‘I want for Armenians what I want for Kurds’: An interview with Mayor Abdullah Demirbas

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (A.W.)—Abdullah Demirbas is a man on a mission. The mayor of Diyarbakir’s central district strives to restore some of the city’s multi-cultural and multi-ethnic character through a series of initiatives to renovate places of worship, adopt multi-lingualism, and encourage those with roots in the city to return.

Baris Alen from the Diyarbakir metropolitan municipality, Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian, Mayor Abdullah Demirbas,Warwick, R.I. Mayor Scott Avedisian, and Weekly contributor George Aghjayan.

I sat down with Demirbas in his office in Diyarbakir on Oct. 23.

“For decades, we were told, ‘People [of different cultures] can’t live together, so we won’t tolerate difference, we will make them all the same,’” Demirbas laments. “Ours is an effort to restore what was lost during the state’s campaign to erase different identities, faiths, and cultures in the city.”

From the moment a visitor enters the city, signs of this multi-cultural approach manifest themselves, literally. Diyarbakir is the first city in Turkey to welcome its visitors with signs in Armenian.

“We could have done it in Turkish and Kurdish only. But these lands do not belong to the Turks and Kurds alone. They are also the lands of Armenians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans,” the Kurdish mayor explains.

These signs are not just for visitors, but constitute an effort to change mindsets. “We want the people living in the city to realize that historically, Diyarbakir has always been a multi-cultural city,” he notes.

More than 100,000 Armenians lived in the Diyarbakir province in 1914. Although mostly peasants living in villages like Palu and Lice, the majority of the tradesmen in the province were also Armenian. In turn, Armenian craftsmen and artisans constituted a significant presence in the province.

The Armenian Genocide shattered this vibrant community. Diyarbakir witnessed one of the most violent and comprehensive campaigns of massacre in the Ottoman Empire, with many Armenians being killed outside the city walls. The Armenian wealth was confiscated by the authorities and local elites and, within a few years, the centuries-old Armenian presence in the province was erased.

Demirbas does not mince his words when talking about the Armenian Genocide. “Our grandparents, incited by others, committed wrongs. But we, their grandchildren, will not repeat them. Not only that, but we will also not allow others to repeat them,” he says. “We learned from the past. Those lessons inform our actions in the present, and will continue informing them in the future.”

The mayor insists that he does not believe in “dry apologies,” but actions that demonstrate genuineness and sincerity. He sees the renovation of Surp Giragos as one manifestation of this approach. “Today, we are not simply asking for forgiveness in a dry fashion,” he notes. “I am a Kurd. And I want for Armenians what I want for the Kurds.”

“What is your message to the Armenians who were uprooted from their ancestral lands?” I ask him. He changes his posture, looks at me straight in the eyes, and says, “Return! At least come and find your homes and your lands. If you can find your old houses, renovate them! Have a home here too. This is your motherland. Other lands cannot and will not be your motherland. Come to your lands. We want to correct the past wrong. This is our message!”

Demirbas has suffered dearly for his initiatives and for being an outspoken critic of the Turkish state. Twenty-three lawsuits have been filed against him, he says, asking for 232 years of imprisonment. “I am the only mayor in Turkey who was forced out of his post. I was imprisoned for two years for my opinions and policies, but when I returned, I was re-elected with an even bigger margin,” he points out.

Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish region, promises to become an oasis of multi-culturalism in a desert of denial and oppressive policies. The strategy of embracing all cultures—as opposed to struggling solely for Kurdish autonomy and rights—could serve as an example for other Kurdish-dominated municipalities in the southeast.

Demirbas’s efforts are not lost on the international community. The European Union and the U.S. have encouraged Diyarbakir’s initiatives and restoration efforts. The EU provided a grant to highlight the city’s historic and cultural heritage. The U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, U.S. consuls in Istanbul and Adana, and embassy staff attended the Oct. 23 mass in Surp Giragos. The consuls also attended the consecration of the church the day before. “Our multi-cultural approach is in line with theirs,” the mayor notes.

The Turkish state, on the other hand, is far behind, argues Demirbas. “There was no representative from the state today [in Surp Giragos]. But they will come. They will have to. And it all depends on our struggle,” he says. “I was thrown in prison, my 16-year-old son has joined the PKK and is on the mountains, and [the state] will harass me again, they will imprison me again, even something worse might happen to me, but I act based on my convictions. And one day they, too, will come.”

avatar

Khatchig Mouradian

Khatchig Mouradian is a lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University, where he also heads the Armenian studies program. Mouradian’s first book, The Armenian Genocide and Resistance in Ottoman Syria during WWI, is forthcoming. Mouradian is also the author of articles on genocide, mass violence, unarmed resistance, and approaches to teaching history; the co-editor of a forthcoming book on late-Ottoman history; and the editor of the peer-reviewed journal The Armenian Review. His most recent publications include: “The Very Limit of our Endurance: Unarmed Resistance in Ottoman Syria during WWI,” in End of the Ottomans: The Genocide of 1915 and the Politics of Turkish Nationalism (London: I.B Tauris, 2019); and “Internment and Destruction: Concentration Camps during the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1916,” Internment during the First World War: A Mass Global Phenomenon (London: Routledge Studies in First World War History, 2018). Previously, Mouradian has taught courses on imperialism, mass violence, concentration camps, urban space and conflict in the Middle East, the aftermaths of war and mass violence, and human rights at Worcester State University, Clark University, Stockton University, Rutgers University, and California State University – Fresno.

