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Turks Come to Town to Give the Other Side of 'Genocide'

By Nora Boustany, The Washington Post,
Friday 6 October 2000; Page A22

Armed with a Turkish version of what happened to Armenians early in the 20th century under Ottoman rule, five members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly came to Washington to lobby Congress this week against passage of a proposed House resolution endorsing charges of genocide by Turkish soldiers against Armenian civilians.

This is the first time the Turkish parliament takes such an initiative. It is an all-party national delegation because we realized that what is in the making may have a very undesirable effect, warned Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik in an interview.

Armenians have for years charged that Turkish soldiers slaughtered 1.5 million men, women and children gathered in churches and along roads as they fled across eastern Turkey between 1915 and 1923. The Ottoman Empire became Turkey in 1923. Ross Vartian, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, a political action group, said the House vote would be for America's continued moral leadership in the new century.

Irtemcelik and his colleagues retort that Armenians also killed Turkish troops at the time, when the Ottoman Empire was under siege from Russia as well as other armies on other fronts during World War I.

There is an effort to categorize tragic events toward the end of the Ottoman Empire as genocide, which means a state must have taken a decision to exterminate a group of people systematically, said Irtemcelik, a former human rights minister and now a legislator from Istanbul for the Motherland Party. He stressed there is no documentation that a decision to commit genocide was ever made, even when reminded of first-person accounts from Armenian survivors.

A colleague, Temel Karamollaoglu, said a couple hundred thousand Turks were killed by Armenians. Others in the delegation said this has never been an issue because Turks want to bury and forget the past.

Yes, yes, massacres happened on both sides. When things get out of control, these things happen, Irtemcelik conceded. If the United States had been occupied on three different fronts and certain people from different ethnic origin were responsible for subversive activities in the rear of your armies, what kind of decision would you have made? You might have decided on genocide or emptied that region and relocated those people. What happened was the alternative to genocide, he said of the cleansing of eastern Turkey of its Armenian residents.

When prodded about whether the relocation was forced by Turkish soldiers, he replied: Yes, of course. The delegation displayed books including accounts of rebel soldiers led by an Armenian general shooting Ottoman soldiers in the back.

There was an uprising in the eastern part of Turkey. People living there became enemies. There was killing on both sides. It was instigated by the Armenians, Karamollaoglu insisted. He said Armenian officers had started a rebellion and began collaborating actively with the Russian army, so the Ottoman government made the decision to relocate those living in eastern Anatolia to the southern part of the empire in Syria.

A good number of Ottoman Armenians reached Syria, and not a single Armenian in other parts of Turkey was hurt, interjected Tayyibe Gulek. If you had grown up in Turkey, you would have heard our stories. This resolution is digging up things we did not do. This country, the United States, which we have been loyal to, has called on us to help during the Gulf War, the crisis in Kosovo, and now they do this to us..

My grandfather was in the Ottoman army, and I refuse to believe he was involved in something like this, press counselor Namik Tan said. This is not part of our past.

The five Turkish legislators are scheduled to return home today. The House resolution, which was voted out of committee Tuesday, calls on the president to formally recognize the deaths as the Armenian genocide.