Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide

A long-abandonned Armenian church can be seen in the Karkoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on one of the busiest streets of the largest city in the country.
A long-abandoned Armenian church can be seen in the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on one of the busiest streets of the largest city in the country.

In September and October 2001, I traveled throughout Turkey for more than three weeks. It was one of my greatest trips ever. I loved the country and really enjoyed my experiences getting to know the Turkish people. I recommend the country to anyone. During that trip, I worked on a photo-documentary project, visiting historic locations of the Armenians. I also visited many other places too, from ancient monasteries, to Greek and Roman ruins, to the wonders of the Ottoman Empire, to Kurdish regions that were experiencing disturbances that have not fully settled to this day.

I did a lot of research before this trip, and received a lot of assistance from some Armenian colleagues I befriended as a result of my interest in photographing remnants of the Anatolian Armenians, who experienced the first clearly documented case of genocide of the 20th century. I do not wish to get into a larger discussion of that topic. I am republishing a story, with photographs, that I published first in 2002. It recounts my travels to historic locations linked to the genocide and Armenian history in present-day Turkey.

I finally got around to publishing this story again, after finding some materials I had forgotten about–the story told through numbers. Since I work in public health these days, I find myself steeped in data and perhaps a bit beholden to it. So with that frame of view, I present a “by the numbers” perspective on my travels in Turkey, this significant crime against humanity, and a point of view that I try to keep in focus when I get lost in the small stuff and forgot the important stuff.

My story, An Armenian Journey, is in PDF format, and because of its large file size at 25 mb, it may take a  while to download. Please be patient, as it well worth your time. A very useful map of the tragic events is published by the Armenian National Institute. A fine collection of historic prints and illustrations of now vanished Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey can be found on the Houshamadyan web site. That site shows pictures of many of the places I visited, and you can compare historic pictures with the pictures I show in my story.

Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1922, by the numbers:

1  Number of Armenian Villages remaining in Turkey

1.5  Approximate number of persons, in millions, estimated to have been murdered during the genocide against Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I.

.6  Approximate number of Armenians, in millions, that the Turkish government today claims died during World War I during what the government called a military uprising.

35  Number of Armenian churches still active in Istanbul, according to a custodian at the Kilisesi Vakfik in the Galatasaray neighborhood of Istanbul.

100,000  Approximate number of ethnic Armenians residing in Istanbul today, according to members of the Holy Mother-of-God Armenian Patriarchal Church, in the Kumkapi neighborhood of Istanbul.

30 Approximate distance, in meters, from the Kumkapi police station to the Armenian Patriarchate (main church for Armenian Christians in Turkey).

5  Number of recognizable historic Armenian religious structures in Erzerum that are either labeled Selcuk or unknown origin.

2,549  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings in the Ottoman Empire (churches, monasteries, parish structures), according to a survey by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1914, on the eve of the genocide (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

464  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings in the Republic of Turkey that had disappeared from the total of only 913 structures with known whereabouts in 1974, according to a survey done of the buildings that year (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

252  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings of the 913 buildings with known whereabouts that were in ruins, according to a survey done in 1974 (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

197  Armenian ecclesiastical buildings of the 913 buildings with known whereabouts that were in sound shape, according to a survey done in 1974 (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

0  Number of references to “Armenia” or “Armenians” at Ani, the historic cultural capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom in eastern Anatolia on the border of modern-day Armenia and inside Turkey.

1/2  Number of surviving Armenian structures in present-day Kozan, called Sis by the Armenians, and the capital of their kingdom in Cilicia in the 13th and 14th centuries and formerly seat of the Armenia Catholicasate.

0  Number of references to Armenia on signs next to these structures.

350  Approximate number of mosques (including the great Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques), bridges, and buildings credited to the Armenian architect Sinan.

1  Number of Armenian religious buildings remaining in Harput, the center of the graphic, first-hand account of the genocide by American diplomat Leslie Davis called The Slaughterhouse Province.

4  Number of monument structures at Liberty Hill in Istanbul to honor Talaat Pasha and the Young Turks, the principal architects of the first genocide of the 20th century.

0  Number of signs outside the now locked and gated memorial indicating the contents inside the weed-covered area originally built in 1943 to honor the former Turkish leader, who was gunned down in Berlin in 1921 by an exiled Armenian, Soghomon Tehlirian (in 2001).

