On January 22, the local Armenian community of New Jersey welcomed journalist and TV and radio personality Hayko Bağdat to speak at the Pinajian Center in St. Leon Church. Bağdat, a Turkish citizen, is considered the first Armenian radio personality to air programming about Armenians in Turkey; he is currently living in exile. He was in New Jersey as a part of a larger tour, visiting Armenian communities in the U.S. to talk about the current state of Armenians in Turkey and his experiences, many which are featured in his Turkish-language books.
Bağdat was born in Istanbul in 1976 to a Greek mother and Armenian father, attending Armenian schools for primary and high school education, and later Istanbul University. He began a career in journalism in 2002, when he produced and presented the radio program Sözde Kalanlar (“The Remnants”), focusing on minority issues in Turkey. The next year, he started writing for the Marmara Armenian newspaper as well as the liberal daily newspaper, Taraf. He is also one of the founders of the civil society initiative “Friends of Hrant Dink,” established in 2007 after the assassination of the journalist and free-speech advocate.
In 2015, Bağdat was fined by a Turkish court for “insulting” the mayor of Istanbul Melih Gökçek and exposing his slanderous remarks about Armenians. A year later, he moved to Berlin after an assassination attempt on his life in Turkey, continued death threats and a Turkish arrest warrant issued for his detention. In 2017, with Turkish journalist Can Dündar, he co-founded the news site Özgürüz (“Liberty”) to provide impartial coverage on censored issues in Turkey. Dündar, formerly the editor-in-chief of the center-left Cumhuriyet newspaper, was arrested in 2015 after he published footage showing the Turkish State Intelligence (MİT) agency sending weapons to Syrian Islamist fighters. Dündar lives in exile in Germany with an arrest warrant against him in Turkey.
During his presentation in New Jersey, Bağdat explained that while growing up, he was not aware of the injustices his family endured, as his parents sought to protect him from the pain and social complications that such knowledge would bring. It wasn’t until Dink’s murder that he discovered his family history. He described how representatives of Turkey’s minority groups—including Greeks, Kurds, Alevis and the LGBT community—came together to discuss their experiences of repression under the Turkish regime. They called on Bağdat to join and representing the Armenians.
Bağdat believes that after 12 years, [Hrant Dink’s] murder still has not been solved because the government itself is responsible for it.
Each group had a story to tell. The Alevis spoke of the Sepastia massacre of 1993 in which mobs set fire to the Hotel Madimak, where their people had gathered for a cultural festival. When they sought help from local authorities, the situation only worsened because the authorities and the mob were one and the same. Kurds (called “The Saturday Mothers”) in the collective spoke of sitting in silent vigil every Saturday in Istanbul to protest the abduction and murders of their children during the 1980s and 90s. Following those murders, the mothers would figuratively walk on eggshells in their neighborhoods, fearful that they were stepping on the bones of their children. The collective wanted to know what Bağdat’s “story” was. It was then that Bağdat asked his parents about his family’s past sufferings. One story involved his mother being sought out during the 1955 Turkish Pogroms targeting Greeks of Istanbul when the locals tried to get their hands on the 14 year-old “grocer’s daughter.”
During Dink’s funeral in 2007, the Dink family selected two boys employed at Dink’s Agos newspaper to drive and manage the crowds. While these boys transported Hrant’s body from the Armenian Patriarchate to the Agos building to the street procession, they were greeted by 300,000 mourners seeking to pay their respects. Bağdat said, “These boys’ lives were never the same after that. Who were they? Garo Paylan (now a Turkish Parliament member) and Hayko Bağdat.”
Bağdat noted that it was the “Friends of Hrant Dink” who, with Dink’s son Arat, viewed the videos of the murder and discovered Dink’s killers. He believes that after 12 years, he said, his murder still has not been solved because the government itself is responsible for it. According to Bağdat, Ergenekon – a clandestine, ultra-nationalist terrorist organization with ties to members of the country’s military and security forces – is a very real concept describing the “Deep State” in Turkey.
In Istanbul’s “Kinaliada” (the first of the four Prince’s Islands), a park for children is named after Dink. One of Dink’s murderers, Erhan Tuncel, often visits the park with his girlfriend and intimidates the visitors. “It is for pressures like this—and others that I don’t wish to talk about—that I left ‘our country,’” said Bağdat.
