A high-level meeting on October 6, 2022, between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, brings hope for the end of one of the world’s longest and uncompromising conflicts. In 1915, as the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes, almost 1,000,000 Armenians were massacred in Anatolia, and many others were forced into exile from their land. The circumstances that led to what many historians consider the first genocide of the 20th century are still under spirited discussions.
A result of these events is Armenian hatred for the Turks, a century after the devastating events which Armenians consider genocide. During a trip to Armenia, I found myself face-to-face with the power of memory and hate, and reminded of the inhumanity of war. Can this conflict, which is hurting both countries, be overcome in favor of peace? Although it is obviously too late to bring those responsible to justice, it should be possible to reach a level of understanding and cooperation between the two countries.
I spoke with Professor Mira Antonyan, director of the Fund for Armenian Relief, about the effects of those events on Armenians today. “The main thing that unites us 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, who works in trade with Turkish businessmen. “Being Armenian means having sad memories,” she added.
I told them 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 cry every time I hear Mount Ararat song.”
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 mass assassination of Armenians. The younger generations, without rejecting the facts of history, feel the need to overcome the negative effects of those memories and move forward with their lives. They believe that such visceral attachment to the past is self-defeating.
Kamilla Petrosyan, an Armenian psychiatrist, told me how her 4-year-old son arrived home 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 HyeTert, an online Armenian website news portal, told me, “Almost everybody living in Turkey grew up with stories (beginning with primary school textbooks, newspapers and other media) of how cruel Armenians had been to Turks during and after WWI using a language of hatred and insults.”
These and other events demonstrate that the Turks too are beginning to show signs of the need to heal the painful events of the past. A number of Turkish intellectuals, including the Turkish winner of the Noble Prize for literature, Orhan Pamuk, have made public statements to that effect.
Both Armenia and Turkey should take advantage of the meeting between their leaders 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.
Richard Giragosian, an Armenian strategic affairs analyst, wrote 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 economic and cultural relations with Armenians and the end of more than a century-old wearing relationship of resentment.
The importance of an agreement for peace and cooperation between Turkey’s president Erdogan and Armenian Prime Minister goes beyond their borders. It could lead to a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has been supported by Turkey in its conflict with Armenia. In addition, as Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish journalist recently wrote, “Reestablishing ancient trade routes could give an economic boost to Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the poor regions of eastern Turkey.”
A shift in thinking is needed that will allow those countries to move away from a culture of violence and resentment. In a world ravaged by war, peace-building efforts between Armenia and Turkey can be an example for the rest of the world about how peace and understanding between people burdened by the past is still possible.
Only by constructing bridges of understanding—particularly working with young people, still untainted by the weight of the past—will it be possible to change the paradigm of violence and war for one of fruitful collaboration and peace.
Dr. César 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) and a contributing writer for The Japan Times.