Today is the anniversary of the Armenian genocide that began 103 years ago when the Ottoman government arrested hundreds Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul.
The mass murder of Ottoman citizens by their own government and the destruction of a population that had lived in Anatolia for thousands of years was never discussed, neither in the remaining few years of the Ottoman Empire, nor in its successor, Turkey.
Mourning, confrontation, remembering, taking responsibility, accountability, punishment, commemoration, compensation; none of these acts essential to justice have ever taken place in Turkey.
The genocide of 1915-16 was the peak of the religious and ethnic cleansing that followed the targeting of non-Muslims. It was also the keystone of the homogenous nation on which the Republic of Turkey was founded.
The state and a vast majority of its people have devoted a whole century to erase this period from memory. We can say this process has been quite successful.
The resulting amnesia, however, came at an enormous cost. It established itself as the basis of Turkey’s failure to find salvation for almost a century, morally, politically and in terms of achieving social peace.
Whereas the whole world is aware of that period, Turkey can only impose upon itself this fake reality. With each passing day, the memory of the genocide becomes even deeper in places other than the crime scene. And we continuously store up victimhood from that.
Victimhood, which is an utterly negative state of mind and conscience, deepens wounds that we are not even aware of. We are overwhelmed with our unworthy loneliness, by first rumbling and then getting offended. Just as is the case with the Kurdish problem or other numerous political and social issues, they are closely linked to our roots, which have been decaying for a century.
Today, I want to give a recent example of this wretchedness. This is the story of Armenian-French artist Melik Ohanian’s urban installation named “Streetlights of Memory”.
The idea first developed in Geneva in 2005. Residents of the city with Armenian origins applied to the city council to erect a monument in remembrance of what happened to Ottoman Armenians, mark the Armenian history of Geneva and the importance of the genocide to the United Nations mission in the city. The city council accepted the application.
At the end of 2007, it decided to call for designs for the monument. It is decided that the Geneva-Armenian community would finance the monument and the city council would provide the space. Ohanian won the contest in 2010, and there the problems started to emerge.
Naturally, the objective of the Armenian community was to complete the monument for the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2015. Yet, genocide-denying Turks made a big fuss about the selection of the site.
The first location chosen in the historic centre of Geneva was rejected after numerous objections. The city council hesitated when the Swiss federal government intervened and raised reservations about the next site, in Ariana Park next to the UN. The intervention of the then Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his implicit, customary threats played a role in the federal government’s intervention. The legal hustle and bustle got longer and longer and the monument could not be completed by 2015.
In order to illustrate what happened, the artist dismantled a few of the streetlights and exhibited them in the 2015 Venice Biennale, in the Armenian pavilion located on the island San Lazzaro degli Armeni, which won the Golden Lion award that year. He also wrote a book about the saga of the monument.
In short, the genocide became more widely known as a consequence of the monument, for 10 years. Eventually the city council suggested a third place, in Geneva’s Tremblay Park. The city council this time rejected the baseless objections and ignored the lion-hearted Turkish patriots. The monument was opened on April 13.
I recommend those interested to read an article in English and an interview made with historian Vicken Cheterian in French. As far as I am aware, apart from the Turkish pro-government newspapers that reviled against the monument, the Armenian and Turkish-language newspaper AGOS was the only Turkish media outlet to follow the story.
Our denialist patriots gathered under the Federation of French-speaking Switzerland Turkish Associations. Their president is Celal Bayar, the grandson of a former Turkish president.
On the day the monument was opened, the federation published a denialist promotional flyer in the Tribune de Genève newspaper. The visual they used is as kitsch as the horrendous sculptures that are visually polluting Anatolia and is blood red, as if they are accepting the genocide itself.
To reply in kind to this primitiveness, let us finish with the words of the jury that selected Ohanian: “The lamppost is engraved with texts on trauma, the transmission of memory and which have been chosen for their universal resonance. A chrome-plated tear, in which you can see your own reflection and that of those around you, replaces the bulb. When night falls, it is illuminated in luminous orange like a candle flame from a source on the ground.”