An Armenian Struggle Against Rights Abuses in Turkey
ISTANBUL, Turkey (A.W.)—In late June, as the live-in demonstration to save Camp Armen, the former Armenian summer camp located in the Tuzla district of Istanbul, entered its 53rd day, Sayat Tekir, an Istanbul-based activist and member of the Armenian Nor Zartonk movement, gave an extensive interview to the Armenian Weekly, during which he discussed the challenges facing minorities in Turkey, the establishment and mission of Nor Zartonk, and recent tragedies, including the murders of Hrant Dink and Sevag Balikci and the attacks against elderly Armenian women in Samatya, Istanbul.
Speaking about the atmosphere of fear that has dictated the life of the Armenian community in Turkey, Tekir related some personal stories, and explained, “Even my own name is the result of that fear. [My parents] named me Sayat, when they actually wanted to name me Ararat.”
Tekir spoke about the Islamized/Hidden Armenians, and their return to the community. To those who oppose embracing the returnees, he said, “We can’t have bodyguards guarding the gates of the community. Anyone can be a part of the community. And they must, because they will reinvigorate us. They will bring us a different knowledge. This is important. I say these things as an Armenian.”
The activist offered an intimate look at the Camp Armen movement, which began soon after bulldozers arrived at the camp to demolish it in early May. Around 1,500 children—many of whom were orphans—once called the camp home, including the late Hrant Dink. In 1987, the state seized the camp from the Gedikpasha Armenian Protestant Church Foundation. Tekir highlighted the significance of the struggle to save the camp, and the support it has garnered from the general public. After making an appeal for diasporan support, he added, “The Armenian question was ‘solved’ here 100 years ago. [Camp Armen] is our dignity on the line. Enough is enough.”
Tekir explained how the confiscation of the camp—or any similar Armenian property—was not simply a matter of land or property rights but an assault on a people’s identity, as revenue from the rent or use of such properties would have supported the community in areas of education and healthcare. Without these properties, he said, both the identity and physical wellbeing of a community suffers.
Weeks after this interview was conducted, on Aug. 13, on the 100th day of the live-in demonstration to save Camp Armen, a group of assailants attacked the camp around midnight, and beat two activists with sticks. The remaining activists have continued their live-in demonstration, waiting for the current title owner, Fatih Ulusoy, to fulfill his promise to transfer the deed back to the Gedikpasha Armenian Evangelical Church Foundation.
Nanore Barsoumian—Tell me about Nor Zartonk. What types of initiatives are you engaged in? What’s your mission?
Sayat Tekir—In 2004, Nor Zartonk was founded initially as an e-mail list that brought together Armenian youth, mainly as a discussion platform. But in 2005, on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, we organized panel discussions together with Hrant Dink. We did something similar in 2006. We wanted to enliven Nor Zartonk after 2005. Unfortunately, back then, we lacked the engine, or the motor, to propel us forward… And, sadly, Hrant Dink’s assassination [on Jan. 19, 2007] became that engine. So we made it our mission to strengthen Nor Zartonk and to talk about the rights of Armenians in Turkey.
We had talked with Hrant Dink about putting this type of initiative into motion. We were few in numbers back then, and we weren’t able to come together with Hrant Dink, and after he was assassinated, that became one of our messages—the issue of democracy, and the issue of individual and community [rights]. This is why we are committing our lives to this. It is important for us.
For the Armenians of Turkey, a boundary has been drawn—100 years ago, from the Lausanne Treaty, etc.—that limits the rights of minorities. Our people have been forced to remain within these boundaries. There was the genocide, but there have also been other injustices since the birth of the republic, from unfair taxes, unjust laws, massacres, and pogroms—and those have just been added to the memory of the genocide. For us, the assassination of Hrant Dink reaffirmed the fact that these injustices continue. Our collective memory of the genocide was revived with Dink’s murder—and later, the murders of Sevag Balikci and Maritsa Kucuk.
There is an atmosphere of fear. Let me highlight one point: I understand this fear, I’m also fearful. Being afraid is one thing, but being a slave to your fears is another matter. I understand, but we cannot live with this fear any longer, and as Nor Zartonk, we want to get past these boundaries. In the 100 years since the genocide, there have been many changes around the world regarding minority treatment and democratic rule. This shirt that we have been forced to wear—so to speak—does not fit us anymore…not since Dink’s murder. In the past, there were times that mothers would tell their children not to call them ‘mayrig’ (mother, in Armenian) in public. In the diaspora, people might have thought that the Armenians in Turkey are being Turkified, that our values had changed, that we had not retained our identity. However, one has to realize that this was a way for [Turkey’s Armenians] to survive. If you in America or elsewhere had to see your most popular newspapers bear the headlines ‘Armenian Dogs’ or ‘Armenian Traitors’ every day, you’d also experience that fear.
