By Raffi Bedrosyan
ISTANBUL — In 1915, an entire people was physically wiped out in a couple of years from its homeland of several thousand years, but how can you wipe out the remnants of this people, its creations, its assets, its traces, its very existence from the collective memory of the rest of the citizens within the country, or for that matter, from the collective memory of the rest of the world? This has been an immense challenge for successive governments of Turkey, a mission mostly successful for almost four generations, and yet, here and there the true lies or the hidden truths keep coming out with increasing frequency, especially in recent years. Hiding the truth and historic facts about 1915 from its own people has been the government policy since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, through indoctrination of the education system, control of the media and academia, destruction of the Armenian buildings and monuments and so on. But the facts, perhaps still secret within Turkey though widely known in the outside world, are now being revealed to the masses in Turkey, thanks to increased liberalization, the Internet and pioneering academicians and media “opinion makers” daring to speak the truth in Turkey. As a result, the citizens of Turkey, who have not been exposed to these facts for four generations, are now amazed to learn that there existed a people called Armenians who lived in Anatolia for several millennia, but who somehow all suddenly disappeared in 1915. In this article, I will try to give a few paradoxical examples of the attempts in hiding the truth, versus the ones uncovering the truths.
The second largest and most modern airport in Turkey is called the Istanbul Sabiha Gokçen International Airport, named after the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first female pilot in Turkey, a heroine who helped put down the Alevi/Kurdish rebellion in Dersim in 1936-38 by bombing the rebels from her plane. Her photos and accomplishments are prominently displayed on billboards at the airport seen by millions of passengers.
And yet, there is another side to her story: Her real name is Hatun Sebilciyan, an Armenian girl from Bursa, orphaned in 1915, adopted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, given the sky related Gokçen surname by him after completing the pilot training. Agos editor Hrant Dink became a marked man by the deep state in Turkey when he
first uncovered this truth after interviewing surviving relatives of Sebilciyan from Lebanon in 2001. This fact was deemed an insult to Turkishness by the military, the media and the government. Another recently uncovered fact is that the people being bombed in Dersim were not rebels but mostly women and children as the leaders were already hanged the previous year, a fact acknowledged and apologized for by prime minister Erdogan, mostly to score political points against the governing party at the time and the current opposition party. To add more to the irony, these women and children were mostly remnants of the 25,000 Armenians who had sought refuge and found shelter with the Dersim Alevi Kurds in 1915. It is not certain whether Sebilciyan/Gokçen knew that she was Armenian, nor if she knew that the women and children that she bombed were Armenian.
The ancient city of Ani near Kars, right on the Armenian border separated by the Akhurian River, is known as the “city with 1001 churches.” It is a former capital of the Armenian Bagratid kingdom, with continuous Armenian presence from the fifth to the 17th century. It had reached its glory days in the 10th and 11th centuries, when it became a central gateway on the Silk Route and its growing population of 100,000 even exceeded Constantinople at the time. Most of the buildings and churches are now destroyed, but the main Ani cathedral, Dikran Honents Church, the Surp Prgitch Church and the city walls are still standing, with clearly visible Armenian writings carved in stone on most walls. After years of neglect and/or target practice by the Turkish military on the remaining Ani buildings, the current Turkish government has opened up Ani to tourists and has started some preliminary restoration efforts. However, there is not a single word about Armenians in the Turkish historic descriptions and guidebooks on Ani. The standing churches and buildings are referred to as belonging to the Georgians or the Seljuks. Even the name Ani is now spelled with an “I” without the dot, meaning “memory” in Turkish, so that the Armenian Ani connection to this city will disappear. The denial policy and the paranoia linked to the 1915 facts has stretched so far that even the Armenian presence in Ani is being denied.