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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Explained: The Armenian Genocide, 105 years later

Armenian Genocide: According to estimates, 1.5 million Armenians died during the genocide, either in massacres and in killings, or from ill treatment, abuse and starvation.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata | Updated: April 29, 2020 10:53:36 am
Armenian refugess in Relief Committee tents, Aintab. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Armenian Genocide is often called the first genocide of the twentieth century. It refers to the systematic annihilation of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 to 1917. According to estimates, approximately 1.5 million Armenians died during the genocide, either in massacres and in killings, or from ill treatment, abuse and starvation. The Armenian diaspora marks April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. This year marks 105 years since the beginning of the genocide, something Turkey has consistently denied.

Why did the Armenian Genocide occur?

The Armenian Genocide occured during the First World War, and in many ways a direct result of the developments during the war. Although Armenians had always faced harassment and persecution in Asia Minor, this heightened around 1908. During the Ottoman rule, minorities like the Armenians were subjected to discriminatory treatment. For instance, they were forced to pay higher taxes. Despite this, they were an educated and wealthy community, characteristics that drew resentment from others.

The Armenians in the Ottoman empire were Christians by faith and the Ottoman Caliphate feared that the Armenians would bear allegiance to neighbouring countries, Russia for instance, with similar religious affiliations than the Ottoman empire, especially during a war.

A result of this continued hostility and suspicion towards Armenians was the first state-sanctioned pogroms called the Hamidian Massacres between 1894–1896. These violent massacres were implemented to crush protests against discrimination that was being perpetrated against minorities in the Ottoman Caliphate. In many ways, the Hamidian Massacres that resulted in the death of thousands of people, were a prelude to the Armenian Genocide. The reigning monarch, Abdul Hamid II was never held accountable for the massacres although researchers believe that the violence was perpetrated with his approval.

Who were the Young Turks?

In 1908, a political reform movement that called itself the Young Turks formed of intellectuals and revolutionaries, led a rebellion against Abdul Hamid II in an attempt to overthrow the monarchy in favour of a constitutional government. When the monarchy was overthrown, Armenians believed they may finally get a chance at equality in the state. However, as the political ideology of the Young Turks changed, the group became less tolerant of Armenians asking for liberties and freedoms. The Russo-Turkish wars and the conflict in the Balkans and Russia further increased hostilities against the Armenians.

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What happened during World War I?

After the First World War broke out in November 1914, the Ottoman Turks participated in the war, siding with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Ottoman Turks believed the Armenians would side with Russia in the war and aggressively engaged in propaganda against them. For many in the Ottoman Turkish army, their fears were confirmed when Armenians in the fringes of the Caucasus began organising volunteer battalions to fight for Russia against the Ottoman Turks. This resulted in the Ottoman Turks engaging in a mass-removal campaign of Armenians from the border areas along the Eastern Front.

On April 24, 1915, Ottoman Turkish government officials arrested and executed thousands of Armenian intellectuals. It was the start of the Armenian Genocide. Armenian families, including small children, were forced to walk for days without food, water and shelter in the deserts of Syria and Arabia. The Armenians were subjected to other indignities, having to walk naked under the sun, many dropping dead on the journey. Women and girls were subjected to widespread sexual violence and abuse and were also trafficked into sexual slavery.

For Armenians who had survived the journey, the violence and brutality continued in concentration camps across Syria and Iraq, where Armenian women were subjected to forced marriages to Muslim men. Armenians in villages were also burned in large groups and intentionally drowned in the Black Sea. Researchers of the Armenian Genocide say may actions against Armenians bear similarities to abuses and torture perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Property belonging to deported Armenians had also been confiscated by the Ottoman government.

Several Armenian objects and monuments of religious and cultural value and heritage were destroyed during the genocide, including churches and cemetaries. The genocide lasted till 1923.

What happened in the aftermath?

Many documents and evidence pertaining to the Armenian Genocide was destroyed a few years before and after the end of the war. While there is no official figure regarding the exact number of Armenians who were killed, researchers put the number at approximately 1.5 million. Thousands of Armenians were displaced and fled to countries around the world seeking refuge, including the Indian subcontinent. Several diplomats who were posted in the region during the Armenian Genocide had documented the occurences in personal diary entries as well as in official dispatches.

Following the war, displaced Armenians were not permitted to reacquire the property and belongings that they had been forced to leave behind during the genocide. Turkey has dismissed the use of the term “genocide” and has denied that Armenian were subjected to systematic killings.

Does Turkey recognise the Armenian Genocide?

Following years of criticism for genocide denials, in 2007, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Turkish Prime Minister, called for an alternative term to be used for the Armenian Genocide— 1915 Olayları, the ‘Events of 1915’. In Turkey, intellectuals and authors who have openly written about the Armenian Genocide have faced harassment, violence, arrest and have even been killed in retaliation.

As of 2020, the Armenian Genocide has been formally recognised by 32 countries and parliaments. While other countries may not have officially recognised the genocide, presently, only Turkey and Azerbaijan openly deny the occurence of the genocide. In the past, whenever a country has officially extended recognition to the Armenian Genocide, Turkey has threatened those governments with economic and diplomatic consequences. India does not officially recognise the Armenian Genocide.

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