‘This shirt that we have been forced to wear—so to speak—does not fit us anymore…not since Dink’s murder. In the past, there were times that mothers would tell their children not to call them ‘mayrig’ (mother, in Armenian) in public. In the diaspora, people might have thought that the Armenians in Turkey are being Turkified, that our values had changed, that we had not retained our identity. However, one has to realize that this was a way for [Turkey’s Armenians] to survive. If you in America or elsewhere had to see your most popular newspapers bear the headlines ‘Armenian Dogs’ or ‘Armenian Traitors’ every day, you’d also experience that fear.’
I’ll tell you a personal story. [Turkish President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan was offended for being called an Armenian, and even demanded an apology. We reacted by organizing a demonstration in front of the Agos offices, and many Armenians came. Of course, our demonstrations are organized with the participation of other peoples—you couldn’t pull it off with just Armenians anyway since our number is so small. I read the message intended for the media. When I went home and told my mother of the day’s events (leaving out the part about me reading our statement), she told me, ‘I hope you stayed in the back of the demonstration.’ I said, ‘What do you mean by the back of the demonstration? I was one of the organizers!’ So, you see, for us, even when engaged to this degree, the fear is there…
N.B.—You’ve been living with that fear for 100 years. You’ve felt the knife reach your bone…
S.T.—It’s exactly like that. Even my own name is the result of that fear. They named me Sayat, when they actually wanted to name me Ararat. They thought when I would be drafted in the army, the name Ararat would easily give away my Armenian identity, so they went with Sayat, which sounds similar to some Turkish names. Neither my father nor my godfather are paranoid individuals, but they have experienced these things, they have lived through discrimination in the army. I was conscripted. Sevag Balikci was also conscripted around the same time. He was murdered [on April 24, 2011]. That is the reality. And Sevag also had a Turkish name: Sevag Shahin Balikci. They would call him Shahin—and he was still murdered.
Of course, the government tries not to have serious problems with the community, but we’re not living in a rosy country—there are right-leaning and fascist groups that are able to resort to violence. And because there is a huge issue of justice in the country, those who kill Armenians walk with no punishment. The man who killed Hrant is in jail, but the people and organization behind him are free to walk. The man who killed Sevag Balikci also walks free. They walk on the same streets as us. This creates a certain emotional state for our community members—you can come across one of the killers on the streets. In the case of Maritsa Kucuk’s murder, the trial continues and we are following it—that’s part of what Nor Zartonk does. We follow these cases, how the media is reporting them, what the public thinks about them.
N.B.—You want to raise these issues in the media…
S.T.—Yes, and that is why we are also a member of HDP [the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party]. We try to engage politicians from HDP, invite them to our events, because they also have some draw on the media, so that the wider public gets interested in these issues, so that there is some pressure on the courts.
What happened to the Maritsa Kucuk case is that they investigated for two months, and they came back with an Armenian name. They said he did it—he’s someone who abuses drugs. They claim that he was there. Perhaps he is one of the murderers. But we found two other DNA [samples] there. We found them—not the police.
N.B.—Nor Zartonk hired its own investigators?
S.T.—Together with the Human Rights Association of Turkey, we carried out an investigation and found this sort of evidence. Their lawyers, like Eren Keskin, were instrumental. So despite these pieces of evidence, when you ask what happened, the response is, an Armenian killed another Armenian, nothing more. But around the same time, there were other cases as well. For instance, three individuals tried to kidnap an elderly Armenian woman—not one, but three [assailants]. Rocks were thrown at the church. An elderly Armenian woman was beaten, and she lost an eye. The man arrested for Kucuk’s murder said he drew a cross on her chest. The police said he was in shock and mentally unstable. Until today, not a single photograph of the victim’s body has been released. They didn’t even provide the family with one. So after the man’s conviction, the media dropped the case…
Welcome to Turkey!
So what are we doing? First, we deal with issues like the ones I mentioned. We have one message to the Armenian community in Turkey: You are not alone. You are not alone. Because if you come and see, the community is fragmented. They’re all in a corner, alone. So we are telling them, you are not alone.