19 Comments

  1. What an inspiring article.  My grandfather, who was orphaned in the Armenian Genocide, use to say that if only Armenians and Kurds could work together, then…  With courageous men such Abdullah Demirbas, it seems we now have a chance at my grandfather’s dream. 
    Some will say such a dream is naive, but really this dream is being made into a reality as evidenced by the renovation of Sourp Giragos.  Some 10 years ago I had the opportunity to visit this church and quite honestly I could never have imagined that it was destined for anything except eventual demolition.  When I saw the photos of the restored church, along with all the celebrants, it was like seeing a miracle.  Indeed, miracles may be just what’s called for to bring healing in this land that suffered brutal genocide.  Let us hope and persevere that the renovation of Sourp Giragos is but one step in a long list of efforts towards that miracle.

  2.  Khatchig, thank you for the fascinating story and excellent journalism. The continued activity in western Armenia tells our people that the last 100 years have not been in vain and there hope if we are committed. Our people need to learn more about the Kurdish dynamics and update their knowledge base. This is superb mass education and contemporary politics. We must understand , embrace and influence the local political dynamics. It’s another example that the Turkish policy of denial has failed and that we have real political options.

  3. Thank you Khachik for this superb writing.
    May I also offer my deep respect and gratitude to this great human being, Abdullah Demirbas. May he stay in office for many years to come to serve his people and to serve justice.
    I think our Western Armenian compatriots, especially the descendants of those who perished in the area during the Genocide, should seriously consider this great man’s message: “Return ….., Come to your lands … ! This is a unique opportunity to restore Armenian presence in Turkey peacefully.

  4. Thank You Mr. Abdullah Demirbas for Your kindness and social mission.
    Thank You Khatchig Mouradian for kind and professional story.

  5. I believe the US ambassador who attended was the same one that claimed that most of the 2000 Armenian churches in Turkey are still functional. I think that falls under irony (or maybe not).

  6. On another thread  here-latest-a certain  Zarakolu is  being arrested,after  his was  some 3 weeks earlier  in Istanbulla….
    This is reminiscent  of the arrests some 90 yrs ago  of the armenian arrests in that same Istanbulla…..
    Changes foreseen? indeed  by a few  Armenian paremids and hopefulls as always,without seriously considering track record  of the BEAST -the inneer state call it what  you wish ,it  is  there. Only way out  is to wait and see  they eat  each other,,like in some North african countries…
    But  they won´t  because  they are  the most cunning people  on earch.Believe  me, they have been able to play smart with the Brits-supposedly the best  diplomats  on earth.
    But to  have  old  very old  genes  that  come from the Genkiz  Khan , Lengtemour, is  another matter.I wish only they would start matching  themselves with the brits and the like. Armenians  are as  yet Rayas  or  grandsons  of  these  for them…Ermenis 

  7. THANK YOU MR. MAYOR ABDULLAH DEMIRBAS FOR WATH YOU HAVE DON FOR ARMENIANS,  
    IT WAS YOU THAT RENOVAT THE SOURP GIRAGOS CHURCH, WE THANK YOU FOR THAT GOD BLAS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY, YOU ARE THE BAST. ABOUT YOUR SON HE WILL DO A GOOD JOB BY JOINING THE PKK.

  8. St Kirakos – rebuilt for the descendants of western Armenia? Even if the mayor of Diyarbekir provided free homes and an annual income to Armenians they will never return. It’s a pipedream! Armenians from around the world will not even relocate to the Republic of Armenia. It’s a lost cause – stop engaging in self-deception.

  9. At the moment those Armenian craftsmen, traders etc, should go to Armenia to buy
    lands and property and work there and not renovate houses in Diyarbakir which is still in
    so called Turkey. Armenian homes were given to the Kurdish  gendarmes as presents
    to help the Turkish gendarme massacre the Armenians. Will those Kurds  gladly
    welcome the Armenians and give back the Armenian homes? 
    In my opinion this is a very dangerous play by the Turkish government against
    Armenia.
     
     
     

  10. My grandmother’s father financed the restoration of this church and construction of the bell tower after the church was damaged in the 1880s. It is so good to see this church restored. The emotional scars that my grandmother and parents endured to their deaths left a mark on us. This is a first step toward healing. I, for one, would not consider moving back there but may visit now.

