Fireworks I saw this weekend. Pictures of fireworks in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Republic. In all the years I’ve been writing about Turkey and Kurdistan now, 29 October 2023 has been a point of reference. Would Erdoğan manage to remain president until that day? To what extend would he have reformed the Republic by then? And now, as I write this, the day has transferred from future to history. Hope unfulfilled. It saddens me, especially because I can’t get another 100th anniversary out of my head. The other anniversary, to which this one is inextricably connected.
I am not going to make this a guessing game. The other anniversary I am talking about is the 100th commemoration of the Armenian genocide, eight years ago in 2015. We all know what happened. During the First World War and in the latter days of the Ottoman Empire, around one and a half million Armenians were massacred by militias with the intention to cleanse Anatolia from a community that had lived and thrived there for centuries.
Even though the evidence that a genocide happened is overwhelming, the Republic of Turkey has denied it from the first day of its existence. The official narrative is still that there was a war going on and yes, many Armenians perished but there was no intention to wipe them of the face of the earth, and by the way, Armenians killed Turks too – these things just happen in wars.
In a podcast I listened to about Turkey’s 100th birthday, interviewer Amberin Zaman called the Armenian genocide Turkey’s ‘original sin’. As long as this black chapter in Turkey’s coming into being is not faced, no fundamental problem in the country can be solved. That’s the thing with black chapters: you can rip them out of the book or flip them over quickly and pretend not to have seen it, but it still influences the consecutive events and the plot of the book. As long as you don’t read it, as long as you don’t face it, you won’t understand why bad things keep happening and why the characters in the book can’t solve their problems.
My home country, the Netherlands, has a black chapter too, of course. And we too don’t recognize our colonial history and the transatlantic slave trade we were involved in. We know it happened, but we moved on, pretending the black chapter hasn’t defined the course of our story, our history ever since. The Netherlands too has to face its ‘original sin’ in all its brutality to make fundamental change and to engage in serious work to de-colonize and to eradicate racism and white supremacy.
Phrasing it like this is already unbearable for many white Dutch people. Too radical, and isn’t this all too long ago to influence us still now? The awareness about this is only just starting and we have an incredibly long way to go.
When the Armenian genocide was commemorated for the 100th time in April 2015, I lived and worked in Digranakerd. You may have never heard of that name, but it is the Armenian name of Amed, which is again the Kurdish name of the city of Diyarbakır. Digranakerd had a sizeable Armenian community, and after the genocide, hardly anyone was left.
I consider the weeks leading up to the commemoration and the day of the commemoration itself, as some of the most influential in my life. I learned so incredibly much. I remember joining part of a visit that Armenians from the diaspora paid to the lands where their ancestors had once lived in peace until their lives were brutally uprooted and ended. It was difficult and emotional, people were nervous, but there was something important that made the trip possible and that embedded the whole journey in a certain softness. And that was that their hosts were not in denial.
Their hosts were one of the other communities that has had a presence in eastern Anatolia since forever: the Kurds. In gatherings and meetings leading up to the commemoration on 24 April, I had already noticed that Kurds did not hesitate to use the S-word in Turkish: soykırım, or genocide. This was remarkable, because Kurdish militias, most importantly the Hamidiye Cavalry, were among the most important ones who carried out the genocide at the time. The orders came from Constantinopel, the Kurds who were in cahoots with the central power, did much of the dirty work.
Kurds have always known what happened, both those who participated in the genocide and those that didn’t. They were there. It is one of the reasons why the Alevi Kurds of Dersim in the 1930s knew what was going to happen when Atatürk’s army started building infrastructure in their province: they were among the last of the Kurdish tribes that had to be brought to their knees and fully obey the state, and they knew it was going to be ultra violent. They resisted, but a genocide was carried out against them.
Also that genocide is denied by the Turkish state. They claim there was a rebellion that just had to be put down. That the people of Dersim basically asked for it. Just as the Armenians as a matter of fact, communally cornered as ‘traitors’.
This historical experience of the Kurds and their remarkable willingness to face and come to terms with their ‘original sin’, can not be separated from how the Kurdish movement today looks at the history and the future of the Republic of Turkey. The peoples of Anatolia and Mezopotamya are brothers and will have to live together in equality to make sure something as gruesome as the original sin doesn’t happen again. A republic, sure, but not based on the hegemony of one group over another, and in harmony with ethnic and religious communities in other lands. Check how the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK) phrased it in its statement on the occasion of the Republic’s birthday.
Turkish leaders from governing parties and the established opposition placed Turkey into the context of the turmoil in the wider region too. But while they were celebrating violence and honouring blood, the Kurds mourned over what could have been and longed for, unity. And, luckily, pledged to keep fighting for it.