Words || Gayaneh Michaelian
On April 24th, 1915, over 200 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities. This wasn’t the first time Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had been targeted. Less than two decades before that Sultan Hamid II had orchestrated the massacre of over 300,000 Armenians.
The Ottoman Empire had always been paranoid of its Christian minorities. Having already lost Greece, and in the midst of a revolt in the Balkans, a power struggle saw the Sultanate overthrown by a nationalist group that sought to restore the supremacy of the Turkish nation – The Young Turks. As war with Europe erupted, the new rulers of Turkey turned their attention to eradicating any remaining threats from within; the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek people of Anatolia.
My great-grandfather became aware of what was happening when he returned from the markets one day to find Turkish officers in his village of Marash abduct an Armenian man and hang him from a bridge. In the following days, Ottoman Turkish solders swarmed the village to begin the process of ‘relocating’ civilians in the line of war.
My grandfather’s eldest sister was married and lived not far from their family home. He would often visit her when his father and brother were working during the day. One day, on his way home, he noticed a caravan of Armenians walking out of their village of Marash – directed by Ottoman soldiers on horseback. Worried, he ran home in panic to find his family. He never forgot the sight of his mother’s and two sisters’ lifeless bodies on the ground of their living room.
Later that day, my grandfather, his father, brother and sister were corralled by Turkish soldiers. They were not given any answers, they were not allowed to return to their homes.
This is how it began. Our leaders were arrested and our fathers and brothers were forced to fight. Those remaining, including women and children, were forcefully relocated. Those who resisted were killed.
But the relocation was just a front. In reality, Armenians from across Turkey were forced to march through the Syrian Desert without food or water. The faint hope that safety awaited on the other side grew dim by the day, as it became clear that the Ottoman authorities had no intention to see them live. My grandfather told stories of how they would walk through the day for hours on end with no rest. How the elderly, pregnant and infirm would collapse from exhaustion under the blistering sun and left to die.
Every few days, the soldiers would stop the march to welcome cars of wealthy men. There they would buy Armenian girls who would serve as maids to wealthy Turkish families. Daughters were ripped from their mothers’ arms, and when the transactions were complete the march would continue.
After months of the endless march, my great-grandfather fell ill from fatigue. He was taken to a camp infirmary where a Turkish doctor promised to cure him. He was pronounced dead by the same doctor just hours later. He had been administered a lethal injection.
Now orphans, my grandfather and his siblings were forced from camp to camp, witnessing their countrymen fall to the savagery of an unrelenting regime. But they were lucky. When the opportunity presented itself, they fled to Jerusalem where they lived before migrating to Sydney with seven children between them in 1969.
On the even of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli, the Ottoman Government began the systematic extermination of the Christian Armenian, Assyrian and Greek minorities in the historical land.
Anzacs taken as prisoners of war by Ottoman Turkish were witness to many of the crimes perpetrated against the country’s Armenian minority. They were detained in desecrated churches of confiscated homes once used by the Armenian people. Captain Thomas Walter White, a pilot in the Australian Flying Corps, was one such Australian. He was taken to the Armenian Church in Aflon Karahissar, a town in Western Turkey, where he observed destitute women and children sitting outside on bundles of clothing.
‘They looked sad and miserable, and little wonder, for their menfolk had bene killed, their houses and furniture confiscated, and now they were being turned into the street from their last possible sanctuary,’ he recalled.
It was thanks to the Anzacs that the suffering of the Armenian people did not go unnoticed in Australia. Newspapers across the country published hundreds of reports on the plight of the starving Armenians, massacred in droves. In response, Armenian Relief Funds were set up throughout Australia. The first was set up by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sir David Hennessey, together with other prominent Victorians.
By 1918, Armenian relief committees had been formed in Sydney and Adelaide. By 1922, relief committees were operating in every state. The committees founded the Australasian Orphanage in Antelias Lebanon, housing 1,700 Armenian orphans who had survived the genocide. Over $1.5 million in today’s terms worth of relief supplies were shipped to Armenian refugees in the Middle East. Australia’s Prime Minister at the time, Billy Hughes, even provided Commonwealth Steamers (and ensured free freight) to supply relief goods.
103 years ago, Ottoman Turkey began what would later be termed genocide against the Armenians of Anatolia – a systematic attempt to eradicate a group on the basis of nothing more than ethnicity.
103 years ago, Australia helped the victims of genocide – providing them with food, clothing, housing, and financial assistance that ensured the survival of an entire nation.
I doubt that the likes of Billy Hughes, Sir David Hennessey, Captain Thomas Walter White, or any of our brave Anzacs who fought in the Gallipoli campaign and witnessed the Ottoman regime’s barbarism would have expected that 103 years later their government would refuse to recognise the severity of that great crime.
I doubt that those heroic men prepared to sacrifice their lives for their country would have stood for the cowardice of the Australian government’s appeasement of Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the current Turkish President – dragging Turkey back into the Ottoman-esque autocracy they once fought against.
My grandfather’s story of survival is one of many. For those of us fortunate to have survived, we have a duty to not just remember – but to act. To act to ensure that the crime of genocide is never repeated. But that cannot begin without recognition.
In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acknowledged the role of past Australian governments in their abduction and abuse of Indigenous Children, apologising to the Stolen Generations in 2007 to “take the first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. A future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.”
But those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Today, the Turkish government targets its Kurdish people – arresting their political leaders, attacking their communities, silencing their media all in the name of national security.
There will come a day where the Turkish Government will follow the example of the Australian Government and acknowledge the atrocities perpetrated by their predecessors. But that cannot happen while people and nations – including Australia – appease and facilitate denial in Turkey.
In honour of my grandfather, Haroutioun Tcherkezian, and all the innocent victims of the Armenian Genocide.