It is time for Turkey to recognise the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide

It is now 98 years since 1.5m Armenians were systematically massacred. Recognising what happened is the only way to help us all move forward.

It has been 98 years since - following a premeditated plan with a methodic implementation - one million and a half Armenians were massacred in the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian people were the victims of a genocide which would soon serve as a gruesome reference for those that followed.

Today in Turkey, the mere enunciation of this historical fact still provokes ferocious opposition, sometimes even physical threats. Genocide denial serves as an encouragement to racism and hate against Armenians and other non-Muslim minorities. Some want to pretend that acknowledging the reality of the Armenian Genocide is an attack on all Turkish people and on "Turkishness". It is not: it is a step towards justice. 

Several years ago, the genocide of Armenians began to be commemorated in Turkey itself. The participants are still few but their number grows every day despite an official discourse of genocide-denial. Today, those among us who have taken part in these commemorations in Turkey are calling for solidarity beyond borders.

This year on 24 April - the widely recognised starting date of the massacre - we ask citizens, civil society leaders, antiracist activists, intellectuals and artists, of Armenian and other diverse origins, in Turkey and across the world, to unite in calling for the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide to be recognised at last.  

Our shared initiative is one of solidarity, of justice, and of democracy.

It is an initiative of solidarity between all who fight for historical truth. Today the divide is not between Turks and Armenians, but between those who struggle for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, whatever their origins are and wherever they live, and those who promote denial. In a word, it is not a question of blood, but of ideas; not a question of origins, but of a common goal.

It is an initiative of justice. In the words of writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, "Genocide kills twice, the second time by silence." Denial, then, is the perpetuation of genocide. Fighting against denial is trying to quell the trauma in Armenian communities from one generation to another. It is not an end to this part of history - because when it comes to genocide, there is unfortunately no true end - but it offers new generations the opportunity to look together towards the future.

Finally, it is an initiative for democracy. Echoing writer and Buchenwald survivor Jorge Semprun's frequent reminder, democracy requires vitality from civil society. Strengthening Turkish civil society by establishing bridges with the rest of the European civil society is strengthening democratic values, thus combating racism and promoting human rights, in Turkey as well as in the rest of Europe.

In solidarity, for justice and democracy, for the respect of the victims and their descendents, we will commemorate together the Armenian Genocide on 24 April, in Turkey.

Signed by:

Benjamin Abtan, President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement - EGAM

Cengiz Algan & Levent Sensever, Spokespeople for Durde! (Turkey)

Alexis Govciyan , European President & Nicolas Tavitian, Member of the Board of the Armenian General Benevolent Union - AGBU (Europe)

Meral Çildir, Member of the Board of Directors & Ayse Gunaysu, Member of the Commission against Racism and Discrimination of the Turkish Association for Human Rights - IHD (Turkey)

An Armenian Genocide commemoration ceremony in Yerevan in 2012. Photo: Getty

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism