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Armenia/Turkey: 1915 Massacre Under Spotlight At Czech Conference

A scene from the 1915-16 tragedy (epa) Armenia's deputy foreign minister on April 4 described the Turkish-Armenian border as the last vestige of the Iron Curtain that once divided Europe. To this day, the border remains firmly closed. Arman Kirokisyan was speaking at an international conference in Prague organized by the Czech parliament on the Armenian massacre of 1915-16. Ninety years after the killings and mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians from eastern Turkey by Ottoman troops, the Turkish government continues to deny a genocide ever happened. The issue threatens to become a major stumbling block on the path to Turkey's entry into the European Union.

PRAGUE, 5 April, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The dissonance between the high baroque hallways of the Czech parliament building and the horror depicted in the black and white images that hung from their walls this week could scarcely have been more stark.

The faded photographs showed a nation in flight, charred bodies by the side of the road, severed heads on pikes held by grinning guards, clusters of skeletal figures abandoned in the Mesopotamian desert, orphaned children wide-eyed with fear. In short, a people tormented, slaughtered, humiliated, and starved.

Horrific By Any Name

Call it what you will: genocide, mass murder or, as the Turkish government would have it, plain simple deportation, the deaths of so many Armenians in 1915-16 have come to be seen as one of the defining horrors of 20th century history.

The photographs were there for an international conference organized by the Czech parliament entitled "The Armenian Genocide."

It was not so much a debate as part of the concerted effort being made to put pressure on the Turkish government to apologize to the Armenian people for the tragedy of 90 years ago.

The deaths of so many Armenians in 1915-16 have come to be seen as one of the defining horrors of 20th century history.

There was no one present to put forth the official Turkish argument that the Armenians were deported in 1915 during World War I because their pro-Russian sympathies made them a security risk.

German academic Dr. Tessa Hofmann set the tone.

"We have to be very aware that if a country is not pushed forward as Germany was after the Second World War by the victorious allies nothing really happens," Hofmann said. "And therefore the question about Turkey's entry into the European Union. My conviction is that Turkey first of all has to give freedom of speech, research, and opinion to deal with its past."

Awareness Effort

Hofmann said that the taboo on speaking about the Armenian massacres in Turkey was acting like a cancer in the country, spreading more taboos and acting like a brake on the development of civil society.

Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Arman Kirakosyan readily agreed with that, although he added that he saw cause for optimism in the changing face of Turkish society.

"We will have in fact in 10 years, in 15 years, a more modern Turkey and we hope that this Turkey will recognize what happened in the past," Kirokasyan said. "They have to tell just sorry for what our grandfathers did and just let us live together."

But in the meantime, he said, the past lingered on in Turkey's refusal to open diplomatic relations with Armenia and its blockade of the Turkish-Armenian border:

"The Armenian-Turkish border is remaining as the last Iron Curtain," Kirokasyan said. "The walls fell down after the fall of the Soviet Union and communism but still we have closed border and we have a closed border with a country who is willing to become a member of free Europe. It's not a normal thing."

Calls For Apology

There was no one to put the official Turkish point of view, but Yeldag Ozcan, a Turkish emigre writer on minority rights in Turkey, said she welcomed the pressure from the EU for Turkey to cast light on the dark corners of its past. More people were now beginning to discuss the Armenian issue and other taboos. But, she said, Turkey needed to go much further.

"The Armenian-Turkish border is remaining as the last Iron Curtain. The walls fell down after the fall of the Soviet Union and communism but still we have closed border." -- Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Kirakosyan

"I think there cannot be a dialogue [with the Armenians] without an apology." Ozcan said. "We cannot start a dialogue as if nothing has happened. First we have to admit that we and our ancestors are the guilty side, we have to accept there was a crime. We have to apologize and then we can start a dialogue."

Like all the speakers, Hofmann agreed with that, but went a stage further, recalling that the Armenian tragedy of 1915-16 played a major part in persuading the international community to act against crimes against humanity.

"Without the genocide, there would not be a UN Convention and, further on, there would not be a permanent tribunal of the United Nations," Hofmann said. "You can say that 100 years of time and reaction is a slow speed but, on the other hand, there was a reaction and we can only hope that the punishment of genocide will lead to prevention."

Examining History

Examining History

CALL IT GENOCIDE? Questions surrounding the mass killings of Armenians at the beginning of the last century continue to dominate relations between Armenia and Turkey. In April, Ankara proposed conducting a joint Armenian-Turkish investigation into the mass killings and deportations of Armenians during World War I.
Turkish leaders suggested that the two countries set up a joint commission of historians to determine whether the massacres carried out between 1915 and 1917 constituted genocide. Armenia, however, insisted it would continue to seek international recognition and condemnation of what it says was a deliberate attempt at exterminating an entire people....(more)

See also:

Armenians Mark 90th Anniversary Of Start Of Massacres

Armenia: Tragedy Remains On Europe’s Political Map

ARCHIVE: For a complete archive of RFE/RL's coverage of Armenia, click here.

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