BY RAFFI BEDROSYAN
From the Armenian Weekly
The historic first trip to Armenia of Diyarbakir’s “hidden Armenians” is coming to an end and it is time for us to assess its impact, consequences, and next steps.
At the end of the first week, we organized a “Dikranagerd Night” at a beautiful location called the HyeLandz Eco Village in the village of Keghatir. We invited government officials, academicians, and researchers following our group, as well as some of the new-found relatives of the hidden Armenians, whose ancestors had managed to escape to Armenia after 1915. This reunion between the Islamicized Armenians of Diyarbakir and their Christian-Armenian relatives was a special one. Needless to say, the dancing and singing kept the whole village awake until the early hours of the morning. During the last few days, the group visited Lake Sevan and there—whether Muslim or Christian—they all reinforced their “Armenianness” by dipping into the holy waters, some just their toes, some their entire bodies… Then they were off to a government camping facility in Dzaghgatsor for a few days, where they had a chance to rest after a whirlwind tour of Armenia, and learn more of the Armenian language, songs, and dances. They all enjoyed the camp, except for the morning gym classes and the “beds from the Stalin era.”
On this drive back home to Diyarbakir to resume their lives, perhaps a bit apprehensive about their emerging new identities, I would like to share some of the life stories of these no-more-hidden Armenians. There is enough material for a book or movie for each of the 50 members of the group. Through interviews by the media or Ministry of Diaspora officials, the Armenians of Armenia have started to find out about them. The most interesting responses have been to the question, “When did you realize you had Armenian roots?” Some of them found out they were Armenian when they were already adults, at the deathbed of their parents or grandparents. Some discovered when they were in compulsory military service in the Turkish Army, when their commanders told them they couldn’t be trusted because of their “background.” Some found out when they were little, when other kids shouted “Armenian” to them in the street or at school; they knew it was a swear word, without knowing its meaning. As they rushed home crying, their parents had to explain that Armenian is not a swear word, but their identity. Some hidden Armenians tried hard to appear as devout Muslims; one even became an imam, a Muslim religious leader, while keeping his identity hidden. However, most hidden Armenians tried to ensure that their children married into other hidden Armenian families. Even the imam gave his daughter to another Islamicized Armenian boy, raising questions among his Muslim followers. No matter how much these people tried to hide their Armenian roots, however, it seems that their neighbors or government officials knew about their origins. During disagreements with shopkeepers, businesses, neighboring women or kids at school, the insult of “gavur” (infidel) or “devil-rooted Armenian” easily came out, no matter how devout they appeared to be.
One tragicomic story involves three Muslim-Kurdish boys about 8-9 years old; one of them was from a hidden Armenian family, but unaware of his roots at the time. They stole some of those famous Diyarbakir watermelons from the orchard of a hidden Armenian Islamicized man. The man caught the three little thieves, but let the two real Muslim-Kurdish boys go and gave a good beating to the hidden Armenian boy. I leave it to the psychologists to ponder the reasons for this man’s actions. Years later, this hidden Armenian boy found out about his real identity, and still thinks about this incident.
Another interesting fact that emerged from the interviews is the special place Yerevan Radio has in all Kurdish families’ lives, including our hidden Armenians group. As the Kurdish language was banned—and even possessing a Kurdish music tape was a punishable crime in Turkey for several decades—all Kurds tuned in to Yerevan Radio, which broadcast Kurdish news and music for a couple of hours each day. The members of our group all remembered how, when they were growing up, everyone would stop work at their homes or at shops to gather around the radio and hear Yerevan Radio’s Kurdish news.
I am confident that the groundbreaking nature of this historic first trip will open the road for other hidden Armenians to follow, but I would like to report on three additional successful outcomes resulting from this trip.
Firstly, two university graduates in our group who wanted to further their graduate studies in Armenia will be able to fulfill their dreams. Through an agreement with Armenian government officials, they will attend Armenian universities with free tuition, mastering the Armenian language during the first year and continuing on in their desired field of study.
