Turkish-Armenian Synergy Initiative
1st Draft February 2-3, 2010, Istanbul
(Updated on Feb. 15, 2010)
My first visit to Armenia &
The TASI Launching Programs
Bircan ÜNVER, Lightmillennium.Org
The heavy snow in Istanbul, on Saturday, January 23, 2010 made me wonder whether I would be able to go to Yerevan the next day. Despite the snow, the roads were open, and I arrived at the Ataturk Airport, 20 minutes away from my mother’s house. The day started off great; I was one of the first ones to check in and my 11:40 a.m. flight from Istanbul to Yerevan took off on time. I was lucky that Noyan Soyak, Deputy President of the Turkish Armenian Business Council, along with his partner Tarkan Karakaya, was on the same flight. I gave Mr. Soyak a flyer about my Yerevan programs, and we brainstormed about Turkish-Armenian relations and business development as we waited to board the plane. Upon our arrival in Yerevan, Noyan Soyak and Tarkan Karakaya were very kind to invite me to the car waiting for them, and giving me a ride to Diana Khachaturian’s (The Turkish-Armenian Project Coordinator at the Civil Society Institute) apartment.
Yerevan is two hours ahead of Istanbul, so we arrived there in the early evening.
Diana, her mother Mary, father Gari, and grandmother warmly welcomed me. They offered a nice tray of cookies and fruit slices. During all week, Diana and her family acted as my host family in Yerevan.
The next morning on Monday, January 25th, 2010, we went to the Civil Society Institute (CSI) prior to my first lecture in Yerevan. I met with Artak Kirakosyan, Chairman of the Board; Arman Danielyah, President; Maya Barkhudaryan, Chief of Peace-building and Conflict Transformation Department; Monika Hovhannisyan, Youth Programs Coordinator; Tatevik Gharibyan, Lawyer; Tamara Hovnanyan, Information Officer; Zhanna Aleksanyan, Human Rights in Armenia Website Administrator; Levon Babamyan, Public Events Coordinator; Agnessa Aloyan, Chief Accountant; and Tamara Khudaverdyan, Accountant.
Afterwards, Artak, Monica, Diana and I altogether went to School#77 (high school) for my first lecture in Yerevan.
I presented to the students a formal presentation titled, “Under the Sun: On Freedom of Expression”, and encouraged the students for intellectual productivity and creativity based on their interest areas, expectations and imaginations. I invited them to submit their ideas to be e-published on the Light Millennium e-platform. After the formal part of my presentation, a girl student thanked me and reflected her interest to submit an idea to the Light Millennium as a result of my lecture. Within my presentation, I focused on promoting the concept of the “freedom of expression” based on the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article#19 as institutional inspirations for the formation of the Light Millennium. We have been promoting and practicing this concept on the Light Millennium’s multi-platforms within the organization’s capacity.
During the question and answer session, most students’ questions were in relation to the so-called “genocide”, Turkey’s stand-point on the issue, my personal opinion on it, and also whether I supported the opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey or not. There were also some personal questions about various topics such as my religion, why I first went to the United States, etc.
Diana translated my presentation and Artak moderated the Q & A session. Artak, in particular, was very helpful with explaining to the students that it is important to listen to others’ opinions on the issue, even if they do not necessarily agree.
As part of my formal presentation for my lectures, based on my consultation with Maya Barkhudaryan, the initial idea was to show one or two short episodes from the UN TV’s 21st Century episodes in relation to global issues that focused on children and environmental issues. We thought that a video/visual presentation could be more effective to get quicker attention of the students than an oral presentation, and it also would require less translation. At the same time, it could lead promptly to a Q&A session after each episode. For this purpose, I had obtained several DVD copies via Chaim Litewski, Chief, UNTV, and Diane Barkley and Takako Nagumo, Promotion and Distribution Unit, News and Media Division of the UNDPI. But due to some technical difficulties, we weren’t able to show any of the 21st Century episodes in Yerevan. However, I gave selected episodes to the libraries of the four schools as a gift from UN TV. Within the same context, I also presented a few episodes in relation to human rights, women’s rights, and other issues to Artak for the CSI library.
In the evening, Maya, Diana, Monika, and I had dinner at an Italian restaurant in Yerevan.
Despite the very cold and dry weather and the gray-brownish sky during the first two days in Yerevan, everyone I met received me warmly and welcomed me-- including the whole CSI staff, students, teachers, principals, and volunteers. The bare landscape and the absence of forever green trees got my attention; I thought it was due to winter. So when Diana’s family asked me about my first impression of Yerevan, I told them about the “absence of green trees and plants.” They explained that the barren landscape was a result of the Karabagh - Nogorno conflicts.
