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Caroline Cox and John Eibner

Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh


[Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [Basic Facts] [A Conflict of Civilizations] [The Genocide] [The Pincers of Pan-Turkism] [Soviet Rule] [The Karabakh Question Revived] [Operation Ring] [The Post-Soviet Conflict] [The Characteristics of the People of Nagorno Karabakh] [The Prognosis: Continuing Bloodshed] [Conclusions] [Recommendations]


The Genocide

 

"Who speaks today about the Armenians?" Adolf Hitler, August 22, 1939. (Keystone)

The genocide of the Armenian community in Turkey provided the 20th century with its first example of 'ethnic cleansing' on a massive scale. The success of this exercise in virtually eliminating the Armenian population of Anatolia inspired Hitler. Addressing his army generals in 1939 the Führer declared that he had sent to the East his 'Death's Head Units, with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women and children of the Polish race", and then rhetorically asked: "Who speaks today about (the extermination of - ed.) the Armenians?" He answered: "The world respects nothing other than successful results." As 'ethnic cleansing" has again become a feature of European politics - e.g. in northern Cyprus, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nagorno Karabakh - Hitler's conclusion rings horribly true.

 

The Pogroms of the 1890s
The 'Young Turks'

 

The Pogroms of the 1890s

The ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Turkey reached its peak in 1914-16. But the process began to gain momentum more than thirty years beforehand. The Sultan Abdul Hamid, fearing the growing power of non-Muslim independence movements in the Balkans, set out to reinforce the Islamic fabric of his empire. He therefore made peace with the Muslim Kurds, who had been in revolt, and organized them into cavalry regiments to keep the Armenians in check. The regiments terrorized the Armenian community, committing murder, looting and pillaging. The effect of this repression was to give impetus to the development of underground Armenian political organizations with the aim of emancipation from the degrading status of rayah. Several of them such as the Hunchak and Dashnak parties believed that freedom could be obtained in Ottoman Turkey only by the intervention of Russia and by the use of revolutionary means. The Dashnaks organized self-defense units whose members were called fedayis - an Arabic term signifying one committed to die for one's faith. Armenian political activity intensified.

The response of Sultan Abdul Hamid's government was swift. In 1893 more than 1,800 Christians, mainly Armenians, were arbitrarily imprisoned. Most were tortured. Amongst those arrested were two Armenian Protestant pastors who were released on account of protests from Great Britain. The following year the wave of arrests snow-balled into government-sponsored pogroms. Throughout central and eastern Anatolia Armenian communities were subjected to brutal assaults. The pattern of the pogroms was remarkably uniform. Members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, as opposed to Armenian Catholics and Protestants, were singled out for attack. Catholics and Protestants were warned in advance to remain in their churches on Sundays. At an appointed time the Muslim population backed by Turkish troops would rise against the Armenian Apostolic Christians, murdering, mutilating and plundering.

The French consul in the southeastern town of Diabarkir reported to his embassy on November 3, 1895 his own eyewitness account of the massacre of Armenians there:

 

"The Muslims of the city have begun a massacre of the Armenians, without any provocation from them. The Vali, the Military Commander and the Police Chief have seen the atrocities and have not done the least to put a stop to them. I have seen with my own eyes that soldiers and gendarmerie took the side of the Muslims and Kurds and have shot the Christians, and that the Christians used their weapons only when they saw no other way to save their lives." (Koutcharian, p. 97)

 

In the southeastern town of Urfa 3,000 Armenians took refuge in their cathedral on December 28-29. 1895. Turkish troops broke down the doors and shot many of the refugees. They then used kerosene and kindling to set the cathedral alight. The British consul subsequently described the scene:

 

"The gallery beams and wooden framework soon caught fire, whereupon, blocking up the staircase leading to the gallery with similar inflammable materials, they left the mass of struggling human beings to become the prey of flames. During several hours the sickening odour of roasting flesh pervaded the town, and even today, two months and a half after the massacre, the smell of putrescent and charred remains in the church is unbearable." (Walker, 1991, p. 24)

 

The massacres were not restricted to the central and eastern provinces. In a desperate attempt to encourage the European powers to invervene, the Hunchak party organized a demonstration from the Armenian Cathedral to the seat of government. The Armenian Patriarch Matteos Izmirlian was asked by victims of the pogroms to convey a simple message to European diplomats: "The annihilation of an entire Christian nation will be a shame to Europe, if it does not intervene on our behalf!" (Koutcharian, p. 101) The result of the demonstration was blood in the streets of the Turkish capital. Soldiers and police attacked the mainly unarmed demonstrators. 20 Armenians were shot dead and 100 were wounded.

