A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens
Nearly 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, during World War I. Turks by and large do not believe mass killings were planned.
CUNGUS, Turkey — The crumbling stone monastery, built into the hillside, stands as a forlorn monument to an awful past. So, too, does the decaying church on the other side of this mountain village. Farther out, a crevice is sliced into the earth, so deep that peering into it, one sees only blackness. Haunting for its history, it was there that a century ago, an untold number of Armenians were tossed to their deaths.
“They threw them in that hole, all the men,” said Vahit Sahin, 78, sitting at a cafe in the center of the village, reciting the stories that have passed through generations.
Mr. Sahin turned in his chair and pointed toward the monastery. “That side was Armenian.” He turned back. “This side was Muslim. At first, they were really friendly with each other.”
A hundred years ago, amid the upheaval of World War I, this village and countless others across eastern Anatolia became killing fields as the desperate leadership of the Ottoman Empire, having lost the Balkans and facing the prospect of losing its Arab territories as well, saw a threat closer to home.
Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to align with Russia, a primary enemy of the Ottoman Turks, officials embarked on what historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century: Nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed, some in massacres like the one here, others in forced marches to the Syrian desert that left them starved to death.
The genocide was the greatest atrocity of the Great War. It also remains that conflict’s most bitterly contested legacy, having been met by the Turkish authorities with 100 years of silence and denial. For surviving Armenians and their descendants, the genocide became a central marker of their identity, the psychic wounds passed through generations.
“Armenians have passed one whole century, screaming to the world that this happened,” said Gaffur Turkay, whose grandfather, as a young boy, survived the genocide and was taken in by a Muslim family. Mr. Turkay, in recent years, after discovering his heritage, began identifying as an Armenian and converted to Christianity. “We want to be part of this country with our original identities, just as we were a century ago,” he said.