by lyle e davis
Our new President, Barack Obama, is trying to walk a number of tight ropes . . . trying not to crush too many eggs, and, if he does, trying to at least salvage a palatable omelet..
As if he didn’t have enough problems with which to contend, the auto industry, the banking industry, the economy, the high unemployment rate, the tax situation, Iraq, Afghanistan, the world economy, the oil situation, the market for credit and loans, or lack thereof, the swine flew scare, the “photo op” that frightened New York City . . . now comes another.
During his campaign for this highest office in the land, he pledged to recognize the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenian people as genocide by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Many scholars view the events in the final years of the Ottoman Empire as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Genocide is defined as the systematic, organized manner of killings designed and executed to eliminate or exterminate a specific race and culture of a people.
However, had Obama used that language recently, in observance of the anniversay of the slaughter, he would have broken a separate pledge he had made to the Turkish government to develop a closer working partnership with Turkey, a vital ally in a critical region. So he did what politicians do. He steered around the potential controversy by using carefully selected language that he hoped would offend neither side too much.
While both sides have not yet beaten up on our president, they have let it be known they are both unhappy.
While contending his views about the 20th century slaughter had not changed. He went on to say, "I strongly support efforts by the Turkish and Armenian people to work through this painful history in a way that is honest, open, and constructive." Marking the grim anniversary of the start of the killings, the president referred to them as "one of the great atrocities of the 20th century."
"I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed," Obama said. "My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts."
"The best way to advance that goal right now," Obama said, "is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their efforts to move forward."
Fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, has been a long-term supporter of referring to the massacres as "genocide" and did so in her own statement.
A starving orphan
"It is long past time for the US government to formally recognise the Armenian genocide," Ms Pelosi said. "If we ignore history then we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. The genocides in Rwanda and Darfur remind us that we must do more to prevent this from ever happening again." What she did not point out is that America did little or nothing to stop the genocide in Rwanda or Darfur.
The Armenian Assembly of America complained that Mr Obama had "failed to deliver on the change he promised. Empty promises are no change at all," said the assembly's executive director, Bryan Ardouny.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Abdullah Gul told reporters in Sofia, Bulgaria that Obama should also have expressed sympathy toward "hundreds of thousands of Turk and Muslims who lost their lives in 1915," according to comments published by the state-run Anatolia news agency.
The year was 1915.
The date of the onset of the genocide is conventionally held to be April 24, 1915, the day that Ottoman authorities arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. Thereafter, the Ottoman military uprooted Armenians from their homes and forced them to march for hundreds of miles, depriving them of food and water, to the desert of what is now Syria. The Armenian Genocide is the second most-studied case of genocide after the Holocaust.
The Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, does not accept the word genocide as an accurate description of the events. In recent years, it has faced repeated calls to accept the events as genocide. To date, twenty-one countries have officially recognized the events of the period as genocide, and most genocide scholars and historians accept this view.
In the Ottoman Empire, in accordance with the Muslim system, Armenians, as Christians, were guaranteed limited freedoms (such as the right to worship), but were treated as second-class citizens. Christians and Jews were not considered equals to Muslims: testimony against Muslims by Christians and Jews was inadmissible in courts of law. They were forbidden to carry weapons or ride atop horses, their houses could not overlook those of Muslims, and their religious practices would have to defer to those of Muslims, in addition to various other legal limitations. Violation of these statutes could result in punishments ranging from the levying of fines to execution.
The Armenian people trace their history back to the Bronze Age. At the height of its power in the first century BC, the Armenian kingdom controlled the territory between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea in an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Turkey. Christianity spread into the region soon after the death of Christ with the establishment of numerous Christian communities. In 301, Armenia became the first state to proclaim Christianity its official religion.
Turkish soldiers posing proudly with the decapitated heads of Armenian community leaders, 1915
By the beginning of the 20th century, Armenia's glory days were a distant memory. They had been absorbed by the Ottoman Empire and occupied a reduced territory located in what is now north-eastern Turkey. Still strongly Christian, they enjoyed relative tolerance within the Muslim Ottoman Empire. However, during the period between 1892 and 1894 the Armenians suffered a series of massacres instigated by the reigning Sultan, Abdul Hamid II in which between 80,000 and 300,000 lost their lives.
With the outbreak of World War I and the threat of Russian invasion, the Ottomans began to suspect the loyalty of the Armenians and feared that they might actively support the Russians if an invasion occurred. To prevent this, the Ottomans devised a plan to eliminate the Armenians from their territory that resulted in one of the bloodiest, systematic massacres of the 20th century.