This attack on Armenian demonstrators was but a prelude to a broader assault on Constantinople's Armenian community. On August 26, 1896 a group of young Armenians occupied Constantinople's Ottoman Bank - apparently with the knowledge of the Turkish authorities - and threatened to blow it up together with the bank's 160 employees. This desperate terrorist act was intended to prompt the European powers to offer protection to Turkey's Armenian provinces and to extort reforms. After 16 hours the hostages were released and the Turkish authorities allowed the Armenian terrorists safe passage to France. But the act of terrorism was used as a pretext for reprisals against Constantinople's innocent Armenian community. For the next two days uniformed policemen, religious fanatics and Kurdish tribesmen brought in for the occasion massacred the Armenian population of Constantinople. Approximately 10,000 Armenians were murdered, and at least 6,000 were imprisoned. A further 20,000 Armenians were forcibly deported from Constantinople to central and eastern Anatolia. The Armenian community in the Turkish capital was now greatly diminished.

Three collective European diplomatic protests eventually had their effect. The wave of massacres subsided. But not before somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenian men, women and children had perished. Approximately 100,000 fled the country. Tens of thousands escaped death only by conversion to Islam. Many Armenian women and children were sold into slavery.

 

The 'Young Turks'

Hopes for the peaceful coexistence of Armenians and Turks in the Ottoman Empire were raised in 1908. The 'Young Turk' revolution swept away the conservative Islamic autocracy of the Sultan Abdul Hamid and held out the promise of liberal constitutional government. The 'Young Turks' were supported by Armenian political groups. A British diplomat in Constantinople wrote to the Foreign Office two days after the 'Young Turks' seized power: "The crowd is animated with good humour, and it is remarkable to see the fraternisation of Muslims and Christians, especially the Armenians." (Walker, 1980, p. 181) But the tolerance and liberalism of the 'Young Turk' masters of Constantinople proved superficial. The rule of the 'Young Turks' degenerated into a ruthless dictatorship with pan-Turkism as its ideology. Their dual aims were the forcible Turkification of Turkey's ethnic minorities and political union with the Turks of Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

The outbreak of World War I provided the 'Young Turks' with an opportunity to fulfil their aims. On the one hand, the war diverted the attention of the European powers from Turkey's domestic affairs. The 'Young Turks' were now in a position to treat the Armenians and other non-Turkic minorities as they wished without fear of reprisals from the Great Powers. On the other hand, Turkey's alliance with Germany in the war against Russia held the promise of union with the Turks of Azerbaijan and Central Asia, then under Russian rule. The 'Young Turks' seized the opportunity. In November 1914 they drafted a proclamation signed by the Caliph calling for a Holy War against the enemies of Islam, in particular Russia, Great Britain and France. By mid-February 1915 the 'Young Turk' leadership had committed itself to a plan for the extermination of the Armenians -a plan strikingly similar to that put into operation against the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh in the spring and summer of 1991.

The first move of the Turkish authorities was designed to deny the Armenian community the possibility of self-defense. In February 1915, Armenians were purged from the state administration and from combat positions in the army. Armenian officers in the Turkish army and tens of thousands of able-bodied civilian men were taken as hostages. Then Armenian communities throughout Turkey were subjected to searches for arms conducted by special detatchments of heavily armed Turks and Kurds - in many cases criminals released from prison to perform this task. The searches were accompanied by barbarous atrocities, such as rape, roasting women and children to death, the Turkish falaka - hanging the victim upside down while beating the soles of the feet - and crucifixions. This was followed by orders for the deportation of the entire Armenian population of Turkey. The Turkish authorities took the trouble to provide a legal basis for this action - "The Provisional Law for the Deportation of Suspicious People" of May 5, 1915:

 

"When military necessity requires, the commanders of the army, those of the army corps and the divisions, can deport the inhabitants of towns and villages, individually or collectively and resettle them elsewhere, if suspected of treason or espionage." (Koutcharian, p. 118)

 

The deportations had a well-defined pattern. First, able-bodied Armenian men were ordered to report to their local government office, where they were arrested. They were then shot or stabbed to death. Left entirely leaderless, the old men, women and children were forced to make the long death march across the desert of northern Syria to Aleppo from where they were sent east into the Mesopotamian desert or south in the direction of Damascus. The trail was littered with corpses. The survivors were placed in concentration camps. The camps were teeming with emaciated women and children, ravaged by starvation, dysentery and typhus. The Turkish authorities obstructed efforts to provide relief. Western diplomats and missionaries were prevented from offering assistance. Respectable Turks and Kurds too were sickened by the horrors. But help offered to the Armenians by members of the Muslim community was punishable by death. The Governor of Van issued an order declaring: "The Armenians must be exterminated. If any Muslim protect a Christian, first his house shall be burnt; then the Christian killed before his eyes, then his (the Muslim's - ed.) family and himself." (Walker, 1980, p. 207) Some, nevertheless, could do no other than take this risk.

