March 1, 2014. We are at the municipality’s Cultural Center of Tatvan, a district of Bitlis, close to the city center. There is a poster in the entrance of the building announcing the exhibition: “Bitlis Armenians, March 1-2, Gomidas Institute (GI).”
Groups of people have gathered in the exhibition hall and are looking at three huge maps showing former Armenian towns and villages in the Bitlis area, with figures indicating population. One is based on Ottoman records, and is dated 1905. The second was compiled with data from the Bitlis Prelacy (Arachnortaran), dated circa 1912-13, and shows the churches and monasteries. The third illustrates the ethnic composition of the settlements in Bitlis province through colored graphics, and is dated circa 1900. Some of the villages were clearly inhabited by Armenians only, and some together with Kurds, with varying proportions. The map legend also accounts for the Assyrians/Syriacs, Jews, Ezidis, and Circassians in the region.
The photographs on the walls show the vital Armenian presence in Bitlis before 1915. We walk around, looking at pictures of women, daily life, monasteries, houses. The largest group examining the maps is made up mostly of young people; they’ve gathered around Historian Ara Sarafian, the founder and director of the Gomidas Institute, and are engaged in an intense exchange. Some are asking questions, someone is pointing to a certain village, saying what he knows about it, perhaps giving some information about his ancestors. Sarafian is busy trying to answer all of them. Among the visitors is a young woman carrying her five-year-old daughter, who points to one of the towns, but her mother tells her things I cannot hear.
This is the first time the Kurds of Bitlis and Tatvan are encountering the Armenian history of their hometown in such a fashion.
During dinner, our warm and generous hosts and hostesses from Tatvan and Bitlis ask Sarafian about the conversations at the exhibition. “The people who came to the exhibition were both curious and receptive,” he answers. “They asked questions about the information we presented. Typically, they began discussing all sorts of issues amongst themselves about what they were looking at. In many cases, they had prior knowledge and the exhibition clarified matters for them. They were very lively and I found the discussions interesting, but not when they were talking Kurdish. One guy wanted to know what Armenian letters looked like, some wanted to know the name of their local churches, others stared at pictures of Armenians in amazement. Many of the visitors had some blood ties to Armenians. All expressed positive views of Armenians as industrious people who had brought prosperity to the region. Some asked questions about the Armenian Genocide.”
Armenians of Bitlis: Since Antiquity
The Gomidas Institute’s press release gave a short description of Armenian history and life in Bitlis: “Armenians trace their presence in Bitlis since antiquity. Bitlis was one of the Armenian principalities of the ancient world and continued to be a major Armenian center until recent times. On the eve of World War I, it was a thriving part of the Ottoman Empire with a significant Armenian population with its many schools, churches, and monasteries.”
The press release also pointed out the social and political setting against which the exhibition would take place: “In recent years, with the Kurdish opening, it has become possible to talk about Armenians again. The Turkish state has even made a somewhat cynical gesture in the east by renovating the ancient church of Sourp Khatch on the island of Aghtamar and turning it into a museum—while hundreds of comparable sites have continued to be neglected and destroyed. However, Kurdish politicians have been more honest and forthright. They have condemned the persecution of Armenians, apologized for the role played by Kurds in those persecutions, and sought reconciliation by speaking the truth. In Diyarbekir, the local authorities have supported the renovation of the church of Sourp Giragos, returned it to Armenians as their place of worship, and offered their hand of friendship. It is against such a background that the Gomidas Institute and its friends in Turkey have organized a public exhibition about the Armenians of Bitlis before 1915. This exhibition, displaying original maps of the Armenian presence in the region and photographs, will take place in Tatvan, on the shores of Lake Van, on 1-2 March and travel to different communities in the Armenian Diaspora.”
Me, Meral, and Renan—three women from the Human Rights Association (HRA), Istanbul Branch, the Committee Against Racism and Discrimination—proud of our close cooperation with the Gomidas Institute since 2005, didn’t hesitate to support this initiative, and accompanied Ara Sarafian on his trip first to Diyarbakir (where the exhibition materials were printed and prepared) and then to Tatvan.
