In his article written in Turkish exclusively for GRF and containing insights from his personal life, Ambassador (R) Ahmet Üzümcü examines what can be done to ameliorate Turkish-Armenian relations.
Reminiscences: Armenians I have known by Ahmet Uzumcu
I had not met an Armenian until I went to İstanbul for the first time in 1966, for the entrance exam for Galatasaray High School. At Saint Joseph in Izmir, where I went to middle school, I had Jewish and Levantine classmates, but not a single Armenian. After the exam, my father took me to Karaköy where he had a business acquaintance. His name was Barkev Hamparsoumian . We sat, drank tea and had a lovely conversation. My father said that uncle Barkev would be my ‘guardian’ during my high school studies in Istanbul if I passed the exam, and this is what happened. We didn’t have any family in Istanbul and among his business associates he chose, apparently the one he trusted most, Barkev.
During the next four years, I took the metro every Saturday and went to uncle Barkev’s shop. He would offer me a cup of tea and ask me questions about school. I remember fondly the excellent tea, and more importantly, his friendship. After he gave me my pocket money, he would say, “I’ll expect you next week, take care and work hard”. When I fell one time at school and injured myself, he rushed to the school to make sure I was alright.
In 1970, I went to Ankara for my undergraduate studies. Years passed and I rarely went back to İstanbul. I met uncle Barkev a few times in Izmir but we didn’t get to have a proper conversation. Over time, I felt guilty that I didn’t check in on a person who had supported me during a tough period in my life when I was away from my family for the first time. It was partly due to my juvenile neglect, I probably had other priorities at the time. Eventually I heard that he immigrated to Brazil. I couldn’t make sense of this. He was a descendant of an old Armenian family who had lived in Istanbul for several generations. He loved the city where he was born and raised. In the summer, he used to move to Burgaz Island where he had a house. But I was told that his son insisted on going to Brazil. I learned later that he passed away, which crystallized my sense of guilt.
Five or six years ago, after a visit to a friend in hospital, I found myself passing the gate of the Armenian cemetery in Şişli, İstanbul. Might uncle Barkev be laid here? I thought; I wasn’t wrong. They took me to his grave. Apparently, he had wanted to be buried in Istanbul. I kneeled down in front of his gravestone with his picture on it and I prayed. May he rest in peace.
In high school, I had some Armenian friends. We were boy scouts together with Ohannes, who now lives in France. He was smart and he had a great sense of humour. My father used to come to Istanbul for business every two months and used to stay at Londra Palace hotel, close to my school. He would always reserve one evening for us to go to the Istanbul Theatre together, to watch Toto Karaca and her troupe. He loved the vaudevilles. I realized then that the cultural diversity within a society was an invaluable richness. The main motivation for my then burgeoning desire to join the diplomatic service was indeed to see new countries, new people and cultures.
Following my studies at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Ankara, I joined the Foreign Ministry in June 1976. Until then, as of 1973, Armenian terrorists had killed six of our colleagues including our Consul General in Los Angeles, his deputy and our Ambassadors in Paris and Vienna. There was considerable anxiety among those colleagues who were appointed abroad, preparing to depart soon.
I was appointed as second secretary to the Turkish Embassy in Vienna, in 1979. The first day I began my new job, they assigned me a pistol. The whole staff of the Embassy were carrying weapons and we had to go regularly to shooting practice. At the same time, we tried to live a normal life and to socialize. The benefit of our being armed at that time was proven in at least two separate incidents. Two colleagues and close friends of mine who were serving in Rome and Teheran were able to defend themselves under attack and survive with some injuries.
In June 1980, while I was in charge of the consular section in Vienna, I was told that I had a visitor from İstanbul. Thus, I met Bedros, who brought greetings from a mutual friend, a classmate of his from the Faculty of Civil Engineering at the İstanbul Technical University. Bedros had come to Vienna to do a PhD. We found a studio for him in the same neighbourhood my wife and I lived in. He had a beautiful voice and sang for us classical Turkish songs. While he was doing his military service, his commander had noticed his talent and asked him to give a few small performances.
We invited Bedros’ mother over when she came to visit her son. This was a great opportunity for us to taste the most delicious dolma (vine leaves stuffed with rice) of our lives, that she prepared for us. We had warm, delightful conversations on everything and nothing, the kind one has with family.
Bedros also introduced us to Artun, who had settled some years earlier in Vienna and who used to do knitting with his wife in a workshop on the ground floor of their house.
