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Turkish Writer Breaks Ranks on Genocide

History: Scholar tells L.A. audience his country was guilty of long-disputed massacre of Armenians between 1915 and 1923.

April 26, 1999|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nora Movel watched in awe as the mustachioed Turk addressed a crowd of hundreds of Armenians this month in Beverly Hills on a contentious point of history.

But to those who attended, the speech itself was historic.

In a tone plain and earnest, Taner Akcam spoke about the massacre that his country committed against the Armenians during the dying throes of the Ottoman Empire. Movel's grandfather and uncles were among the hundreds of thousands killed between 1915 and 1923, a slaughter that the Turkish government has long denied took place. Including those who perished from starvation during forced marches, the death toll during that period rose to more than a million Armenians.

"I never thought I'd live to see the day that a Turk comes out and says, 'We did it and we have to admit it,' " said Movel, an Armenian American who lives in Los Angeles.

By most accounts, Akcam is the first Turkish historian to publicly discuss a topic

that is taboo in his homeland, a dark chapter inextricably tied to Turkey's rise as a modern nation from the Ottoman rubble.

He has created a stir among Armenians worldwide, and has recently published a book on the massacre. The German-language book, which is also being sold in Turkey, supports the notion that the killing amounted to the century's first genocide.

Last week in Southern California, Akcam toured the largest Armenian community outside its homeland for the 84th anniversary of the tragedy. Saturday was Armenian Martyrs Day, a day of protests and quiet remembrance.

Akcam, who says he conducts research for a university in Hamburg, Germany, and has written several books, is speaking around North America in conjunction with a new documentary about the massacre. In "A Wall of Silence," by Dutch filmmaker Dorothee Forma, Akcam and a well-known Armenian historian compare their research.

Akcam stressed that his main message is not for the Armenians, but for his beloved Turkey.

"I'm concerned that if Turkey doesn't address this issue, it cannot become a democracy," he said.

Current human rights abuses by Turks against the Kurds, he said, are products of the same sense of insecurity that has long pervaded a country living in the shadow of its former glory. If Turks continue to prohibit such subjects for public debate, he said, oppression will inevitably remain.

But Turks say large numbers of Armenians died in what they call a civil war that also took many thousands of Turkish lives. Some argue that Westerners have accepted the occurrence of a genocide because of a religious bias toward Christian Armenians over Muslim Turks.

David Erbas-White, chairman of the American Turkish Assn. of Southern California, said politically powerful Armenians have revised history to blame only the Turks.

"Over the generations it's become a cause to kill for," he said, referring to the assassination of a Turkish consul general in Los Angeles in 1982.

The Turkish government vehemently denies that the nation's founders were involved in a genocide. They say the Armenians were collaborating with the Russians to overthrow the government in eastern Anatolia, and that thousands of Turks were killed, according to the Turkish consul general in Los Angeles, Hayri-Hayret Yalav. "I have read [Akcam's] books and I don't think they're supported by the facts," he said.

But to Armenians and their supporters, Akcam's message seems strikingly relevant as the world watches the turmoil in Kosovo, once a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Akcam, once a student dissident who tunneled out of a Turkish prison with the leg of an iron stove, said the events that have led to the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo are almost identical to those just before the Armenian massacres.

"An event like genocide doesn't just drop from the sky," he said. "It's part of a long historical process."

The massacres beginning in 1915 came as a nationalist group called the Young Turks took control of what remained of the multicultural Ottoman Empire, which had recently lost Bulgaria, Libya, Crete and the Balkans. A movement rose to form a new republic, wholly and proudly Turk, in the heart of the old empire.

This left about 2 million non-Muslim Armenians throughout the country, concentrated in their ancient homeland in eastern Anatolia.

Akcam believes that the Turks had faced such humiliating defeats and such vast losses of life and land that the nationalist furor and movement toward ethnic purity was seen as a way to restore lost honor.

"Today, the reaction of the Serbs is so similar to the reaction of the Ottoman Turks," he said. "It happens whenever national sovereignty and human rights are in contradiction."

Movel said she was moved by Akcam's speech in Beverly Hills on April 16. "This is very important," she said of the evening.

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