The Italian consul at Trebizond, Signor Gorrini was one of many western diplomats and missionaries to provide shocking eyewitness accounts of the forced deportations:

 

"I was given over to nerves and nausea, so terrible was the torment of having to look on at the wholesale execution of these defenceless, innocent creatures. The passing gangs of Armenian exiles beneath the windows and before the door of the consulate; their prayers for help, when neither I nor any other could do anything to answer them; the city in a state of siege, guarded at every point by 15,000 troops in complete war equipment, by thousands of police agents, by bands of volunteers and by members of the 'Committee of Union and Progress' (the 'Young Turk' leadership - ed.); the lamentations, the tears, the abandonments, the imprecations, the many suicides, the instantaneous deaths from sheer terror, the sudden unhinging of men's reason, the conflagrations, the shootings of victims in the city, the ruthless searches through the houses and in the countryside; the hundreds of corpses found every day along the exile road; the young women converted by force to Islam or exiled like the rest; the children torn away from their families or from the Christian schools, and handed over by force to Muslim families, or else placed by hundreds on board ship in nothing but their shirts, and then capsized and drowned in the Black Sea and the river Deyirmen Dere - these are my last ineffaceable memories of Trebizond, memories which still, at a month's distance, torment my soul and almost drive me frantic." (Toynbee, 1916, pp. 291-2. The horrors of the genocide have been amply and meticulously documented by Lord Bryce and Prof. Toynbee in British Parliamentary Blue Book, Miscellaneous No. 31 (1916), reprinted and published under the title The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and in the German language publications of Johannes Lepsius.)

 

The Turkish authorities sought to justify such atrocities by claiming that the Armenians were in rebellion. But the German liaison officer in Erzerum, Gen. Posselt, informed his embassy on April 26, 1914 that "the Armenians will stay calm if they are not pressured or molested by the Turks", and that "the behaviour of the Armenians has been perfect". (Walker, 1980, p. 214) In some locations, such as in Van and Sivas the Armenians managed to put up some armed resistance. But, greatly outnumbered and outgunned, they were overcome. By the end of World War I, Anatolian Turkey was virtually devoid of Armenians. Of Turkey's 2 million-plus Armenians, 1.5 million perished. About 850,000 survived. Roughly 250,000 of the survivors escaped to Russia. An estimated 200,000 were forcibly Islamized and remained in Anatolia. Approximately 400,000 deported Armenians were discovered by the victorious allies in Turkey's Syrian provinces.

The plight of the Armenians of Turkey was known in Europe and North America. Western public opinion was powerfully moved. But the action of governments was determined by Realpolitik. The allied governments declared on May 23, 1915 that "for about the last month Kurds and the Turkish population of Armenia have been engaged in massacring Armenians with the help and often the connivance of the Ottoman authorities" and promised to hold implicated Turkish government officials personally (Walker, 1980, p. 231).

Genocide 1915-16: Crucified Armenian women. (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker)

Charred and decapitated remains of Armenian victim of Maragha massacre, April 10, 1992. (CSI)

In response to President Woodrow Wilson's request for a statement of war aims, the allies in January 1917 stated among others: "the liberation of the peoples who now lie beneath the murderous tyranny of the Turks; and the expulsion from Europe of the Ottoman Empire, which has proved itself so radically alien to Western Civilisation". But Turkey's opponents in war, Britain, France and, after 1917, the United States, were in no position to fulfil these aims before the end of the War. On the other hand, Turkey's allies, Germany and the Habsburg Empire, were in a position to influence the government in Constantinople. The German Ambassador to Turkey, Baron von Wangenheim admitted to his government that "these measures are certainly very harsh for the Armenians". "However", he concluded, "I am of the opinion that we may only try to mitigate their form, but must not hinder them on principle." (Walker, 1980, p. 232) Subsequent German appeals for the 'mitigation' of the form of the genocide went unheeded.

 

 

Winning the war had far greater priority with the Central powers than stopping the genocide. After the war the victorious allies stopped short of the liberation of the oppressed non-Turkic peoples of Anatolia. Instead, the strengthening of Turkey against Europe's new menace, Bolshevik Russia, became the priority of Britain, France and the United States.

 

 

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