In the early summer of 1982, we noticed some suspicious people often sitting in a car parked nearby or walking around our building. Our telephone would ring quite frequently with no answer on the other side. The Austrian police preferred the deterrence option and took protective measures with high visibility during the day. I was escorted by the police to the Embassy and back home, during our last month in Vienna. But we had to walk our dog in the evenings. So, Bedros and Artun volunteered to alternately act as our security on these walks. They would speak loudly to us in Armenian whenever we came across any strangers. My wife and I are eternally grateful to them for the true friendship they showed, to the point of risking their own lives. I always call on them when I go to Vienna and we catch up over a coffee.
I was assigned to the Turkish Consulate in Aleppo. In September 1982, we reached Aleppo with my wife and our German shepherd Dost (“friend” in Turkish) during a religious holiday. We stayed in Hotel Baron for a week before we found an apartment to rent. The Mazloumian family built the hotel in early 1900s and it was nationalized by the Ba’ath regime once they took power. Nevertheless, Mazloumian Junior (who was no longer so young) was entrusted with its management. The building was in very bad shape but still charming, and more importantly, we were well received by the family, who used to live in a house in the courtyard of the hotel; with a British wife, a daughter and a son as well as a huge St Bernard. They gave us the room where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had stayed years before. Other celebrities like Agatha Christie or Lawrence of Arabia had also stayed in this historic hotel. Garabeth, the waiter who initially kept his distance, began talking to us. Over the next two years, we took all our visitors to the bar of Hotel Baron and Garabeth welcomed us. In our conversations, the Mazloumians expressed their closeness to the Anatolian culture, customs and traditions rather than the Syrian Arab ones. After so many years in Syria, they still felt like they were living in a foreign country.
About one million people lived in Aleppo at that time. The number of Armenians, I was told, was approximately fifty thousand. But they seemed to be many more. Nearly everyone who facilitated our lives was Armenian. Our butcher, the owners of the grocery store and video rental shop we frequented, the Consulate’s electrician and printer, our car mechanic, the physiotherapist of my wife, the shopkeepers around the souk were all Armenian. We rented videos of Turkish movies passed to us discreetly by the rental shop owner, since they were prohibited by the Syrian regime. “Mr Consul, take this, you will like it, we watched it last night and we cried so much, the whole family loved it, it was beautiful”. I vividly remember those words. The garage owner Artin used to maintain our cars, including the official armored one of the Consulate, and to repair them when necessary. A former Consul General, the late Nusret Aktan, apparently played backgammon with him and teased him, saying “silahım Martin adamım Artin” (My weapon’s a Martin, my main man is Artin). When we went downtown, we were always invited to have a cup of coffee with Armenians who would identify themselves as from Maras, Elazig or Antep. They would joke amongst themselves with anecdotes that were also familiar to us. A young Armenian boy who was giving me directions spoke Turkish so well I realized they must continue to speak predominantly this language at home.
Mr Nazar Nazaryan, a well-known and highly respected personality within the Armenian community, used to arrive first and leave last at our national day receptions; he considered himself as a co-host. He would help the Consulate resolve problems that came up. Some Armenians built business partnerships with local Turcomans, probably due to a cultural and language affinity. Armenians were a big part of our lives during those two happy and peaceful years in Aleppo.
In 1986, I was appointed as Counselor to the Turkish delegation at NATO. Three years later, I joined the International Secretariat where I spent another five years. Over these eight years, the person whom I met most frequently, other than my colleagues, was Agop. He had come to Brussels years before from Istanbul and opened a garage in the neighborhood where most of the Turks lived. My colleagues and I used to take our cars for repair or maintenance to him. He would do the same job as the authorized garage, with equal quality and at a fifth of the price. Agop practiced the same rituals as he used to in Turkey. He slaughtered a sheep once a year, for almsgiving. We would go to drink a coffee with him even when we didn’t need a service, and would listen to his stories heavy with nostalgia for Istanbul. He never managed to feel completely at home in Belgium.
I did not deal with the Turkish-Armenian issue in my career until 2004. My colleagues who served in the relevant department at the Ministry, or in certain capital cities abroad, including Washington D.C., had been making tremendous efforts to prevent the erecting of “genocide monuments” or other political statements in support of the Armenian thesis. They would cheer when they succeeded and were deeply disappointed when they failed.
While we suffered heavy losses as a result of Asala’s heinous terrorist attacks and brilliant diplomats were killed just because they were representing Turkey, we never linked these incidents to the longstanding Armenian community in our country. In the mid-1990s, in our internal discussions at the Foreign Ministry, we began to explore the idea that an independent state of Armenia could perhaps act on its own while resisting the pressure of the highly rigid diaspora, and accept to forge a mutually beneficial, good neighborly cooperative relationship with Turkey. A group of retired diplomats and academics met with their counterparts from Armenia and their diaspora in USA. This initiative was unsuccessful, but was followed later on by secret talks between the respective Foreign Ministry officials in a third country.
