Every year, the 24 of April reminds Armenians all around the world of the deep wound they keep in their hearts, a wound that will never be healed…
The world is full of sorrows but the great sorrow of this little nation will stay incomparable and unforgotten.
Let’s go back to the history, to the most painful years Armenians experienced throughout their long, rich history.
BACKGROUND: THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
Ottoman Empire was founded by ethnic Turks in 1299. The name comes from Osman I. He was the leader of what was originally a small principality situated in northwestern Anatolia.
Through the next six centuries, Ottoman Empire extended across much of the Mediterranean Basin. During the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, Ottoman Empire reached its peak of power.
After World War I, however, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. It led to the establishment of the current Turkey in 1923 and also other states in the Middle East.
The center of the Ottoman government was in Constantinople (Istanbul). Sultan was the head and had absolute power.
During the 15th century, Armenia was under Ottoman Empire rule.
Before the Hamidian era, in Ottoman Empire. which was stretching from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf, there were 3 million Armenians out of the 28 million population.
The rulers of Ottoman Empire were Muslim. They allowed religious minorities and second-class Christian citizens like the Armenians to keep some autonomy. They, however, also treated Armenians unequally and unjustly. For instance, Christians paid higher taxes than Muslims and also had very few legal and political rights. Their lives or properties were not guaranteed security.
Despite all these problems, Armenian people flourished under the Ottoman rule.
Generally, they were more educated and rich than their Turkish neighbors, who in their turn were not satisfied by that fact.
Armenians held 26% of the industry, 60% of imported goods, 40% of exported goods and also 80% of domestic trades in their hands.
According to the book “Modernism and Armenians” by Levon Zekiyan, a clergyman at Armenian Catholic Church, Armenians did not have a country but in the Ottoman Empire, they owned vast territories, gardens, hotels, factories, ships, shopping, and also banking centers as well as countless workshops. They also played a huge role in agriculture.
Spread all around the empire, the situation for Armenians was very complicated since the territory of historic Armenia was split between the Ottoman Empire and Russia.
In the late 1880s, some Armenian people created political organizations. They wanted greater autonomy.
Armenian revolutionaries occupied the National Bank in Constantinople in 1895, October 17. They started threatening that they would blow it up together with over 100 hostages in case the authorities didn’t grant Armenian regional autonomy.
French intervention led to a peaceful end to that incident. The Ottomans, however, carried out a series of massacres. At least 80,000 Armenians were murdered in 1894-1896.
By the 19th century, the empire was in risky decline. It was significantly reduced in size.
By 1914, the empire no longer had any land in Europe and Africa. This decline caused numerous internal political and economic issues. This led to the intensification of ethnic tensions.
The desire of Armenians to represent themselves and their rights and also to participate in government caused suspicions among the Muslim Turks. They had never in their lives shared power in their country with any of the minorities. Before that, they had witnessed nationalist movements in the Balkans which in its turn resulted in the secession of former Ottoman territories.
Armenian political organizations started to demand administrative reforms in those provinces where Armenians populated. They also demanded better police protection from plunderer tribes among the Kurds. These factors only intensified the pressure.
THE FIRST MASSACRE
At the end of the 19th century, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) or the “bloody Sultan” came to rule. He was very obsessed with loyalty. He declared that he’d solve the so-called Armenian Question once and for all. In 1890, he also told a reporter: “I will soon settle those Armenians.” “I will give them a box on the ear after which they will abandon their revolutionary ambitions.”
Between 1894-1896, this “box on the ear” took the form of a state-approved pogrom. As a retaliatory to massive protests by Armenian people, Turkish military officials, soldiers, and just ordinary men preyed Armenian villages and also cities all over the empire. They massacred the citizens. They burned 2,500 Armenian to death in Urfa Cathedral.
Other than that, around the same time, they murdered 5,000 people after Armenians asked for international intervention in order to prevent massacres. This deeply upset the officials in Constantinople.
The series of massacres took place in order to scare Armenians and suppress their expectations. It, unfortunately, cost hundreds of thousands people’s lives. Armenians also experienced enormous material losses.
