David Alton in Armenia

Dec 23, 2010 | Uncategorized

Universe Column, Sunday September 30th
There is a little patch of Liverpool called Low Hill: it’s the neighbourhood where, as a 21-year old student, I was elected to the City Council.
Low Hill was the nineteenth century home of Hengler’s Circus and it was here that, on September 24th 1896, at the age of 86, the Liverpool-born Victorian Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone gave his last public speech. Two years later he died of cancer.
My admiration for Gladstone’s politics was expressed in 1968 in my first newspaper interview, given as a teenage political activist. The article carried the headline “If only Gladstone was here.” The context was Soviet tanks arriving in Prague to crush Alexander Dubcek’s “Czech Spring”.
In 1968, as the Kremlin ended Dubcek’s reform programme and re-imposed hard-line Communism the international community looked away with embarrassment.
There are parallels with the failure to heed Gladstone’s famous denunciation, ninety years earlier, of the Ottoman Turks for perpetrating the Bulgarian Massacres – which, in 1879, he made the subject of his Midlothian Campaign, a barnstorming nationwide assault on the indifference of the British Government and the great powers.
Gladstone’s willingness to split his Liberal Party on the principle of Home Rule for Ireland, his defence of down-trodden races in far flung parts of the world, and his uncompromising belief that religious faith should express itself through political and public service, are all deeply attractive. Gladstone’s story is well recorded in the late Roy Jenkins’ excellent biography.
For 25 years, from 1972, as a Councillor or MP, I was particularly proud to represent that corner of Liverpool where Gladstone gave his last speech.
That speech was a defence of the beleaguered Armenian people and it was a speech that I took with me during recent travels in Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh.
The Hengler’s Circus speech came after a minor uprising in 1894 , in Sasun, in Turkish Armenia. The Armenians – and other Christians – were forced to pay “double taxes” and were denied many civil rights. Their protests against this discrimination led to their wholesale slaughter. Throughout 1895 a series of pogroms were carried out throughout Turkey’s Armenian provinces – and even in the capital, Istanbul – and they would set the scene for the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Gladstone took first hand accounts of the killings from Armenians who travelled to Hawarden Castle, his home in North Wales. He said “the powers of language hardly suffice to describe what has been and is being done, and exaggeration, if we were ever so much disposed to it, is in such a case rally beyond our power.”
Gladstone reflected that only the enormity of the “sickening horrors” perpetrated against the Armenians, and “a strong sense of duty” could have induced “a man of my age” to abandon what he called “the repose and quietude” of his retirement to embark on what would be his last great mission.
He declared that “We are not dealing with a common and ordinary question of abuses of government. We are dealing with something that goes far deeper…..four awful words – plunder, murder, rape, and torture.”
By the time he came to speak in Liverpool, a year later – and where an immense crowd of 6,000 people gathered to hear him – Gladstone knew that it was his duty to rouse the conscience of the nation. The Times reported that many more people thronged outside while The Liverpool Daily Post recorded that the entire city turned out for him and had greeted him with “a tornado of applause.” Such passion for great political questions is so often absent today.
In describing the “horribly accumulated outrages” against “our fellow Christians” he demanded a non-sectarian and non-partisan approach; and he also emphasised that “this is no crusade against Mohammedanism”; that, whatever faith had been held by the Armenians, “it would have been incumbent upon us with the same force and the same sacredness” to speak out on their behalf.
With precision, Gladstone identifies and names the Ottoman Turkish Sultan, Sultan Abdul Hamid II – “the assassin” – as responsible for the order to massacre the Armenians; and he roundly condemns the European powers for giving the Sultan “the assurance of impunity.” While believing that ideally Europe should act together he bitterly criticised their failure to do so: “Collectively, the powers have under-gone miserable disgrace”.
Gladstone added: “Translate the acts of the Sultan into words and
they become these, ‘I have tried your patience in distant places;
I will try it under your own eyes. I have desolated my provinces;
I will now desolate my capital. I have found that your sensitiveness
has not been effectually provoked by all that I have heretofore done;
I will come nearer to you and see whether … I shall or shall not wake
the wrath which has slept so long.'”
When Europe failed to act, Gladstone said Britain had the right to act alone and not “make herself a slave to be dragged at the chariot wheel of other powers of Europe.”
Many of these same arguments have relevance and application in our own times but so does the challenge which comes at the culmination of his Hengler’s Circus address: he demands no ambiguity, no neutrality, no countenancing but renunciation and condemnation of crimes against humanity “which have already come to such a magnitude and to such a depth of atrocity that they constitute the most terrible, most monstrous series of proceedings that have ever been recorded in the dismal and deplorable history of human crime.”
Perhaps, as we lament the contemporary failure to end the continuing massacre of people the world over – from Congo, to Burma, to Darfur – for their sake we must surely lament the absence of statesman like Gladstone today.
Next week David Alton Visits The Genocide Memorial in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.
