Standpoint of Turkey
Co-chairman of the Nor Zartonk movement
The Tuzla Armenian orphanage camp “Kamp Armen”, seized in 1980’s by Turkish state, is restituted to the Armenian community last week. Nor Zartonk, an NGO founded by Armenian young people in Turkey, took part in the struggle for the return of Kamp Armen. We spoke with Sayat Tekir from Nor Zartonk about the targets of the NGO and the meaning of Kamp Armen resistance in Turkey and the Armenian society.
You had a positive result after 175 days of resistance for Kamp Armen. Seized by the state in 1980’s, the Kamp is restituted to the Gedikpasa Protestant Church Foundation. How do you consider this return long time after the promises of restitution made by the government and realized six days before the general elections?
Kamp Armen is restituted to the Armenian community after 175 days of resistance, at six days before the general elections. We can finally see that the resistance reached its aim. During 175 days, Kamp Armen was transformed in a memory place. This resistance remembered every one the injustices of the past. We would thank to the people of Tuzla, our neighbors, our friends of outside of Istanbul and anywhere in the world who gave their support. We felt this support since the first day. We were strong because their voices were with us. We said that we would never quit Kamp Armen till we got the property act. Finally we got it today. We hope that other places seized like Kamp Armen will be restituted to the Armenian community.
Can you talk about the struggle for Kamp Armen in which you have engaged ?
Kamp Armen was owned by Tuzla Armenian orphanage in the 60s. But the government seized it in the 80s. The deed was cancelled and was given to its first owner. They could not take permission for demolishing, because it was registered as an orphanage but they were able to do so in that year. Every last Sunday of April, there is a picnic that is held by old students of the camp. We had received news of the demolition before the picnic of this year. We went to the picnic and talked to the people. As Nor Zartonk, we decided to organize a protest before the demolition of the camp. The protest attracted a lot of attention and the process of demolition was initiated upon this. Six-meter-bulldosers entered the place. Firstly those from PDC (HDK) and then us, many mindful people all went there together. We prevented the demolition and we started a resistance from that day onwards. We put into practice all that we learned from Gezi, from other precious resistances and strikes. We created a community and organized a resistance in which people could participate. The resistance continued till we get the real estate act. We organized three press conferences and two marches demonstration walks. We organized meetings with the government, with the Governor of Istanbul metropolitan municipality, Tuzla Governor and all legal authorities.
The return of the camp was in question before the 7 June elections also, isn’t-it ?
Unfortunately this process was abused, in order to obtain votes, by AKP and Markar Esayan who was the congressman candidate of that period. But they failed. The only thing they succeeded in was creating the feeling of “The camp is being given back” on the people. In fact, this had a negative effect on the resistance. But our struggle did not ended, and it continued till we obtained the deed.
Did the company which was the current owner took any step for the return ?
The company or its owner would not return Kamp Armen unless they receive the sum they paid for this area or a real estate in an equal worth. Their contract was in this way. Legal ways were being sought for this.
Who provided a support to you in this process, and who did not?
I could say that more support could have come from other Armenian associations. We did not receive any support from the Patriarchate. On the other hand, in this process we received a lot of support from the Armenian community. We received a lot of support from our neighbors in Tuzla. They were bringing half of the pastries they made to us. In the first days, people shared their electricity with us. There was incredible collaboration. We can not make it up to the people in Tuzla. If these people had not supported us, we could not have continued the resistance.
Which other circles did you receive help from, in terms of civil society organizations or political parties?
CHP and HDP provided significant amounts of support. I can easily say that CHP and HDP took the matter seriously. Both with speeches and with activities they organized, we can’t go without saying this. Apart from that people from different countries and different religions came to support us and they sent us their support, they sent us food. This is very important.
Without all this support, we could’t carry on with this resistance for six months.
But there were also attacks against Kamp Armen resistance.
Yes, there were two attacks, on the hundredth and hundred and twenty first day. Especially because the atmosphere in the country changed after the elections, because nationalism and other racist inclinations had increased drastically, Kamp Armen became a target. Yet, we showed sagacity, bold resistance and the necessary defensive attitude there and pulled through without receiving any serious damage.
Do you think the government has any responsibility of these attacks?
Of course, the government was responsible for protecting us here, we have to say that.
What do you think Kamp Armen’s current situation tells us about today’s Turkey?
We have been saying this from the first day onwards: We are talking about the hundredth year of the genocide. If we wanted to erect a monument today about the Armenian genocide, there would be no need for that. The reason is that Kamp Armen stands there like a monument of the Armenian genocide. You know, the other side of the camp is destroyed, the bulldozers had demolished part of it until we went there. One side of it is demolished, while the other side is alive, meaning events and life still go on there. It is like a monument that symbolizes those who kill and those who save, as well as those who save and those that are victims.