Secondly, some members of the group inquired about obtaining Armenian citizenship, perhaps with future plans of retiring in Armenia. As per the existing citizenship requirements, the Armenian government demands documents and proof of Armenian ethnic origin; of course, no such documents exist among our hidden Armenians, except the memories passed on from their parents and grandparents. In discussions with government officials, I proposed the possibility of a baptism document as proof of Armenian origin. I suggested that if a hidden Armenian “comes out” and gets baptized in Armenia—similar to our two members who got baptized in Etchmiadzin (see previous article)—then this should be sufficient proof to apply for Armenian citizenship. The proposal was received favorably and will now be discussed in Cabinet, hopefully leading to approval by the government.
Thirdly, learning the Armenian language, history, and culture is essential to re-discovering Armenian roots. The Virtual University run by the AGBU in Yerevan is offering online courses in these subjects. The administrators have agreed to offer these courses for free to all applicants from Turkey. This will have a huge impact on the hidden Armenians of Turkey, wherever they are—in Dersim, Van, Mush, or Diyarbakir—as they can start learning on their own, and in their own homes, even in the absence of organized language courses.
Although this trip was the start of a new reality within the Armenian world, and was received with great enthusiasm by both government officials and the public in Armenia, I must admit that not everyone is on board. There are still quite a few Armenians who disapprove of the time and effort in bringing out the hidden Armenians. Perhaps it is untimely to air our dirty laundry, but I believe the arguments put forth by these disapproving Armenians must be discussed, as some of these people hold important posts within the Armenian Church and in political organizations in the diaspora and in Istanbul. These disapprovers argue that Muslim Armenians are not really Armenian until they convert to Christianity by getting baptized. But then, they argue that they cannot get baptized unless they show proof or documentation of their Armenian origins, until they speak fluent Armenian and “pass tests of being a good Armenian.” I believe it is shortsighted and unrealistic to have such requirements for hidden Armenians living in Van or Dersim, who are surrounded by Muslim Turks and Kurds, working in government jobs. The other argument I find incomprehensible is that the emergence of hidden Armenians in large numbers lessens the claims of the 1915 genocide, and that it is tantamount to strengthening the Turkish case for denial. I have even received comments that Turks will now use the hidden Armenians as proof that the genocide never happened. I should stick to engineering or music, they say, instead of getting involved in these issues. These comments can be dismissed, were it not for the fact that they come from individuals in undeservedly responsible positions in the diaspora and in Istanbul.
Regardless, we will keep on expanding our efforts in Diyarbakir and in other regions of Turkey, pushing the envelope on rules and regulations in order to facilitate the “coming out” of our hidden Armenian brothers and sisters—the grandchildren of the “living” victims of the genocide. There is a Turkish term for these hapless survivors: kilic artigi, meaning “remnants of the sword.” The attempted murder of a nation and the total confiscation of its wealth took place within Turkey, and as we approach the Centennial, we must realize that its resolution will also take place within Turkey. No matter how many events we organize in the Armenian Diaspora or in Armenia, no matter how many third-country parliaments and politicians appear to sympathize with our cause, at the end of the day, the only change will come from within Turkey when the peoples of Turkey realize the truth about 1915 and force their government to stop the denial and deal with the consequences. One of the key components toward this goal will be to re-create an Armenian presence within Turkey. The continuing dialogue between Armenian and Turkish civil societies and opinion makers, combined with the emergence of hidden Armenians within Turkey, are essential toward eliminating both past and present barriers.
I will conclude this series of articles with a tribute to the courage and determination of our hidden Armenians, and a few questions for readers to ponder: How will they be received back in Turkey? How will their families, neighbors, employers, and employees react to their new identity? Just consider Stepan’s case, the newly baptized man who works as a teacher at a government school. All of his students are Muslim. He told me he knows there are several kids in his class who come from hidden Armenian Islamicized families, but he doesn’t know if the kids know about their roots. How will the Muslim kids (or their parents) react to him coming out? How will the hidden Armenian kids (or their parents) react? How will his own kids react?
We are in uncharted waters, but sooner or later, truth and justice will prevail.