Here’s another story. Eva Aksoy opened a court case because her neighbor sent her a message saying, ‘Our country seems small for you, why don’t you move to Yerevan?’ The incident started when, after an anti-Armenian meeting organized around Khojaly, participants made signs that read, ‘Don’t believe Armenian lies.’ After that, the neighbor threw the message in Eva Aksoy’s yard. Now, almost anyone else would have kept quiet, may be shaking their heads. I guarantee you, 99 percent of the community would not have reacted the way she did: She took the neighbor to court for hate speech. The court case went on for over two years, and the outcome was that the court told the man not to do it again. I remember the last court hearing. Fifty of us went, Eva Aksoy sat at the center… The plaintiff was an older man. He ended up feeling like his blood pressure was rising, so he got up and left before the trial. So the trial ended without a punishment. But what happened—we said that this woman is not alone. Now, when the man sees Eva walking down the street, he changes his path.
N.B.—Do you mean there is a restraining order against him?
S.T.—No, nothing with the law. Just that he changes his route when he sees us. There are 50 of us with our eyes on him… Not everyone is short like me. [Laughs] So we do these sorts of things.
We also have a radio station called ‘Nor [New] Radio.’ We founded it on Jan. 17, 2009—so we’ve had it for 6.5 years. You can find it online at norradyo.com. We have broadcasted programs in 15 languages—languages that belong to minorities in Turkey. We have programs in Western and Eastern Armenian, as well as Hamshen Armenian. We don’t just discuss minority issues, we also talk about women’s rights issues, environmental issues, workers’ rights, social rights, LGBT rights, we even talk about animal rights—essentially the views of Nor Zartonk. We collaborate with Assyrians, Circassians; they come to our demonstrations, we go to theirs. Of course, we are Armenian, we come from Armenians, but we need to stand in solidarity with peoples who have similar pains as us, and who are oppressed like us. If we are going to change the system—this is how we’re going to change it.
Nor Radio also came about this way. Yes, the name is Armenian, the initial broadcasts were in Armenian, the workers are Armenian, but then what? We thought, this isn’t going to express our views well, because there are many others like us who are victims of hate speech, hate crimes, and discrimination. Let’s not just talk about our struggle, let’s talk about all these peoples’ struggles, and let’s have a stronger message.
We have an Armenian Cultural and Solidarity Union that focuses more on cultural issues, especially the threat of losing the Western Armenian language. For instance, we offer a language course. We founded this in 2010. We have more than 50 graduates of the course; most are not Armenian but can speak Armenian fairly well. Some of them are academics—one is a Jewish man who has written two books about the Armenian Genocide in Turkish. There are others whose spouses are Armenian. There are also Islamized Armenians who want to learn about their culture. Sometimes we show Armenian movies—it might not be a huge deal for you, but for us in Istanbul it is significant. [Laughs] We publish books on topics of discrimination against minorities in Turkish textbooks, the Armenian Genocide—three books so far. We’re now working on an Armenian song book [yerkaran]. We have a library with books on the genocide, history, culture, so that if someone is doing research on an Armenian subject, they can come and do research at our office. Often, the doors of our [community] organizations are closed here to the general public, but we keep our doors always open. There are prejudices here, and to counter that we need to express ourselves. Come and see us—we have our books which cover a wide spectrum of views. Come, let’s talk! Our doors are open. Let’s talk if you think there’s a problem. We have a little of a mission of that kind, too.
We cover our own expenses from our member contributions. The way things work in Istanbul is more like 1 person donates $1,000—but we’d rather 1,000 people donate $1. That would make us feel like we have the people behind us. We have had some success in the past 10 years. In some areas we have succeeded, in others we have not.
Now at Camp Armen, we’re having some success. The issue is no longer about getting back or losing Camp Armen, because there’s now an understanding among the peoples in Turkey that many properties have been taken away from us, from minorities.
We’re talking about Camp Armen—there’s this activism—but Camp Armen has been closed for 30 years. Today, the Bomonti Mkhitarian School, which currently has 40 students, can be taken away from us. We’re also struggling against that. We want it to be resolved through legal means so that it becomes an example and sets a precedent. There are hundreds of such property cases. Why are these properties important to us? It’s not like we’re going to profit from them. But these properties were taken away from us in the 70’s. Why the 70’s? Because the Cyprus issue—between Greece and Turkey—resulted in properties being confiscated from minorities in Turkey. The rent the community receives from these properties went to support the Armenian schools, churches, and hospitals. What’s the meaning of all that? If I’m going to retain my identity, I need to go to school—and if schools can’t be financed and get shut down, then I can’t go on holding on to my identity.
In other words, the confiscation of this property is in essence a stab at our identity. If you are poor and sick, with no insurance, you need to go to the hospital to get care; and similarly, if you are a poor student, you need scholarship for school. These are also the types of things that are affected through the confiscation of our properties. So taking these properties from us also means taking our identity from us. It’s not a small matter—it’s not only an issue of property, but also identity.