Hishyar Barzan Sherefhanoglu, the great-grandson of the very old and aristocratic family “Sherefhanogullari,” was waiting for us at the hotel in Tatvan. He was Sarafian’s contact person in Bitlis, and had arranged the exhibition hall and made all of the preparations. With him was a father and young daughter from Bitlis. The father, Shahin Choban, was the former head of the Bitlis organization of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and is still a member of the executive committee. The daughter, Betul Choban, a young girl with an Islamic-style headscarf, greeted us warmly; she is a young Kurdish academic teaching Kurdish language and culture to the members of the Diyarbakir and Bitlis bar associations.
The father and daughter were very upset that we had chosen to stay in a hotel and not with them at their home (a typical local sensitivity and generosity towards guests). In the lobby, despite being tired after a long day in Diyarbakir (and then a three-and-a-half-hour drive along a narrow, winding road between high rugged mountains and through a harsh snow storm), a warm talk started amongst us.
Shahin Choban’s paternal grandmother was Armenian; she survived the genocide by sheer chance. His daughter Betul told the story: She was from a nearby village. A stream crossed the village dividing it into two, the upper and lower villages. She was visiting somebody at the other side of the stream when her own neighbourhood was forcefully evacuated. She found her door sealed with no word from her two small kids and husband thereafter. She never heard of them and never knew what happened to them until the end of her life. A Muslim man took her for a wife and changed her name to Fatma.
“What was her Armenian name?” we asked. Betul’s dark eyes looked at us sadly: “She never told us. ‘Nene’ never spoke. She turned her back to everything in life. I only remember her softly singing a lullaby under her breath and then, when it was over, she would take a deep breath and sound a painful ‘Ahhhhhh’ from deep inside.” Ah… It is an exclamation of sorrow shared by Muslim and non-Muslim peoples of Asia Minor alike.
Members of the Choban family were all engaged in the Kurdish political movement. All four children were well educated and had a deep national and political awareness. All were also very much interested in the Armenian history of their hometown—curious, willing to learn more, and supportive of activities against genocide denial.
Betul never left Sarafian’s side even for a moment the day during the exhibition, translating Kurdish comments into Turkish for him.
‘Ez Qurbana te bim’: I Could Die for You
On March 1, the first day of the exhibition, two new BDP local election offices were opened, and a rally was organized with the “Peace Mothers,” as they call them—the mothers of Kurdish guerillas, some killed, some lost; their families do not know of their whereabouts. It was easy to identify them from a distance, because all of the Peace Mothers wore large and long white shawls to cover their heads and shoulders, made of very thin cotton. The highpoint of the day—a day full of warm reception and stories of Islamized Armenian grandmas and grandpas—was when one of the Peace Mothers came, almost stormed in, went up to Sarafian, hugged him tightly, and with tears in her eyes said, “Ez Qurbana te bim” in Kurdish, which literally means, “I would die for you,” a powerful expression of affection. The word Qurban/Kurban is a common word in Turkish, Kurdish, and the local Armenian dialect and signifies “sacrifice.” While still holding him, she continued to speak in Kurdish, with Betul trying to catch up with her words to translate them to Sarafian. “Welcome my dear son. Thank you for bringing this to us. How happy I am to see you here. Your people are my people… My grandfather was Armenian… You look so much like my uncle. He was dark-skinned just like you with dark eyebrows and eyes.”
The woman was crying and Sarafian, no matter how hard he tried (it was quite apparent) couldn’t stop the flow of his tears, either. And at that moment I looked around and saw many people around them crying as well. It was as if a bright spotlight had illuminated these two persons, one an old Kurdish mother and the other an Armenian historian. Later in the hotel, Sarafian told me not to write about the woman’s Armenian ancestry, “because what made us cry was not our shared Armenian ancestry, it had nothing to do with blood, it had to do with our ability to feel each other’s injuries and a humanly encounter of two sad stories.”
