Near a Turkish school, 10,000 dead Armenians are still ignored

Photo by George Aghjayan
Photo by George Aghjayan

The three-story Yenikoy elementary school rises from a plateau like a mesa in south-central Turkey. It is the only building for miles, its exterior walls a pale yellow reminiscent of sweet corn. But the playground swings and slides beside it are a full-on rainbow of crayons: The bright blue of a cerulean sky. The crisp red of a fire engine. The orange of a traffic cone.

Surrounding the playground, however, is a black wrought-iron safety fence. Why? Because the school and playground sit at the edge of a ravine that is easily a hundred feet deep. At the bottom of the ravine is the Dudan Crevasse, a vertigo-inducing gash that plummets at least another 350 feet.

I have visited the area twice in the past two years. In May 2013, the first time I went, the school did not exist. By this August, it had sprouted from the earth like a dandelion.

When I returned to the ravine and saw the school, I was enraged. My anger was not driven by the idea that adults had built a playground beside a dangerous ravine or by the fact that the building despoils an otherwise pristine natural landscape — though both are true.

I was furious because that ravine is the final resting place for an estimated 10,000 of my ancestors, the Armenians of Chunkush, which is the village beside Yenikoy. In the summer of 1915, Turkish gendarmes and a Kurdish killing party marched virtually all of the Armenians who lived in the area to the ravine. There they shot or bayoneted them and tossed the corpses into the crevasse.

Eventually, three out of every four Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were systematically annihilated by their own government during the First World War: 1.5 million people.

Turkey has a long history of denying the Armenian genocide. But the figures don’t lie. Outside of Istanbul, the nation was ethnically cleansed of its Armenian Christian minority. In 1914, according to Armenian Patriarchy census figures, there were 124,000 Armenians in the Diyarbakir province, which includes Yenikoy and Chunkush; by 1922, there were 3,000. Today there are but a handful, all descendants of the survivors who were raised as Muslims and sometimes referred to as “hidden.”

There are no markers or memorials in Turkey that commemorate the myriad sites of the slaughter. (There are in Syria, then the edge of the empire, where many of the Armenians were killed.) Imagine Auschwitz without even a signpost; imagine Buchenwald without a plaque. It isn’t easy for diasporan Armenians such as myself to find the sites in what once was our homeland.

But we do. There are plenty of eyewitness accounts; there are plenty of memoirs.

Some of us make pilgrimages to such places as the Dudan Crevasse to pay our respects to the dead. We visit the remnants and rubble of the churches that as recently as 99 years ago were active, vital and vibrant congregations. We bow our heads. We say a prayer. We gather the garbage that grows like moss beside the altars.

When my friends and I have asked the Kurdish villagers what they believe happened once upon a time at the Dudan Crevasse, usually their answers suggest a near-century of denial and obfuscation. Sometimes they tell you some people died there, but they don’t know who or why. Sometimes they insist they know nothing. And once a pair of middle-school-age girls told a friend of mine, “Some Armenians fell in there.”

There is the stone skeleton of a massive Armenian church in the village and the shell of an Armenian monastery on the outskirts. If you ask the locals where the 10,000 Armenians of Chunkush went, some will tell you with a straight face that they moved to the United States.

I do not know the thinking behind the placement of the Yenikoy elementary school. But I have my suspicions. I would not be surprised if next year when I visit, the crevasse has been filled in: the evidence of a crime of seismic magnitude forever buried.

The irony, however, is this: It will no longer take complex directions or GPS coordinates to find the 10,000 dead at Dudan. All you will need to tell someone is to visit the Yenikoy elementary school. Go stand by the playground. The dead are right there.

(This column appeared originally in the Washington Post on September 7, 2014. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published this summer.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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