2  Number of Armenian spires visible at Isak Pasa Palace, near Mt. Ararat, a complex that contemporary sources say was built by a Kurdish chief in 1685. [Structure is called a Turbet in Let’s Go.]

2  Number of military points passed prior to entering the Ani complex.

3  Number of government and police offices required to complete an Ani application process (taking a quick one hour of time, in 2001).

25  Approximate cost, in U.S. dollars (as of October 2001), to visit the historic Ani ruins.

Number of road crossings open to commerce and road travelers between Turkey and present-day Armenia (in 2001).

6  Number of Armenian churches I visited in Istanbul that are now permanently closed.

0  Number of references to “Armenia” or “Armenian” at Akdamar Church, an Armenian church outside Van on an island in Lake Van.

53  Number of days more than 4,000 Armenian villagers in the Hatay Province south of Antakya, on Musa Dagh (“Mountain of Moses”), resisted Ottoman forces in 1915 before they were rescued by Allied warships.

18  Number of languages that Franz Werfel’s best-selling account of the famous siege and rescue–Forty Days of Musa Dagh–has been translated into since its first publication in 1933.

24  The day every April that Armenians the world over mark as their genocide anniversary day, commemorating the date in 1915 that 600 leading Armenians and another 5,000 Armenians in Istanbul were rounded up, and almost all killed.

Africa revisited through the Dark Star Safari

From the comfortable security of my modern cocoon in Seattle, Wash., I am vicariously reliving some long-ago travels I made in Africa during the summer of 1997, which already was 15 years ago. I have the often cynical but always observant and honest Paul Theroux to thank for being lifted out of my quotidian boredom and back to my brief five-week journey in central and East Africa.

Sunrise on the Serengeti, a magnificent sight indeed.

In June 1997, I travelled to Rwanda, just three years after the genocide. I arrived there, hoping to try my hand at freelance journalism and perhaps cover some of the genocide trials that were underway in the aftermath of the horrific crimes against humanity. I lacked two of the most critical elements to pull this off: connections and cash. Maybe I lacked cajones too. I also was floored by malaria once I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, and I pulled out in two weeks, having lost a lot of weight and having determined I would not have the resources to succeed in my original plan. As to whether I would have succeeded as a freelancer if I stayed longer is hard to say, as Rwanda then was in the throes of an incredibly violent civil war that had claimed thousands of lives. That conflict, which involved the stopping of microbuses—like ones I was riding—and the slaughtering of all passengers, was pitting the Tutsi-led forces of the new post-genocide government of Rwanda against the extremist Hutu militias who had taken hold in then eastern Zaire. This was just before Zaire’s own meltdown into violent civil war, tribal violence, and foreign interventions that remains unresolved to this day.

Passing the time in Moroti, Uganda, on my way to the north of the country in 1997.

Theroux’s book, called Dark Star Safari, is typical and classic Theroux. It recounts a year-long trip he made from Cairo to Capetown in the early 2000s, mostly by land transportation, using local means such as the back of trucks, buses, microbuses, and sometimes rides in Land Rovers and overland safari trucks with the many white Westerners he sees. Theroux is unforgiving in his criticism of both Africans and of outsiders, who are mostly Westerners but occasionally Indians, Japanese, and Chinese. Theroux often savagely skewers this mostly Western crowd as if they were the marabou scavengers, the quite ugly and ubiquitous large storks seen throughout eastern Africa, which lurk about and wait for carrion to devour.

I like Theroux because he attempts to put what he sees into context, with the perspective of a man who spent two years of young adulthood as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s and later several years as a lecturer in Kampala, Uganda, before the despot Idi Amin took over and destroyed that nation. To his credit, Theroux’s comments on the failures of aid projects, for instance, are based on his first-hand encounters. He credits foreign aid organizations and Western governments for creating a culture of aid dependency in many African nations. But his biggest target is corruption by African leaders and its military and civilian rulers. Writes Theroux of the large cities he visited and detested on his trip: “Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.“

Traveling by bus in Uganda, rarely a dull moment.