  11. We’ve been following your posts on different news sites for some time, Rahageets, and there is a consistency to your commentaries — a distinct disgust for those who preserve: W. Armenian traditions, W. Armenian dialects, W. Armenian narratives, and W. Armenian desires to return to W. Armenia. Thanks for revealing your intentions so clearly.

  12. Abdullah Demirbas is a personal friend; a wonderful human being and above all a devoted human rights activist. Met him last year at the opening of Aghtamar and spent some time with him. We are all fortunate to have a person like Abdullah Demirbas.

  13. Oh ladies and gents, we have another one joining the peanut gallery of notorious denialists… Rahageets…

    for your information Rahageets (whatever that means).. your comment is nothing but a pathetic cry of defeat.. that your denialist govt propaganda  is not panning out as fully as you denialists wished for.. and not you are sour… why is it tha Azeris and people like you have such sore loser complex?? must be in your genes.. unfortunately..

    Please do learn courage, humanity and recognize what is wrong and what is right from one superb individual, a Kurdish Mayor of Diyarberkir.. May he be blessed for many many years…..

    Gayane    

  14. While the remembrance of the qualitative presence of Armenians in Western Armenia is necessary, that presence in one area should not be highlighted by mischaracterizing the nature of Armenians residing in another locale.  Here, it is stated that “[a]lthough mostly peasants living in villages like Palu and Lice, the majority of the tradesmen in the province [Diarbekir] were also Armenian.”  While I cannot speak for Lice, I will speak for Palu and its surrounding villages.  Traditionally tied culturally, politically and economically to Kharpert and lumped into Diarbekir province briefly before the Genocide to dilute the Armenian presence in Elazig (Kharpert) province, Palu was not a village. Palu was a city, both by local standards and by Ottoman law.  Palu was surrounded by many Armenian villages where, obviously, many peasants lived.  However, it would be a mistake to characterize even these peasants as purely farmers tied to the land, particularly by 1914.  Their literacy rate was exceptionally high due to the presence of boys and girls schools throughout Palu and its villages and an emphasis placed upon an Armenian education.  Indeed, the disporportionate number of Armenian intellectuals rooted in Palu and its villages is evidence of this pre-Genocide tradition.  Moreover, the villages of Palu had been producing craftsmen and tradesmen for centuries prior to the Genocide.  These skilled workers plied their skills locally and as far as Constantinople, including in the Sultan’s palaces.  Indeed, the Odians of Istanbul were descendants of a carpenter from the village of Palu-Havav.  By 1914, a significant proportion of Palutsis had family members working in the United States, where they had gone with skills and/or returned from with enhanced skills.  The impact of that experience was evidenced in the incorporation of American building methods in village homes throughout Palu’s territory.  Thus, the contrast between “peasants” of Palu and “tradesmen and craftsmen” elsewhere in Diarbekir province is a blurry one.  Western Armenia was a complex place.  As a great-grandson of a teacher at Euphrates College in Kharpert who resided in the village of Palu-Sgham and a grandson of a craftsman from Palu-Havav whose mother was an Odian, I wish to remind the reader of that complexity.

  15. Antovk…I remember reading somewhere that Mesrob Mashtotz was a Palutzi, originally. Have you heard that?  If so, do you have any information on it?

  16. From Armenian prelacy website:  According to tradition, while meditating in a cave near the town of Palu, Mesrob had a vision and “the hand of God wrote the alphabet in letters of fire.”

  17. To Antovk,
    I´m surprized  about  your expression ¨remind   the reader of that complexity¨.May I point  out  that Greater Armenia from millenia enla`pped  all that area?
    Only around  year s 1400  did  the seljuk-tataar , turco -mongol herds  ¨¨squatter  into¨ that area,proceddign as  far as  Constantinople, then on to the Balkans.That , indeed  has to be ¨reminded¨ to reader.But also  that later around 1850´the Balkan occupied by  mentioned  hordes was successfully rid itself  of  these and established  their soveriegn states.Alas Armenia  was not able  to , as Armenians were dispersed  in Western armenia ,suppressed by ottoman turks and additionally retreating  ottoman armies  from the Balkans  then concentrated  all their forces to the East to at least preserve that area,now called Anadolou.This is history not disputable. Thence  the complex  area you refer to is ,was Armenian,albeit populated  sparsely,because  of above oppressions. 

  18. It is true that USA to this date did not recognize the Armenian Genocide, but more than 40 states of the USA did. I suggest we encourage the provinces in Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide one by one and let’s start with Van and Diyarbekir.

  19. Eh  Rahageets…
    Wait  untill  The Armenian Diaspora  Reorganizes around  more  than a 100,000 Professional Colleagues  aSSoc. members and through them and Magnates create
    THE NATIONAL INVESTMENT TRUST  FUND and start  A REAL  REPATRIATION!!!!!
     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*