Universe Column
Sunday October 7th
David Alton in Armenia
As he prepared to implement the Final Solution – the extermination of the entire Jewish race – Hitler believed he would be able to act with impunity: “who remembers now the massacres of the Armenians?” he asked.
The Armenian genocide of 1915-16 was the first genocide of the twentieth century. Over one million men, women and children were killed as the Ottoman Turks sought to entirely erase the Armenian identity from eastern Turkey. The land was dyed red with Armenian blood.
Hundreds of thousands of other Armenians were the subject of mass deportations and they form the basis of today’s world-wide Diaspora. Others -perhaps as many as a million in the area bordering the Black Sea – were forced to convert to Islam, and, to this very day, many families are said to hold on to their hidden Christian faith.
Twenty years after the genocide Hitler was correct in his assertion that the world had largely forgotten the fate of the Armenians but the Armenians themselves kept their memories alive.
In 1965 Leonid Brezhnev gave permission to those living in the Soviet republic of Armenia for a Genocide memorial to be erected in Yerevan. The towering obelisk, forty meters high, is said to symbolise both the genocide and the renaissance of the Armenian people.
During a visit in September 2001 Pope John Paul II planted a tree at the memorial and composed a blessing for Armenia which begins with the plea: “Remember O Lord how the sons and daughters of this land have suffered.”
The museum adjacent to the memorial has collated the memories, photographs, and records into a damning indictment of both the objectives of the Ottoman Turks and the abject failure of the international community to act on the information which its own diplomats had assembled.
The Director of the genocide museum, Hayk Demoyan, continues to uncover graphic material and poignant letters. When I recently met him he had just obtained letters written by three women who had been deported to Brazil. One had been pregnant but had miscarried her baby. In a letter, she wrote: “These eyes saw things the world should never see.”
Mr.Demoyan says that assembling numerical evidence of the genocide is numbing but that the personal stories cut to the quick: “The killing of millions is statistics but the killing of one person is a tragedy.”
He is now looking at recently unearthed photographs in the St.Petersburg Photographic Archives, and at hundred of photographs held in the Royal Archive of Norway.
I was particularly struck by the first hand accounts of Christian relief workers and missionaries working with the Armenians at the time of the genocide.
Maria Jacobsen was a Danish missionary who was based at Harpoot from 107 until 1919. On June 26th 1915, she wrote in her diary that “It was proclaimed from all mosques today that all Armenians are to be sent into exile. They are to be given four days in which to dispose of their possessions, to be ready for their journey to an unknown destination for an indefinite period. It is said that they will be sent to the desert south of Ourfa. If this is true, then it is obvious that the whole meaning behind this movement of the Armenian people is their extermination.”
On July 24th she noted “Any Turk who hides an Armenian will be hanged and his house burnt. All houses from the poorest to the richest are to be searched.”
By August 14th she was writing “Poor, poor Armenians, what you have had to endure.”
The historian, Arnold Toynbee, meanwhile, wrote of the premeditated and systematic nature of the genocide: “The attempt to exterminate the Armenians during world War One was carried out under the cloak of legality by cold-blooded government action. These are not mass murders committed spontaneously by mobs and private people.” Winston Churchill wrote that “There is no reasonable doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence and contemporary accounts – and Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s own assertion that “the best way to finish the Armenian question is to finish the Armenians -Turkey persists in denying that the genocide ever took place.
They also refuse to open their borders and to normalise relations with Armenia until all talk of genocide is stopped. Like modern Germany, Turkey must come to terms with her past.
Denying the truth helps no-one; it becomes impossible to heal the past and to move on.
But does it ultimately matter?
When a death warrant can be issued against a whole race, when outrageous brutality, mutilation, and violence are left to haunt a country’s landscape, when despots can plan the ethnic cleansing or the annihilation of an entire people, too right it matters. It matters today in countless parts of the world where history is repeating itself.
The folly of forgetting is graphically illustrated by Hitler’s assertion that no-one any longer remembers the Armenians.
Hitler’s ideology of a purified Master-Race was inspired by the biological vision of a purified pan-Turkism, based on racial origins and racial superiority; even his corruption of medicine and science drew inspiration from the deliberate infecting of Armenians with typhus in a sequence of medical experiments. In the end it led to the deaths of six million people.
If, in 1915, the world had saved the Armenians – or after World War One held those responsible to account – would Hitler have believed that he could act against the Jews with impunity? And might a holocaust have been averted?
Next week, in a concluding column, David Alton visits the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabagh
Universe Column
Sunday October 14th
David Alton in Armenia (3)
The size of Belgium, Armenia is a landlocked country. To the west it has a closed border with Turkey and to the east a closed border with Azerbaijan -with whom it is still technically at war over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabagh.
Iran is to the south and Georgia to the north. Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, looks longingly westward to the snow-capped Armenian holy mountain of Ararat where Noah’s ark is said to have had its final resting place. Armenians believe that they are descended from Haik, one of Noah’s sons.
