A Hundred Years Later, Are Armenians Still Victims?

Screen-Shot-2015-04-28-at-4.00.32-PMOn CivilNet’s ‘Turkey As It Is’ program, Alin Ozinian spoke with ethnographer Lusine Kharatyan about the oral history of the Armenia Genocide. Kharatyan noted that in recent years, there has been a growing desire by certain Turks and Kurds to confront and come to terms with their past in order to rid themselves of a persistent feeling of guilt and also about the victim psychology present amongst the Armenians.

Aline Ozinian: Lusine, you have been working on collecting the oral history of the Genocide for a long time, your center has been doing various studies and research, particularly in recent years. Before speaking about the results, can you please tell us what ‘oral history’ means?

Lusine Kharatyan: Oral history is a research method that complements official history narration mainly with the help of people’s memories. These memories are collected by the method of oral history interviews, which helps historians and not only to get such information about which the official sources are normally scant. This method is relevant to the contemporary history or very recent past, i.e. to an era the representatives of which are still alive. As a rule, it is applied in this type of context and sheds an alternative perspective on events that happened, normally by means of the personal stories of people. This method has been extensively applied in Holocaust studies, because the survivors of the Holocaust were still alive and their stories became a large archive of facts. In addition to the existing materials, they became a different type of archival material about that particular crime against humanity. Today, oral history is widely used. It is applied in order to study various issues. If these issues, like I just said, occurred during our contemporary history, or to put it in other words, if the witnesses of those problems are still alive or in the context of our Armenian-Turkish studies, the successors of these witnesses are alive and can convey the stories of their family member. In this case, we deal with the post-memory because the person who carries the memory or the participant of the event is no longer alive, but the story that they conveyed to their next generation is still there.

AO: Especially in these last years, we are observing amongst the Turks and Kurds some sort of a wish to ‘confess.’ How can you explain this wish? Is it because a hundred years have passed and they no longer feel a threat to speak about the truth or do they want to rid themselves of the feeling of pain? How would you explain it?

LK: I think there are a number of factors that lead to such self-confessions or confessions. First, we turn to the policy of Turkey for the past 100 years, which we know has been a policy of denial, and the active process of Turkification after Ataturk, which led to an identity problem amongst many people. In other words, this led to having to hide one’s identity or to officially sign as a Turk or to Turkify one’s family name and thus to cut the link to one’s roots. These things have led to the identity crisis that we see today, which is a result of all these processes that have been quite long processes. And when there has been a moment of more or less freedom in the internal political life, when the people that for a long period of time had not had an opportunity to speak about their roots or their past, were given some sort of a freedom to come out and voice; somewhere under this wave of processes that started coming out and telling their stories. But I also connect this very much with the assassination of Hrant Dink, after which a whole movement of “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenians” and it was in the background of this that many more people started speaking about the dark parts of their past or the one of their families.

Here there can be several types of factors or people. One of them, like I said, was really this ‘mutilated identity’ or silence had brought people to a situation when they could not stand it any more and wanted to voice, wanted to confess, to tell. Here we have this in a dual manner: when a person is a successor of an executioner and when the person is a successor of a victim. In both cases, there have not been opportunities for an open discourse in Turkey. So based on this wave, there have been these sincere confessing people who wanted to say, yes, this is how it happened, with a hope to be able to change the current flow of events. And in the case of the successors of the victims, there have been those that wanted to voice about part of their identity which was of a victim.

This is one. The second factor is perhaps the Kurdish factor, intensification if the issue of the Kurds, which has also been intense in Turkey but lately there have been a lot of discussions and comparisons between the Armenians and the Kurdish movement; and the Kurds themselves see that once they used to support and participate in the execution of the genocide, but nowadays they are appearing in a situation of a ‘victim’ and amongst these there are also those who would like to confess the crimes their predecessors committed in the past with a hope that this will help change the flow of their current lives. In other words, if the society undergoes global changes, some things will change. There are also other type of people, since this is becoming a progressive thing to make such statements, some people may also take advantage of this and gain publicity, you draw attention towards your personal history and that of your family. So the factors vary, and the people who make statements, depending on these factors, also vary. But of course, the fact that this has become a trend, the number of such people is increasing, I think is evident.

