The Armenian Question: A Snapshot

Taner Akcam is one of the first scholars of Turkish origin to speak and write about the killing of one and half million Armenians by the Ottoman government during the First World War. Many academics and historians have been charged under Law 301 - which makes insulting "Turkishness" a crime.

Last year, the Turkish government, driven by its desire of European Union membership, amended the law and eased restrictions on free speech. Recently, at an event organized by Columbia University's Armenian Students Association, Akcam said, "After decades of suppression the lid has blown off the Armenian genocide in Turkish society."

Akcam told the emotionally charged audience that the record should be set straight: "You cannot solve ethnic problems without facing history." Turkish denial of the events is attributed to years of government propaganda. The subject, though less taboo today, remains shrouded. On a visit to Turkey, President Barack Obama did not use the word 'genocide.' Clearly, the matter is far from resolved.

The moderator at the Armenian Students Association meeting, Andrea Kannapell, pointed out that the panel discussion was for people who believed that genocide had taken place. It was not to debate its occurrence. A student from Columbia Law School, who asked not to be named, said that for "academic integrity, the panel should have included a historian with an opposite view."

After the event, the president of the Turkish Initiative at the School of International and Public Affairs, Tolga Turan said that "They said that this would be an academic discussion. But they presented only one view." He was shocked at being asked to step away from the microphone by a security guard. According to Turan, "Nobody denies that Armenians were killed but there is no archival material that proves a centrally planned massacre."

An Armenian student from Columbia's engineering department said, "Turks use these different ideas to justify what happened," he said. "It did happen. You can't deny it." The student did not want to be named because he has received death threats in the past.

The word 'genocide' sticks out like a sore thumb. The conversation can't seem to move past this label. Turkey contends that the deaths resulted from civil war and that their numbers were exaggerated.

A common sentiment on both sides was to open up the Armenian archives in Boston and Paris. "Even if we don't use the word 'genocide' you can't justify killing of a million people," said the Armenian student.

The audience was also addressed by Mark Geragos, a trial lawyer who led Federal Class Action law suits against New York Life Insurance and AXA Corporation for insurance policies issued during the time of the killings in Turkey. The cases were settled for 37.5 million dollars.

Geragos, an Armenian himself, said that his legal battles had shifted from recognition to reparation. "Restitution is a fundamental right of a victim." This means possibly getting back the Armenian land and money, which was confiscated by Turkish officials.

Already, Geragos said that he was collecting land deeds. This could result in future action. Individual deeds could not be used to claim land because the case has to be presented in Turkey, which was a problem. The lawyer caused quite a stir to the Turkish part of the audience when he said that Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark lodged after the great deluge, should be given back to the Armenians.

The highest peak in Turkey, holy for the Armenians, lies to the extreme northeast and 20 miles south of Armenia. Someone in the audience responded, "How fair is it to displace the people who live there now?" He added, "Half of this country should be given back to the native Americans." Akcam warned that it was unwise to mess with the territories and boundaries in the Middle East. "Ararat should be open to everyone," he said.

The scholar also noted that it was important to support Turkey's bid for a position in the European Union and encourage diplomatic relations with Armenia. "Language" was the key to moving the Armenian question forward in Turkish society. "Change our language," he said. "The language of conflict is different from the language of reconciliation." In September, President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish leader to visit Armenia.

On April 24, the Armenian Diaspora remembers the night in 1915 when around 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals were rounded up in Constantinople. They were taken to a prison in Anatolia and executed.

Obama called the killings that lasted from 1915 to 1918 genocide during his presidential campaign. Turkey is militarily strategic to Washington. Will he call it genocide on April 24?

A journalist in New York, Kahraman Haliscelik, is from Sanliurfa in South East Turkey. "Sanli" means great. The city was given the title "great" for the heroic fight it put up against French occupation. "I did not grow up with propaganda. I grew up with stories," he said. These were stories that his great grandmother told him of how the Armenians sided with the colonizers and killed the Turks.

Haliscelik compares the march of the Armenians to the desert in Syria to the internment of Japanese in the US during the Second World War. The memories of the past have been passed on through the generations on both sides of the conflict. The talk of peace and reconciliation is difficult to achieve. "In our village it was the Armenians who killed their Turkish neighbors," he said. "They would not be welcome back in the village."

2009-04-11-Images-GenocideMemorial.jpg Genocide memorial at the Armenian Church in Khartoum.