TUNCELI, TURKEY – They dropped their language and religion to survive after the 1915 genocide, but close to 100 years later, Turkey’s “hidden Armenians” want to take pride in their identity.
Some genocide survivors adopted Islam and blended in with the Kurds in eastern Turkey’s Dersim Mountains to avoid further persecution.
Several generations down the road, the town of Tunceli hosted a landmark ceremony Wednesday for Genocide Remembrance Day, something that has only ever happened in Istanbul and the large city of Diyarbakir.
The massacre and deportation of Ottoman Armenians during World War I, which Armenians claim left around 1.5 million dead, is described by many countries as genocide, though the Turkish government continues to reject the term.
Speaking in front of the ruins of Ergen church — one of the few remnants of Christian Armenian heritage in the region — Miran Pirginc Gultekin, president of the Dersim Armenian Association, explained it is still rare to declare oneself openly as Armenian in Turkey.
“We decided that we had to get back to our true nature, that this way of living was not satisfactory, that it was not fair to live with another’s identity and another’s faith,” he said.
Despite converting to Alevism, a heterodox sect of Islam, and taking Turkish names, the ethnic Armenians who stayed on their ancestral land suffered from continued discrimination and the elders often struggle to summon their memories.
“My mother told me how her family was deported. She was a baby at the time and her mother considered drowning her in despair,” said Tahire Aslanpencesi, an octogenarian from the village of Danaburan. “My mother used to say all the misery that came after would have been avoided had her mother drowned her.”.
After converting to Islam, many of the “crypto-Armenians” said they still face unfair treatment: Their land has been confiscated, the men humiliated with “circumcision checks” in the army and some have been tortured.
Hidir Boztas’ grandfather converted to Islam, gave his son a Turkish name and the clan intermarried with a Kurdish community in Alanyazi. “We feel Armenian nonetheless and in any case the others always remind us of where we come from. No matter how many of their daughters we marry, and how many of ours we give them, they will continue to call us Armenians,” he said.
The Armenian community shared the Kurds’ suffering when the regime cracked down on Kurdish rebellions, from the 1938 revolt to the insurrection started by the PKK group in 1984.
For a long time, only those who had left the ancestral homestead dared to make their Armenian roots known.
Human rights campaigners gathered Wednesday in downtown Istanbul carrying portraits of genocide victims.
They were only a handful, but they argued that the simple fact that such an event was authorized and groups such as theirs invited proved that attitudes were changing. “Ten years ago, such an event was impossible in Turkey,” said Benjamin Abtan,” a European activist.