AO: Lusine, there is an impression that the victims and people with the psychology of a victim have kept silent, especially women. We can see this amongst those women who turn say 90 and just before their final days disclose to their grandchildren that they are Armenians. However I know that an Armenian woman who has been rescued from the Genocide and lived an identity of an Armenian, still kept silent and did not speak. How can you explain this? Why did people keep silent? Did they not want to remember and experience all that again?

LK: Honestly, the stories we that have collected in the past three to four years from Armenia, show a bit of a different thing: women normally transfer the stories to the next generation a lot more than men but in a small circle.

AO: I was asking more about Turkey.

LK: In the case of Turkey and also of Armenia, I have to make a distinction: if we are speaking about sexual violence or this type of fragments of memory, then as a rule women do not tell these stories. Of course they speak about other forms of violence, however they skip the part of sexual violence or they speak about it at a much older age. In the case of women in Turkey, they again kept silent a lot, because when the majority of women were forced to convert religion, and we know about this when they have already become grandmothers, these are mostly those women who were abused and were forced to convert their religion and all their lives had to live in that shade of violence. They normally had a very difficult life, and it is not necessarily that they experience both abuse and forced conversion of faith. But this can be observed very frequently, and they did not want to convey this story to their generation because in a way they had already renounced themselves once and conveying this to the next generation would be a large psychological trauma, so they did not convey it. And confessing at the end of their lives, and this is a psychological moment on which I cannot comment so much, and this is subject to a whole new research from a psychological perspective on why and how this happened, but our materials show that they confess at a very old age and very often they live a very cruel life, and I can bring an example so that you imagine the degree and dispersion of violence. During our field studies we had visited Varto, which is a village in Mush region, and the locals were saying that there are many Armenian words in their dialects, one of these words is ‘harsig’ (*means bride in Armenian), which they use very often and it means a ‘prostitute.’ And this a very cruel reality indicating that the degree of exploitation of women was such, especially in certain regions, that the word which would enter another language’s wordstock with a changed meaning and would be nowadays used with a reverse or changed meaning. This is to exemplify the abuse and exploitation of women. And in many other examples as well, we see these stories, not always do these women form one single family and live with that family all their lives. There are many cases when they were being exploited and handed over from one to the other, and most of the time these were very young girls. We have very few cases when older and mature women would be forced to marry and convert religion and then tell their stories to their children at an older age.

AO: You have a project at your organization, DVV, called “Speaking to One Another”, when I was translating your book, there were many heavy examples like the one you have just mentioned. I also remember another case when a woman, who for various reasons, has to marry a Turk and brings children to life and then abandons her children and runs away to build a second life for herself. There are cases when a woman kills her children and by reading oral histories, we not only learn of the character of the Turk, but also of the Armenian. For example, we would not expect that an Armenian mother would abandon her child. What do you think, as a result of these studies, do we discover ourselves, parts of ourselves of which we are unaware?

LK: I think yes, but in this particular case I would not connect this context with the ethnic identity of an Armenian, because it does not have to do with ethnicity. All over the world, it is difficult to imagine a woman who has been subject to a great abuse and as a result of this abuse she has a child, she hates the man with whom she is forced to live and she was forced to quit her family if her family was not exterminated entirely and in our materials there are many cases when the executor would kill the woman’s both husband and children and would then marry her. Then, as a result of all this violence she has a child and now all her life she has to live with this hateful criminal person and every day all her interactions are in an atmosphere of hatred. And on top of all this, she has to love the child who is the result of all this violence. In general, the practice of abandoning children born as a result of rape is widespread and this is not just linked with the identity of an Armenian, and if this is not just rape but a crime in a larger context, if we can name it so, it is very difficult to understand the psychology of the person in that situation and then condemn her action or try to logically examine the action in accordance with the rules of logic that we know. And I think in this situation we are not only discovering the Armenian woman, but the person who is in this situation and the possible framework of this person’s actions. And yes, there are such cases when women quit the new family and children and there are also cases when they really kill the children, even more than once if their abuse is continuous, this is horrible, but if we regard it in the context of all these realities, many things are done in accordance with other ‘norms’ that are outside of our daily ‘norms.’

