President Obama’s visit to Turkey highlights one of that country’s most difficult foreign policy issues: the lasting controversy over Turkey’s role in the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. President Obama aptly praised Turkey’s recent efforts to solve this long lasting problem.
In 1915, as the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes, almost 1,000,000 Armenians were massacred, and many others were forced into exile from their land. The circumstances that led to this ordeal are still under spirited discussions.
The result of these events is Armenians hatred for the Turks, almost a century after the devastating events of 1915 which Armenians consider genocide. During a trip to Armenia I was once again reminded of man's inhumanity to man. I also found myself face-to-face once again with the power of memory and of hate.
Can this hatred be overcome so that a productive relationship between the two countries can be brought about? It is obviously too late to bring those responsible to justice. However, it should be possible to reach a level of understanding and cooperation between the two societies.
I spoke with Professor Mira Antonyan, director of the Fund for Armenian Relief, about the effects of those events on Armenians today. “The only thing that unites us now is our resentment against the Turks for the events of the past” she told me. That feeling was shared by her husband and a friend of both, who regularly trade with Turkish businessmen. “Being Armenian means having sad memories," she added.
I told them that I felt Armenians were in a quagmire, unable to move forward because of the tremendous weight of past events. "Perhaps you are right," Mira's husband answered, "but genocide is a very heavy burden on our shoulders. We cannot just forget what happened. We cannot erase our memory."
I believe that there is a generational divide on the question. The older generation—those over 50—insist on the need for an apology from the Turkish government for the assassination of Armenians. The younger generations, without rejecting the facts of history, feel the need to overcome the negative effects of those memories. They believe that such visceral attachment to the past is self-defeating.
Kamilla Petrosyan, an Armenian psychiatrist in her late 30s, told me how her 4-year-old son arrived home one day from kindergarten frightened to death on learning that day about the 1915 massacres. "We have to stop this culture of victimization," she said, "otherwise we will never be able to move forward."
Something similar happens in Turkey. Arman Artuc, editor of the HyeTert news portal in Istanbul, told me recently, "Almost everybody living in Turkey grew up with stories (beginning with primary school textbooks, newspapers and other media) of how cruel Armenians have been to Turks during and after WWI using a language of hatred and insults. Only recently commissions were established to change the textbooks and remove such language"
These and other events demonstrate that the Turks too are beginning to show signs of the need to move forward. A number of Turkish intellectuals, including last year's winner of the Noble Prize for literature, Orhan Pamuk, have made public statements to that effect. Turkish President Abdullah Gul has been quite forceful on the need and mutual convenience to have better relations between both countries and has called for the formation of a joint commission of Turkish and American scholars to assess past events.
The creation of a commission of both Turkish and Armenian historians under the auspices of the United Nations and with representatives from the International Court of Justice at The Hague is an important and necessary step. The task of such commission would be to analyze historical documents that will shed definitive light on the events of the past.
A change of paradigm that will allow us to move away from a culture of violence is desperately needed. We should take advantage of the present situation to create an irreversible motion towards mutual understanding through the implementation of a wide range of peace building measures that will create a strong foundation for cooperation.
Some important steps have already been taken. In July 2008, Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian invited Turkish president Abdullah Gul to visit Armenia. The visit, which took place in September 2008, was the first-ever visit of a Turkish head of state to Armenia. This event was followed by high level talks among officials from both countries.
Richard Giragosian, Director of the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies (ACNIS) in Yerevan wrote recently that a changing relationship can result in a “win-win” situation for both countries. For Armenia, it offers new economic opportunities and a much-needed foreign policy success. For Turkey, it will result in improved status vis-à-vis the European Union and the U.S.
The importance of an agreement for peace and cooperation between Turkey and Armenia goes beyond their borders. In a world wired for war, it can show that peace and understanding between peoples burdened by the past is still possible, and create a psychological momentum for peace that would allow reaching similar agreements in other parts of the world.
It is only by constructing bridges of understanding—particularly working with young people, still untainted by the weight of the past—that we will be able to change the present paradigm of violence and war for one of collaboration and peace.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is the co-author of "Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims," a New York Times Magazine cover story, for which he shared an Overseas Press Club of America award. Dr. Chelala is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia).