A small group of Turkish liberals plus a few foreigners assembled in Sultanahmet Square on April 24.
They had come to stage a silent commemoration of the Armenian Genocide outside the building that was the prison where the first Armenians were detained that day in 1915.
The police had other ideas, and they had come in force. Tourists exiting the Blue Mosque saw a walking wall of about 100 police officers herd the 25 genocide activists out of the square.
There was no violence, only pressure. The ‘walking wall’ kept advancing until the activists reached the pavement in front of the tramway. The police told the activists, and the journalists interviewing them, to go further away, accusing them of obstructing the pavement.
At this point one of the activists, the Armenian MP for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Istanbul, put his foot down. Conspicuous in his white shirt and taller than any policeman present, Garo Paylan remonstrated with the police commander. “We’re 30 to 40 people, you are 100 to 200,” Paylan said, “if there is obstruction, you should leave.” The pressure ceased.
The spectacle encapsulated the position of those who seek to commemorate the Armenian atrocity in Turkey today. The number of participants has fallen dramatically. The authorities are far less tolerant. But a modest number of brave Turks still stand up to say they deplore what happened in 1915.
The high watermark of the commemorations was that on the 100th anniversary _ April 24, 2015. That evening, two thousand people crammed into the top of Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian mall of Istanbul. For 40 minutes they sat on the paving stones, holding black-and-white pictures of the leading personalities who perished. At the front, candles burned around a banner paying homage to the 1.5 million victims. There were speeches, songs and prayers, but for most of the time the crowd listened to the hauntingly sad strains of Armenian music.
Last year, about 200 people attended the evening ceremony, but the authorities forced it to be held at Tunel, the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi, and banned the word “soykirim” (genocide) from the banner.
This year the authorities said the evening ceremony could be only a “press conference,” organiser Levent Sensever of Say Stop (to racism and nationalism) told Sigma. And it had to be held in Sishane Square, some 300 metres down the hill from Tunel.
Nevertheless, more than 200 people stood for seven minutes in Sishane behind a banner saying “We honour those we lost on 24 April (1915)”. In their “press conference”, the activists made two short speeches, posed for photographs while holding pictures of the victims of 1915, and listened to a brief snippet of mournful Armenian music.
A hundred metres away, thirty-five members of the hard-left People’s Liberation Party staged a counter demonstration, chanting anti-American slogans and holding posters such as “Genocide lie, imperialist plan!”
In their one act of public protection, the police ringed both gatherings, ensuring that members of the one did not interfere with the other. They also inspected people’s bags to make sure nobody was carrying a weapon.
Like the counter-demonstrators, Turkey has always denied that genocide took place. The official line is that about 300,000 Armenians died in ethnic clashes, sparked by the Russian invasion of Turkey, in which a comparable number of Muslim Turks died. And the vast majority of Turks hold this view.
However, there has been an evolution on the Armenian issue, led by Turkey’s intellectuals, in the past 15 years. Some 200 academics, journalists and writers signed a petition in 2008 that contained the sentence: “My conscience does not accept that I remain insensitive toward and deny the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected in 1915.” The petition avoided the word genocide as being too contentious, but it said the signatories apologised for what happened.
In addition, the pro-Kurdish party that polled third in the 2018 general election, the HDP, recognises the atrocity and uses the G-word. Twenty years ago it would have been inconceivable that a party supported by 11.7 percent of the electorate would say the Armenians suffered genocide.
Against this trend, the government is restricting the genocide commemorations more and more.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s forging an alliance with the hard-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) “has affected the Armenian movement negatively,” Meral Cildir of the Human Rights Association (IHD) told Sigma.
“Erdogan is becoming stricter on this (genocide) issue in order to appeal to his voters, especially those who support MHP. (The crackdown) is done to keep that demographic happy,” said Cildir, a member of IHD’s anti-racism and discrimination commission.
Cildir sees a number of reasons for the drop in attendance. Both this year and last, the authorities gave permission for the ceremony only the day before, making it difficult to promote the event. The presence of more than 100 policemen on the scene, supported by hundreds more in buses parked nearby, was intimidation. And what she called “the psychological fear tactics that the government has been using.”
For instance, on the afternoon of April 24 this year, there was a memorial service in Sisli Armenian cemetery for Sevag Balikci, a young man who was shot dead by an ultra-nationalist while they were serving in the army on April 24, 2011. During the service, the Turkish Armenian activist Alex Kalk made a speech, saying “there is still no peace or freedom in our country, and it is the discourse of hate-mongers, murderers, lynch mobs and genocidal forces that predominates”
As he left the cemetery, police detained Kalk for using the G-word. They freed him hours later.
“Many usual attendees decided against coming because they were scared for their safety,” Cildir said.
The activists believe they have to continue commemorating the genocide however low the turnout.
“If we step back, they will come over us more,” Paylan told Sigma in an interview. “That is what we know from history. To stay silent doesn’t mean you are going to be safe.”