N.B.—You already addressed some of the questions I had for you, such as the significance of Camp Armen for the Istanbul Armenian community…
S.T.—I can’t just give one answer, because for some, it has no significance. For some, Armenianness has no meaning, but that’s another matter. For others, though, it’s very important. Some people have gone to that camp and studied there—and they, along with their families, keep coming to the camp. There are also many others who have not studied at the camp but who are nonetheless coming to the camp every week. For instance, older community members come and prepare dolma for us, others bring us bottles of water.
N.B.—You mean, they are visiting Camp Armen… Can you describe the atmosphere there for us?
S.T.—We have created a community at Camp Armen. People come from all over Turkey—not just Armenians, but also Turks, Kurds, Alevis, Laz people, and others—to support us in various ways, whether financial or moral. Someone might bring us water, and even that is something.
Here’s an example: The electricity was out, so electricians from Tuzla came and they fixed it for us without payment. The first day, we had no electricity, and a neighbor ended up giving us electricity. Imagine, there is an Armenian camp here and the Turkish neighbor is providing the electricity. There are many in the neighborhood who help us, including members of the Kemalist party [CHP] as well as the HDP. We’re working together. We have a garden and we’re planting vegetables there. We have great strawberries. [Laughs] This is a camp in its true sense. People give us what they can.
As for us, we are there day and night. We don’t really sleep much at night for safety reasons. But all this is also important for another reason: We held a protest yesterday where 1,000 people showed up, and we made a statement there. On April 24, Erdogan asked, where is the proof of genocide? We said, in response to him, that the proof of the genocide is Hrant’s [Dink] camp, the camp that was taken away from us.
If in Turkey you want to build a memorial or a monument to the genocide, don’t construct one because one already exists—and that’s the camp. And I say this because today the camp is in partial ruins. One third of it is in ruins, another part is still standing, and it is a space where Armenians, both young and old, are congregating. That’s the monument!
‘If in Turkey you want to build a memorial or a monument to the genocide, don’t construct one because one already exists—and that’s the camp.’
And all different peoples, for instance Jews, have come along with their children or parents, and we get together, we host acting or painting classes, and we’re still holding camp for the children. For the adults, we’re holding lectures about the Armenians and other peoples, like the massacres perpetrated against the Alevis (we held a panel about it today) or about the Jews. We don’t just discuss Armenian issues. We also show movies. We have discussions with Islamized Armenians. We host musicians of various backgrounds, who sing in different languages—Kurdish, Armenian, Turkish. Kurds will come, and they’ll dance shurchbar [traditional circle dance] to Armenian music. This is also important in the larger sense, that people are coming together, that we are not just enemies.
Yes, we have enemies, we receive threats, there is danger, but all that aside, we also have people who support us. We have a man who prepares beoreg [cheese turnovers] at his home and brings half of what he makes to the camp for us. If our neighbors didn’t help us, we wouldn’t have been able to stay here until today—that is the truth.
N.B.—How many people camp out there every night?
S.T.—It varies. During the week, at least 20 people will be there. On the weekends, around 50 people will come to the camp. It changes, but I’m talking about those who spend the night there. During the day, towards the end of the week, around 1,000 people come and go. New people come. The camp is close to Izmit, so we get visitors from there too. Very few come from the diaspora. Everyone is helping out, but—and this is a small criticism—there isn’t much help from the diaspora.
‘Very few come from the diaspora. Everyone is helping out, but—and this is a small criticism—there isn’t much help from the diaspora.’
N.B.—Can you tell us how the diaspora can help your struggle?
S.T.—You know, even one bottle of water is important to us, because we’re living there. I’m not going to say donate to our cause. We don’t need thousands of liras, but we’ll appreciate that one bottle of water just as much. We’d be happy to receive it. That’s all I’m saying. We’re not in Syria, we’re fine, our situation is good. You understand what I mean?
N.B.—Yes, moral support. You want the diaspora to help keep your morale up.
S.T.—Yes, in some sense. We need the support. We’re not tied to any party. We’re an independent organization, but our historical political parties are our political parties, whichever party that may be. It would be good if they can put some pressure. They have lawyers, connections—whether in Europe or in the U.S. Let them exert a little pressure. Let them talk about it some more. What if they were to bring it up in the European Court [of Human Rights]? Let’s think about it. It’s not much.
We’re organizing here. We hold protests. We’re organizing a struggle—and we’re fine with that. But if we had a little help, it would be better.
