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Revelation of Armenian Fighter in Gallipoli Battle Stirs Controversy

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - A Turkish soldier in historical uniform stands at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Canakkale, as part of the Gallipoli campaign in Gallipoli, Turkey, March 18, 2015.

FILE - A Turkish soldier in historical uniform stands at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Canakkale, as part of the Gallipoli campaign in Gallipoli, Turkey, March 18, 2015.

Turkey commemorates on Friday the 100th anniversary of the World War One battle of Gallipoli, when Ottoman Turks defeated a British-led invasion force.

On the same day, Armenians around the world will mark the 100th anniversary of the mass killings - which Armenians describe as genocide - by the Ottomans of its Armenian minority.

The calamitous events are captured in the story of a Turkish Armenian army officer, Captain Sarkis Torossian; but, the publication of his memoirs of fighting in the Battle of Gallipoli has stoked controversy in Turkey.

Torossian’s story deals with many taboos and dark chapters in Ottoman history.

Mass deportation

Even though he was a decorated Ottoman army officer, that fact did not save his mother and sisters, who perished during the mass deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman rulers. The mass deportation has since been dubbed as a genocide by many - a label that Ankara vehemently denies.

Bilgi University professor Ayhan Aktar said the most contentious part of Torossian's story is that he fought at the crucial World War One Battle of Gallipoli.

Aktar said Torossian's story contradicts both Turkey’s official version of events that only Turks fought at Gallipoli as well as the latest Islamist interpretation of the battle.

"When you form a Turkish republic based on ethnic nationalism, you rewrite history. In the last 15 years, an Islamic narrative started.They started to talk about the kinds of saints coming from the sky, protecting the glorious Islamic army against the infidel," Aktar said.

"In both narratives - in the Turkish and Islamic narrative - poor Captain Torossian is persona non grata, he does not have any place, he is not Turk to take place in the Turkish narrative and he is not a Muslim. He is Christian and therefore he does not fit in the Islamic narrative," Aktar added.

The importance of Torossian’s story, Aktar said, is why publishers were persuaded to print it in Turkey. While Aktar said he was aware the book was controversial, he was surprised by the unlikely alliance of Turkish secular nationalists, Islamists and even the army attacking it.

"I mean, I was not expecting such a debate, such a fury," he said. "They told me that I was naïve. I was cheated by the text and tried to discredit the book by finding details, saying, this guy is a systematic liar.

"When the Torossian debate started, the Turkish chief of staff made an official declaration saying that there was no officer called Sarkis Torossian on the Gallipoli front in 1915," Aktar said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged the veracity of the story, citing it in a communiqué to his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, in a bid to persuade him to attend Gallipoli commemorations. The offer was refused.

Worrying atmosphere

Aktar said the controversy over the book has created a worrying atmosphere for Turkey’s tiny Armenian minority.

"An Armenian Facebook friend wrote me a personal message saying that my grandfather, Hacik Bey, was wounded at Gallipoli. I wrote to him saying can I use this account, he said please do so, but don't give my name," Aktar said.

"This upsurge of nationalism against an Armenian officer who fought in the army created a kind of uneasy feeling in an ordinary Turkish-Armenian citizen, who still has the trauma of genocide and I never forgive this," he added.

Aktar said the controversy has opened the door to other accounts of Armenian officers who fought at Gallipoli becoming known.

"This debate on Captain Torossian initiated another upsurge in research about who were these officers in the Ottoman Army. Actually, I am very proud of it," he said. "While we are commemorating a battle or resistance or heroism, we should never forget the ones who are fighting with us. This is very important and we should pay respect."

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