A Turk Traces Her Armenian Roots

Special to The Times

Human rights lawyer Fethiye Cetin grew up believing she was like any other Muslim Turk.

So when the 55-year-old discovered nearly three decades ago that her maternal grandmother was an ethnic Armenian Christian who had survived a mass killing by Turkish forces during World War I, her “whole life was turned upside down,” she said in a recent interview.

As a 9-year-old caught up in the violence, her grandmother was rescued by a Turkish officer after witnessing countless horrors: men from her village killed and tossed into a river, families torn apart.

“May those days be gone and never return,” she was to later tell her granddaughter.


After her grandmother died in 2000, Cetin, who spent much of her career defending members of Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities, decided to reveal her secrets in a book called “My Grandmother.”

Published in November and already into its fifth edition, the book coincides with growing calls from within the European Union for Turkey to acknowledge that a genocide occurred as a condition for joining the organization.

Debate on the Armenian issue, counted among the most sensitive topics in this strongly nationalistic land, has been deadlocked in sterile wrangles over statistics and terminology.

Armenians say 1.5 million of their people died from 1915 to 1923 in a genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government. Millions of Armenians worldwide are set to mark the 90th anniversary of the start of the violence April 24.


Turkey has consistently denied that a genocide occurred, saying that several hundred thousand Armenians died of malnutrition, exposure and disease during forced deportations to Syria after they collaborated with invading Russian forces in eastern Turkey.

Using language that is at once wrenchingly emotional and determinedly neutral, Cetin’s work is significant because “it introduces a human dimension to the debate,” said Hrant Dink, chief editor of the Agos weekly, which serves Turkey’s 60,000-strong Armenian community. “She has melted the ice.”

Cetin says the debate is degrading. “The Armenians’ suffering has been reduced to a single word and to squabbles over figures,” she said during a reading last month before a small group of Armenians in Istanbul.

“The reality -- that every single one of these numbers represented a child, a woman, a man; in short, innocent human beings -- has been overlooked,” Cetin said as members of the audience silently wept.


Cetin said recent Turkish legislation aimed at easing the country’s entry into the EU has stimulated freer discussion on a broad range of topics that were taboo. “My aim is not to provoke but to reconcile” Turks and Armenians, she said.

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed calls for a joint commission of Turkish and Armenian scholars to research the events of 1915. He said the findings would disprove claims of genocide -- an indication, said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity, that “they are not willing to consider any other outcome.”

The Armenian government has rejected the initiative as a ploy, and critics allege that Turkey’s archives have been purged of incriminating documents.

Still, it is the first time Turkish leaders have invited international scrutiny of the deaths. In Istanbul, a group of Armenians is also preparing to launch the country’s first Armenian-language radio station.


This month, Agos editor Dink and another Armenian intellectual briefed the parliament in Ankara on Turkish-Armenian relations, the first session of its kind.

“We advised them as a first step to open Turkey’s borders with Armenia,” Dink said.

Turkey sealed its borders with the landlocked former Soviet republic in 1993 after Armenia occupied parts of Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan in a bitter war over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

Western diplomats here agreed that opening trade with its impoverished neighbor would burnish Turkey’s image both in Europe and the United States, where the influential Armenian diaspora is pressuring Congress to adopt a resolution recognizing the genocide.


Analysts here acknowledge, nonetheless, that any steps toward restoring ties with Armenia remain hugely risky for Erdogan amid a tide of resurgent nationalism.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s best-known contemporary novelist, should know. He became a target of death threats after telling a Swiss newspaper that “no one dares say that a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey,” his publisher says. An official in the western town of Sutluce went as far as to order residents to destroy all of Pamuk’s books. Fellow intellectuals accused him of angling for a Nobel Prize.

Cetin acknowledges that she’s surprised she hasn’t gotten a similar reaction. Rather, she said, she has been flooded with letters of support and phone calls from readers with similar hidden family stories. “It’s extraordinary how many people have Armenian blood -- and even more extraordinary that they would admit it in a country where the word ‘Armenian’ is commonly used as a slur,” she said.

Cetin says she is gathering their names for her next book. Its title? “The Grandchildren,” she said.