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Turkey: Village Survived The Century's First Mass Ethnic Expulsion

  • Jolyon Naegele

Vakifli Koyu, Turkey; 27 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's last surviving Armenian village -- Vakif -- or in Turkish, Vakifli Koyu, is perched on the southern slope of Musa Dagh, or Mount Moses, overlooking the Mediterranean and within eyesight of the Syrian border. Orange and mandarin groves circle the village. The air is pungent with jasmine.

Coming upon this community of 135 ethnic Armenians in Turkey, the visitor has the odd feeling of having found the last Mohican somewhere in the wilds of New York's Central Park, or a Jewish shtetl in contemporary Poland, or an Azerbaijani village in today's Nagorno-Karabakh.

Vakif is unique in that it survived the century's first mass ethnic expulsion -- not because it was overlooked but because its inhabitants beat the odds and resisted their oppressors until help arrived. Although the inhabitants were forced to evacuate, they came home once it was safe to do so and stayed.

In 1915, Turkish authorities ordered that all Armenians be expelled into the Syrian desert. Armenian and Turkish historians disagree over how many were killed in the expulsions. Turkish historians put the figure at 200,000, while Armenians say up to 10 times that number died.

Dutch historian Erik Zuercher, in his "Modern History of Turkey," says the death toll is probably 600,000 to 800,000. He says the reason for the discrepancy, propaganda apart, lies in differing estimates of the number of Armenians who lived in the empire before the war and the numbers who emigrated. Up to two million Armenians are believed to have inhabited Ottoman Turkey at the outbreak of the first World War, but by the end of the war, there were no more than 100,000 left, mainly in Istanbul and other parts of western Turkey.

The inhabitants of six villages on the slopes of Musa Dagh, Vakif among them, chose to resist in 1915 and set up fortifications on the mountain. For 53 days they repelled onslaughts by Turkish troops until French sailors sighted a banner the Armenians had tied to a tree on the mountain emblazoned with the words: "Christians in Distress: Rescue." French and British naval ships then evacuated some 4,200 men, women and children from Musa Dagh to Port Said in Egypt.

The Prague-born Viennese writer Franz Werfel wrote a stirring novel in 1933 based on this resistance: "The 40 days of Musa Dagh." Werfel took the liberty of changing certain details to give the story biblical dimensions -- 53 days became 40 days, and six villages became seven villages.

After the World War I, Musa Dagh and the surrounding province of Hatay became part of French-administered Syria. The end of Turkish administration in the area enabled the Armenian inhabitants to resettle their six villages on the slopes of Musa Dagh.

But following an agreement between France and Turkey and a controversial referendum, the district reverted to Turkey in 1939, a move still not recognized by Syria.

Some 5,000 of Musa Dagh's Armenians fled Hatay once again with the help of the French navy, this time settling in Lebanon's Bekaa valley.

There, they built the town of Anjar, naming its six wards after the six villages of Musa Dagh (Vakif, Haji Hababli, Kabusia, Khdr Bek, Yoghun Oluk, and Bitias). Disease and malnutrition took the lives of many of the new settlers in the first months of their arrival. Many more have since fled Lebanon's civil war and fighting in the Bekaa valley.

Anjar is currently home to some 2,400 Armenians.

They and their brethren now living in the diaspora have established an internet web page, complete with local folk music including a song (written and composed by Yessai Markarian) about the exodus from Musa Dagh and the hardships they faced in Anjar:

But others stayed in Vakif. Today, it is a peaceful farming community and is quite prosperous, judging by its homes, cars and tidy appearance. In addition to Armenians, Vakif is home to one Kurd and one Turkish Muslim family.

The village church has recently been reconstructed and expanded. A plaque on the wall says the church was renovated in 1994-97 with assistance from the Turkish government.

The day this reporter visited Vakif, the mayor was just leaving and had no time to talk. The priest was away ministering to the Armenian community in nearby Antakya, where he spends every other week meeting with 35 Armenian families there. But Bedros Kehyroglu, a local farmer who helps look after the parish office and church, had time to talk.

He says the Armenian community in Vakif enjoys "100 percent autonomy." In his words, "since there is democracy in Turkey, the government lets the people manage the village themselves." He says the Armenian community is not under any pressure from political parties and points out it was under the pro-Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party that Ankara subsidized reconstruction of the church.

He says villagers speak Turkish in public and an Armenian dialect at home. As he puts it, "when we are in the village, we speak Armenian." He says he's not very fluent in Armenian, but that he cannot deny that he is an Armenian. He adds, "a person who denies his identity cannot be trusted."

He and other villagers of Vakif say they have virtually no contact with the Musa Dagh Armenian diaspora, which in addition to Lebanon is spread out over Austria, Britain, France, Canada, the U.S., Venezuela, and Australia.

"We have no contact with Armenians in the diaspora, just with some villagers who work in Europe and come home on vacation -- and with the Armenians in Istanbul."

Busloads of Armenian residents of Istanbul, of whom there are several thousand, pay visits to Vakif and Antakya. Nearly 100 came last month with the patriarch, crowding into the church for a service and then spending their time playing backgammon in the local teahouse.

Vakif's Armenians are undergoing gradual linguistic assimilation by the Turkish majority. While the older generation can read and write in Armenian, most members of the younger generation cannot.

Those who want to learn Armenian have to go to an Armenian boarding school in Istanbul, where they are taught in Turkish but attend lessons in Armenian as a foreign language.

The ethnic Armenian owner of the teahouse in Vakif and a nearby beach hotel, Garbis Kus, says although his mother tongue is Armenian, he can't speak or write in Armenian. As a child, he attended the local Turkish school.

When asked if he has a message for the Armenian diaspora, Kus responds in a way that reveals the politically delicate position of this isolated community:

"There are Armenians in different places, but everyone lives his own life so we have no connections with the others living elsewhere."

He made the remark in Turkish and declined to do so in Armenian.

Arab and Kurdish inhabitants of nearby villages are in a similar predicament because of difficult relations between Ankara and Syria as well as constitutional restrictions. Insurgents of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) occasionally cross into Turkey from bases in Syria. Posters for alleged PKK terrorists are plastered all over Antakya and Samandag and truckloads of security troops are a frequent site.

All school instruction, news media, and public signs are in Turkish as prescribed by the Turkish Constitution of 1982, which was imposed by the military before it returned the country to civilian rule. Article 42 stipulates that "no language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education." An additional clause says foreign language instruction shall be regulated by law.

The last Armenians on the slopes of Musa Dagh face an uncertain future as they gradually lose the ability to communicate in their mother tongue and are assimilated into the Turkish mainstream. Their lifeline remains as a holiday retreat for Istanbuls insular Armenian community.