ANKARA, Turkey (A.W.)—On April 24, as genocide commemoration events were being held one after the other in different locations in Istanbul, a groundbreaking two-day conference on the Armenian Genocide began at the Princess Hotel in Ankara.
The conference, organized by the Ankara Freedom of Thought Initiative, was held under tight security measures. The hall was thoroughly searched on both mornings by policemen and security dogs; metal detectors were installed at the entrance of the hotel; and all members of the audience had to be cleared by the organizers before entering. Unlike the commemoration events in Istanbul, however, no counter-demonstrations were allowed to materialize.
The conference attracted around 200 attendees, mostly activists and intellectuals who support genocide recognition. Among the prominent names from Turkey were Ismail Besikci, Baskin Oran, Sevan Nishanian, Ragip Zarakolu, Temel Demirer, and Sait Cetinoglu.
Besikci was the first in Turkey to write books about the Kurds “at a time when others did not even dare to use the ‘K’ word,” as one Turkish scholar put it. Besikci spent years in Turkish prison for his writings. Oran is a professor of political science. He was one of the initiators of the apology campaign launched by Turkish intellectuals. Nishanian is a Turkish-Armenian scholar who has authored several books and also writes for Agos. Zarakolu is a publisher who has been at the forefront of the struggle for Armenian Genocide recognition in Turkey with the books he has published over the years. Demirer is an author who has been prosecuted for his daring writings and speeches. Cetinoglu is a scholar and activist, and was one of the key organizers of the conference.
The foreign scholars and activists who were scheduled to speak were David Gaunt (genocide scholar, author of Massacres, Resistance, Protectors: Muslim-Christian Relations in Eastern Anatolia During World War I), Henry Theriault (professor of philosophy, Worcester State University), Khatchig Mouradian (doctoral student in Holocaust and genocide studies, Clark University; editor, the Armenian Weekly), Harry Parsekian (president of Friends of Hrant Dink in Boston), and Eilian Williams (writer and activist from Wales). All except for Gaunt spoke on the panel dealing with “The Armenian Issue: What is to be done and how?”
Reparations: Unjust or Indispensable?
That panel, which proved to be the most controversial, also featured Nishanian, Zarakolu, and Demirer, and turned out into a debate on reparations for the Armenian Genocide with all the panelists, as well as Oran and others from the audience, pitching in.
Mouradian spoke about the importance of reframing the discourse in Turkey and dealing with the Armenian Genocide issue not only from the perspective of democracy and freedom of speech, but also that of justice. He dealt with the concepts of apology and restitution.
Theriault, in turn, said, “Turkey must return or compensate for all expropriated property. It should return land and other wealth, including Armenian Church properties, when that wealth has been preserved.” He noted that Turkey should also compensate for (1) all destroyed property and wealth that is otherwise no longer accessible, (2) the interest that can be calculated on the original material losses, (3) slave labor, (4) the pain and suffering of those who died and all who survived, (5) the loss of 1.5 million people in general and as specific family and community members, and (6) the loss of cultural, religious, and educational institutions and opportunities.
Nishanian categorically dismissed Theriault’s demands for reparations, considering them a dead-end, and noting that such an approach is unjust, unacceptable, and would open the door for further conflict. Demirer, in a brilliant intervention, provided a scathing response to Nishanian, arguing powerfully for reparations. Williams, too, spoke in support of reparations.
Armenian property and the historical context
The panel on “abandoned” Armenian properties also generated a lot of interest. It featured scholars and writers Asli Comu, Nevzat Onaran, Mehmet Palatel (whose MA dissertation is on the confiscation of Armenian property), and Cemil Ertem.
The panel on “Official ideological denial and extirpation from the Committee of Union and Progress to Kemalism” featured scholars Osman Ozarslan and Tuma Celik, as well as Cetinoglu and Besikci.
The panel on the Armenian Genocide from a historical perspective featured Adil Okay, Nahir Sayin, and Oran. Gaunt was scheduled to speak on this panel but could not attend.
The representatives of the organizations supporting the conference spoke at the last session.
Significance of the conference
It was the first time that a conference on the Armenian Genocide that did not host any genocide deniers was held in Ankara. Moreover, the conference did not simply deal with the historical aspect of 1915. For the first time in Turkey, a substantial part of the proceedings was dedicated to topics such as confiscated Armenian property, reparations, and the challenges of moving forward and confronting the past in Turkey.