DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — With their feet on broken stones among high weeds, a group of Armenians from all over the world stands together in prayer. They are inside the Surp Sarkis Church in the historical center of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey. Although "inside" is relative: Only the walls are standing, the columns and the arches.
Although this place of worship is decaying, the memory of the Armenians is brought to life again, precisely here in the region where so many lost their lives in the massacres of 1915. The Kurdish political movement acknowledges that a genocide took place on these lands and facilitates the revival of Armenian culture in any way they can.
The beginning of the Armenian genocide is marked on April 24, 1915, the day nearly 300 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were arrested and later executed. In southeast Turkey, the massacres started earlier that year.
The massacres came as no surprise to many. As early as the late 19th century, Armenians were rounded up and killed in the Ottoman Empire, also in Diyarbakir. The Ottomans thought centralizing power and "Turkifying" the nation would impede the collapse of the empire. Armenians were looked upon with great suspicion: They were outsiders ethnically and religiously. By the time World War I started, some Armenian political groups sided with Christian Russia, the Ottoman Empires’s enemy. To eliminate the perceived threat, all Armenians were targeted.
At the memorial in Diyarbakir, the precise backgrounds weren’t all that mattered. This atmosphere was portrayed in the words of Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the opposition People's Democracy Party (HDP), which has its roots in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast. During his speech outside the Surp Sarkis Church, he said, "I wish that we could set aside the discussion about if it was a genocide or not, and could just put the corpses in the ground to rest. I wish we could only accomplish that."
After his speech, he called on those attending to pray. Many cupped their hands in front of them, said their prayers and then stroked their faces. Solemn music, performed live, followed, while many held up signs with lilac forget-me-nots.
Regarding the Armenian genocide, the stance of the Kurdish political movement, which the HDP represents, is remarkably different than that of the rest of Turkish society and political spheres. Although on commemoration day Demirtas didn’t want to bring up the "genocide or not genocide" discussion, Kurds use the G-word freely.
Seyhmus Diken, for example, is a writer and expert on the history of Diyarbakir. He was among the few hundred intellectuals who signed a petition in late 2008 to apologize for what had happened to the Armenians. He told Al-Monitor, "The Kurds didn’t have a part in the genocide as a people, since at the time the Kurds hadn’t developed their national identity yet. But we were part of it as Muslims and that’s why I decided to apologize for it." Demirtas’ name was among the signatories.
The petition triggered furious reactions from Turkish nationalists at the time, who claimed that nothing had happened to apologize for. But also among Kurds, some rejected the apology. They draw an interesting parallel between the days of the genocide and now. A hundred years ago, the massacres were partly carried out by the Kurdish Hamidiye cavalry, acting on orders from Constantinople. Nowadays, there is the system of village guards, citizens paid and armed by the state to fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
During a panel on the Kurds' role in 1915 a few months ago in Diyarbakir, one Kurdish attendee said, "If I apologize for the genocide now, will my children and grandchildren have to apologize for the murders committed by today’s village guards? No way."
Diken agrees with that analysis, but said, "I think that we as a society have to look at our contribution, too, and apologize for our mistakes. Citizens did help the authorities and killed Armenians. … There is a risk that the state will shove the responsibility of what happened to the Armenians upon the Kurds. Some nationalist Turkish historians are already trying to do that."
Demirtas referred to just that in his speech when he brought up the matter of responsibility for the genocide. "When we talk about the Halabja massacre," he asked, "do we say the Arabs did it? No, Saddam was responsible. When we talk of the Holocaust, do we hold all Germans responsible? No, it was Hitler’s ideology. To the government and the other opposition parties, I ask: 'Which actions of the Union and Progress Party [the acting Ottoman power during World War I] do you assume so that you put the weight of their actions on the Armenian issue on our shoulders?' We don't accept all Turkish or Kurdish people to be held responsible for the Armenian genocide while the responsibility lies with the Union and Progress Party."
Nevertheless, reconciliation between the people is important, said Ara Sarafian, director of the London-based Gomidas Institute, a research institute that for two years has undertaken a reconciliation project between Armenians and citizens of Turkey’s southeast. "We have come far," Sarafian told Al-Monitor. "The Kurds themselves are being oppressed in these lands. They know what genocide is, denial, humiliation. Kurds understand our pain. That is why they are at the forefront of acknowledgement and reconciliation."
This, Sarafian believes, will eventually prompt the Turkish government in Ankara to face the truth as well. He said, "In the southeast there is no longer denial, and in Turkey there is a growing movement calling for recognition. It is only a matter of time before Ankara will face the truth."
For its participants, the April 24 commemoration in Diyarbakir was first and foremost a personal experience, not just for the Armenians from abroad but for Diyarbakir residents as well.
This is true for Zelal, for example, a young woman who joined the march from the ancient city walls to the Surp Sarkis Church. Zelal held a sign with a lilac forget-me-not, telling Al-Monitor, "My family was Armenian until the genocide. The survivors became Muslims, so I am a Muslim now, too. I am partly Armenian, but I don’t know yet what that means for me and how I should relate to it. I am discovering my identity."