In 1894, the “box on the ear” was the first Armenian massacre.
In 1908, after the crisis in Ottoman Empire, a new political group came to power in Constantinople (the capital of the Ottoman Empire).
The “Young Turks” wrecked Sultan Abdul Hamid’s power. They established a liberal, more modern constitutional government which would treat everyone equally.
From the Young Turks, in 1913, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), Ittihad ve Terakki Jemiyeti, appeared at the head of the government. It was led by Enver, who was the Minister of War; Talaat, the Minister of the Interior (Grand Vizier in 1917) and also Jemal, the Minister of the Marine.
At first, Armenian people hoped that they would finally have an equal place in this newly established state. They soon, however, realized that what the nationalistic Young Turks needed was to “Turkify” the whole empire. Because of that, non-Turkish people and especially non-Turks who were Christian were a dangerous threat to the new state.
The Young Turks created a secret program to exterminate Armenian people since they were an obstacle on their way and for their ideologies.
In spring 1909, Armenian demonstrations for autonomy turned into violence. The Ottoman army, irregular troops, and also citizens murdered about 20,000 Armenians in and around the city of Adana. During the fights, Armenians killed up to 2,000 Muslims.
WORLD WAR I
The CUP made Istanbul have closer diplomatic and military relationships with Imperial Germany.
On November 11, the Ottoman Empire entered the World War I which broke out in August 1914. During that time, the Ottoman Empire became a part of the Triple Alliance with the other Central Powers, Germany, and Austro-Hungarian Empire. It declared war on Entente Powers, which included Russia and its Western allies, Great Britain, France, and also Serbia.
At the same time, however, Ottoman authorities also declared jihad which means “holy war” against all Christians except their allies.
Military leaders started to argue that Armenians were traitors.
According to them, if Armenians thought that they could win independence in case the Allies were victorious, then they would also be eager to fight for the enemy.
As the war became more intense, Armenians organized volunteer battalions in order to help Russians fight against the Turks in the Caucasus region.
After these events, and generally, Turkish suspicion of Armenian people increased, which led the government to “remove” Armenians from the war zones along the Eastern Front.
Massive brutalities together with genocide were often executed within the context of war. The “removal” of Armenians and their annihilation was very closely linked to World War I.
The Ottomans used the events of the war to conduct massacres against Armenians. Those massacres were a part of the secret genocidal program created by the CUP. The implementations of the brutal massacres took place under the cover of war.
Consequently, during spring and summer in 1915, everywhere outside the war zones, they ordered Armenian population to expel from their homes.
Ottoman authorities arrested up to 300 Armenian leaders in Constantinople on April 24, 1915, and then deported them to the East. They were tortured, hanged or shot.
This was the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.
Turks claimed that Armenian revolutionaries kept contact with the enemy. Also, that they were preparing to make the Franco-British landing easier. When the Ottomans were challenged by the Entente Powers and also the neutral United States, they explained the deportations as a means of precaution.
Taking orders from the CUP, the regional officials started implementing mass shootings and deportations. Ottomans murdered the majority of Armenian men with fighting ages, thousands of women and children as well.
Convoys which consisted of tens of thousands men, women, and children were taken hundreds of miles away, toward the Syrian desert.
During those forced marches through the desert, regional officials, nomadic bands, criminal gangs, and simply the civilians exposed the barely surviving elderly people, men, women, and also children to spontaneous attacks.
This violence included robbery, rape of young girls, extortion, various brutal tortures, and murder.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians passed away before even reaching the camps. Many of them were murdered or abducted, many committed suicide or died of starvation, dehydration, and various diseases.
Many of these convoys originated in six Armenian populated provinces in eastern Anatolia. Trabzon, Erzurum, Bitlis, Van, Diyarbakir, Mamuretü’l Aziz, and the district of Maras, and, eventually, from virtually all areas of the Empire.
German military officers together with relief workers witnessed the cruelties towards the Armenians. They reacted differently, from horror and formal protests to tacit support of the Ottomans.
Ottoman troops managed to invade the Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia) and wanted to advance their military positions into the Persian Empire (Iran).
