For almost 32 years it had been quiet, dead quiet, at Camp Armen, the old Armenian orphanage in Istanbul's wealthy, beach side neighborhood of Tuzla. The joy and laughter of the Armenian children who built the school with their own hands had died out a long time ago, ever since the camp had been closed down in the early 1980s.
On 6 May the silence was broken when a bulldozer appeared on the site, sent by the camp's owner Fatih Ulusoy to tear down the unused, derelict building and clear the ground for the construction of a dozen villas.
What Ulusoy had failed to take into account, however, was the central place the orphanage still occupied in the collective memory of Istanbul's Armenian community. Around 1,500 children had spent part of their lives here in the twenty years the orphanage existed. Most famous of the former students was Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist who had been working for years trying to reopen the camp before he was assassinated in 2007.
As soon as the news broke that Camp Armen was under threat calls for solidarity were shared via social media, leading to a Gezi-like occupation of the site by activists and sympathisers who were determined to protect it from destruction.
Moreover, the occupiers led by Nor Zartonk – an Armenian civil organization that focuses on the rights of minority groups in Turkey – are using the case of Camp Armen to draw attention to what they call the ongoing “cultural genocide” against the Armenian people and to bring an end to the century-old “assimilation politics” of the Turkish government.
Smear campaign against Camp Armen
“It was amazing, it was our home,” recalls Garabet Orunöz, 55, a former student who lived at the camp for almost eight years between 1967 and 1975. “We used to cook, study and tend the gardens. There were animals as well, and an orchard.”
For the young inhabitants of the camp – all children and grandchildren of genocide survivors – it was a place where they learned about Armenian language, culture and religion, something that was almost impossible outside the safe and secluded environments of Armenian churches, schools and orphanages. Many orphans called it their home; for others it was a place where they spent their summers amongst peers without having to fear the bullying and discrimination they faced as Armenian children in the outside world.
In 1983 the camp was closed down by the Turkish government – 21 years after it had first opened its doors. “This was the result of a smear campaign,” explains Garabet. “People claimed that kids were brought from Anatolia and turned into Christians. Others accused the camp of being a breeding place for terrorists.”
For the closure of the camp the government – a military junta that had come to power three years earlier after a military coup – relied on a High Court ruling from 1974 that made minority foundations ineligible to acquire new properties. This law was then retroactively applied to 1936, when these foundations had been asked to register their properties, effectively allowing for the seizure of all property that had been acquired by minority foundations since then.
The land upon which Camp Armen had been built was bought by the Gedikpasa Armenian Church Foundation in 1962, and in 1983 it was returned to it's former owner. No compensation was paid, not for the land, nor for the school building which they had built on it. For the next 32 years the plot would change owners multiple times, but none of them laid a finger on the site, either out of disinterest or out of fear to anger the Armenian community. Until this May.
A miniature Gezi Park
As soon as the news broke that Camp Armen was under threat a solidarity movement mobilized. Murad Mıhçı, 40, who ran as candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in the recent elections, was one of the first to arrive on the scene. “The people had formed a human chain in front of the bulldozer,” he explained. “They talked with the operator of the bulldozer and explained to him that the building he was destroying used to be an old Armenian orphanage. After a while they managed to convince him to lay down his work.”
About a third of the building had already been destroyed by the time the activists brought the demolition to a halt. But for many of those who subsequently occupied the camp, more important than the preservation of the building was the protection of the Armenian cultural heritage that was embedded in the site.
“We're here not just for the stones,” admits Alexis Kalk, 31, a founding member of Nor Zartonk. “The building is important, but where the children have built the school, we are building something new in the garden,” he adds, referring to the way the occupiers have united for a common cause, across the ethnic and religious boundaries that continue to divide society in the world outside the camp.
It has been three months since the occupation started, and with the occupiers life has once again returned to Camp Armen. Tents have been set up and colorful posters cover the walls. They cook and clean together, and every evening there is a general assembly in which everyone is welcome to participate. Recently they even organized an iftar dinner, to break the fast together with their Muslim, and other, comrades.
In a way, the camp looks like a miniature Gezi Park – one of the few surviving green spaces in central Istanbul and site of a two-week long occupy-style protest in 2013. This comparison is not entirely coincidental, as Özgür Atlagan, 30, who is one of the activists that have been camping at the site, explains: “Everything we do here, cooking, cleaning and organizing forums; they are the habits that we picked up in the Gezi Park.”
Another similarity with the Gezi Park resistance is that people from a whole range of different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds have come together to commonly fight for something they believe in. For Alexis, this is already a victory. “Everyone has resisted here together: Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Alevis and Jews. That is the most important point.”
Building a new life together
But whereas the occupiers try to convey a message of unity and hope, a large black banner hanging from the first floor balustrade sends an entirely different signal. “The genocide continues!” it reads in bold white letters, in a candid reference to the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Two weeks prior to the occupation of Camp Armen this very same banner was used by Nor Zartonk during the 100th commemoration of the 1915 genocide at Istanbul's central Taksim square. “For us, the Armenians who live in Turkey, the genocide really continues,” explains Alexis, who was the one that decided to bring the banner here.
The banner's bold claim is echoed by Garabet's explanation of why the camp was closed back in 1983. “This is a cultural genocide,” he conveyed. “By closing down the school they have deprived us of our culture, of our education. They [the Turkish government] want to assimilate us, for us to forget our language and our culture.”
Despite the strong wording and controversial use of the word “genocide”, all interviewees agreed with the statement. To this day, the Turkish government continues to deny the Armenian genocide ever took place, while among scholars of Turkish history and genocide experts it is a general consensus that it certainly did. For HDP-candidate Murad Mıhçı, denial of the 1915 genocide equals “historical neglect”, and as long as the state fails to come to terms with it's past, every attempt at destroying part of Armenian history or culture has to be viewed, analyzed and contested in this light.
As such, the resistance at Camp Armen – which has as its ultimate goal to see the site returned to the ownership of the Gedikpasa Armenian Church – forms yet another chapter in the Turkish Armenian community's century-long struggle for recognition of their suffering and the crimes committed against them.
Victory seemed near when in late May Fatih Ulusoy publicly announced that he would return the title deeds to the Armenian community, but his neglect to actually do so have sparked fears among the occupiers that their case has become the subject of a political ball game. With the unprecedented victory of the HDP – which does recognize the Armenian genocide – in the recent elections there is a revived hope that Camp Armen might be saved.
Today, the struggle for the camp continues. While an Ankara-based human rights organization is preparing to bring the case to the attention of the European Council, many at the camp feel that an important victory has been achieved already.
“People come here to show their solidarity with us,” Alexis explains. “They come here with their own identity, but there's no pressure from either side. We are here as Armenian socialists, revolutionaries. We're doing something for our people, and the others come and help us. We didn't have any problems at all. We can live together very easily, and built a new life together.
Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist with an MSc in Political Economy, and editor for ROAR Magazine.