For last Armenian village in Turkey, no remembrance of things past

by @p_zalewski April 23, 2015 5:00AM ET

On the centenary of the 1915 massacres, Vakıflı's remaining 135 residents prefer to stay out of debate about genocide

The courtyard in front of the church in Vakıflı, Turkey, the last village in Turkey with a sizable Armenian population.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America
Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, included this photo in his memoir about his service. "Scenes like this were common all over the Armenian provinces in the spring and summer months of 1915," he wrote.
From Ambassador Morgenthau's Story, Doubleday, 1918

VAKıFLı, Turkey —The reports made their way to the six villages of Musa Dagh, or Mount Moses, slowly, detail by terrifying detail, in the summer of 1915. Merchants carried word of the arrest and deportation of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul, which had begun on April 24. Dikran Antreassian, a Protestant minister, arrived with news that the Armenians of Zeitun, the Anatolian town to which he had been posted, were being herded by Ottoman forces toward the desert of Syria. Many of them had already succumbed to hunger and roving gangs. Antreassian and his family had managed to slip away. 

Some learned through Turkish neighbors. “It was the Turks in Hüseyinli village who found out first and alerted our people,” said Bedros Kartun, a grandson of one of the survivors.

In late July, news spread that the Ottomans had ordered the whole population of Kessab, a nearby Armenian town, to prepare for a long journey. By then the people of the six villages — Yoghunoluk, Kheder Beg, Haji Habibli, Kabusiye, Bitias and Vakef – knew they were next. 

The deportation orders came within a few days. When Ottoman zaptiehs, or policemen, arrived to enforce them, accompanied by local outlaws and looters, they found the villages nearly deserted. Of a population of 6,000, only about 2,000 people remained, terrified, but reconciled to their fate. They were marched in the direction of Hama, in northern Syria. About half of the deportees, said Vahram Shemmassian, a professor at California State University, Northridge, were to die of disease and starvation. 

The rest of the villagers, the Ottomans were soon to realize, had gone up to the mountain. Rather than face exile and likely death on the side of a road, they had decided to stay on and fight. 

A farmhouse in Vakifli.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

Vakıflı, as the Vakef of old is now called, is a bumpy 15-minute ride from Samandağ, the closest town, along hills awash with orange and lemon trees. On a weekday earlier this spring, a fierce wind roared through the village, whistling through the cracks in the walls of the old houses, foreshadowing rain. A hawk started to glide through the nearby valley, but turned back. Up the road from the central square, past the church and the cemetery, lay the lower reaches of the mount. To the west, a green carpet of trees, dotted with ripe orange fruits, bright as lanterns, rolled over a couple of neighboring hills and down toward the Mediterranean. 

A group of women sat outside an old school building, now converted into a guesthouse, sticking green labels onto jars of bitter orange preserves and bottles of liquor made with daffodil flowers, to be sold at a nearby stand. The village’s economy traditionally relied on fruit farming. In recent years, locals had begun to complement their income by making and selling organic products, including jams, extracts and laurel soap.

In the 2000s, the Turkish authorities, which succeeded the Ottomans, allowed the locals to restore and reopen the old village church. Tourists, both Turks and foreigners, began coming. For diaspora Armenians with roots in the region, Vakıflı became something of a pilgrimage site.

Of the six Musa Dagh villages that stood up to the Ottomans in 1915, it is the only one that survives.

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the massacre of Armenians under Ottoman rule, however, the past appears to be less of a concern for the residents of Vakıflı than the present. The population has shrunk to about 135 people, most of them elderly. The majority of the villagers speak Armenian, but only a few are still able to read or write in it. The local school was shut down after Turkey took over the province, and children can only learn Armenian at home. In theory, said Cem Çapar, head of the foundation that runs Vakıflı’s church, the community could apply for a new school to be opened, but there wouldn’t be enough students to fill the classes, or enough teachers to teach. Between 50,000 and 70,000 Armenians live in Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city. But the country's last Armenian village may be just one or two generations away from extinction.

A graveyard in Vakıflı holds the remains of villagers going back hundreds of years.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

For decades, the Turkish attitude toward the legacy of the death marches that claimed the lives of anywhere from 600,000 to 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians had oscillated between indifference and denial. Until the turn of the century, recalls Taner Akçam, a historian at Clark University, no one in Turkey wanted to talk about the Armenian massacres. “Everybody thinks it was very difficult to talk about the genocide because of the pressure, because of the character of the regime, and so on,” he said. “That wasn’t the major problem. The major problem was disinterest.”

