I don’t often post about mainstream ‘political’ things. This is partly because of my job, which requires me to be ‘discreet’ about politics, but also because of a deep ambivalence. I don’t feel inclined to join in when I see my peace-loving friends hating on Tony Abbott and the Liberals, often for things that Labor would be doing if it was in government. The Greens would probably do them too, if they ever had to try and please everybody instead of just pleasing their friends. All of that anger and hate doesn’t give me much confidence that there is a new day ahead, so I tend to just stay out of it.
There was, however, one item in the news this week that made my blood boil. None of my friends have posted about it, which is no surprise, as it appeared late on SBS news and probably didn’t appear on the other channels at all. It was the announcement that Australia will not attend the centenary commemorations of the Armenian genocide in Yerevan later this month. SBS cited a letter from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirming that, ‘Australia does not recognise these events as genocide’.
Bishop’s letter also assured the Turkish government that ‘the position of successive Australian governments’ has not changed. Not the plural ‘governments’. Labor governments were no better. Bob Carr, the previous Foreign Minister, acknowledged the Armenian genocide when he was Premier of New South Wales. Once he became Foreign Minister, he went very quiet on the subject. One exception to this morally bankrupt consensus is federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, who wrote, ‘there is simply no other word for what happened to the Armenian people of Ottoman Turkey’. Hockey is, as it happens, of Lebanese/Armenian descent.
For those who are already aware of this issue, please forgive me taking a moment to recount the events in question. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, about 2 million Christian Armenians lived within the Ottoman Empire, in what is now eastern Turkey. As the Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany, the Russians invaded Turkey from the north-east – through present-day Armenia. In December 1914, at the Battle of Sarakamish - the Ottomans suffered one of the most catastrophic defeats of the war, losing over 60,000 men. It was this defeat, incidentally, that convinced the British government that invading Turkey would be a good idea.
More importantly, the Turkish government blamed the defeat not on their own ineptitude but on the Armenian community, elements of which had joined the Russian side. The Turkish government then began a systematic campaign against the entire Armenian community, most of whom lived far from the battle zone and had nothing to do with any of it. On 24 April 1915 – the day before the Gallipoli landings - 250 Armenian intellectuals were arrested in Constantinople (now Istanbul). They were taken out of the city and later murdered. More were to follow. The thousands of Armenians in the Turkish army were taken out and shot, or sent to labour battalions and worked to death.
Without leadership, and without men, the rest of the community were easy prey. As Australians sat in trenches on the Gallipoli peninsula, all over eastern Turkey, Armenians were being ‘deported’. Thousands were massacred, tens of thousands sent on death marches into the desert where they died of starvation and disease. The accounts beggar belief: women and children towed out into the Black Sea and thrown overboard, thrown into caves, burned alive. A few were taken into Turkish and Kurdish families and forced to convert to Islam. More were robbed, raped and murdered by bandits. Nobody knows how many died – probably about a million people. Starving refugees crowded into the cities of Syria. Those who survived emigrated, to Lebanon, to France, and to America. An ancient civilisation was simply wiped from the map.
These events were well known and widely reported, even during the war. Diplomats and missionaries from Scandinavia and the US (neutral at the time) witnessed people being murdered and saw the bodies lining the roads of eastern Turkey. They made representations to the Turkish government - which had ordered the deportations - and were ignored. After the war a handful of Turkish officials were arrested by the British, but they were eventually released. The genocide was largely forgotten. In 1939, Adolf Hitler could confidently say, ‘who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’
The Armenian people have not forgotten, though. For nearly a hundred years they have campaigned for international recognition of the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government has consistently, and vociferously, denied that any genocide took place. And other governments around the world have consistently fudged the issue and stayed quiet and used weasel words and neglected to use the word ‘genocide’ and effectively denied that it took place. Why? To stay in Turkey’s good books, that’s why. Because Turkey is a western ally in the Middle East and we need them.
There is something particularly nauseating about the Australian government’s denial, though. Australia has a special relationship with Gallipoli and the ceremonies at Anzac Cove. As a key site in the birth of Australian national identity, it is almost a sacred place for us. Mustafa Kemal, the general who commanded the Turkish forces at Gallipoli and later became Kemal Ataturk, the first president of modern Turkey, wrote eloquently of this relationship between Turkey and Australia:
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."
Ataturk’s fine words now appear on his memorial in Canberra – he is the only enemy general to be honoured in such a way.
Yet is there not something rather nauseating about the knowledge that while Australia’s sons were being taken into Turkey’s comforting bosom, the bodies of Armenian children – who were born in Turkey and died in Turkey, at Turkish hands – were lying unburied in the deserts of Anatolia? And that our current Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, refuses to go to Armenia to mark the centenary of the genocide? Instead he will travel to Turkey to attend the commemorations at Gallipoli, and have not a single word to say about this monstrous crime. Shame, Australia, shame.