The city was out of heat, and they had to cut trees down in order to supply wood for heat. In reply, I said, “it is always the people, nature, and the cities that pay the consequences of conflict and wars.”
Tuesday, January 26:
The next day, we had a very busy schedule. The weather was colder and drier. To my surprise, although I am usually very weak in cold weather, I did not feel too cold and adapted very quickly to the climate of Yerevan. I made my next formal presentation for the high school more concise so that we could have more interactive time with the students. Most of the questions were related to events of 1915, and one of the students stated that “if Turkey accepted 'genocide', there wouldn’t be any conflict.” I asked a few students individually about their interest areas. One of them responded saying “history and geography.” He further stated that Armenia was a very small country, while Turkey was a huge one, which is why Turkey should give Van to Armenia! In most cases, students reflected through their questions that they believed the eastern part of Turkey, Van, and the Mountain Agri (Ararat) belonged to Armenia. They defined these regions as “Western Armenia” and believed that they formally belonged to Armenia!
In the afternoon, at 3:30p.m., Diana, Monica, Marina (Malkhasyan, UNDP), and I met with Mr. Dirk Boberg, the Deputy Director of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for Armenia. It was one of the most informative and constructive meetings. Mr. Boberg kindly summarized how the UNDP mechanism worked and how it had changed during the last 15 years. Further, he explained that UNDP was working to develop new programs in relation to the development of Turkish-Armenian Relations, and stated that he was interested in hearing about the Turkish-Armenian Synergy Initiative and our related ideas and vision.
Early Tuesday evening, at 5p.m., we had a brainstorming session with the staff of the Civil Society Institute about whether the Turkish-Armenian Synergy Initiative should proceed as an independent initiative or as an institutional partner of the TAS Initiative. The TASI aims to focus on “positivity” which was especially supported by Artak, along with Maya. Yet, they both indicated that CSI might still have to focus on the issue of “genocide”.
In reply, I said that I would be concerned if a potentially new appointed co-chair for the TASI was involved in supporting the idea of “genocide” in any way under the CSI because this would potentially damage the vision of the TASI, and the efforts of CSI wouldn’t be seen as trustworthy in the eyes of potential supporters, as well as the Turkish community (both in the U.S. and Turkey.) Maya and Artak stated that this issue should be presented to their Board of Directors. I inquired if an urgent meeting could be arranged while I was there. They indicated that their Board met in December, and the next one would take place two months later. This was very much the conclusion of the brain-storm we had.
In the evening, I joined Maya for a special film screening with English subtitles; it gave me a glimpse into the cultural and social life in Yerevan. A long discussion of the film amongst the attendees followed.
Wednesday, Jan. 27:
There was snow in Yerevan; Diana and her family joked that I brought it from Istanbul. We went to another city called Ashtarak for my third lecture, this time in school #2 (middle school). The students were much younger (from 12 to 15 years old). Artak explained that they were very excited to meet me and interested in learning about me as a Turkish and US citizen, who lived in the US and came to talk to them about the Turkish-Armenian Synergy Initiative. Based on Artak’s suggestion at this time, I dropped my formal presentation, and following Artak’s introduction of me and a few personal questions about my personal experiences, the Light Millennium, and the TASI, the question about 1915 came up once again. The principal and the teachers who attended the meeting were very supportive of my ideas; the principal stated that, in most cases, it is women who work for peace, and congratulated me, saying, they wished to never see war again.
In the evening, a video program, “Rumi: To United That Is Why We Came,” and a part from the video program, “Yunus Emre: Contemporary of Rumi,” presented by Prof. Talat Halman, were shown at CSI.
It was the formation and celebration of the Armenian Army day in Armenia, so schools and work places were closed.
In an effort to seek further collaborations and contacts for the TASI in Yerevan, I contacted Richard Giragosian, the Director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies. Richard responded to me promptly, and suggested that we meet in person at the Marriot Hotel at the Republic Square on Thursday around noon. Meeting with Richard in person was very positive since he was someone who had regular contacts and media relations with Turkey and could be helpful to provide potential logistic support for the TASI in the near future.
Later in the afternoon, I met with Levon Babamyan (CSI), Rafik Sanfrosyan (guide), and Yeremey Grigoryan (CSI, volunteer) for a city tour; we saw Saint Sarkis Church and Mayr Tachar in Edzmiatcin, another city in Armenia. Because of my camera’s low battery, I was able to take pictures at the St. Sarkis Church, but not any of the Mayr Tachar Church. I learned some basic facts about the Armenian culture: They were the very first to adopt Christianity. The location of the Mayr Tacher church in Edzmiatcin was indicated as the place on which the very first Christian church to be built in year 301, and defined as “apholstric.”