The atrocities began in the spring of 1915 with the methodical killing of as many young, able-bodied Armenian men as possible. This was followed by the forced evacuation of thousands of Armenians from their homeland to the desert area in what today is Syria. Compelled to make the journey on foot and continually attacked throughout their journey, thousands died. It is estimated that between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives during this period.
In September 1915 the American consul in Kharput, Leslie Davis, reported his discovery of the bodies of nearly 10,000 Armenians dumped into several ravines near Lake Göeljuk, later referring to this region as the "slaughterhouse province".
Much of what we know about this period of carnage comes to us through the writings of Henry Morgenthau, the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916. The Ambassador supplemented his personal observations of the treatment of the Armenians with eyewitness reports from informants throughout the country.
Ambassador Morgenthau describes the forced evacuation of one group of Armenians from their homeland to the Syrian desert:
"All through the spring and summer of 1915 the deportations took place. . . Scarcely a single Armenian, whatever his education or wealth, or whatever the social class to which he belonged, was exempted from the order. In some villages placards were posted ordering the whole Armenian population to present itself in a public place at an appointed time-usually a day or two ahead, and in other places the town crier would go through the streets delivering the order vocally. In still others not the slightest warning was given.
The gendarmes would appear before an Armenian house and order all the inmates to follow them. They would take women engaged in their domestic tasks without giving them the chance to change their clothes. The police fell upon them just as the eruption of Vesuvius fell upon Pompeii; women were taken from the washtubs, children were snatched out of bed, the bread was left half baked in the oven, the family meal was abandoned partly eaten, the children were taken from the schoolroom, leaving their books open at the daily task, and the men were forced to abandon their ploughs in the fields and their cattle on the mountain side. Even women who had just given birth to children would be forced to leave their beds and join the panic-stricken throng, their sleeping babies in their arms. Such things as they hurriedly snatched up - a shawl, a blanket, perhaps a few scraps of food - were all that they could take of their household belongings. To their frantic questions 'Where are we going?' the gendarmes would vouchsafe only one reply: 'To the interior.'
Armenian families, ordered to gather in groups
'Pray for us,' they would say as they left their homes - the homes in which their ancestors had lived for 2,500 years. 'We shall not see you in this world again, but sometime we shall meet. Pray for us!'
The Armenians had hardly left their native villages when the persecutions began. The roads over which they travelled were little more than donkey paths; and what had started a few hours before as an orderly procession soon became a dishevelled and scrambling mob. Women were separated from their children and husbands from their wives. The old people soon lost contact with their families and became exhausted and footsore. The Turkish drivers of the ox-carts, after extorting the last coin from their charges, would suddenly dump them and their belongings into the road, turn around, and return to the village for other victims.
Thus in a short time practically everybody, young and old, was compelled to travel on foot. The gendarmes whom the Government had sent, supposedly to protect the exiles, in a very few hours became their tormentors. They followed their charges with fixed bayonets, prodding any one who showed any tendency to slacken the pace. Those who attempted to stop for rest, or who fell exhausted on the road, were compelled, with the utmost brutality, to rejoin the moving throng. They even prodded pregnant women with bayonets; if one, as frequently happened, gave birth along the road, she was immediately forced to get up and rejoin the marchers. The whole course of the journey became a perpetual struggle with the Moslem inhabitants.
When the victims had travelled a few hours from their starting place, the Kurds would sweep down from their mountain homes. Rushing up to the young girls, they would lift their veils and carry the pretty ones off to the hills. They would steal such children as pleased their fancy and mercilessly rob all the rest of the throng. If the exiles had started with any money or food, their assailants would appropriate it, thus leaving them a hopeless prey to starvation. They would steal their clothing, and sometimes even leave both men and women in a state of complete nudity. All the time that they were committing these depradations the Kurds would freely massacre, and the screams of women and old men would add to the general horror.
Slaughtered Armenians left to rot alongside a road
And thus, as the exiles moved, they left behind them another caravan - that of dead and unburied bodies, of old men and of women dying in the last stages of typhus, dysentery, and cholera, of little children lying on their backs and setting up their last piteous wails for food and water. There were women who held up their babies to strangers, begging them to take them and save them from their tormentors, and failing this, they would throw them into wells or leave them behind bushes, that at least they might die undisturbed. Behind was left a small army of girls who had been sold as slaves - frequently for a medjidie, or about eighty cents - and who, after serving the brutal purposes of their purchasers, were forced to lead lives of prostitution.
A string of encampments, filled by the sick and the dying, mingled with the unburied or half-buried bodies of the dead, marked the course of the advancing throngs. Flocks of vultures followed them in the air, and ravenous dogs, fighting one another for the bodies of the dead, constantly pursued them. The most terrible scenes took place at the rivers, especially the Euphrates. Sometimes, when crossing this stream, the gendarmes would push the women into the water, shooting all who attempted to save themselves by swimming. Frequently the women themselves would save their honour by jumping into the river, their children in their arms.
