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Genocide by any other name

By Owei Lakemfa

TURKEY, one of America’s staunchest allies in the Islamic world is  furious. Its anger is turned against  the  United States  for a vote on  March 4, 2010 by the  House, Foreign Affairs Committee which characterised the  wholesale massacre of Armenian minorities as a “genocide”.

So angry is Turkey that it recalled its ambassador, Namik Tan to Ankara. It had played a similar card when in 2007 an American  Congressional Committee had characterised the massacres as genocide. On that occasion, then President George W. Bush had prevented the resolution from going to the full House when Turkey threatened to block US access to bases used for the unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. History may repeat itself as American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton said the Obama administration  is opposed to the resolution.

Ironically, Obama  had in his campaign  promises pledged to  characterise the massacres as genocide. But Clinton argues that: “The circumstances have changed in very significant ways”. In truth, the Obama administration has developed cold feet. Also, Turkey is a member of NATO and during the Cold War, the Turks allowed their soil to be used by America in anti-Soviet Union operations. Committee Chairman, Howard Berman argued that the vote is in order because “at some point, every nation must come to terms with its own history. And that is all we ask of Turkey”.

Due to Turkey’s unrestrained anger on the use of the word genocide, only 20 countries have picked up the courage to so describe Turkey’s 1915 to1918  holocaust against an helpless Armenian populace.  Interestingly, 42 US states also describe those  crimes against humanity as genocide. But like those who deny the German holocaust against the Jews, the Turks deny the terrible sins of their grand fathers against the Armenians. Turkish President Abdullah Gul thundered: “We condemn this resolution which accuses the Turkish nation  of a crime it has not committed”.

The fact that Turkey  lives in self- denial and blackmails countries like America, will not wipe away its historical crimes. Armenia was made  a province of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire  under Selim II (1524-1574).  The Armenians were a Christian minority who were treated as a sub- human group. At a point, they had no right to life or property and were excluded from governance.

Under Sultan Abdul Hamid (1876-1909) some 300,000 Armenians were killed. The genocide period was, however, during the Second World War from 1914 when the Ottoman Empire joined the central powers of Germany, Austria and Hungary, while its neighbour, Russia sided with the Western allies. Armenia was tucked between the two countries.

Given the manner the Ottoman Empire had treated the Armenians and the fact that this race also existed across the border in Russia, the Turks did not trust them. On April 24, 1915, Interior Minister, Talat Pasha accused the Armenians of  trying “ to gain an administrative autonomy” and ordered the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. On that day, about 250 of them were detained in Constantinople.

Armenians in the army were disarmed and put on labour duties before many were executed. Having uprooted the intellectuals, community leaders and Armenians in the army, the government fell on the rest of the populace . On May 29, 1915,it passed the “Temporary Law of Deportation” which authorised the deportation of any one “considered a threat to national security”. Under this law, the Armenian populace was forced from their homes  and driven like herds of cattle towards the desert of what today is Syria. Mainly on foot, the deportees unlike cows were not provided with food, water or resting place. So they were death marches.

During the marches, the Turks unleashed death squads on the Armenians  putting many to death by the sword while rape was a legal weapon. Many were massacred  or burnt right in their homes or villages while those who survived the marches were in many cases executed, burnt  or decapitated. The remnants fled across the globe or into neighbouring countries. Many who survived never returned to their ancestral homes.

The New York Times reported in August 1915 that: “The roads to the Euphrates are sewn with corpses of exiles and those who survive are doomed to certain death. It is a plan to exterminate  the whole  of the Armenian people”. Oscar S. Heizer, the American Consul at the time reported that: “Many of the (Armenian) children were loaded into boats and taken into sea and thrown overboard”. The Italian Consul, Giacomo Gorrini said: “I saw thousands of innocent women and children  placed in boats which were capsized in the Black Sea”.
The then American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgewthau, Sr wrote in his memoirs: “When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely  giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no attempt to conceal the fact”.

The German  Military Attache, Major General  Otto Von Lossow reported that the Turks have embarked upon the “total elimination of the Armenians…Talaat’s government wants to destroy all Armenians, not just in Turkey but also outside Turkey”.

Some 1.5 million Armenians were   wiped out by the Turks  in what became the world’s first well documented case of holocaust.  The crimes were so horrendous that there were no words strong enough to describe them. So a law professor, Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide” in 1943. Part of Turkey’s reasoning is that the word did not exist back in 1915, so it cannot be used retroactively to describe the Armenian massacres. For this, it is ready to go to war with whoever or whichever country adopts the word. Hence its fury against America.

If the world had stood against the Armenian genocide , it might have been saved the Jewish genocide  in the 1940s which claimed over six million lives.  The Germans had simply  copied the Turks. Let us stand against Turkey’s fury today.


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