Editor’s note: This film originally aired on Al Jazeera English on May 8, 2012. This text and film have been updated to reflect the new airing date and the passing away of Sarkis Seropyan, who died in March 2015.
Filmmaker: Ramazan Mut; Scriptwriter: Peren Birsaygili
Every year on April 24, Armenians around the world commemorate the anniversary of what they claim to be genocide.
But 100 years after the events of 1915, the use of the word “genocide” to describe what happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks remains a contentious political issue.
Turkey vehemently rejects genocide claims. It admits that atrocities were committed but argues that there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people. It claims the Armenians were casualties of World War I and that many people died amid the chaos of a war in which all sides suffered.
The true number of Armenians that were killed or died in 1915 and 1916 remains a topic of heated debate. The Armenians say the number stands at 1.5 million. Turkey says that is grossly inflated and estimates the total to be about 300,000.
‘A history of co-existence’
The thing we call the past doesn't exist. Only we exist. The present exists with its own players - their worries, problems and descendants ... As individuals, if we aren't able to talk about these things - then unfortunately the dark pages of the past will leave their darkness on our present. Worse still, this will create bigger problems and tension in the future.
For many, this issue has come to overshadow what Stepan Grigoryan from the Analytical Centre on Globalisation and Regional Cooperation describes as “a history of co-existence between Turks and Armenians”.
After conquering Constantinople in 1453, the young Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Second brought in large numbers of Armenians from Anatolia to settle in the newly-won city.
Over the centuries, they came to hold positions at all levels of the Ottoman state apparatus – as state ministers, advisers, tax collectors and even doctors in the sultan’s palace. They excelled in trade and the crafts and helped construct many of the buildings and monuments that came to symbolise the splendour of Ottoman architecture. The Armenians became an important and recognised community within the Ottoman Empire.
But by the 1880s, a growing nationalist sentiment had emerged among Armenians, particularly intellectuals, with calls for the creation of a free, independent and united Armenia. The first Armenian political organisations were born.
Shortly after, Sultan Abdul Hamid the Second created an armed band of Kurdish tribal warriors, the Hamidiya Brigade, who raided and looted Armenian towns and villages.
“Because of the hopeless situation Sultan Abdul Hamid became a despot. He used innovative measures but he also lived with great paranoia,” explains Pakrat Estukyan, the editor of Agos, an Armenian weekly newspaper published in Istanbul. “In 1895 the Hamidiya Brigades were established and Kurds were used in suppressing Armenians. Armenians suffered great trauma because of this.”
A splintering empire
The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire accelerated during the early 20th century. In 1911, it lost Libya to Italy and in 1912, it lost the Balkans War – and with it most of its Balkan territories. The empire was splintering apart. And then – in 1914 – World War I started.
In October 1914, Ottoman Turkey entered on the side of Germany.
The Turks were concerned that the Armenians – pursuing their goal of establishing an Armenian homeland – would help the Russians. On November 1, 1914 the Russian army began a multi-pronged invasion of the Ottoman Empire from the Caucasus. Many Armenian volunteers joined the ranks of the Russian army. The Caucasus – the eastern front of the Ottoman Empire – became a key strategic war zone.
To eliminate the threat of Armenians allying with the Russians, the government decided to transfer the Armenian population to other parts of the empire.
“It was a time of war. And we know what happens in wars,” says Melih Aktas from Gazi University in Ankara. “… I think it would be wrong to judge these events as harsh or inhumane without a full knowledge of all the surrounding circumstances and the way war developed.”
‘The past does not exist’
Sarkis Gallosyan was born in Turkey and today lives in the Armenian capital Yerevan.
“Unfortunately, I lost two-thirds of my family during the 1915 events,” he says. “Only one or two people survived. My mother was one of the survivors. All her family was eradicated.”
But many Turks in local authorities did their best to stand up against the deportations and the tragedy that followed and there were instances of ordinary citizens doing whatever they could to help protect their Armenian friends.
“One of the writers at our newspaper told us a story about his father and grandfather,” explains founding member of Agos the late Sarkis Seropyan. “He said that one of the heads of his village called Uncle Hassan hid an Armenian family in the top floor of his house for a year. He took care of them and protected them. In Anatolia there were lots of people like Uncle Hassan but we don’t know their names.”
During the course of World War I, the total number of casualties in the Ottoman Empire was to reach as high as five million – about 25 per cent of the population.
Ziya Meral, an analyst, writer and researcher at the University of Cambridge, says: “The thing we call the past doesn’t exist. Only we exist. The present exists with its own players – their worries, problems and descendants …. As individuals, if we aren’t able to talk about these things – then unfortunately the dark pages of the past will leave their darkness on our present. Worse still, this will create bigger problems and tension in the future.”
But a deep wound has remained at the heart of relations between Turks and Armenians for many years.
This film, Common Pain, presents the Turkish narrative of the events of 1915 and 1916, providing the historical background and political context to the tragedy that unfolded.