Rethinking Genocide in Turkey as a Traveler

gen·o·cide

/ˈjenəˌsīd/

the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group

“a campaign of genocide”


Definitions form Oxford Languages

I was heartened to hear President Biden declare that nearly a century after the systematic killing of the Armenians in Turkey which began in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, that atrocity is in fact considered a genocide by the United States. Turkish President Erdogan and the government of Turkey to this day flatly deny there was ever a genocide there. Rather, they maintain they were in a state of war at the time and both sides suffered casualties, with Turkey suffering as well. However, the International Association of Genocide Scholars affirms the death toll to be over one million Armenians.

This fact or the definition of genocide has never been in dispute among scholars or those who have studied the Holocaust or other genocides worldwide. In fact, there is a history to the word itself, which didn’t even exist as a concept until 1944. This is when lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

A Polish lawyer of Jewish descent and himself a Holocaust survivor who lost much of his family in the death camps, he campaigned heavily to get the word into widespread usage and initiated the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment on the Crime of Genocide. Too many other words were being used with which we are now all too familiar: crimes against humanity, mass killings, even, “a crime without a name.” He needed to be able to define it succinctly in legal terms, and of course the world needed a concrete concept after 1945, as difficult as such horrors are to understand.  But the Armenian genocide occurred before World War One. No such word, no such genocide? The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment on the Crime of Genocide, ratified by the United Nations in 1948 and over 150 countries, one as recently as 2019, included both the Armenian Genocide and the Nazi Holocaust as examples of world events it hoped to outlaw in coming years, and for which it intended to provide restitution.

Fast forward to today. I took the trip Turkey’s Magical Hideaways with Overseas Adventure Travel, a company that prides itself in having controversial topics discussed as learning and discovery experiences during the trip. I have a piercing interest in worldwide genocide and genocidal hotspots, so I was anxious to hear what our trip leader had to say about the Armenian genocide. At that time, I had no idea that they basically denied the event ever took place, something well understood by historians and Armenian family members. I was stunned at his denial, and his telling me that the Turkish had suffered as much or more themselves.

The two-week journey began and ended in Istanbul, with four absolutely divine days eating, sleeping, and exploring on and around a teak gullet in the middle of the Mediterranean. We boarded our ship in the seaside town of Marmaras where I had coincidentally been 20 years prior on a day trip from Rhodes, Greece. Just as the azure waters and the passing scenery were magnificent in the strong sunlight, so was the Milky Way at night in full brilliance, its intensity and radiance illuminating the nighttime skies as I gazed upward from the deck of the ship.

That illumination, however, was never passed onto the Turkish people about that time in their history. When I tried to privately explain to my trip leader that genocide is a universally recognized word for such events, he grew ever more defensive about how the Turkish people had suffered in those days. Only once I returned to Istanbul and was on a private tour of the old Jewish quarter, did I learn from my young guide that the citizens can be subject to some penalties if they recognize that Turkey had committed genocide. And Turkey itself, is refusing that particular classification of atrocity because they don’t want to pay the reparation money that would be due the family members, as happened after the Holocaust.

It was not lost on me when we boarded the ship in Marmaras, that on that trip 20 years prior I had also stayed for a week in a place called New Marmaras in Greece. So named, because the Turkish gave the Greeks less than 72 hours to leave the country. So, they founded another Marmaras that welcomed them in Greece in what is termed the “population exchange. “They did something similar to the Greeks in Cyprus, when they either killed or expelled the population of the north and forced them to abandon their homes and move to the south in July and August of 1974. I was in Cyprus in 1994, and I listened to the stories from the people in the south and heard the anguish in their voices as they recalled their old beloved homes. Today the land that was taken from them in Northern Cyprus is not recognized as a country in any other part of the part of the world except for Turkey.

There are many beautiful parts of the world that we can enjoy for their beauty more than their history. Germany, Switzerland, Poland, France, Austria Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey, Rwanda, South Africa, even today parts of the Sudan. Its trite to say that if we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it. That is more optimistic a view than I am willing to take any more. I’m convinced we will continue to see more of this in our lives, as the current situation in Burma/Myanmar shows us. The best we can do as travelers is to factually recognize that it exists, and this is the world we live in as we traverse the globe.  

As for people not acknowledging it in Turkey? I’m guessing that for as beautiful and magical as much of that country is, they know it in their hearts. From the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia to the amazing Ephesus; from the whirling dervishes I saw perform to the fantastic food and divine gullet where we hiked ot Cleopatra’s Baths, there’s so much to see there. We as travelers know the rest of the world doesn’t always see things the same way we do. My experiences in Turkey were just another stirring reminder of how huge that divide could really be.

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