are still there."

I climb a lookout near their house where Armenian pilgrims are getting off buses. They come here to look longingly over a fence at their old capital in Anatolia.

I also look over. I see exactly the place where I stood months before. A ghost of my former self is wandering among these ruins. Nothing separates us all but a vast chasm of solitude.

Translated from the English by Bettina Abarbanell


Paul Salopek's previous stages:


(NG, issue 4/2016, page (s) 104 to 127)