Ara Sarafian: The Ottoman archives in Turkey represent what Turkish officials have chosen to declassify so far

Interview With Ara Sarafian, Director of the Gomidas Institute

 ‘’The Ottoman archives in Turkey represent what Turkish officials have chosen to declassify so far. There are millions of documents that have not been declassified’’

Historian Ara Sarafian is the founding director of the Gomidas Institute in London, which sponsors and carries out research and publishes books. Among the institute’s publications are English translations of Armenian texts related to the Armenian Genocide. He edited a “Critical Edition” of the The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916, commonly known as the Blue Book (originally published in 1916 by British historians Lord James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee), as well as a Turkish edition of the book.

“Talaat Pasha’s Report on the Armenian Genocide, 1917” was published by the Gomidas Institute in April 2011. As the title implies, it is an appraisal of a report that was found in Talaat Pasha’s private papers. How did you start this project? 

I first heard of Talaat’s report when Murat Bardakci published some information from it in Hurriyet newspaper in 2005. Bardakci later published the whole report in facsimile format in a book. That allowed me to take the report more seriously. The project then took off when I was able to go to the Prime Ministry Archives in Istanbul and follow up on the data at hand. My key finding was information about a special survey Talaat had ordered on Armenians in February 1917. These materials authenticated Talaat’s report. The final stage was the analysis of the data : the report, which had no title, calculated the number of Armenians who had gone missing in the Ottoman Empire between 1914-17. The whole analysis was presented on the first page in a clear manner. It was a report on the Armenian Genocide.

Do you think that some Ottoman era archives on the Armenian Genocide have been deliberately ‘’vanished’’ by the authorities or some academic circles?

The Ottoman archives in Turkey represent what Turkish officials have chosen to declassify so far. There are millions of documents that have not been declassified. Undoubtedly many documents have been lost or destroyed for all sorts of reasons. And there can be little doubt that the declassified materials have been carefully chosen. There are entire categories of records that are not available to researchers – such as the detailed deportation and resettlement registers from the provinces. The Armenian issue is an intensely political issue and none of this should be surprising.

However, the available Ottoman materials, especially when used alongside alternative sources (such as United States records or Armenian survivor accounts), support the Armenian Genocide thesis.

Every civil society has to deal with the dark pages of it’s past. Do you think Turkey’s leading civil society organizations have started influencing Turkish political reform?

Yes, all nations have dark pages. However, in Turkey, the Armenian issue is not simply a dark page in the past. It is part of the ruling ideology of the state – especially in the opposition parties and some parts of the ruling AKP. Modern Turkey has been built on the continued abuse of Armenians and other social groups such as Kurds, women, and Alevis. Many of the abusers – including torturers and killers – are still living lives there. Turkey needs a social revolution to extricate the good from the bad in itself.

It is against such a background that many brave individuals have spoken out in the past. Now there are democratic organisations carrying on the struggle for the good. Only weeks ago, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has made a point of fielding Armenian candidates, and many women, in the coming elections in Turkey. They have already influenced Turkish politics by their conduct, and if they do well at the elections, they will be moving Turkey in a positive direction.

In recent years, you’ve been collaborating with the city councils of Diyarbakýr and Bitlis. Tell us more about this.

In recent years I have worked closely with Turkish civil society organisations, like the Human Rights Association (IHD), the Bar Associations of Diyarbakir and Bitlis, the municipalities of these cities as part of the positive changes we are seeing in Turkey. Because of the changes that are taking place in Turkey, there is need for sensible Armenian voices to chart the way forward. The Gomidas Institute has thus dealt not only with the Genocide, but also the possibilities of rehabilitating of the Armenian issue in a sensitive and peaceful manner. And we do this as a diaspora Armenian organisation.

When you say dealing with issues in a sensitive and peaceful manner, what do you mean?

I see Kurds, for example, as victims. Most Kurds in Turkey are internally dispersed refugees. Thousands of their villages were destroyed by the Turkish army in the 1980s and 1990s. Ordinary Kurds still suffer from discrimination, poverty, and lack of basic services. They have been brutalised, yet remain steadfast. Their political struggle has fuelled the democratisation of Turkey. Despite these difficulties, today, Kurds invariably refer to Armenians as their kith and kin.

Of course, they have a sense of guilt too, because many of their own ancestors were involved in the Armenian Genocide. This is something most Kurds, especially their leaders, say outright. So, whatever the past, we have the ability to engage all of these issues openly and consider the best way to resolve them. If the Turkish state adopted a similar position, the Armenian issue could be resolved.

One of the issues I grapple in my own work concerns the descendants of Armenians who were assimilated into Muslim communities in Turkey. Some of these people, perhaps most, wish to be left alone. Others are interested in their Armenian heritage in a passive way. And some feel a sense of loss and wish to reclaim part of their lost identity. As a rule, none of these people have a voice, and too often they are objectified in a terrible way.

For example, when a group of such Armenians went to Armenia last summer, there were Armenian newspaper articles claiming that a group of “hidden Armenians” were visiting their “homeland.” The fact was that these were not hidden Armenians (they came from Sourp Giragos church in Diyarbakir). Furthermore, they lived on their ancestral homelands, in Diyarbakir. And ironically, while in Armenia, they were offered eastern Armenian lessons in the bastardised Soviet era orthography.

Where do you expect these developments to go?

Nobody can predict the future, However, if we take the issues at hand seriously, there is room for serious progress. However, if good people do not get involved, then we should not blame others for lack of progress or regression. The Armenian Genocide has not run its course, and there is a great deal to play for. That is why the Gomidas Institute works in Turkey. Join us if you can.

By Vahakn Karakachian April 02, 2015

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