By Vahakn Karakachian and Diana Skaya
Photo by Mike Tashjian
‘Genocide in Turkey is taking place every single day. Each day, our co-chairs and deputies are being killed, imprisoned, just like they were in 1915’.
On January 13, 2017, Armenian member of Turkish Parliament Garo Paylan of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was temporarily banned from parliamentary sessions after referring to the Armenian Genocide during deliberations on proposed changes to the country’s constitution.
On the 1st of May, 2017, Garo Paylan made his way to Montreal, Canada to discuss the aftermath of the constitutional referendum and the ongoing uncertainty and concern regarding the rights and freedoms of Armenians and other minorities living in Turkey.
The morning before his scheduled speech in Montreal’s Armenian community center, Horizon Weekly sat down with Mr Garo Paylan for an exclusive interview.
Horizon Weekly: – Mr Paylan, welcome to Montreal. How would you describe the civil society in Turkey today?
Garo Paylan: – There used to be a stronger civil society in Turkey five years ago, where the country had hopes of democratization, and a peace process. For the past two years though, president Recip Tayip Erdogan has formed a new coalition with the Nationalist party and that coalition is oppressing the entire society, including political parties, NGOs, academics and journalists. They censor the media and shut down NGOs. Hundreds of thousands of officers are dismissed from their jobs. This coalition enforces fear everywhere in Turkey, therefore the civil society has a lot of difficulty coping with this. These are dark days for Turkey.
Horizon Weekly:- Mr Paylan, July 15, 2016 marks the day of a major democratic setback in Turkey. What happened to democracy in Turkey after the July coup d’état?
GP: -Last year, we had a coup attempt. I warned the ruling party several times that if a peace process was not enforced and if war broke out between Kurds and other ethnic minorities, Turkey will once again experience another coup. During a coup, conflicts are created and society takes advantage of this conflict. Luckily, the coup failed. Regardless, we didn’t get a lesson out of that coup, and Turkish policies are still the same.
Horizon Weekly: – For the past decade, a lot has been written about the stories of hidden Armenians in Turkey. Hrant Dink and the editorial board of Agos were the ones who first started writing about these stories; of the Armenians who had converted to Islam in order to survive the Genocide. Please tell us about the hidden Armenians in Turkey.
GP: -I visited several cities in Turkey when I was young. When people realised that I was Armenian, they approached me and whispered to me saying that their grandparents were Armenian –that their village was converted to Islam, and that they had no courage to convert to Christianity in order to return back to their true identity. After Hrant Dink, after the democratization, after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was established, people finally had the courage to admit they had Armenian roots. I was in the committee responsible for renovating an Armenian church in Dikrankert. As we were renovating, people suddenly came up to us and spoke about their lost heritage. Hundreds of non-Armenians attended the opening of the church, which was a very important step for our community. Still, there are many biased thoughts about these hidden Armenians.
Our deputy patriarch says, “who is not Christian, cannot be Armenian”. This is not correct.
I tell Armenians that we must welcome these Islamized Armenians into our community because, it is not so easy for those who were converted to Islam 4 generations ago, to suddenly become Christian overnight.
Horizon Weekly: -What is the present situation of the Armenian community in Turkey?
GP:- For three generations, Turkey’s Armenians remained silent. My own grandmother who survived the genocide, suggested I stay silent as well. She didn’t want to talk about the genocide. One day, Hrant Dink appeared and stated that a terrible thing had happened and that Turks and Armenians needed to be healed. He had the sympathy of the Turkish people, and unfortunately they killed him. Following Dink’s assassination, the new generation of Armenians had the courage to continue his ideology. We took advantage of the democratization of Turkey and had the courage to make our voices heard. Sadly, in these past two years, with this nationalist coalition, there is a new normal that has been created- which is the old normal- forcing the non- Turks to be silent. Otherwise, they are threatened with imprisonment or death. The fear factor is on the table. And for the Armenians along with the other ethnic minorities, it is understandable that this fear factor is tripled – and due to that, they choose silence. Some Armenians such as myself, try to raise some sound. I try to tell the people that remaining silent is not safe. I give the examples of Hrant Dink, who was courageous enough to speak out, and got killed, but also the case of Sevak Balikci, a silent young man who had no political background and hadn’t mentioned anything about the Armenian issue- and was also killed. Many victims of the genocide were also silent.
Horizon Weekly:- Mr Paylan, we were commemorating the Armenian Genocide two weeks ago in Ottawa, and one of our guest speakers, mr Garnett Genius, a member of the Canadian parliament, stated a clear message to the audience, quoting : “West Germany offered to begin paying reparations to Israel in 1952, a mere 7 years after the Holocaust.” In 1969, Chancelor of West Germany, Willy Brandt visited the Warsaw Ghetto and silently apologized. Do you think that someday, one of the leaders of the Turkish government would do what Willy Brandt did?
GP: -That is why I am in politics. That is my party’s goal; to recognize the Armenian genocide, and to apologize to the grandchildren of the genocide’s victims. We are still very far away from achieving that.
A non-democratic Turkey will never recognize the genocide or apologize. Although through democratization and through the peace process, really important steps have been taken about the genocide’s recognition. The society learned about the genocide, and without calling it as such, were ready to say that indeed something horrible had taken place 102 years ago. Even the president sent his condolences to the victims of the Armenian “issue” which had occurred during the first World War.
I always say the following: “If crimes are still taking place today, then old crimes cannot be recognized.” Genocide in Turkey is taking place every single day. Each day, our co-chairs and deputies are being killed, imprisoned, just like they were in 1915. First, we have to put a stop to the recent crimes, then maybe if we turn to democratization and have peace, only then Turkey can come to recognize the Armenian genocide. That specific crime took place in Turkey, and we will therefore face that crime in Turkey. We will face that crime alongside new leaders or with a new organization that has a vision that that land belongs to all of us; to Turks, to Kurds, to Armenians, to Assyrians, to Greeks. We were so close to achieving that 2-3 years ago, but Erdogan’s nationalist coalition will never recognize the Armenian genocide.