 It was when one decided to speak up that disinterest gave way to resentment and recriminations. “You were treated as a leper, you were made to feel like you had betrayed your family,” Akçam said. 

That sort of backlash often went hand in hand with an official government one. In December 2005, Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning author, stood trial for “insulting Turkishness” after telling a Swiss magazine, “One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it.” In 2006, another writer, Elif Şafak, faced similar charges on account of a genocide reference made by a fictional character in one of her novels. Both were acquitted. 

Slowly, however, the dominant Turkish narrative, which holds that the slaughter of the Armenians has been exaggerated in scale and placed out of context (the context being the wider tragedy of the First World War, in which hundreds of thousands of Turks also perished), has started to show signs of strain.  

In 2005, despite official objections and threats, a Turkish university hosted a groundbreaking conference on the genocide. In 2007, more than 100,000 people, many of them holding placards proclaiming “We are all Armenians,” took part in the funeral of Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian writer gunned down in Istanbul by a teenage nationalist. In 2008, more than 30,000 Turks signed a petition calling for a collective apology for “the Great Catastrophe of 1915.” Today, books documenting the genocide are widely available at shops in Istanbul and other large cities. “The cycle of psychological terror has been broken,” said Halil Berktay, another historian.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, can claim at least some of the credit. Use of the “G-word” has been de facto decriminalized. Government ministers have begun commiserating publicly with the victims of the Armenian massacres. An ethnic Armenian who regularly refers to the genocide was appointed last year as an adviser to the prime minister. (He has since had to resign.)

For a while, it even looked as if Turkey and Armenia, which never established formal diplomatic relations, could patch up their political and historical differences. In 2009 the two governments signed a comprehensive deal that foresaw the opening of borders, closed since 1993, an exchange of ambassadors, and the launch of a joint committee to examine the events of 1915. The agreement fell apart, however, after Turkey made it conditional on an Armenian peace deal with Azerbaijan, an Ankara ally.

Carpenter Toros Silahli visits the family of a friend as they have breakfast outside.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America
Silahli visits the home where he was born. The house is now abandoned.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

In a country that used to deny the survivors of 1915 the right to commemorate their past openly, Armenian heritage had long been a heavy cross to bear. “When I was young I suffered a lot, the other kids mocked me in class,” recalled Toros Silahli, a carpenter in Vakıflı. “I had [similar] trouble when I went away to the military.”

To spare them the kind of problems Silahli had experienced as a young man and camouflage their Armenian identity, local villagers would sometimes give their children Western-sounding names. Even though the practice has since disappeared, evidence of it lives on. One of the women at the guesthouse was named Caroline. Another was Janet. She was on the phone with someone named Jacqueline.

“I would have liked to have an Armenian name, but it’s too late now,” said Caroline. “I’m too used to the one I have.”

After the Turkish takeover in 1939, locals were also forced to change their last names. The Mandiryans became the Silahlis, the Chapariyans became the Çapars, and the Manjians became the Mancas. Vakef itself became known as Vakıflı. 

Assimilationist policies have done much less damage here than in other parts of the country, however. Much of the reason has to do with the fact that Hatay, the province to which the village belongs, has been a mosaic of religions and cultures for centuries. “You’ve got Armenians, Arabs, Turks, Alawites, Sunnis and Jews living here side by side, celebrating holidays together,” said Kuhar. “Even Istanbul isn’t as cosmopolitan.”

The new political climate has also left its mark on Vakıflı. Today, most if not all of the young people appear to have Armenian first names. Aram, a teenager who commutes to school in Samandağ said his had earned him a certain degree of distinction. “They’re really interested in our past,” he said of his Turkish classmates.

Here and elsewhere, Armenians are more at ease speaking about the past than ever before, said Çapar. “Before, Armenians knew all of their problems, but they only spoke about them in private,” he said. “A broken arm should remain inside the sleeve,” he added, citing a Turkish proverb, “That’s the code people used to abide by.” 

“It’s still not easy to be Armenian in Turkey, but it’s much easier than before,” Silahli said. “People are better educated, they’re trying to understand one another. The prejudices are starting to disappear.”

Yet reluctance to talk about 1915 remains palpable here.