First, the survivors talked about their Muslim neighbors who helped them. Second, they talked about the sycophant Armenians who betrayed them to the Turks. Third, they explained what happened to them during the Genocide. Those running the Armenian community in Istanbul are cut from the same cloth as the sycophants of yore, says Bağdat.
Bağdat stated that the Turkish state methodology for ridding themselves of undesirables has not changed in the 600 years that they have persecuted Armenians. He said that just as Europe let the Ittihadists (Young Turk masterminds of the Armenian Genocide) go free after World War I, they too will let Erdogan off the hook for his persecutions. Bağdat predicted that Erdogan’s downfall would come at the cost of millions of lives. He said, “Unfortunately, there has to be a total destruction of Turkey before a fresh start can occur.”
When Turkish filmmaker Önder Çakar visited Dzidzernagapert, the Genocide Memorial in Armenia, Bağdat described the tour he was given by former director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, Hayk Demoyan. The Institute had cataloged many interviews with survivors that were strikingly similar. First, the survivors talked about their Muslim neighbors who helped them. Second, they talked about the sycophant Armenians who betrayed them to the Turks. Third, they explained what happened to them during the Genocide. Those running the Armenian community in Istanbul are cut from the same cloth as the sycophants of yore, says Bağdat, which now include acting Istanbul Archbishop Aram Ateşian and Bedros Şirinoğlu, Chairman of the Board of Sourp Prgich Armenian Hospital.
In recent years, at a Christmas party held at the Patriarchate, some local Armenians, including Garo Paylan, were quietly discussing the necessity of holding elections for the new Patriarch. Someone listening that evening tipped off Akşam (a rabidly anti-Armenian newspaper) which then publicly attacked Paylan and affiliated him with the PKK – the Kurdish Worker’s Party often cited by the Turkish regime as being a terrorist organization.
Bağdat stated that the manner in which the 1955 pogroms targeting Greeks was carried out is being repeated today, only that now the Kurds are the main targets. He said that the YPG (the armed wing of the Kurdish leftist Democratic Union Party) in Syria is the only entity protecting minorities, including Armenians in that country. He added, “Even though Kurds had a hand in carrying out the Genocide, we should not stay silent regarding their massacre now. One hundred years from now, people will ask, ‘What did the Armenians do?’” He affirmed that the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (or “CHP”) is no more tolerant toward minorities and neighbors than Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (or “AKP”). He said that the pro-minorities People’s Democratic Party (or “HDP”) is not quite the same since its former co-leader, the Kurdish Selahattin Demirtas was imprisoned, but that it is still “our best bet.”
At the end of his presentation, the forum was opened to questions from the audience. One member of the crowd asked about recent DNA tests performed in Turkey, and the effect they have had on the population. Bağdat replied, “A big secret was revealed. The DNA results infuriated people who discovered for the first time that they had Armenian blood.” In addition to the fact that the entire public system in Turkey demonizes Armenians as a so-called disloyal ethnic group within Turkey, the general public is still largely unaware or unaccepting of the genetic theft that the Genocide enabled. Bağdat said that the DNA issue was quickly dropped, as it was having a destructive effect on the public consciousness. “Now the government claims to know even more about the Armenian ancestry in its citizenry and will use that information to threaten and intimidate people. No positive outcome has come from these DNA discoveries.”
Bağdat concluded his lecture with a parable. A forest fire destroyed an animal habitat and all the creatures tried to escape. Some died in the fire, others suffered smoke inhalation while others managed to get away. Survivors gathered in a clearing to discuss their plans. Some sought safer lands to start over. Others talked about putting out the fire, saving their homes and returning. When some animals turned back, the elephants carried water to douse the fire. The monkeys did the same. Even some ants carried droplets of water on their backs. The elephants asked the ants, “What do you think you’re doing?” The ants replied, “Every bit helps. This is our home. We don’t want to be counted among those who quit. We want to do what we can to save our land.” Bağdat was asking Armenians not to give up on their ancestral homeland. But did he mean that he himself, by moving to Germany with his family, would continue do his part, away from Western Armenia, while others struggled from within? It would seem so.