In 2004, I was appointed as the Deputy Secretary of State in charge of bilateral political relations (Political Director). I was asked, along with my other responsibilities, to head our delegation at the talks with Armenian officials. I met three times with the Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister and his colleagues. I got the impression, however, that the political authorities on both sides were not yet ready to take the necessary courageous steps for reconciliation and normalization. The talks were suspended. In late 2006, I was appointed as Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva. A year later, I was pleased to learn that the talks with Armenia had been resumed with the facilitation of the Swiss Government. This process led to the agreement of the Zurich Protocols, which were signed in October 2009. The Swiss, American, Russian and French Foreign Ministers as well as the EU High Representative Solana were present at the signature ceremony between the Foreign Ministers of Turkey and Armenia. The Protocols entailed the normalization of the bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey and the formation of a Joint Commission of historians to study the tragic events of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, which resulted in the death of thousands of Armenians. Although the signature of these protocols raised the hopes among many people, including myself, they were unfortunately not put into effect. The two sides blamed each other, declining responsibility. A great opportunity was missed.
During my stint as the Permanent Representative of Turkey to different U.N.
organizations in Geneva, I was also in charge of the Human Rights Council. A Universal Peer Review (UPR) mechanism was initiated according to which the human rights performance of each U.N. member was assessed by other countries in plenary sessions. Delegations from capitals mostly led by Ministers would make a presentation followed by Q&As. In early 2007, it was the turn of Armenia to be reviewed. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was leading his delegation. At the end of his remarks, he referred to the assassination of Hrant Dink (a Turkish journalist of Armenian descent) on 19 January 2007 in Istanbul and he criticized the Turkish authorities for neglecting to take the necessary measures to prevent this incident. In my reply, I said that Mr Dink had been a highly respected journalist in my country, and that the Turkish people were deeply saddened by his loss as a result of a heinous attack. I added that the perpetrators would no doubt be caught soon and brought to justice. I didn’t imagine then that this would take nearly fourteen years.
Finally, I wish to touch upon an event in The Hague where I was the Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The Ambassador of Armenia hosted a well-attended cultural event at which musicians and dancers who came from her country gave performances. I almost felt like I was listening to songs I knew, sung in another language; the music was so familiar. When the folkloric dance group came to the podium, accompanied by musicians playing similar instruments to some regions of Turkey, I was stunned and moved. I realized once again, that the similarities between our two peoples are much greater and deeper than the differences.
In this narrative, I have written of the Armenians I met in my private and professional lives in the past fifty years, in different locations and times. I recounted anecdotes and shared some observations that are no doubt echoed by similar interactions between the two peoples. I hope that the reader will remember their Armenian friends, neighbors and those who emigrated to foreign countries and acknowledge the deep cultural bonds and warm sentiments that we share. The same is valid for Armenians who had Turkish friends in different episodes of their lives. If we can create such an awareness among the two peoples and spread it widely, we could forge a sustainable relationship characterized by mutual trust instead of suspicion; reconciliation and peace instead of rancor and revenge; mutual love and respect instead of animosity or hatred.
I have always thought that the issues stemming from historical events between the Turks and Armenians need to be tackled by their representatives and not by third parties. The latter can play a facilitating role as the Swiss did in 2007-2009. As was foreseen by the Zurich Protocols, a joint commission of historians, if agreed, can begin addressing this issue with a view to unearthing the truth. In parallel, the normalization process between Armenia and Turkey can be initiated. Such a two-pronged process may result in a positive outcome in a short while since the legal framework is already there requiring the ratification by the two countries.
If this happens, it may also help to heal the wounds between Azerbaijan and Armenia and to establish peace and stability in the Caucasus. Normalized relations between Turkey and Armenia, with open borders and diplomatic representation, will certainly work in the interest of all sides.
I hope that the US and other Western countries as well as the Russian Federation will encourage the Governments of Armenia and Turkey to seize the opportunity and engage in a comprehensive reconciliation and normalization process. The Armenian diaspora can also play a positive role by supporting such an initiative. Reconciliation must be achieved between not only the two countries but also between Turks and Armenians throughout the world. I believe that the two peoples deserve this after so many generations.
Original Title: Article by Ambassador (R) Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and GRF Vice-Chairman, On His Memories and Observations Regarding Turkish-Armenian Relations