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    North Shore Sunday, MA
    April 29 2006

    See no evil

    By Barbara Taormina/ Staff Writer
    Friday, April 28, 2006 - Updated: 07:01 PM EST

    People might not always know how to define genocide, but they know it
    when they see it.

    And yet, there have always been problems with the Armenian
    genocide, a brutal stretch of early 20th century history during which
    1.5 million Armenians were beaten, shot, hung and herded on long
    death marches into the Syrian desert by a Turkish government bent on
    seizing a strategic piece of land and creating a Pan-Turkish empire.

    Armenian genocide

    The Turks talk back

    The Turks say it never happened. They admit the Armenians
    suffered a huge death toll between 1915 and 1918, but they say the
    deaths were due to a civil rebellion and the vast destruction left in
    the wake of World War I. Despite the photographs, the news reports,
    the eyewitness accounts and the stories of survivors, the Turks have
    fought the charge of genocide since the United Nations accepted the
    term and declared it an international crime in 1948.

    Those denials were stepped up last week as Armenians the world
    over held commemorative services to mark the 91st anniversary of the
    genocide and to remember those who died and those who survived. And
    in Massachusetts, people are watching the debate on the Armenian
    genocide play out on a local, state and federal level.

    Apo Torosyan, an Armenian artist and filmmaker who now lives in
    Peabody, says Turkey has buried the truth of what happened to the
    Armenians because they don't want the national stigma.

    "They are trying to cover up their shame," says Torosyan, whose
    grandparents died of starvation during the genocide. "I would be very
    ashamed. This was a very systematic murder."

    Torosyan and others also feel the Turkish government is
    determined not to acknowledge anything that could leave it open to a
    flood of lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in reparations.

    And because Turkey now plays a strategic role in a turbulent part
    of the world, few people, particularly those in the U.S. government,
    want to rock the boat by demanding that Turkey accept responsibility.

    Torosyan understands that politics have dictated how the story of
    the Armenian genocide is being told. But like others, he believes
    denial is the final act of any genocide. And like others he believes
    the truth about Armenia and those who died will eventually be
    acknowledged and accepted.

    The politics of denial

    As a kid, Mary Foley remembers people she didn't know would
    sometimes visit her home to talk with her parents.

    "My mother used to tell me go into the bedroom and play," recalls
    Foley, the sister of former Peabody Mayor Peter Torigian

    As she grew older, Foley realized the visitors were Armenian
    immigrants looking for clues or scraps of information about people
    who may have escaped Turkey and survived the genocide.

    Foley's father left Armenia for the United States in 1912, the
    year before the killings and deportations started. Her mother, who
    was a child at the time, lost her family and managed to survive with
    the help of Turkish families who took in and hid Armenian orphans.

    But those Turks who helped took a huge risk, says Foley. Homes
    were searched and if any Armenians were found, the entire household
    would be killed.

    Years later, when she was 94 and suffering from Alzheimer's
    disease, Foley says her mother would sometimes call out in Armenian,
    "They came, they came, they came." The tears would roll down her
    cheeks as she relived the terror of hiding from Turkish death squads.

    "These aren't stories that people can make up," says Foley. "How
    could the Turks deny these things happened?"

    But Foley knows that politics have interfered with the way
    history is being remembered and told. For years, American political
    leaders have been walking a fine line between acknowledging the
    suffering of the Armenians and placating the Turkish government by
    going easy on the blame. It's a difficult balancing act.

    Just ask Deval Patrick, a Democratic candidate for governor, who
    took a visible seat at an Armenian memorial service at the State
    House last week. Patrick made sure he had time to attend after the
    Boston Herald reported he had ties to lobbyist Bernie Robinson, whose
    Washington-based firm, the Livingston Group, has been working for the
    Republic of Turkey on its campaign to deny or downplay the Armenian

    According to the watchdog group Public Citizen, the Turks have paid
    the Livingston Group more than $9 million to fight a congressional
    amendment recognizing the Armenian genocide and to help steer $1
    billion in U.S. aid to Turkey, even though American troops are barred
    from using Turkish soil as a staging area for Iraq.