Today, the mountain, along with the ruins of the ancient capital, Ani, is “trapped behind enemy lines.”
After the genocide of 1915-16 and the culmination of World War One, what remained of ancient Armenia – the first nation to embrace Christianity, some 1700 years ago – was subsumed into the Soviet Union. Stalin and his successors kept it firmly within the Soviet empire until the Communism collapsed in 1991.
Stalin’s ruthless policy of “divide and rule” accompanied by mass deportations and the horrors of the Gulags led him to encourage ethnic tensions: in the southern Caucuses between the Azeris and Armenians.
Throughout the 1920s Stalin created boundaries that placed Armenian villages deep inside Azerbaijan and vice-versa and in particular, he placed Nagorno Karabagh (mountainous black garden), whose population was largely Armenian, and had initially been promised autonomy, inside Azerbaijan.
Throughout the 1930s and 40s Stalin tried to systematically destroy Armenian culture and national identity. During the 30s at least 100,000 Armenians were victims of his purges and all the churches, except Ejmiatsin, the seat of the Catholicos (the senior ecclesiastical leader of the Apostolic Armenian Church), were closed. In 1938 even Ejmiatsin was suppressed and the Catholicos, Koren I, was murdered. Every church in Nagorno Karabagh was shut and the current primate of Shushi, the fortress city of Karabagh, Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan, told me how one wave of horror was followed by another.
One of his Episcopal predecessors had been decapitated by the Turks at the time of the genocide, his great-uncle, a priest, was murdered, all the churches and monasteries were closed by Stalin, and as recently as the 1990s “Armenian soldiers were literally crucified” during the war with Azerbaijan.
After the ascent to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985, Armenians began to reclaim their national identity.
In Nagorno Karabagh there were demonstrations demanding its transfer from Azerbaijan to Armenia. In 1988 it seceded and Moscow imposed direct rule. A rebellion erupted.
Armenia declared Nagorno Karabagh to be part of Armenia. Azerbaijan and Turkey responded by closing their borders and imposing a blockade.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a referendum in which the people of Armenia voted for independence. Azerbaijan followed suit and a war erupted between them over Karabagh. 25,000 died before an uneasy ceasefire was agreed in 1994.
Despite the technical halt of hostilities, every few months new lives are claimed by snipers and Karabagh is still pock-marked by the ravages of war, not least by the presence of deadly land mines. The war could erupt again at any time.
Last month, with my House of Lords colleague, Baroness Caroline Cox, I met the new President of Karabagh, Bako Sahakian, and their Foreign Minister, Georgi Petrosyan. International observers had just declared the elections to have been free and fair with no taint of the corruption so endemic in the region. The Presidential inauguration and transfer of power from one incumbent to another was exemplary.
Sahakian told me that “step by step, we are working to build a fully-fledged civil society” and he says he is committed to solving the conflict “by peaceful means.” He was emphatic that he is “ready to initiate direct negotiations with Azerbaijan.”
The failure to broker a long term solution means that 15 years after hostilities erupted, refugee camps are still home to Azeris displaced in the fighting. I have seen the festering conditions in those camps. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia owe it to everyone who has suffered from this painful conflict to find a solution.
In 1992 the international community established the Minsk Group – co-chaired by Russia, the USA and France – to do just that.
Vardan Oskanian, the Armenian Foreign Minister, still remains hopeful that the Minsk framework will deliver peace. We talked about the parallels with our own troubled enclave of Northern Ireland; and the role which an outside mediator (like Senator George Mitchell) could play.
Like Northern Ireland a referendum needs to be held to determine the wishes of all those who lived in Karabagh before the hostilities began. The territory should then be given internationally recognised and guaranteed status and that would pave the way for the return of disputed and occupied territories
Karabagh is not the only disputed area in the Caucuses. Chechnya, Ossetia, and Abkhazia are three of the better known.
If a peaceful solution could be found in Karabagh it would have a positive effect on them all.
Meanwhile, Karabagh is enjoying a quiet renaissance. Its democratic and civil institutions are a model: “the most democratic state in the region” says one senior British diplomat. Its churches and monasteries are re-opening, and its towns and stunning countryside are gradually being returned to normality.
My colleague, Lady Cox, has visited the territory some 64 times, taking in aid and medical supplies during the worst of the hostilities. The Rehabilitation Centre at Stepanakert, Karabagh’s capital, is named after Caroline Cox and is supported by her charity, HART. Professionals and volunteer working there are doing extraordinary work, rebuilding lives mutilated by violence.
But, now, political leaders and diplomats need to match those endeavours by building relationships based on co-existence and by finding a lasting and just settlement for Armenians and Azeri alike.
Further details of HART’s work in Karabagh can be obtained from office@hart-uk.org or Tel 0208 204 7336

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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