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History's skeletons must be put to rest

A frail Vancouver genocide survivor still waits for Turkey to acknowledge its Armenian atrocities.

By Tamar Haytayan Armen 26 Apr 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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On a glorious April Saturday, a small group of people gathered in Vancouver's Marpole neighbourhood to mark the 89th anniversary of a 20th century atrocity -- one the world is only beginning to acknowledge. "Denial is the last stage of genocide," Columbia University scholar Bedros Der Matossian told a crowd of about 110, on April 24 in at the Armenian community's Vartan Church near the south foot of Granville Street.

Beginning in 1915, one of the first genocides of the 20th century was committed by the Ottoman Empire. Armenians believe 1.5 million of their brethren died. However, to this day, the Turkish government denies this. For them, a mere few hundred thousand Aremenians were the incidental victims of a civil conflict.

It's one of the reasons why, nearly 90 years later, many Armenians insist on bearing witness to their history. It's hard to build your future when so many are reluctant to acknowledge your past.

After the commemoration, a frail 94-year-old man sat in the second-row church pew and recounted his own experience. Kerop Shabanian was born in 1910 in Geuldagh, a village in East Turkey. He was five at the time of the genocide. "One day, my brother and sister were taken, and I never saw them again," said Shabanian, the only survivor of the Armenian genocide to attend the Vancouver event. "Then my mother and I were taken with others in a group and made to walk in the desert. Others had walked that trail before us, as I saw their skeletons there. There were only women and children with us."

Genocide breeds genocide

Armenians were a hard-working, prosperous minority in the Ottoman Empire. As the empire crumbled, they fell victim to an ethnic cleansing by young Turkish rulers who were trying to build a modern Turkish state and feared Armenian nationalism.

Some historians believe that if the international community had acted at the time of this genocide, the Jewish Holocaust might not have taken place. In his book The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response, Peter Balakian writes: "Speaking to his elite generals eight days before invading Poland in 1939, Hitler praised the virtues of power and brutality, referring to how easy it has been to dispense of defenseless people like the Armenians."

One of the most outspoken Turkish scholars, Taner Akcam, insists that coming to terms with the past will serve Turkey's best interests. Another Turkish historian, Fikret Adanir, told the International Herald Tribune in March: "We have to deal with history, like the Germans after the war. It's important for the health of the democracy, for civil society."

More recently, The New York Times lifted its long-standing policy against the use of the term "Armenian genocide," acknowledging the history recorded in more than the 250 articles written in the Times from 1913 to 1920.

While Turkey continues its denial, countries such as Russia, France, and Switzerland have now officially recognized the Armenian genocide. And on April 21, the Canadian Parliament voted 153-68 in favour of a Bloc Québécois private member's bill acknowledging the event. It's the culmination of a 25-year-long process in Canada encompassing resolutions passed by city councils, provinces, and, on July 13, 2002, the Canadian Senate.

However, Prime Minister Paul Martin and the Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham have argued that the Canadian Parliament's resolution does not represent the position of the Canadian government. The issue split both the Liberal and Conservative caucuses.

Subway contract at issue

The government's critics say it is too concerned about upsetting Turkey, which in 2001 cancelled defence contracts with France and in 2000 threatened to cut off access to its military facilities when the U.S. Congress sought, unsuccessfully, to acknowledge the event.

Some observers have even argued the matter is simply not a Canadian affair. "What conceivable business is it of Canada's Parliament, except for unwelcome meddling, to muck about in historical matters that do not concern this country directly?" the Globe's Jeffrey Simpson wrote, in "Canada Should Mind Its Own Business"

The Globe's editorial board took a different position the next day: "If this diverse country stresses human rights on the domestic scene, it can hardly deny their value in the larger world."

As Turkey seeks closer ties with the West and entry into the European Union, Canada -- as a member of NATO with a reputation for its commitment to protecting human rights --has a duty to bear witness and set an example. Those who would commit atrocities today must know they will be called to account.

Why is Canada, which was willing to alienate Americans over the Iraq war, afraid of upsetting Turkey? Is it because billion-dollar contracts for major projects such as the extension of the Ankara subway system are at stake for Canadian companies Bombardier and SNC Lavalin? Bob Keyes, vice president for international affairs of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied MPs to defeat the motion, told The Globe "these sorts of contracts do not come along every day."

Both the Turkish foreign ministry and the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations expressed fear that "the acceptance of the genocide" by Canada will promote hatred between Armenians and Turks in Canada.

History forgotten, history repeated

Yet acknowledging genocide is a necessary step towards ending it, and recognition of history can begin healthy Armenian-Turkish relations. It can also contribute to everyone's understanding of world affairs. Although the Jewish Holocaust is an essential part of our understanding of the Second World War, the Armenian Genocide isn't a component of our understanding of the First World War.

At the end of the commemoration event on April 24, I asked Mr. Shabanian how he would feel if Turkey recognized the Armenian genocide. He paused and said, his eyes welling with tears: "We need to be in a quiet place and have all day for me to be able to respond to this question. That is too hard for me to imagine now."

Perhaps his children, protective of an old man who even today fears the consequences of talking to the media, will see that day on his behalf.


Tamar Haytayan Armen is a British photographer of Armenian descent now living in Vancouver. She spent the last year in Armenia.  [Tyee]

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