ARMENIAN DESCENDANTS EMERGE FROM SHADOWS

TIM ROBEY, DAILY TELEGRAPHMore from Tim Robey, Daily Telegraph
Published on: April 24, 2015 Last Updated: April 24, 2015 7:55 AM EDT

The diary of Mkhitar Haroutunian, centre in photograph, written during
World War One recounting the experiences of Armenians at the hands
of Ottoman soldiers, displayed at L'Ecole Armenienne Sourp Hagop in
Montreal on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette SHAREADJUSTCOMMENTPRINT

Eastern Turkey

A century after their forefathers were murdered, a hidden people are
coming out of the shadows.

Descendants of the Armenians killed in the hundreds of thousands
as the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the First World War, they are
revealing themselves to their neighbours and startled historians,
encouraged by the ever-changing shifts of Middle Eastern politics.

Virtually all grew up as Muslims, after their grandparents converted
from the Armenian Orthodox faith or married to escape persecution.

Hardly any speak Armenian and in many cases it was only on reaching
adulthood that their parents even dared to pass on the knowledge of
their ancestry.

"Until I was 18, I didn't know anything about anything Armenian,"
said one such woman, Guzide Diker, who grew up speaking Kurdish in a
village in eastern Turkey. Like the rest of the family and everyone
else in the area, she was brought up to be Muslim. Knowledge of the
region's long Armenian history in some places disappeared within two
generations. "When I was 18, my older brother called me and with my
mother told me I could choose what religion I wanted," she said.

Today, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the
Armenian Genocide, as descendants insist on calling it, despite fierce
opposition from the Turkish government. April 24, 1915, was the date
the Ottoman authorities rounded up Armenian leaders in Istanbul,
accusing them of conspiring with the western allies and Russia.

There followed an onslaught of unprecedented proportions as the empire
tried to expel the entire Armenian population, numbering several
million. In the east, where most lived, soldiers and Kurdish gangs --
many of them bandits released from prison for the purpose -- ambushed
the long trails of humanity being herded into the Syrian deserts
to the south, shooting and bayonetting as many men as they could,
with countless women and children, too.

"My father was four, and saw five men spear his mother to death in
front of him," said Aydan Tut, a taxi driver, who still carries his
father's identity card showing his grandfather's Armenian name. "He
was saved by two Kurds on horseback who came and rescued him, saying
the child should be spared."

Those Kurds brought up the Armenian orphan as their own.

People lay flowers at the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial
in Yerevan on April 21, 2015.

KAREN MINASYAN / AFP/Getty Images

The diaspora's historians say 1.5 million died. Those who survived the
killings and the starvation that followed scattered, some to Syrian
cities -- where they remain, suffering new attacks in that nation's
civil war -- some to what became Soviet Armenia, some to the West.

A handful of families remained fearfully in the larger cities of
eastern Turkey, such as Diyarbakir, but in an atmosphere of hostility
between Turks and Kurds, and toward Christian minorities, they
gradually dissipated, too. A decade ago, only one elderly Armenian
couple survived and claimed their Christian heritage in Diyarbakir,
the largest Kurdish city in the country.

But then the politics changed again. As the Kurds emerged from decades
of their own struggles with the Turkish government, they acquired more
autonomy and their leaders announced that they saw the Armenians,
with their long history of persecution even before 1915, as fellow
victims of Turkish nationalism, rather than an enemy within.

The decision, made by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdish
guerrilla force the PKK, has begun a profound shift in attitudes.

In a meeting in the town of Bitlis on Sunday to introduce a visiting
delegation of Armenians from around the world to representatives
of the Kurdish communities that killed their forebears, one Kurdish
former mayor, Behvad Serefhangder, stood to make his own declaration
of responsibility.

He said he had been brought up on tales of how local Kurds had ambushed
a column of 600 men, tied them up and burned them to death.

The same story is recorded in the accounts of survivors held in the
modern Armenian capital, Yerevan. Now, he said, he wanted to open up
his home to Armenians -- it was a home his father had bought from a
man who had seized it from the Armenians he had killed. Opening up
the past in this fashion remains a sensitive matter, particularly in
an impoverished region. Some "hidden" Armenians, including Tut, have
begun legal cases to have the lands their families owned returned --
the Armenians were generally richer than the sometimes nomadic Kurds,
and plunder was a major motivation for the attacks.

If I walk down the street even now, 100 people will call me names.

This is how it is. -- Yavuz Kaya

Fear of having property taken away is a potent weapon for Turkey's
ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, which has allowed
greater autonomy for Kurdish politics but has also become the main
rival for votes for the Kurdish parties.

In the small town of Mutki, near Bitlis, the visiting Armenians,
led by Ara Sarafian, a British-Armenian historian, toured a hillside
quarter that remains home to 300 descendants of just three survivors
of the massacres. The group was welcomed by the local Kurdish mayor,
while Onur Ay, a part Armenian, part Kurdish local lawyer, showed
off the ruined house where he had been born.

Other "hidden Armenians" remained hidden, though, not coming out of
their houses. When the party had gone, some younger men emerged to
say that even now, and even though they might be three quarters or
seven eighths Kurdish, old hostilities remained.

The aggression toward Armenians did not stop with the end of the
massacres. They sat and listened to the tale of Bogas Tomasian, a
full Armenian whose grandfather survived a massacre nearby because he
was the village ox-yoke maker, and who said that growing up Armenian
as a child meant constant bullying and violence. His family finally
fled in 1963 and he now lives in Switzerland.

Onur Ay's relations, when they did agree to talk, suggested that
things had not changed much. "Even today, there is still a social
stigma," said Yavuz Kaya, the local headman. "As you can clearly see,
of 300-400 of us, only a few youngsters have appeared to speak. The
others are still too scared to embrace their Armenian identity.

"We are constantly humiliated. If I walk down the street even now,
100 people will call me names. This is how it is."

The Armenians are coming out -- there may be a million or more people
in Turkey with Armenian ancestry. But it is still a slow process.

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From: Baghdasarian