Friday, April 24, 2015

The Death March: Started 100 years ago today

As Aussies and Kiwis focus on ANZAC Day at present, it tends to overshadow an event, conventionally thought to have started today, a century ago, that is not as widely known as it should have been, not least because the land upon which it happened is, by and large, in complete denial of it.  The Governments of Australia and New Zealand, maintain this, presumably for convenience of trade with Turkey.  

That fact is an utter disgrace, and I give a rare credit to the Green Party for seeking to change this.

The Ottoman Empire was in trouble, the Great War, as it was then, was not going its way, and the Empire thought it had found one of the chief reasons, its scapegoat was the Armenians living in what is now Turkey, primarily because it saw Armenians as allied to Russia (which had often sided against discrimination and persecution of Armenians over previous centuries).  

There had been a history of periodic oppression of Armenians under Ottoman rule, as Armenians periodically rebelled against the inequality of treatment of the Ottoman state.  However, the catalyst for the events of a century ago came from the defeats of the Ottoman Empire in eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims fled from the Balkans to live in what is now Turkey, in what were predominantly Armenian areas.  These impoverished Muslims (who left many killed from war) were disenchanted by the relative comfort of the Armenian population, so a twin legacy of economic envy and "fifth column" fears emerged.  As Ottoman Muslims found it difficult to encourage Ottoman Armenians to turn against Armenians in Russia (which it was at war with), and there was genuine fear that Armenians would turn to fight with the Russians.

Armenian conscripts in the Ottoman army were demobilised, out of fear that they would switch sides. Their weapons were removed, and so it began.

Jevdet Bey, Governor of the Vilayet of Van, ordered 4000 Armenians to "volunteer" to defend the area from Russian attack, but the Armenians feared he would repeat his actions in villages of massacring Armenian men.  So they formed a self defence force, to protect a single square kilometre of the town of Algestan successfully.  On the night of the 23rd of April, the Ottoman Government rounded up 250 intellectuals and Armenian community leaders in Constantinople, and were moved to holding centres in Ankara, from where they were subsequently deported or executed.  In May, one of the triumvirate who ruled the Empire, Mehmed Talaat Pasha, ordered the deportation of Armenians.

Subsequently, Armenian property was confiscated, and hundreds of thousands of Armenians were forced at gunpoint, to leave their homes and businesses, and the towns and cities where they lived. Many were sent to march to Deir ez-Zor, in what is now Syria, crossing desert to get there.   Many starved or dehydrated in the process.  Some were shipped by rail, in a manner reminiscent to what the Nazis would replicate across Europe 25 years later. 

It was not just men of military age, but all men, women and children.  The soldiers had full carte-blanche to do as they saw fit, so in Damascus some would display women naked and sell them as chattels.  25 concentration camps had been set up to take the Armenians, where they were provided with woefully little rations in the way of food and virtually no medical attention. 

There are reports of villages being razed, with the inhabitants burned to death,  Estimates of the numbers killed range from the high hundreds of thousands to 1.5 million.  Raymond Ibrahim in The Commentator writes of the atrocities committed, saying they are not unsimilar to the actions of ISIS today, on some of the same territory.  

Turkey today denies that there was genocide, merely that Armenia collaborators with Russia were killed in war, and that the deportation wasn't forced killing, but that there was merely some starvation.  This continued obfuscation may reflect intense nationalistic pride, but it doesn't reflect evidence.  It is clear that, for a combination of historic bigotry and genuine military concern over allegiance, that the Ottoman's decided to remove Armenians from their country, not just without compensation, but in a manner than ensured many would die.

The continued denial by Turkey should shame its government, as it feeds into bigotry by some Turks against Armenians.  What's a further disgrace is that Barack Obama, even after campaigning about recognising the Armenian genocide, refuses to call it that as President. The continued obfuscation of the US President (if not Congress), and the governments of many countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and a more nuanced (gutless) position from the UK, and of course (just to show the humanity of Islam and its  opposition to Muslim led slaughter of non-Muslims) the only Muslim majority countries to recognise it are Lebanon and Syria.  

Some Armenians think that the commemoration of the events at Gallipoli are intended to take attention away from what happened to their ancestors.  I don't believe this is at all true for almost everyone who is involved in them, but it is important that we remember and note what happened.

Today, the country of Armenia is a small fraction of the territory that was Armenian dominated, and essentially represents the territory Russia won from the Ottoman Empire, minus that which it administratively carved up into other Soviet Socialist Republics.  Notably, a large Armenian enclave remains in Azerbaijan, where a sectarian conflict has periodically raged since independence of both countries.

The genocide of Armenians helped inspire the Holocaust.  It has also helped inspire Islamic State.  It is only right that today, we spend a moment to learn and remember what was done, because of their nationality and religion, to hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  It isn't about "shaming" Turkey.  It is about not forgetting when states wage the worst act any of them can do - to torture and slaughter there own people, for the crime of simply existing.

Starving child victims of the genocide of Armenians

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