    Patrick's Democratic opponent Tom Reilly wasted no time racking
    up a few political miles with the incident.

    "Anyone who would try and undermine the history and the truth of
    what happened to the Armenian population, I certainly would be
    disappointed in that. I certainly would not want to have anything to
    do with that," Reilly said.

    On a national level, the Armenian sidestepping has been
    bi-partisan. Both presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush have
    refused to sign on to the Armenian Genocide Resolution, which would
    formally recognize the suffering of the Armenians.

    "There are congressmen and senators who support the Armenian
    people," says Foley. "But on the whole, America likes to ignore it
    because the Turks have been allies for many years."

    Not only did the United States have military bases in Turkey
    during the Cold War, the country's strategic location and its role as
    a moderate Muslim country make it a critical ally to American
    interests in the Middle East.

    "It's wrong, but no one want to make enemies of the Turks," says

    And while the American stand against acknowledging the Armenian
    genocide is difficult, Torosyan says it's not only the national
    response that Armenians find troubling.

    Israel, which also depends on alliance with Turkey, has also
    refused to formally recognize the genocide, says Torosyan.

    The Israeli position has been that the question of the Armenians
    should be left to the historians, not the politicians.

    Spinning the story

    Denying or rewriting history takes some effort, but it seems the
    Turks are doing their best and succeeding, at least inside of Turkey.

    "This history has been fabricated by the Turkish government,"
    says Torosyan. "Their history has been written by the politicians,
    not the historians. They are rewriting history to their own benefit,
    not to the benefit of humanity."

    According to Torosyan, the Turkish government archives have been
    purged and all documents that trace the official program of
    deportation and killing are gone.

    "It's like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces in the middle are
    missing," says Torosyan. "There are a few pieces on the sides, but
    that's all that's left."

    As for events that captured the world's attention, the Turkish
    government has done its best to spin them. For example, the Turks say
    episodes during which Armenian professionals and intellectuals were
    rounded up and killed were a necessary step to quell an internal

    The Turks also brush off the post-war trials of those who led the
    Armenian genocide. Although several key Turkish leaders were tried
    and executed for their role in the Armenian genocide, the Turks now
    say those trials were political showmanship, the result of political
    infighting between the pre- and post-war government.

    And the Turks don't appear satisfied with rewriting just their
    own history books.

    Late last year, the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, a
    student and two teachers sued the Massachusetts Board of Education,
    claiming it had censored history and interfered with the right of
    speech. The state has curriculum guidelines for teaching students
    about human rights and genocide. But it has refused to include in its
    material links to Turkish government-sponsored Web sites that deny
    the Armenian genocide.

    According to Harvey Silverglate, a Boston civil rights lawyer
    representing the plaintiffs, the suit isn't about being on one side
    or the other - it's about censorship. Silverglate says students
    should be able to look at different historical sources and come to
    their own conclusions about what happened to the Armenians.

    Members of the state board of education have argued that the Web
    sites in question are not academic sites.

    Torosyan agrees and says those Web sites are just Turkish
    propaganda. He believes the information that has survived speaks for

    "Denials are denials," he says. "You could never have a
    curriculum that denies the Holocaust. People have a right to speak up
    and not tell lies and not tell man-made history."

    But Torosyan, who is a member of the International Association of
    Genocide Scholars, is also doing his part to contribute to the
    history through his artwork and through two short films, "Discovering
    My Father's Village - Edinick" and "Witness," both of which feature
    survivors of the Armenian genocide and an analysis of events.

    The Turkish government hasn't taken kindly to those who buck
    their trend of retelling the story. In recent years, there have been
    several high-profile cases of writers and journalists who have been
    imprisoned for publishing accounts of the Armenian genocide.

    Torosyan, who had a display of his artwork at the annual memorial
    service in Peabody for Holocaust survivors this week, explained the
    cost of telling his stories to those who stopped by his exhibit.

    "This," he said as he pointed to copies of his films, "is why I
    can never go back."

    Boston Herald report Kevin Rothstein contributed to this story.
    E-Mail Barbara Taormina at [email protected].