The fact that the return of the camp took a very long time demonstrates the usual mentality of the state. Kamp Armen is very important for us and it has come to the fore often, because Hrant Dink was educated there. But this is a singular period. We are talking about a camp that has not been active for around thirty years. For instance, Bomonti Mıhitaryan School is an active school with its thirty students. But this school has the same problem too and it is on the verge of closing. The number of students in the school is decreasing from day to day because the parents know that there is the risk of being closed. Our struggle in fact is to solve this issue legally and in a way that will set an example, so that it can be an example for Bomonti Mıhitaryan and to other places. Do not consider what was received from these assets as private propery. The incomes are used collectively, poor students are educated and povided with treatment using these incomes.
If you talk about the meaning for the Armenian community of taking part in the Kamp Armen resistance…
Many people participated in the Kamp Armen resistance and these were people who had not come to the fore in the political arena before. The resistance politicized the people. We turned Kamp Armen into a space in which everything concerning the Armenians could be talked about. We held panel discussions there, we organized activities about culture and history, we kept it constantly alive. Besides, we did not do this only with regard to Armenians, we organized events about the other communities as well. Children of different communities came together on the weekends. While one side was destroyed, the other side carried on as a camp of children and parents and it became a place where people who wanted to learn something about Armenians came. There were many people in this struggle, especially from Armenians. Of course, there were also those who said “Let us not bring trouble upon ourselves”.
Those who gave support were not really prosperous people, but there were those who shared their bread. In order to support this rightful cause and this resistance, people who went there every weekend learnt some things. For the first time, they said they would win through resistance. Previously some things were always won passively or by using the influence of acquaintances or lobbies or by using the European Union process. If this resistance ends well, this will be the first time Armenians will obtain something through resistance. Even if it does not end well, it will bear value as having spread the culture of resistance among the Armenian Community. This is not something singular. The murder of Hrant Dink, the works carried out by Nor Zartonk, the mobilization after the murder of Sevag Balıkçı, the emergence of the Armenians in the political scene in local and general elections and 100th year, this is a period in which the Armenian Community effectively engages the matters at hand. In this regard, we can say that Kamp Armen resistance was a plus to that. More people adopted the culture of resistance and they became part of decision stages. This is a significant resistance for a community that has shown passive resistance only, that has not engaged active resistance for a hundred years and it still goes on in its fifth month. Nor Zartonk has been following many murder cases from their beginning onwards, notably the Hrant Dink case. We played an important role in organizing the 24 April commemorations as well. Here we made an effort to enable the Armenian community to become involved in a struggle with their own identity and in solidarity with other communities as well. From the first day onwards we have been trying to do away with all kinds of injustice one way or another. We desire to live in a country in which there is more justice, freedom and equality, instead of in a system where the culprits can get away with their crimes. This is our main motivation.
How was Nor Zartonk founded? Can you talk about your activities ?
Nor Zartonk is an Armenian NGO founded by Armenian young people in Turkey. It was founded in 2004 for the first time as an e-mail group through which Armenian youth could engage in intellectual conversations and talk about the problems in Turkey, the world and in the Armenian society. In 2005, which was the 90th year of the Armenian genocide, we decided to turn it into a movement. We organized activities in which Hrant Dink as well participated in 2005. We were holding conversations among university students. These conversations were joined not only by Armenian students, but also by students from other parts of the society as well. We continued to do this in 2006.
Did Nor Zartonk start as a student group?
It is better to say as a youth group. There were high school students, as well as university students, and also graduates. Our movement is young and it will stay young forever. Especially with Hrant Dink, we had conversations about "what to do, how to organize". However, unfortunately we could not get together during that period, because we were few. We showed up on January 19, 2007 when Hrant Dink was killed and we said "This time, we will do it". This was a promise to Hrant Dink. Nor Zartonk means “New Awakening”. We emerged as an NGO in which there were Armenians but which was not about Armenians only, in which we could talk about and find solutions to not only Turkey’s problems but also the problems of the world, in which we could engage politics. Our greatest motivation in those times was Hrant Dink’s funeral procession. That funeral procession gave us hope. Since that day, we continue with that. There is also Nor Radyo which was founded in 2009. We started broadcasting with a commemoration of Hrant Dink.
Nor Zartonk is a movement started by Armenians, but we thought that talking only about the problems of Armenians would not represent us well. We wanted other people who have problems like us, who are subject to discrimination, targeted by hate speeches and have to deal with prejudices could come and join us. In six years, we broadcasted in fifteen languages, all of those are languages spoken in Turkey. We broadcasted in three dialects; Western, Eastern and Hemsin Armenian. The presence of this radio finds meaning in two main bases for us. The first basis is cultural because we are broadcasting in endangered mother tongues, the second one is on a social basis. Programs on women, LGBTI, animal rights and ecology were broadcasted. Our broadcast continues on the web at norradyo.com.