I have exchanged a few emails about this book with a friend of mine who also did a Peace Corps stint in Africa and who thought Theroux was honest about what he observed. I told my friend that Theroux’s description of traveling through a inhospitable, mostly lawless area from Mega, Ethiopia, to Isiolo, Kenya, where two white Westerners refused to give him a ride in their Land Rover, brought back my own memories. Like Theroux, I saw plenty of those same Land Rovers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda and also never got a lift. (Did I deserve one—no, but they could have been offered; I did refuse a ride once too because I wanted to walk, but the driver was African and a decent guy.) I too wondered who are these privileged outsiders anyway? I remember distinctly two haughty U.N. officials—an African and European—sniping like French lords at low-paid Rwandan hotel staff while wearing stylish dark shades and expensive suits, angry dust got on their suitcases, as they disembarked at Milles Colines Hotel, made famous during the genocide where Tutsis hid while surrounded by killers. The cost for a room in 1997 was about $150 a night as I recall, or about half of what a Rwandan then earned in a year. I could not afford the place and luckily found accommodation with a great aid worker I met who I thought was doing good work.

Like Theroux, I travelled by truck to some remote parts in the bush. This trip took about 12 hours and was among my most memorable.

I also remember Italian missionaries in Northern Uganda, near Karamojo, in the deep bush who ran a furniture shop and spoke the local language and seemed completely at ease and in their element — like some of the Italian missionaries Theroux met in Ethiopia and Kenya. And, like Theroux, I remember these “overlanders,” the white tourists on coverted safari trucks crossing Africa, when I stopped at Lake Naivasha, Kenya. In my case, the passengers expressed excitement about seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda without having a clue about the raging conflict there or another violent uprising that was occurring in southwest Uganda. And one has to wonder about two female aid workers he disparaged for their peddling of a Plumpy’nut type nutritional food product to poor children in person cause they reportedly didn’t trust the mothers to deliver the aid themselves? Is that true? I believe it is. Just this spring I heard an announcement by U.S. AID that the United States is pushing corporate food aid with corporate food giant Pepsico, in Ethiopia. What’s good for Pepsico is also good for U.S. AID and Ethiopians, if I am to believe the facts in this press release.

Anyway, not everyone agrees with Theroux, and here’s one attack, by John Ryle from 2002 in the Guardian, of the book and of the writer himself. Personally, I think Theroux is smart and clearly sees the public health, economic, political, and outsider-driven problems that challenge the countries he visited. I also do not think one sells books being nice or being 100 percent true. Theroux is a strong brand, and you know what you get when you read his brand. And it remains exceptionally enjoyable.

I shot this photo near Mt. Karamojong, a mountain that is home to a rebellious group who were known to rob locals with AK 47s when they were not fighting with other cattle raising tribes in Kenya. Or maybe they are just a tribe trying to survive in a land with few resources and many threats.

A travelogue about Siberia paints a vivid picture of beauty and pain

It is often through really good travel writing that I am exposed to the world around me, more than from stories I gather from the news media. Perhaps it requires a personal perspective on places, people, and problems to make another land or culture come alive. That is what happened for me when I read Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia.

His travelogue, covering five separate trips to Siberia, and other parts of Russia, over a nearly 15-year period makes this region and its people and history suddenly meaningful, even though I have never stepped foot in Siberia. (I once flew less than 50 miles from its easternmost point, however.) As Frazier notes: “A tiny fraction of the world’s population lives in Siberia. About 39 million Russians and native peoples inhabit the northern third of Asia. … For most people, Siberia is not the place, but a figure of speech.”

Upon finishing Frazier’s book, I was left with great sadness and great curiosity about Siberia. During my six years working and living in Alaska, I had a chance to meet many Siberians who visited Alaska for official government programs. These included Chukotkans, who are linguistically and ethnically related to Inupiaqs of Alaska and the Inuit and Greenlanders. But because I did not speak Russian, I never was able to learn first hand their tales of their province, which lies just across the Bering Straight from Alaska.

I also once worked a year with a former doctor from Novosibirsk, in central Siberia. She had immigrated to the United States and worked in social services. She never talked much of her time there, except to describe persecution of Christians by the Soviets. She gave me an account of one Christian prisoner, who was interned in a Soviet prison in Kamchatka. I have forgotten that book’s name, as I could not read it at that time because it was too depressing a topic. I gave it to a local library, where I hope it was checked out.

