‘Turkey is a rich country—when it comes to injustices’
Hours after news broke out that Camp Armen would be returned to the Gedikpasha Armenian Evangelical Church Foundation, Sayat Tekir, a member of the Nor Zartonk Armenian movement of Istanbul, spoke to the Armenian Weekly, reflecting on the 175 days activists spent at the camp and the group’s plans for the future.
After 175 days of resistance, Camp Armen—the former Armenian summer camp located in the Tuzla district of Istanbul—was returned to the Gedikpasha Armenian Protestant Church Foundation on Oct. 27.
Nor Zartonk was at the forefront of the campaign to occupy the grounds of the camp since bulldozers arrived to demolish it in early May. Although there were others who worked behind the scenes to secure the return of the camp, the group’s persistence, outreach, and uninterrupted presence at the camp were crucial in saving it. After weeks of protest, the owner of the campground, Fatih Ulusoy, said he would sign the transfer of the property over to the Gedikpasha Armenian Evangelical Church Foundation in June, but failed to do so until Oct. 27—after 175 days of resistance by activists.
Rakel Dink told Agos that this was an issue that Hrant Dink had raised since 1996. She thanked all those who supported the struggle, specifically Nor Zartonk. She said that even though it was a small step, it was still significant. She noted that there are still many properties that remain confiscated, and she hopes that this will serve as an example. She also noted that the fact that this happened on the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide made it all the more meaningful. Rakel heads the Hrant Dink Foundation, which was established after the murder of her husband, Agos editor Hrant Dink. Both Hrant and Rakel Dink had called the camp home as children.
Upon hearing the news that the deed had been signed over to the Armenian community, the group occupying the camp broke into a traditional shourchbar (Armenian circle dance), but decided to keep the celebrations to a minimum out of respect for the victims of the recent waves of violence that have spread through Turkey, said Tekir in a video interview with the Armenian Weekly.
Tekir thanked those who supported the group’s efforts in recent months. “On behalf of Nor Zartonk and all those who participated in the resistance, I would like to take this time to thank the media and people who stood by us during the 175-day resistance. To those from Istanbul, Tuzla, and cities around the world: We thank you,” he said.
Below is the Armenian Weekly’s interview with Sayat Tekir.
Rupen Janbazian: How did you receive the news of the return of Camp Armen? What was your first reaction?
Sayat Tekir: The negotiations between the foundation’s lawyer, the [property] owner’s lawyer, and the government were already ongoing. We knew that something might happen any day now—that they might return the deed. But this had happened before and it had proven to be fruitless. We didn’t want to get our hopes up too much.
This morning, we arrived at Camp Armen to continue the resistance. We were planning on preparing a video message about the ongoing efforts on the 175th day. And then we received the news of the return of the camp to the Gedikpasha Armenian Protestant Church Foundation via Agos. I spoke with Krikor Agabaloglu [pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church of Gedikpasha] and he said that they had indeed received the deed. The news was exciting, so I ran and called out to those out in the yard that Camp Armen had been returned to the Armenian community. So the video ended up being one about our victory, not the 175th day of resistance.
We wanted to keep the celebrations to a minimum, since there have been many innocent deaths throughout the country recently. Initially we did a shourchbar, but wanted to keep celebrations to a minimum for obvious reasons.
On behalf of Nor Zartonk and all those who participated in the resistance, I would like to take this time to thank the media and people who stood by us during the 175-day resistance. To those from Istanbul, Tuzla, and cities around the world: We thank you. Our people suffered during the genocide, endured torture, massacres, pogroms, and unfair taxes. But today, 100 years after the genocide, we secured the return of Camp Armen.
Of course, this is ahead of the elections, and it might have something to do with the European Union. Assumptions can be made, but regardless, this time it worked to our advantage. We hope that this is the first step and that all of the properties that were taken from us will one day be returned.
R.J.: You mentioned that the return could have something to do with the elections.
S.T.: It’s hard to say that there is no connection, but more importantly this was the result of 175 days of resistance, during which we were attacked twice. There were many problems during the resistance, but we persevered and stayed, and the Armenian people stood by our side—they helped us. This was important. The Armenian community united. We remained stubborn the entire time. We said we wouldn’t leave until we got the deed. This stubbornness was probably the most crucial factor in this outcome.
On the 11th day, we said that we would stay [at the camp] for 111 days if need be. One hundred and eleven became 175, and now, nearly 6 months later—100 years after the genocide—we have the deed. We can’t make this appear bigger than it really is; we can’t exaggerate what this means—it is a small accomplishment, but it’s still something, especially here in Turkey.
R.J.: You recently told the Weekly that you wanted the return of the camp to set a precedent for future property issues.
S.T.: Yes, we wanted the case to set an example—perhaps even a legal example. Though it didn’t go to court, we were able to secure this small victory. Even before the news of the return broke today, we had already gained a lot. Members of Turkey’s Armenian community came out to support us; the larger Turkish public learned about the confiscation of our properties and what kinds of injustices were committed against Armenians and other minorities; and so forth. This resistance gave us the opportunity to talk about these important issues.
The Bomonti Mkhitarian School, which is currently operational, can be taken away from us any day. The Camp Armen case has given us a new sense of confidence. Now, we’re more confident that we can fight to keep our properties. Of course things can change, the government can change. I’ve been living in Turkey for 30 years and I still get confused with the politics here.
In any case, this result will show the people of Turkey that through resistance, it is perhaps possible to defend their rights, and some successes may be possible.
R.J.: For the past 175 days, the main focus of the Nor Zartonk movement had been the resistance at the camp. What are some of the future plans for Nor Zartonk now that the camp has been returned?
S.T.: I guess we’ll just become pensioners now! [Laughs] While the return of Camp Armen has been our main focus for the past 175 days, we’ve also remained active on several fronts. We actively campaigned for the HDP [the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party] during the elections, held a memorial commemoration for Paramaz [The 20 Gallows], continued the Nor Radyo radio station, and actively participated in protests against the ongoing violence in the country. We kept [up] with the politics of the country, but the camp did take a lot of our time. We’re going to continue the struggle.
One of the mottos during the Gezi Park protests was, “This is only the beginning; the struggle will continue.” Every morning there will be a new injustice to struggle against. Turkey is a rich country—when it comes to injustices.
On Nov. 12, Tekir is scheduled to give a talk titled, “A New Awakening: Armenian Advocacy and Activism in Istanbul,” in Boston, at the First Armenian Church of Belmont. The event—co-hosted by the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts, the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) Greater Boston “Nejdeh” Chapter, Bostonbul, and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR)—will start at 7:30 p.m. The First Armenian Church is located at 380 Concord Ave. in Belmont. For more information, click here. Tekir will then travel to Detroit, where he will receive the Armenian National Committee of America Eastern Region’s (ANCA-ER) activism award on behalf of the Nor Zartonk movement, at the 9th annual ANCA-ER Banquet. For more information, click here.