Armenian Genocide: One Hundred and Six Years Later
As another 24th April approaches, Armenians around the world prepare to commemorate one more year of an ignored and unrecognised Genocide. Generally seen as the first Genocide of the 21st century, starting in 1915, the Armenian, along with the Greek and Assyrian communities of the Ottoman Empire faced state-orchestrated expulsions and massacres. Even after the conclusion of the First World War, Anatolia was further ethnically cleansed of its Christian minorities to allow for the creation of a Turkish nation state. Many Armenians and indeed Greeks who fled this persecution found themselves in Cyprus.
Armenians have had a visible presence in Cyprus for centuries. One can find Armenochori, “Armenian Village” in the Limassol district and Sourp Magar Monastery in the Pentadaktylos mountain range. However, due to the Genocide, the number of Armenians in Cyprus significantly increased in the beginning of the 20th Century. Many of the Armenians who came to call Cyprus home were of urban and mercantile backgrounds – one can still see the shops of Armenian watchmakers, jewellers, tailors, and shoemakers along Nicosia’s Ledra Street today. They integrated extremely well into Cypriot society as the majority spoke Turkish already, having lived in the Ottoman empire, and shared many Christian traditions and celebrations with their Greek Cypriot compatriots.
The Armenian Genocide has become synonymous with political awkwardness and controversy. Whilst essentially all reputable scholars and experts agree the events of 1915-1923 constituted genocide, many Governments (such as the UK) who want to remain in favour with Turkey, stick to the “mass killings” line and engage in false equivalence, avoiding the G-word at all costs. But this constant referral to “seeing both sides” is deeply offensive to many Armenians whose ancestors suffered deliberate state-sponsored persecution and expulsion from their native lands. Referring to “the other side” when discussing the Holocaust would rightfully be met with public outrage; yet it continues in the case of the Armenian Genocide due to vested political interests. Countries with NEPOMAK branches that have recognised the Armenian Genocide include Canada, Greece, and Cyprus, and in December 2019 the US Senate voted unanimously to acknowledge the mass killings as Genocide (although The Trump administration rejected the vote, so recognition hasn’t reached Presidential level at the time of writing).
Aside from the psychological trauma and violence suffered by the survivors, the Genocide also eradicated the Armenian culture from Anatolia. Thousands of villages were renamed, and several thousand monasteries, schools, churches, and libraries were looted and destroyed. The Turkish state labels these ruins as ‘historic Christian churches’ with no reference to the Armenians that built and attended them. Beside a few churches that have been renovated, the vast majority either lay in ruins or have been destroyed altogether. That same disregard for other cultures’ heritage and religious sites was also present in the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the continued occupation which, again, has seen Armenian and Greek churches and monasteries desecrated and left in ruins.
In Turkey, a few outspoken NGOs, activists, and scholars, and indeed the Kurdish HDP political party, argue that recognition of the Genocide in Turkey is vital to the advancement of civil society and the nation’s path to democracy. The Turkish state routinely attempts to persecute those who engage with this issue through anti-democratic laws. Some may remember that Turkish novelists Elif Shafak and Orhan Pamuk faced criminal charges for mentioning the massacres of Armenians more than a decade ago.
Recognition is the important first step to accepting and understanding the wounds of the past, and how to heal them. But alas, whilst recognition by international governments is a step in the right direction, closure can only come from the Turkish state itself.