Frazier manages to avoid this harshness and allows Siberia’s beauty come alive. And Siberia has that in an order of magnitude greater than most of us can imagine. The tragic side to Siberia’s story, of course, are the penal system of the Tsars, which exiled its enemies to the Russian empire’s eastern provinces, and the gulag system of Josef Stalin’s USSR, one of the greatest prison and killing systems in the history of humanity. The region covers more than 5 million square miles, much with arctic and subarctic climates that give way to brief summer months when mosquitos and gnats reign. It also has the world’s largest forest, the taiga.

During his cross-continental road trip from Leningrad to Vladivostok in the summer of 2001—one of the greatest road trips I have read about—Frazier and his two Russian guides and companions encounter Siberia’s amazing natural beauty, but also the scars of the Soviets’ and Russians’ treatment of their environment. From coal-choked cities to litter-strewn roadways to heavily polluted places in between, Frazier constantly encounters examples of poor or no governance or any form of regulation. He describes empty barrels (used to bring in fuel), which are strewn across the tundra in places as far as the eye can see.

The CIA, which some may not consider to be a neutral arbiter of Russian affairs, notes the following environmental health problems plaguing Russia: “air pollution from heavy industry, emissions of coal-fired electric plants, and transportation in major cities; industrial, municipal, and agricultural pollution of inland waterways and seacoasts; deforestation; soil erosion; soil contamination from improper application of agricultural chemicals; scattered areas of sometimes intense radioactive contamination; groundwater contamination from toxic waste; urban solid waste management; abandoned stocks of obsolete pesticides.” Frazier did not encounter all of these hazards, but certainly confirmed many.

Frazier’s later trip to the Russian Far East in 2005, to Yakutsk, and north along the dilapidated Topolinskaya Highway, finally allowed him to visit a former Soviet gulag, or penal colony. Gulags, or “lager” as they are known in Russia, are where Stalin’s regime sent political prisoners and undesirables by the hundreds of thousands to die in harsh prison conditions and be worked to death building railroads or roads, or mining gold in the most notorious of all slave mine systems, in Kolyma in central Siberia. Gulags played a pivotal role in the Soviet economy. Prisoners in gulags mined one-third of all the Soviet Union’s gold, and extracted nearly all of its coal and timber. The gulag population also numbered about one out of every 50 workers in the Soviet Union.  An estimated 6-9 million persons perished in what is known as the Great Terror, during the purges of the 1930, and the great famine of 1932-33, according to some estimates.  The most famous account of the gulag, of course, is the Gulag Archipelago, the 1973 chronicle of the penal system by the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Frazier also details the deteriorating conditions in Russia that is leading to the nation’s depopulation in many cities and communities in Siberia. We catch glimpses of those problems in his sad descriptions of rampant alcoholism and a food safety issues. But Frazier barely touches on the public health catastrophe that is befalling Russia and its Siberian provinces.

According to United Nations (U.N.) figures, the average life expectancy for a Russian man is 59 years, or 166th place. Women can expect to live 72 years. Overall, Russia now ranks 163rd in overall life expectancy. The gap between expected longevity for men and for women-14 years-is the largest in the developed world.

The main killers are: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, alcoholism, cancer, cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, suicides, smoking, traffic accidents. The Russian government, according to critics, is doing little to stem the tide.

Tuberculosis deaths in Russia are nearly three times what the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies as an epidemic. What’s more, alcohol consumption per person is twice what the WHO considers dangerous to human health. In addition, more than 1 million people in Russia have been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, according to WHO figures. Russia also has the 6th highest suicide rate in the world, peaking after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

There are many factors that have led to Russia’s much publicized population decline. According to the Rand Corporation, the collapse of the old Soviet social system in the 1990s was a major factor. In the Soviet era, nearly all health care was provided free by the state, with a system that emphasized the quantity of medical services, not quality of those services. When the centralized economy broke down, the public-health sector fell into a fiscal disrepair without a means of surviving in a market system. According to demographers, Russia’s population has dropped from 149 million a decade ago to just over 144 million today. And, that decline is accelerating.

Despite the gloom that is the public health calamity inside of Russia, and Siberia, I am now intrigued about visiting that vast but very unpopulated space on this planet, just as I was when I first flew over Greenland in 1997 and came back three years in a row to visit the world’s largest island. As Frazier himself says, “Siberia is …  a flyover country. I’m always interested in the thing that people don’t think about. Certain geographic places exist in your brain. You have a sense of Siberia. Everybody knows what they think Siberia is, just like in America everybody knows what they think the American West is.”