Armenians kiss an icon showing victims of massacres in Echmiadzin, the religious center of the Armenian Church on Thursday. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

Where do I look for hope on this day that marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide? To the brave Turkish and Armenian human rights activists who have gathered in Istanbul this week to commemorate together the tragic events of 1915 and find a pathway to the future.

The Turkish activists embrace a demand that has been voiced widely this month, from Pope Francis to the European Parliament, for the Turkish government to acknowledge that a genocide took place in 1915. Turkey’s acknowledgment is important because it might begin a necessary and inevitable period of truth and reconciliation.

Listen to the voices of three Turkish organizers of the commemoration, which was arranged with an Armenian diaspora organization called Project 2015. They explain why April 24, the traditional date of remembrance, is important for Turks as much as for Armenians.

“What we are trying to do is raise awareness of the genocide that happened in 1915,” says Levent Sensever, the general secretary of the Association for Social Change. This will be the sixth year he and other Turkish activists have gathered at Taksim Square to mark the genocide. “We challenge the official version, to get a real history so we can have a democratic country,” he says.

Ayse Gunaysu, one of the leaders of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, publicly memorialized the Armenian tragedy (using the banned word “genocide”) in 2005. “We commemorate . . . because of feelings of shame and guilt for becoming aware of the genocide so late,” she said in an e-mail. “We felt responsible for the ongoing, aggressive, gross, vulgar denialism, and also the crime committed by our ancestors.”

Gunaysu explains why it’s important for Turks to liberate their country from a false narrative about the past: “Without the extermination of the Christian peoples of Asia Minor, it would have been impossible to establish a Turkish nation-state. In order to persuade the new generations in Turkey that there was no genocide, a new Turkish identity was constructed based on lies. . . . We believe that to make only one person question the official thesis is a victory in itself, as the recognition will come from below, not from above.”

Osman Kavala, the head of a cultural organization called Anadolu Kultur, says he uses the word “genocide,” but not all the time in conversations with fellow Turks. It’s so loaded that it may not be “the best tool” to encourage honest discussion of the past, he notes. “We try to explain that this is something Turks are doing for themselves. It’s in their own interest to be objective.” The Turkish government may not be ready yet to recognize genocide, Kavala says, but in the meantime, Turkish activists can take smaller steps, such as writing accurate textbooks or working jointly with Armenian groups to preserve religious and cultural sites.

I focus on these Turkish activists because this is a tragic anniversary for Turkey, as well as for Armenians. No country can be at peace with itself until it can reconcile past and present. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, called the forced deportation and slaughter of the Armenians “a shameful act.” That shame smolders inside Turkey still, even as officials successfully pressure President Obama and other leaders not to attach the name genocide to what happened.

One of the mysteries of this anniversary date is why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t seize the opportunity to write a new chapter in his country’s history, much as he has done in reaching out to Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Erdogan bears no responsibility for the genocide; he leads a movement to create a modern and dynamic Turkey. Last year, he offered condolences to the Armenian people, but he hasn’t taken the next step.

I don’t pretend to be objective about this issue. My late grandfather was born in the town of Kharpert in what was then the Ottoman Empire. He came to America in 1903 and lived a long and happy life. But members of his family who stayed behind were not so lucky. Two of his sisters made the death march across the Anatolian Desert. One died on the way, with most of her children. Another survived the desperate trek, clutching her Bible to her breast, according to family lore. She reached Syria and then, miraculously, America.

Armenians, like people everywhere who have experienced great tragedies, have a part of their souls that is forever in the shadows. But I felt some healing light, speaking with Turkish activists who want to acknowledge the past so they can walk honestly, with Armenians, into the future.

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