In private, off-record conversations, a few locals freely referred to 1915 as genocide. On record, however, most of them wished to be left out of what they felt was a pointless debate that had less to do with memory than with international politics. “This word, genocide, it only creates tension,” said Silahli. “It’s not important if you use it or if you don’t. What’s important is to understand what happened. The problem is not between Armenians and Turks, but between states.” 

“I have plenty of memories, but I prefer not to share them,” said Çapar’s elderly father, Panos, relaxing at a local coffeehouse after a card game. “That chapter ought to stay closed,” added Silahli’s father, Papken.

As the descendants of the Musa Dagh resistance and as loyal Turkish citizens, the villagers tread a delicate line. “We’re trying to build a balance,” said Çapar, “between our history and our awareness and our government.”

As the descendants of the Musa Dagh resistance and as loyal Turkish citizens, the villagers tread a delicate line. “We’re trying to build a balance,” says Capar, “between our history and our awareness and our government.”
As the descendants of the Musa Dagh resistance and as loyal Turkish citizens, the villagers tread a delicate line. “We’re trying to build a balance,” says Capar, “between our history and our awareness and our government.”
During a church service, laypeople assisted the ceremony.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

Vakıflı lies about 10 miles from Syria, but except for the occasional, distant thud of artillery fire, traces of the conflict raging on the other side of the border are barely noticeable here. There are no Syrian opposition members or activists in Vakıflı, no refugees, and no errant shells landing in the orange groves. 

Local history, however, has found a warped, confused way of echoing through the war. Last spring, the predominantly Armenian town of Kessab, now part of Syria, was overrun by a number of armed groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. According to several reports, the rebels had entered the area through Turkey, whose government has backed the insurgency against Syria’s Bashar al Assad for nearly four years. Most of Kessab’s population fled to Lattakia, a nearby Syrian city. Others left for Lebanon. A small group of Armenians found their way into Turkey. The Turkish government temporarily settled 22 of them in Vakıflı.

The new arrivals, most of them elderly, had known there were Armenians on the Turkish side of the border, survivors, like them, of the 1915 massacres. Yet many were positively surprised to witness, firsthand, Turks and Armenians living in harmony. That may have been the reason why the Turkish authorities brought them here to begin with. “They invited journalists when the people of Kessab came, they wanted to showcase Vakıflı,” said Kuhar, one of the local women. “They made a show of it.” 

The Kessab Armenians spent a couple of months in the village before returning home — the Syrian army recaptured the town in June 2014 – or joining relatives in Lebanon. One died in Vakıflı. 

A general view of the church interior.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

The Armenians of Vakef and the other Musa Dagh villages who defied Ottoman deportation orders and fortified themselves in the highlands in the summer of 1915 were outgunned. According to Shemmassian, they had about 600 weapons. Most were hunting rifles. Some were arms that had been smuggled into the area six years earlier – following anti-Armenian pogroms in the city of Adana – by Armenian revolutionaries. If the defenders of Musa Dagh had a plan, it was to resist the forces sent to subdue them for as long as possible. 

Their hope, also, was that by setting up camp in the mountains they might be spotted by Allied battleships cruising the Eastern Mediterranean. To that end, they fastened a pair of banners to trees near the mountaintop. One was emblazoned with the sign of the Red Cross. Another bore an inscription in English: “Christians in distress: Rescue.”

As the Ottoman siege tightened, supplies and munitions began to run out. Under the cover of fog, Kartun said, the defenders began to slip down to the villages to scavenge for food and smuggle it back to camp. Eighteen of them died in clashes with Ottoman forces.

On September 5, the miracle that the Armenians had hoped for all along finally happened. The crew of a French ship, the Guichen, spotted the banners. Roughly a week later, the Guichen returned, along with four more Allied ships, and evacuated the 4,000 men, women and children gathered on Musa Dagh. 

 The Armenians had held out for about 50 days. (In his fictionalized account of the resistance, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” Franz Werfel, an Austrian writer, changed the number to give the story an extra biblical touch.) They spent the remainder of World War I in a refugee camp on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Egypt.

In 1919, with the war over, the Ottoman Empire dismembered, and Hatay province placed under the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon, which guaranteed the area a wide measure of autonomy, the Armenians returned to their villages. In 1939, following a referendum whose result remains contested by Syria, Hatay passed into Turkish hands. The memories of the Ottoman massacres still fresh in their minds, a vast majority of the Armenians of Musa Dagh fled shortly before the Turkish takeover. With French assistance, they settled in Anjar, a rocky, mosquito-infested town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where they tried to rebuild their old lives. They even named the town’s districts after the six Musa Dagh villages. They remain there to this day. 