In January 1915, Russians won a victory at the Battle of Sarakimis. Another defeat for the Turks was at the Suez Canal when they tried to push the British out of Egypt.
The 3rd Army of the Ottomans lost over half of its soldiers. Even though Armenian soldiers were loyally fighting in the Ottoman army, CUP leaders still publicly blamed the defeat on supposed Armenian traitors.
Russian troops soon invaded the Ottoman Empire. Then they moved into the east Anatolian provinces of Trabzon, Erzurum, and Van. In addition, all of these had a big number of the Armenian population.
Great Britain along with France attacked the Ottoman Empire during the last week of April 1915 at Gallipoli.
Withdrawing from their positions in the Caucasus and in Persia, Ottomans massacred the populations which seemed to be potentially disloyal. This, however, led some Armenians to pick up a weapon and defend themselves.
The deep suspicion that all Armenians were traitors led Ottoman commanders to disarm their Armenian soldiers on the eastern front. They imprisoned them in forced-labor battalions.
During April and early May, a majority of Armenian leaders together with civilians obeyed the Ottomans. An armed group, however, went against the Ottoman troops in Van. They took the control of the city by the time the Russians arrived on May 18, 1915. The Ottoman regime took this as confirmation of a generalized Armenian disloyalty…
THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
The Armenian genocide started on April 24, 1915. It was the day when the Turkish government arrested 300 Armenian intellectuals. They were tortured then shot or hanged. After that, ordinary Armenian citizens had to leave their homes and attend death marches all along the Mesopotamian desert. They were starving without food and also, they had no water to drink.
The poor marchers were forcefully getting naked and walking under the flaming sun till they no longer could take it and died. In addition, people who stopped even for a while to rest were shot.
During those times, the Young Turks started a “Special Organization” or Teshkilâti Mahsusa. According to one officer, it created “killing squads” or “butcher battalions” to execute “the liquidation of the Christian elements.”
Those killing squads usually consisted of murderers and various ex-criminals. They tortured people, drowned them right into the rivers, threw them off cliffs. Often they crucified people and then burned them alive.
A big part of the deportees, including both women and children, were killed in massacres during the deportations. The cruel killing processes were often carried out by a sword in the horrifying episodes of bloodshed.
For the survivors, watching their friends, family, relatives, and just ordinary innocent people die in cruel ways caused a serious trauma.
The Turkish lands were full of scattered Armenian corpses.
According to some records, during the “Turkification” operations, government and political squads also kidnapped children in order to convert them to Islam and then give them to Turkish families. In some areas, they also raped young girls and women, after which they forced them to join the Turkish “harems” or become a slave. The shock of losing their families and identity caused traumas.
Starvation also contributed to the death of the elderly and relatively weaker people. Deportees did not have any food and water. Those who managed to reach northern Syria got into concentration camps. There, the Turks made them go to the south, under the scorching and burning sun of the desert. This in its turn caused many deaths.
The liquidation of Armenians led Muslim Turks to quickly own everything left behind. They destroyed any remains of Armenian cultural heritage. This included masterpieces of architecture, ancient libraries, and also archives. Numerous Muslim families moved into the houses of deported Armenians and possessed their property.
The Turks ruined entire cities such as the once rising Kharpert and Van. They also ruined the ancient capital Ani in order to demolish any indication of the existence of the three thousand-year-old civilization.
Armenians didn’t show any resistance to the deportations frequently. There, however, were some exceptions.
A part of the Armenian population managed to escape death. The Mountaineers of Musa Dagh could defend themselves in the heights above the villages till the French naval ships in the eastern part of the Mediterranean detected them and provided with safety.
The inhabitants of Van in eastern Armenia managed to defend themselves until Russian forces rescued them. They left the city of Van in May 1915.
The survivals of the big part of the Armenians is not due to the acts of resistance but to American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s humanitarian intervention.
Through his efforts, the U.S. Congress created a helping committee to raise funds in order to feed “the starving Armenians.” Near East Relief, lives of tens of thousands were saved.
In 1922, the genocide was finally over. By that time, however, there were only 388,000 Armenians left in the Ottoman Empire.