After the exhibition, we sat with a group of visitors and talked about Armenians, Kurds, and responsibilities. A young Kurd asked Sarafian what he thought about the properties that once belonged to Armenians, which now after many generations are inhabited by Kurds, and how, in his view, this could be settled justly. “Some powerful Kurdish families got rich in 1915 because they took an active role on the side of the governent to plunder and murder Armenians,” answered Sarafian. “After the departure of the Armenians, many ordinary Kurds were also settled in former Armenian homes and given land by the Turkish state—even decades later. Over the years, former Armenian homes were also bought and sold as a matter of course. So, the ‘land question,’ as some Armenians raise it, is a complicated issue. I personally am not sure what ‘giving back’ land to Armenians actually means, especially as Kurds are generally poor peasants, who have suffered greatly in the Turkish Republic, while Armenians have become an urbanized people who no longer work on land.”
He added, “As for Bitlis Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, it is recorded that unlike some other places, the local authorities appointed by the Committee of Union and Progress didn’t even pretend to deport them, the Bitlis Armenians were massacred right on the spot, so that no one was left alive. It was for this reason the descendants of the Bitlis Armenians were usually the grandchildren of those who left Bitlis for foreign countries before 1915 for a better life.”
Sarafian: ‘Justice for All’
Another curious visitor wanted to know what Sarafian thought of the recent apologies made by Kurdish individuals. “Kurdish politicians and opinion makers have been repeatedly apologizing for Kurds’ role in the genocide, but some say apology is not enough, and Kurds should give Armenians back their lands,” he said. The young man seemed quite sincere, without any note of hostility in his tone. Sarafian didn’t hesitate: “I find that there is something insensitive when an Armenian activist talks about ‘giving back’ lands to Armenians. Such statements rightfully frighten otherwise sympathetic Kurds and Turks, who fear that Armenians want to hurt them, to drive them out of their homes, and throw them off their lands—the source of their meagre living. And such fears are readily manipulated by Turkish nationalists and other Armenian haters. I can say from my own experience that whenever I have had a serious discussion of such issues with Armenians, most Armenians have expressed sensitivity to ordinary Kurds and Turks, as well as sentiments for lasting peace and compromise. Any solution to the Armenian issue should be just to all the parties involved, including Turks and Kurds. I think we should seek the truth as well as justice for all. However, we need to create a consensus amongst such people, based on truth, mutual respect and empathy, to carry the issue forward. That is why we need to create ‘peace activists’ to set the course despite opposition from different quarters.”
A young girl seemed excited as she tried to formulate her question: “They say it was not the Turks but Kurds who massacred Armenians. But my grandmother used to tell us how their tribe accepted a whole caravan of Armenian deportees and didn’t give them to the Ottoman army, helping them to escape.”
Sarafian nodded. “The Turkish nationalist narrative has changed over the years,” he said. “For decades, official Turkey maintained that nothing happened in 1915 and that the genocide issue was fabricated by Armenian terrorists. Then they stated that Armenians were a rebellious people who were only resettled away from the eastern war zones as a security measure. Recently they chose to admit that some people were killed during deportations, not by Turks, but by Kurds and Arabs. Of course, this is all nonsense, because the Ottoman state, the Committee of Union and Progress, the predecessors to modern Turkey, organized the killings through various agencies, including some Kurdish tribes, local leaders, and other irregular forces. One good example is the murder of the first caravan of Armenian merchants, notables, and intellectuals who were sent off by Governor Reshit Bey of Diyarbakir. He personally organized the caravan to be sent off under government escort, handed over to a Kurdish brigand leader, and murdered. Most Kurds were probably bystanders, and many Kurds also saved Armenians. Not all Kurds participated in the mass murder of Armenians. In some cases, entire tribes were ordered by their leaders to actively save Armenians in places like Beshiri (near Diyarbakir) and Mutki (near Bitlis).”
‘Khatchkars’ of the Village Bor
It was Betul who took us to the village of Por (officially, Degirmenalti) on the second day, very close to the Bitlis city center. There, she said, was the Armenian Church, Sourp Anania, which dates back to the 6th or 7th century, renovated in the 15th century. The poverty in the village was heart wrenching. Betül explained that those villages that had refused to be “village guards” (meaning state-appointed militia to fight the PKK) were punished by the state, which deprived them of all kinds of services, roads, electricity, water, employment, etc. Bor was one of these villages. The youngsters greeted us with curious eyes, and helped us get inside the church, where we saw the altar, the arches, and tombed roof. The villagers store their hays stacked in bales, which gave a very fresh, clean smell of grass. There were fascinating khatchkars around the church, about three meters high with beautifully carved decorations. The website http://virtualani.org/por/index.htm has a great deal of information about these khatchkars alongside with the church. It is noted that “Except for the khatchkars at Aprank, Degirmenalti village contains the most important collection of Armenian khatchkars now surviving in Turkey. They seem to mostly date from the 14th and early 15th centuries, from the period of the site’s use as a monastery.”