. . . All the way to Ras-ul-Ain, the first station on the Bagdad line, the existence of these wretched travellers was one prolonged horror. The gendarmes went ahead, informing the half-savage tribes of the mountains that several thousand Armenian women and girls were approaching. The Arabs and Kurds began to carry off the girls, the mountaineers fell upon them repeatedly, violating and killing the women, and the gendarmes themselves joined in the orgy. One by one the few men who accompanied the convoy were killed. The women had succeeded in secreting money from their persecutors, keeping it in their mouths and hair; with this they would buy horses, only to have them repeatedly stolen by the Kurdish tribesmen. Finally the gendarmes, having robbed and beaten and violated and killed their charges for thirteen days, abandoned them altogether. Two days afterward the Kurds went through the party and rounded up all the males who still remained alive. They found about 150, their ages varying from 15 to 90 years, and these, they promptly took away and butchered to the last man. But that same day another convoy from Sivas joined - his one from Harpoot, increasing the numbers of the whole caravan to 18,000 people.
Heads of Christians, traditionally treated like trophies by the Turks
. . . On the seventieth day a few creatures reached Aleppo. Out of the combined convoy of 18,000 souls just 150 women and children reached their destination. A few of the rest, the most attractive, were still living as captives of the Kurds and Turks; all the rest were dead.'"
In his memoirs, Morgenthau also wrote, "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 particular attempt to conceal the fact…"
Many Americans spoke out against the Genocide, including former president Theodore Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen Wise, William Jennings Bryan, and Alice Stone Blackwell. In the United States and the United Kingdom, children were regularly reminded to clean their plates while eating and to "remember the starving Armenians."
British diplomat Gertrude Bell filed the following report after hearing the account of a captured Ottoman soldier:
“The battalion left Aleppo on 3 February and reached Ras al-Ain in twelve hours… some 12,000 Armenians were concentrated under the guardianship of some hundred Kurds … These Kurds were called gendarmes, but in reality were butchers; bands of them were publicly ordered to take parties of Armenians, of both sexes, to various destinations, but had secret instructions to destroy the males, children and old women… One of these gendarmes confessed to killing 100 Armenian men himself… the empty desert cisterns and caves were also filled with corpses…”
Winston Churchill described the massacres as an "administrative holocaust" and noted that "the clearance of race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act could be… There is no reason to doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons. The opportunity presented itself for clearing Turkish soil of a Christian race opposed to all Turkish ambitions."
The amabassador from Germany’s Diplomatic Mission in Turkey at that time said, “Turkification means license to expel, to kill or destroy everything that is not Turkish.”
Ultimately, some of the guilty were brought to trial. Whether they were brought to justice is another matter. A report to Sultan Mehmed VI accused over 130 suspects, most of whom were high officials.
The Court Martial declares, unanimously, the culpability as principal factors of these crimes the fugitives Talat Pasha, former Grand Vizir, Enver Efendi, former War Minister, struck off the register of the Imperial Army, Cemal Efendi, former Navy Minister, struck off from the Imperial Army, and Dr. Nazim Efendi, former Minister of Education, members of the General Council of the Union & Progress, representing the moral person of that party;… the Court Martial pronounces, in accordance with said stipulations of the Law the death penalty against Talat, Enver, Cemal, and Dr. Nazim.
—Turkish Courts-Martial of 1919-20
The term Three Pashas, which include Mehmed Talat Pasha and Ismail Enver, refers to the triumvirate who had fled the Empire at the end of World War I. At the trials in Constantinople in 1919 they were sentenced to death in absentia. The courts-martial officially disbanded the CUP and confiscated its assets, and the assets of those found guilty. At least two of the three were later assassinated by Armenian vigilantes. On March 15, 1921, former Grand Vizier Talat Pasha was assassinated in the Charlottenburg District of Berlin, Germany, in broad daylight and in the presence of many witnesses. Talat's death was part of "Operation Nemesis," the Armenian Revolutionary Federation's codename for their covert operation in the 1920s to kill the planners of the Armenian Genocide.
So these were the events that President Barack Obama, for political reasons, chose to not observe as genocide. The reader is left to make up his own mind as to whether this was genocide or not.
This eyewitness account appears in: Morgenthau, Henry, Ambassador Morgenthau's Story (1918); Miller, William, The Ottoman Empire and its Successors 1801-1927 (1936).
"The Massacre of the Armenians, 1915 " EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2008).