I am grasping for words to describe what it looked like in Van. Just outside of the bustling modern city was the old city, or its ghost. Walking through the fortress gate, the view in front of us was the embodiment of the word desolation. The old city was a wide field of rolling hills covered in dry yellow grasses. Patches of the hills were charred black, as if the Armenian houses had been burned yesterday. Only a few buildings, forlorn and crumbling, looked back at us from the other side of the field.
As we walked off the path, I stepped through rough grass and ashes that stained my feet grey and black. The ruins of a church were open to the elements, with crumbling walls and piles of trash rotting in the desecrated sacred space. I walked in the faint path littered with paper cups and cigarette butts that must have been the old streets. It was almost impossible to imagine that just a century ago, this had been a city. People had walked here in between buildings, in a community that is now completely gone. Two of the churches had been retrofitted with minarets, and a new mosque had been built overlooking the destruction. It was clean but empty. Who was praying in a graveyard?
The old city was backed by cliffs, on which the old fortress rested, marred by a giant red Turkish flag, flying as it must have flown when the soldiers began the genocide by shooting civilians below. In an ironic turn, crows circled the flag, coming to nest in the cliffs. Were they the descendants of those that set up camp to feed on the piles of Armenian bodies?
At the other side, a nice new park had been built, named after none other than Attaturk, one of the perpetrators of the genocide.
It was nothing compared to Kharberd.
Kharberd, or Harput in Turkish, is the last place my family lived before they fled to America. It is there where they lived after being forced out of their village of Gumish Madan, and there where the ones who did not escape were murdered in horrific ways. It was where thousands of Armenians from different areas were taken to be killed, leading it to be called the “slaughterhouse province.”
I had heard that Kharberd was preserved, but I did not realize that it had been turned into some sort of dystopian amusement park. It was as if you set up a quaint old German tourist town in Auschwitz. The houses were preserved in a kitschy “old” style, including one which had been turned into an “ethnographic museum,” with pictures of Turkish folk dancing, and carpets depicting Ottoman soldiers on the attack and a harem. It was crowned, of course, with a framed picture of Attaturk next to a Turkish flag. These images mocking the Armenians who had been murdered there made me recoil, as if I could feel the Armenian owners of the house turning in their unmarked graves.
Out in the streets, tourists walked and chatted, ate at outdoor cafes, and bought souvenirs made to look like the clothes and household items of the Armenians who had been murdered there 100 years ago. Military police, whose street checkpoints are threateningly present all over the Kurdish areas of Turkey, had a station there too, lined with pictures of the military police with children, or smiling next to tourists. The fortress was well preserved, but had all mentions of Armenians removed. The views from the fortress were beautiful but bittersweet. To me they looked strangely like the cliffs of Shushi, a haunting reminder of what would have happened in Artsakh had the people not fought back.
At one of the viewpoints in town, a man struck up conversation with us. He was very friendly, asking us about our professions and where we lived, but it was hard to make conversation. Our souls were shaken, and it seemed impossible to make a human connection in a place of this much inhumanity. The viewpoint was next to a mosque, potentially one of the old churches. There had been five churches, but all were destroyed.
Even as we left old Kharberd, I was haunted by the thoughts of the churches. Numerous accounts described how Turkish soldiers had gathered women, children, and the elderly in the churches and set them on fire. I had even heard that someone who had watched the soldiers take the village girls inside the church, strip them naked, hang them up by their hair, set the church on fire, and listen to them scream.
Old Kharberd was a deeply unsettling reminder that the cruelty of the Armenian Genocide is not a thing of the past. This celebration of murder was here all around me, and it was full of hapless tourists, probably not really aware of all the corpses they were walking on. With an uneasy stomach, I wondered, When was I one of these tourists? Being in Turkey gave me a unique opportunity to see both sides of this story. There, my family were victims of the Genocide, but I am also a citizen of the United States, a country built on the genocide of Native Americans and the cruel exploitation of African slaves. As I walked through Old Kharberd, I couldn’t help but think that this is how African Americans must feel seeing confederate symbols and monuments, or how Native Americans must feel seeing the faces of the perpetrators of their genocide carved into a sacred site at Mount Rushmore, or any number of Native American sports mascots.
Here’s the thing about these symbols: they say something important about the society that uses them. Old Kharberd says that the Turkish government is happy to erase Armenians from their country and celebrate the genocide they committed. Similar symbols in America say, subconsciously to many, but directly to the victims, that we are not sorry for our crimes, and that even now we are willing to dehumanize them.
I hope I never see Old Harput again, but I am grateful that I saw it. It brought home the incredible inhumanity of mocking genocide, no matter who it is done to. Unfortunately, it made me realize that in my own country I am one of the tourists of Old Harput, smiling and oblivious to the blood I am walking on. It was a strong reminder that we must look beyond our own groups and be universal human rights advocates, so that we can say never again to anyone.