We’re waging this struggle in an orphanage, and we hope Armenians the world over can stand by our side so that we don’t feel like orphans ourselves. We are trying to get the word out in Armenian, English, and Turkish. And I want to thank all the organizations that have supported us so far—like your newspaper and others, those who visit us at camp.
Youth from the ARF [Armenian Revolutionary Federation] have been showing us support. Some have sent us videos expressing solidarity. We hope that community leaders—wherever they may be—speak about Camp Armen in their host countries, raise the issue in those governments.
‘Youth from the ARF [Armenian Revolutionary Federation] have been showing us support. Some have sent us videos expressing solidarity. We hope that community leaders—wherever they may be—speak about Camp Armen in their host countries, raise the issue in those governments.’
We have 40,000 people here in our community. But not all are interested in Armenian issues. Our voice has remained low. The Armenian Question was ‘solved’ here 100 years ago. This is our dignity on the line. Enough is enough.
Like I said, if it wasn’t for all the support, we wouldn’t be here. But it isn’t enough.
We have one demand: the return of Camp Armen to our people, to the Armenian Protestant church. We don’t care whether it belongs to the Protestants, the Orthodox, or the Catholics—just that it belongs to our people. This will also open doors for others, like the Greeks and Jews. This is why it’s important.
N.B.—How and when do you expect this to be resolved?
S.T.—We’re going to camp there all summer, and we expect the youth from all over the world, both Armenians and others, to come there.
N.B.—You’re inviting them.
S.T.—Yes. Just like Hayastantsiner [Armenians in Armenia] say “ari” [come], we say…’ari, yegek Camp Armen!’ [Come to Camp Armen]. Let’s turn it into a pan-Armenian camp, and let’s discuss issues that affect Armenians the world over.
N.B.—You talked about the Istanbul Armenian community and the challenges they are facing. Can you discuss the situation of the hidden Armenians?
S.T.—They are going to reinvigorate our community—if our community accepts them. Unfortunately, there’s that issue too. We are born from Armenian mothers and fathers, we are Baptized, we go to Armenian school, we learn Armenian, our identity cards identify us as Christians, etc. We were born into it—we don’t think too much about it. But for them, there’s the issue of an identity that has been taken away from them. You should see how they are clinging to that identity! They’re trying to learn the Armenian language, the customs, the culture, the cuisine, and the traditions. And some in the community are opposing them, saying no, you can’t do that.
But we can’t have bodyguards guarding the gates of the community. Anyone can be a part of the community. And they must, because they will reinvigorate us. They will bring us a different knowledge. This is important. I say these things as an Armenian. I’m seeing how they are embracing the Armenian identity…
For the first time, Dersim Armenians will partake in the Pan-Armenian Games [in Yerevan]. I joined the organization and I will go with them. There are those who do not speak a word of Armenian—or they might know one word. And some of them are fearful of whether their behavior is acceptable…
N.B.—Whether they will be rejected…
S.T.—But they still want to go [to Armenia] because it’s the motherland, just like Dersim is also the motherland. They want to go, see, and find their identity. This is significant. There are those who were assimilated, who are struggling against assimilation—just like us. And there are those who were not born as Armenians but who want to struggle to re-emerge as Armenians.
I know from Camp Armen…there is a man, a Tuzla resident, who was formerly a member of the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], a member of a fascist organization, who discovered he was Armenian a year ago, and left the party. He found out his roots go back to Adana and Cilicia. He is at the camp now almost every night. He didn’t come to the camp because he lives in Tuzla, or is a neighbor; he came because he is Armenian. He’s there because of his identity. And this is someone who a year ago was a member of a fascist organization, and he most likely used to also curse Armenians. He’s curious about what we eat, what we’re like, what traditions we have. This is significant. We need to embrace them. That’s partly why we hold Armenian-language classes. We don’t have a gauge that measures someone’s Armenianness.
N.B.—If they feel Armenian, they are Armenian. Period.
S.T.—They have lived and continue to live in the reality of the genocide. They have lived through discrimination. Let’s not forget that. They have lived through it. They have lived in an atmosphere of hatred. They have attempted to live. Now, some of them get Baptized. Some are atheists, but they say they are Armenian. We have a friend who was Baptized, and now he writes books about language—he writes in Turkish, Armenian, and in the Hemshin language using Latin characters. He’s giving so much more than many Christian Armenians, and as you know there are those in Hemshin who don’t accept that they are Armenian, and get insulted if you suggest it. Some are fearful, and others are victims of the ideological propaganda that was waged there. For 100 years, we have learned that there was a genocide. For 100 years they have been taught that there was no genocide. That’s also why genocide recognition is not a simple issue.