It was a relief that the villagers were quite willing to speak about Armenians, saying that it was an Armenian village before and they had all been deported.
Armenian Heritage and the ‘Kurdish Freedom Movement’
Before Tatvan we flew into Diyarbakir. The first place we visited was the Sourp Giragos Church, which I had seen and photographed before its restoration—and after, with my colleagues from the HRA, during its opening ceremony and the first religious service since the genocide. In the courtyard now were many visitors, students from the university, and inmates learning more about Armenian masonry to practice in their workshop in prison.
We met people, grandsons of Armenians converted to Islam during and after the genocide, who had returned to Christianity and their ancestors’ Armenian identity. One of them told us how a Muslim family had saved his grandfather’s and his grandaunt’s lives and raised them as their own children, until the head of the family got them married (when they reached their 20s) and built them each a house in their ancestors’ village. Of course, their names were changed to Muslim names. Forced assimilation is an integral part of genocide, but preserving one’s Armenian identity would have meant death for the individual and for the ones who took him/her into their family. The man who had regained his Armenian identity said, “Me and all my family, my relatives, owe our lives, everything we have now, to that Muslim family.”
One of us asked another man, a Kurd, middle-aged, solemn, and apparently knowing a lot about the local state of affairs, if any incidents of harassment had taken place against the church. He smiled. “No, never.” “But,” we insisted, “there may be unidentified persons, even some state-sponsored attempts to upset those in charge of the church.” Now he decided to speak more clearly: “The party would not let. They announced that they prohibited any act against the church.” I said, “Party? You mean the BDP?” “No,” he said. “The Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan,” as in the Kurdistan Workers Party—the PKK. That was the end of my questioning.
I remembered what Sarafian had said when we first met in Diyarbakir: “Leading Kurdish circles, including the BDP, seem to have a better understanding of these issues and have come a long way in putting their cards down and reaching out to Armenians for a just settlement of past injustices. Here in Diyarbakir, they have ensured that Sourp Giragos Church is renovated and returned to Armenians. Where Sourp Giragos had endowed properties in the city, the city of Diyarbekir has compensated them with land of equal value outside of the city—not by throwing Kurdish families on the street.”
Another episode that was quite moving was our talk in the exhibition hall with a beautiful young girl with a black headscarf loosely covering her hair. She told us about a village called Chapkis (which I had seen in Sarafian’s maps) near Norshin, an Armenian village before 1915. She said there was an Armenian cemetery near the village and that gravestones were still standing with engravings on them. “Several times the government wanted to destroy the cemetery and the gravestones. And guess what the villagers did! Each time they came, the villagers gathered and stood against heavy-duty vehicles, bulldozers, and cranes. This was due to the Kurdish freedom movement (a general term covering the civil and armed branches of the Kurdish movement), which raised the Kurdish people’s awareness of the Armenian heritage in the region.
‘We Recognize and Condemn the Armenian Genocide’
Telling, too, was the book in which visitors to the exhibition could write their impressions. A Kurdish lawyer, in fact the chairman of the Association of Lawyers for Freedom (union of Kurdish lawyers) and the HDP (the sister party of the BDP in the western provinces of Turkey), and co-chair candidate for the Bagcilar district of Istanbul, Firat Epozdemir, wrote: “We [as Kurds] recognize and condemn the Armenian Genocide. But the genocide should not be [an] obstacle to the cooperation between the Kurdish and Armenian peoples. We hope that together we will reveal the truths in the history and stand side by side in a land full of freedom and fraternity.”
In the plane flying back to Istanbul, I close my eyes and leave myself floating in a kaleidoscope of generous faces, bright eyes, mostly of women, voices in my ears repeating their commitment to seek justice. And at the same time I see the lonely khatchkars with all their beauty resisting time and human destruction, silent, yet telling so much about a lost world.
"The Armenian Weekly," March 27, 2014