This means that the death marches took the lives of 1.5 million Armenians.
The only tiny part of the historic Armenia which survived was the easternmost part since it became a part of the Soviet Union.
THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE TODAY
After the surrender of the Ottomans in 1918, the Young Turks leaders scrammed to Germany, which made a promise not to prosecute them for the genocide.
A group of Armenian nationalists, however, created a plan which is known as the “Operation Nemesis.” The purpose was to track down the leaders of the Armenian genocide and assassinate them.
Since then, though, the Turkish government keeps denying that a genocide took place. They also state that Armenian people were an enemy and also, that their butchery was a necessary war measure.
Today, because Turkey is an important ally of the U.S. and many other nations, their governments are also unwilling to denounce the killings. In March 2010, however, a U.S. Congressional panel finally voted to recognize the genocide.
In 1985, the U.S. gave this day the name “National Day of Remembrance of Man’s Inhumanity to Man”, in “honor of all of the victims of genocide, particularly the one and a half million people of Armenian ancestry who were the victims of the genocide carried out in Turkey.”
President Obama, before entering to White House, said that America “deserves a leader who will speak truthfully about the Armenian Genocide.”
Today, the recognition of the Armenian Genocide is complicated. Turkey carps scholars for blaming them for the deaths of Armenians, stating that it occurred because of the starvations and the cruelty of the war.
As a matter of fact, speaking anything about the Armenian genocide in Turkey is punishable by law.
In 2014, it was the 99th anniversary of the genocide. Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offered condolences to Armenians saying, “The incidents of World War I are our shared pain.”
In response, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said, “The denial of a crime erects the direct continuation of that very crime. Only recognition and condemnation can prevent the repetition of such crimes in the future.”
Additionally, as of 2014, 21 countries have recognized the Armenian Genocide.
Furthermore, when Hitler was asked how he would manage to annihilate all of Europe’s Jews, he said, “Who remembers the annihilation of the Armenians today?”
Over one hundred years have passed since the start of the Armenian genocide, and the question still remains. Despite the facts and evidence of the genocide, many countries deny that a genocide took place anyway.
Today Armenians all over the world commemorate those people who lost their lives during the genocide on April 24, 1915. It was the day when Turks arrested several hundred Armenian intellectuals and murdered them.
The mass killings of the Armenian intellectuals was the part of a systematic, devilish plan to annihilate Armenian people in their homelands. It was the first ever state-planned Genocide of the 20th century.
Since the Armenian Genocide took place, Armenians do their best to let the world know about this cruel crime against humanity. Armenians will always remember those events. Today, high on a hill, you can find Tsitsernakaberd, which is a memorial that is dedicated to over one and a half million victims of the Armenian Genocide.
Every year on April 24, thousands of Armenian people gather in Tsitsernakaberd and visit the Genocide Memorial. They lay a flower there in commemoration of all the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Tsitsernakaberd is not very crowded on other days of the year. Usually, it’s always calm and quiet there. Even on April 24, when there are many people, there are no noises.
The Armenian Genocide Museum
The Armenian Genocide Museum opened its doors in 1995. (the eightieth anniversary of the Genocide). It provides guided tours in five languages; Armenian, Russian, English, French, and German as well.
The purpose of the Genocide Museum is to make people understand that the Armenian Genocide is a very important step in preventing similar massacres in the future.
The Museum has many visitors from schoolchildren, college students, and also a number of tourists both from Armenia and from other parts of the world.
Because the Ottoman Law banned taking pictures of Armenian deportees during those awful times, photo evidence which would show the severity of the ethnic cleansing is rare.
In an act of resistance, officers from the German Military Mission documented the brutalities and atrocities which took place in concentration camps.
While many of the pictures were intercepted by Ottomans, lost in Germany during the Second World War, or forgotten in some dusty drawers, the Armenian Genocide Museum has captured some of the photos. In addition, in the museum, you can see the portraits of survivors of the Armenian Genocide with an inscription, “Those eyes have seen Genocide.”
Here’s a video which will take you to Tsitsernakaberd and also the Genocide museum virtually.