But in the past, there were also joint broadcasts with other radios.
We did joint broadcasts with Özgür Radio for two periods. Everyone in Nor Radio is there as a volunteer. This situation creates a communication network. For example, Armenians have a religious day or there is the Circassian exile day, we all go there together. Alternatively, they come with us for the Armenian genocide commemoration. We have become communities who get together on happy days as well as on commemoration days. When there is a LGBTI attack we go and broadcast the news. In the same way, we do broadcasts in various demonstrations. In this regard Nor Radio has become an alternative media organization. It has been a multi-lingual radio broadcasting for six years. At the moment, there are some multi-lingual institutions like TRT 6, but when we look back, there were none in 2009. This needs to be said as well. We said earlier that Nor Zartonk means “new awakening”. New Awakening is at the same time the name of the Armenian Renaissance whose center was Istanbul between 1850-1915, it is also called the Zartonk period. In this context Zartonk also means “new awakening”, “new Renaissance”. That was a period in which Armenians were forefront in art, politics and in social circles. Nor Zartonk is a reference to that period. This period was brought to a sudden end in 1915. Of course it continued very slightly, with difficulty, some people resisted.
We also founded Armenian Culture and Solidarity Association in July, 2010. The association is open to everyone, like in Nor Zartonk and in Nor Radio. A Unesco report was announced in 2010. In this report, Western Armenian was listed as a mother tongue that would be extinct and so we wanted to do something to prevent that. We founded our association and started giving Western Armenian courses, screened films from Armenian cinema and we still continue to do.
Do you have a place for these activities?
Yes, we have a place rented in Beyoğlu and all other expenses are paid for by ourselves, it subsists on contributions from our volunteers. We published books on the Armenian genocide, especially focusing on those who saved people and those who were saved. We also published a book on the discriminations in the education system. We did a workshop with children and published a book by the participants of the workshop.
Are these books in Turkish? Where can people find these books?
Yes, they are published in Turkish. For now they can only find them in the association. There is also the book of 1965 about how demonstrations concerning the genocide were shown in the Turkish media. It is a noteworthy work. It also portrays how nothing has changed even after so many years.
Can Nor Zartonk be also defined as a political movement?
We define this as a popular movement. The standing of Nor Zartonk, just like the association itself, is to stand side by side with all communities, with all those who are discriminated and oppressed. Its political standing is in line with this as well. In this regard, we are a member of PDC - Peoples’ Democratic Congress in which all communities, liberals, socialists and Kurds come together. There is one member of us in the highest representing mechanism of PDC (HDK). We think that there must be a struggle against anti-democratic ways and fascism.
We engage demonstrations in which massacres and oppressions to other communities are protested, just like it was about Roboski massacre.
You were also there in Gezi Park protests.
Yes, we were there since the first day. Taksim Gezi Park is at the same time the only space that is very close to the areas densely populated by Armenians and to which the people living around can go. On a personal level, it is important for me on an emotional level, and it is also the place where I spent my childhood. Gezi Park resistance was a standing against the slaughter of nature, rent system, tearing down the city to pieces and surrendering to rent. We all remember that it was a period when prohibitions had started and Gezi Park resistance created a rupture. We were there from the first day onwards with our own language and color. A great many people approached us saying “There is something written in Armenian here”. Armenians from Turkey, from the diaspora or from Armenia came and gave support when they saw us.
Nor Zartonk’s presence in Gezi Park resistance reminded us that this place was an Armenian graveyard, right isn’t-it ?
Yes, it was. It is necessary to say that as well. Firstly there was a confusing situation and there was an atmosphere of fear for the Armenians in Turkey. We can not deny that, we are a part of this atmosphere and of this fear. Anyone who knows the history of Turkey is not supposed to say “I am bold”, they can not say, that but we keep going with our struggle. The Prime minister of that period had given a speech about parks, “Those who protest, do they not know the history of this place, we are going to build a Artillery Headquarters there”, he said. In fact they were going to build a shopping mall looking like an artillery headquarters. We gave a counter-speech about this and said, “In fact it is you who do not know history.” Part of this area was an Armenian graveyard in the past and it was seized. Just like many other places that were seized. We reminded them of this and we said “You took our graveyard from us, but we will not surrender our park” and we did not. Gezi Park stands there. Of course it stands there as a result of many people coming together. It is necessary to say at this point that this kind of protests, Gezi Park resistance, were joined by a great many Armenians. All people, those who were members of an association and those who were not, had come together, they wanted to say something and they appeared to do so. Many people who had never joined a protest before were there in that space to express themselves.