No one remembers exactly why most of the people of Vakıflı, unlike those of the other villages, decided to stay in Turkey. According to one story, a Turkish officer convinced the locals that they should place their trust in the new authorities, which had nothing to do with the Ottomans. Kartun recalled being told that it was a group of rich landowners, fearful that an Armenian exodus would mean the end of cheap labor, who persuaded the others not to leave. Resentment towards nationalist Armenian parties, which had dominated local politics between the two world wars, may also have been a factor, said Shemmassian, the professor.

Whatever the reasons, and however large the trauma of 1915 might still loom, no one in Vakıflı seems to regret the decision. “We’ve been breathing the same air for centuries with Turks and living on the same soil,” Silahli said. “We are fortunate to be living where our ancestors lived.”

The church sells locally made products to tourists in a shop near the church entrance. Well-known for its organic products, Vakıflı is popular with tourists from Turkey and beyond.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

In 1934, the Turkish government caught wind of a worrying development. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM, had just purchased the rights to produce a film adaptation of Werfel’s novel about Musa Dagh. Ankara ordered its ambassador to the U.S. to do his best to prevent the film from being released, threatening a boycott not only of MGM products but of American movies in general. One of the first salvoes in the Turkish war over the legacy of 1915 proved effective. Under Turkish pressure, the movie was shelved.

More than 20 countries have since recognized the Armenian genocide, but Turkish officialdom has not budged. Even though the ruling AKP has helped free the popular discussion of the events of 1915 from the straitjacket imposed on it by previous governments and the army, it is yet to wean itself fully from a policy of denial that has damaged Turkey’s international standing as much as, if not more than, the massacres themselves. 

These days, its policy appears growingly schizophrenic. For two years running, the government has issued unprecedentedly bold statements expressing condolences to the survivors of 1915 and their descendants. All along, however, it has continued to resort to defensive, nationalist rhetoric, lashing out against all countries and institutions that have used the genocide label. When Pope Francis did so on April 12, Turkey responded by temporarily recalling its envoy to the Vatican and accusing the pontiff of “fueling grudge and hatred with baseless claims.” When the European Parliament followed suit a week later, Ankara’s ministry of foreign affairs fired off a communiqué asking the body to stop “mutilating history and law”, to avoid giving in to “religious and cultural fanaticism,” and to mind its own business. Turkey’s two biggest opposition parties agreed.

At its core, the challenge for Turkey is not about finding the right word to describe the Armenian massacres, but taking responsibility for them, said Akçam, the historian. “Basically, the issue is not so much whether these crimes constitute genocide, but whether Turkey should acknowledge or accept that there was a crime in the first place,” he said.

That acknowledgment does not appear to be in the offing. As Turkey’s EU minister, Volkan Bozkır, recently put it, “There is no period in our history that we should be ashamed of.” 

The state, said Hayko Bağdat, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, has misled Turks into thinking they are the ones being held to account for the crimes of the past and that it’s the government’s role to defend them. “They’ve turned society as a whole into an accomplice,” he said. “But it’s not the Turkish people who are being judged, it’s the perpetrators of the genocide who are being judged.”

“People in every part of the world, in Africa and in Europe, have experienced even more terrible things [than 1915]. But there, they’ve found a way to face the past. And that’s what we’re looking for.”  

Toros Silahli, left, at a dinner party with friends. After a dinner of locally made food they sing songs about Armenia and home as well as popular Turkish songs.
Monique Jaques for Al Jazeera America

There will be no official, public commemorations in Vakıflı on April 24, the centenary of the 1915 massacres. The villagers will likely remember their dead, their survivors, and the battle of Musa Dagh, but they will do so in private.

On a Friday evening in late March, one of the villagers, 84-year-old Vartuhi Manca, flanked by her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, sat at the head of a table awash with dishes of roasted eggplant and barbecued wild boar, glasses of homemade raki and pages of sheet music, and sang. 

Hers was a song Manca had learned eight decades ago at the village school, before it was shut down, “back when we were free to talk about anything,” as she put it. It was a tune, in Armenian, about one of the defenders of Musa Dagh. 

Oh, Khoren, what’s happened,

He has fallen, wounded by three bullets,

When the bullets hit him,

He stood up to continue his fight,

its lyrics went. 

Let Khoren's mother cry,

And let Khoren's father be patient and strong.