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Istanbul memorial site prods Turks deal with painful past

Constanze Letsch

“Unfortunately there is no culture of confronting the past and the things that have happened. On the contrary, past events are being swept under the rug but it simply doesn’t work that way,” says Sena Basoz, artist and programme coordinator.

ISTANBUL – A black memorial stone set in the pavement just outside of the old offices of the Armenian-Turkish weekly newspaper Agos in Istanbul reminds passers-by that, on January 19, 2007, well-known Armenian-Turkish journalist and intellectual Hrant Dink was assassinated there.

The trauma of his death left a deep scar in the collective memory of Turkey. Twelve years later, justice remains elusive. The recently opened “23.5 Hrant Dink Site of Memory,” named for an article written by Dink in 1996 that alludes to his life-long struggle to conciliate Turkey and Armenia, aims to continue his legacy and, by keeping his memory alive, to prevent hatred and bigotry.

“In Turkey, we lack a culture of remembrance,” said Sena Basoz, an artist and programme coordinator at the site, the first of its kind in the country. “One trauma immediately follows the next. Unfortunately, there is no culture of confronting the past and the things that have happened. On the contrary, past events are being swept under the rug but it simply doesn’t work that way.”

It is for that reason that the opening of the Hrant Dink Memorial Site is a reason for hope. “We want to create awareness and inspire visitors to open similar sites at other places,” programme coordinator Nayat Karakose said.

Similar initiatives in other parts of the country have not come to fruition, such as at the infamous prison in the predominantly Kurdish metropolis of Diyarbakir, turned into a military martial law facility for political prisoners following the violent coup on September 11, 1980.

In Istanbul, sites of torture, displacement and political struggle have been demolished, refurbished or turned into luxury hotels and shopping centres. “There are many places that need to be remembered for what happened there,” Basoz said. “Remembering is an activity. It’s not passive. The way we imagine our future hinges on how we remember the past. That’s why it is crucial.”

Visitors from the central Anatolian city of Sivas, where an arson attack staged by a mob on July 2, 1993, led to the death of 35 people, mostly Alevi intellectuals staying at a hotel, said they would like to have a memorial site commemorating the massacre. “This shows that we absolutely need places like these,” added Basoz. “We hope that we will only be the first of many.”

The idea for the Hrant Dink Memorial site began in 2013. Agos was moving into new offices but Basoz and Karakose said the old office should not be left vacant. “This place held symbolic meaning for us. It has a memory and a history that needed to be preserved,” Basoz said.

For more than five years, they travelled to dozens of memory sites in 15 countries and visited similar projects in South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Poland, Germany, Hungary, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States and in several Balkan countries. They participated in workshops, seminars and conferences, met with programme directors and invited specialists to Istanbul to ask for advice on how to transform the old Agos offices.

“This place is the result of a joint effort, of joint learning,” Karakose said. “We also asked people here what they would like to see in a Hrant Dink memory site and collected their ideas.”

Through hundreds of archived texts, audio and video recordings collected over the years, it is Dink himself who narrates the painful history of the Armenian minority in Turkey. Through Dink’s personal experiences, his articles and recordings of television talk shows, interviews and university conferences, the memory site tells visitors of discrimination, hate, expropriations, the military coup in 1980, torture and genocide.

However, Basoz and Karakose were careful not to include disturbing images and pictures of physical violence in the exhibition.

“We did not want to show the picture of Hrant Dink right after he was killed, covered by a sheet just outside this office,” Karakose said. “It would have been easy to make visitors cry but we asked ourselves how a place like this could inspire hope instead. We want to show how a painful past and its victims can become actors of change and transformation.”

This is why the memory site does not want to accuse but enter into a meaningful dialogue with its visitors. The exhibition aims to provoke critical questions about the past, about human rights in Turkey, about justice and about the possibility to strive for a better future.

“We wanted to remind people of the extraordinary work of an ordinary person,” said Karakose. “In Turkey, we are being taught not to remember but to forget — by the state discourse, by school curricula and by media narratives. We have just begun to learn what it means to actively and critically remember the past.”

She warned that forgetting can never be a solution to conflict and societal rifts, saying: “As long as trauma is not being healed, it will remain in the collective consciousness and resurface at different moments and under different forms of violence.”

There are many places in Turkey where trauma remains hidden and this, Karakose said, needs to change. “To remember is a form of resistance. It’s a form of struggle and activism. To remember is to heal. No society can be healthy and whole without it,” she said.


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