Habab’s fountains in eastern Turkey ran dry in 1915. That year, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians who lived in the region were driven from their homes by the Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire. They were sent on forced marches into the Syrian Desert that killed over a million people. As the two countries that emerged out of the break-up of the Ottoman empire, Turkey and Armenia have been at loggerheads over the massacres ever since. Armenians, and much of the rest of the world, say it was genocide. Turkey refutes the label.
The Turkish-Armenian border is currently closed and diplomatic relations are at a standstill. While reconciliation at a national level seems far-off, there are hopes that in this centennial year of the killings, grass-roots organizations can lead the way to greater understanding. The restoration of Habab’s fountains in 2011 by the Hrant Dink Foundation, an Istanbul-based NGO, are a symbol of that hope.
Over the past few years, young Turks, Kurds, and Armenians from the foundation are giving new life to the fountains while holding workshops for local residents. In turkey it’s still a crime to talk about the Armenian genocide, as it’s seen as an insult to “Turkishness’’ by casting the republic’s creation in a negative light. Such nationalistic sentiment can still be toxic – Hrant Dink was an Armenian reporter who pushed for reconciliation but was murdered in 2007 by a Turkish nationalist over the misguided perception that he was insulting the republic. The foundation was created to continue Dink’s work of promoting dialogue.
Recently, there has been a general easing of restrictions, and a greater willingness to talk. In Habab, foundation members talked about the history of the fountains, why the water stopped running, and their restoration work. Villagers began to share their own stories. Some had Armenian ancestors. Others had ancestors that had evicted Armenians from their homes.
The genocide is commonly referred to as beginning on April 24, 1915, when Ottoman soldiers arrested around 250 leaders and intellectuals of the minority Armenian community in Istanbul.1 Following this, over the course of three years an estimated 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in death marches to the Syrian Desert and by massacres committed by Ottoman soldiers.
While these events are well known in Armenia, they remain virtually unknown in Turkey, leading to mistrust and confusion that thwart diplomacy.
A July 2010 German Marshall Fund survey found that 55 percent of Turks opposed the ratification of a mooted opening of diplomatic ties with Armenia in 2009 during a brief thaw in relations between the two countries. Only 29 percent supported normalization of relations and an opening of the border.2
A survey by Boratav in 2009 found that coverage of Armenia-Turkey relations tends to focus on the state agenda and statements from politicians, disadvantaging the views of the other side in each situation and in turn affecting the views of each society.3
Yet, “perceptions of people are changing,” said Burcu Becermen, the Armenia/Turkey projects coordinator for the Hrant Dink Foundation. “We can see that they’re opening up. They’re telling their stories. And they’re transforming.” Other civil society organizations have now begun using this strategy of open communication in the hope of restoring Turkish-Armenian relations, metaphorically making the water run again.
Repairfuture.net is an online forum where people from either side can come together to have dialogue over the issues and create more communication by voicing their opinions. Beyond Borders: Linking Our Stories brings together Turkish and Armenian women to tell their stories at performance art workshops. Actress Tuba Keles told SES Türkiye of the project, “We have listened to each other. We came together to tell our stories. We have experienced that the most efficient cure for the pains and for building communication is to establish eye-to-eye contact with each other.”
What is crucial here is for people from either side to get to know each other and share in each other’s stories in order to begin the healing process. Becermen said, “Hrant Dink had a saying like the Turkish society is paranoid, and the Armenian society is traumatized. And, they are not healed, and they will need a doctor to heal them. And, actually their doctor is for [the] Turkish, Armenians; for Armenians, it’s Turks. There is no one else who can really heal or improve that situation.”
It is important that Armenia and Turkey create a diplomatic relationship in order for both economies and societies to flourish. However, it is crucial that the societies be able to come together to have an open dialogue about the past and the present, and to not let another generation be born into a still bitter, unhealed memory.
As a TESEV report from 2010 said, “The role of civil society in the rapprochement process is paramount. Civil society debate allows for often complicated issues to be discussed, brings the sides closer together and creates momentum around rapprochement.”4