AO: Which we have a difficulty understanding most of the time.

LK: What I want to say is that we are discovering ‘another type of an Armenian,’ this is a human being’s…

AO: What I meant was not being just Armenian, but the fact that we are often unaware of these cases.

LK: Of course there have been cases like this, and even heavier cases when on the road of exile the woman had to choose which child to take with her, and this is again not only typical to our situation. We have material where a grandchild is telling the story of her grandmother when she had to decide which child to leave behind and which one to take with her and eventually decides for the boy and this is not a unique case. This is the norm when the mother decides to save the son because all the other men of the tribe have died and the boy is the one to continue this tribe. Again, when we examine the question in the context of Genocide, it is of course a painful reality that the privilege is given to boys as a continuer. Normally it is difficult to discuss, understand or analyse these issues without emotions. There are also cases, and we have identified it in our study again, when a mother saves her son from being burnt in a barn, she comes and gives her belt to a Kurdish person who was overseeing this process, and after releasing her son she is burnt herself instead of her son. And this child, who carried this in his whole life was saying that the choice of his mother was haunting him all his life, up until now I cannot forget how she sacrificed her life for me to live. So there have been many such choices.

AO: There have also been cases when the Turks or Kurds would threaten to kidnap the daughters of these mothers and the latter would kill their offsprings themselves…

LK: That has also taken place, these cases of violence are so many and it is very difficult to examine them merely from a research perspective.

AO: Lusine, if we come to our contemporary days, do we still carry that imprint of a victim, what do you think?

LK: It is a complicated question. I think yes, but in a bit of a transformed manner. We carry the label of a victim by facing the question of why should something like this happen and why is it not recognized; I think many people are haunted by this. I think as long as the issue of recognition is not resolved, this label will remain there, maybe it will be transformed. Today they are saying we demanders and not victims, and there are discussions like this and in the frames of the Centenary events that I think help breaking that label of a victim. For example, there are events that are saying that while we live, our breed still exists and this is a proof that Turkey was not able to execute its plan fully. This is a way of leaving the character of a victim behind by showing the continuity of our ‘breed’ and we fight for sustaining it. But I think this is an issue that the humanity faces: when a victim that has not been recognized as a victim by the perpetrator, the issue of justice remains blank, and it relates not only to us, but the entire humanity who does not want such crimes to be repeated in the world. And in this context, we of course, we are a victim, we carry it in ourselves and it has various manifestations in various contexts.

AO: After recognition, will we be able to leave that psychology of being a victim behind?

LK: That is again a difficult question because as a group we do not have a plan of what will happen after the recognition. I think when Turkey acknowledges the Genocide, I think we will be lost and will fall into a new phase of searching…

AO: We will lose ourselves, how?

LK: Yes, because a lot of effort and a lot of enthusiasm was exerted towards the recognition…

AO: Do you mean no other purpose was pursued?

LK: Our identity has been built around that, especially in the Diaspora, but also in Armenia and today too a lot of work is done in this direction in Armenia. However, in reality there is no such collective idea that would unite all the Armenians of the world after the recognition, if I may use this psuedo phrase ‘all Armenians of the world’ because this is a very multilayered term. And I think in the event of recognition, we will face great difficulties, a situation of searching for something new, because this ‘novelty’ is not formulated in public discourse.

Երեքշաբթի, 28 ապրիլ

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