This was my fourth and last lecture in a school in Aregnazan. The students were aged from 14 to 17. Based on Artak’s prior suggestion, we again applied a non-formal presentation format. This presentation was the most challenging because the whole class expected me to respond on behalf of the Turkish Government and the Turkish nation about why Turkey did not accept the so-called “genocide,” and why it was not willing to give up Agri (Ani) and Mountain Agri (Ararat), which, based on their definition, was the western part of Armenia.
I clearly explained and emphasized that I was not there on behalf of any government agency or private sector, and that I was solely representing my own ideas on behalf of the Light Millennium organization (which do not necessarily represent all the board members of the LM, either), in an effort to reach out to them for the Turkish-Armenian Synergy Initiative. I explained them this Initiative is fully focused on “positivity” that aims to focus on the 900 years of a shared culture in peace and coexistence, and to re-connect it with the present and the future. I also indicated that the future belongs to them and it will be up to them to re-shape the relations in this direction.
As a result, I emphasized that I did not want to deliberately deal with the issue of 1915. I also indicated that there were many well-established and funded NGOs that were working on these issues, including some associated NGOs in the United Nations. I told the students that our goal through taking an alternative path with the TASI would provide a better understanding, promote living in coexistence, normalize relationships between the two countries to insure friendships, partnerships, and collaborations between the two; and all Armenians who in live Armenia would benefit from it through economic empowerment, educational and cultural exchanges. There was also a very specific question in relation to a 1919 court decision concerning 1915. I responded that I was not a historian, and that our goal was to bring the long-shared and forgotten good times under the light, and to reconnect it with today in order to create a new ground for the future.
At the end of the session, after I left, Artak stayed a little longer, once more explaining to the students my reasons for visiting Armenia and talking to them about the TASI. He then asked the students whether they were satisfied by my responses. They responded that they were not satisfied, and this did not surprise me. My spontaneous respond to Artak was, even President Obama would not have been able to satisfy some of these students. The students, particularly the ones aged between 14 and 17, had very concrete ideas on the issue, and they were not very open to other ideas and new possibilities and potential. It will not be an easy process to change their ideas, unless clear plans and programs by the two governments are made. These plans and programs must clearly illustrate them when the border is to be opened, based on the “ratifications of the protocols by two parliaments,” and how the opening of border and the normalization process will help these students, their families, and their generation. In reality, it would help them greatly, and improve and enhance their daily lives, potentially bringing many opportunities and, as a result, better futures to them as well as to the whole nation. How could I present to them such concrete plans and programs as a volunteer-based NGO representative?
Overall, most of the students that I presented to, in particular the 14-17 year olds, were very eager to discuss about 1915, which was not my aim and goal at all. Despite all the related questions, I did my best to promote the rehabilitation of the relationships of the two nations via the TAS Initiative Launching programs in Armenia. I hoped that those who had the ideas to maintain the current relationship between Armenia and Turkey, and obtain Van (Ani) and the Mountain Ağrı (Ararat) from Turkey would potentially change their minds and perspectives in the upcoming months and years, if and when they could also see a concrete but better and brighter future for themselves, their families, and their nation.
On Friday evening, there was a formal power point presentation for the Turkish-Armenian Synergy Initiative and the Light Millennium at the Civil Society Institutive which many university students attended.
However, to my great disappointment, I was asked to remove all images, references, and website images that were taken as snap shots from the www.csi.am website in reference to the formation of the TASI and to the joint Open Letter. Initially, the TASI part of the presentation was supposed to be a joint presentation with the CSI. However, I was informed of this instruction by Diana, who had received a phone call from Maya on the morning of the same day; so despite my attempts, I wasn’t able to talk to Maya directly about this request. Since the CSI was the host organization, I felt that I was obliged to “remove” the requested images - references from my presentation, but this was not the right thing to do for it was the part of the collaboration and the reason for my being there. As a result, no one from the CSI, except Diana, attended my presentation, which turned out to be a solo presentation for the TASI rather than a joint one!
Saturday, Jan. 30:
It was my last full day in Yerevan. I met with Armine Arabyan at 11a.m., who was assigned as my guide by the CSI for the day. My official program was made by the CSI, and the first place to see was the “1915 Genocide” Museum. I did not want to see it due to my earlier experiences regarding the issue. As a Turkish native, who was born and raised and lived in Turkey until 30 years old, whenever I was asked about this issue—either by an Armenian colleague at QPTV, at the UN, or at various university or public presentations that were organized by the Armenian Diaspora in New York—I had always felt as if I were at a trial. Whenever I had a direct conversation with an Armenian colleague or student, there was almost a direct accusation, dislike, and aggression reflected every time, which made me feel like I was the one who was responsible/guilty of all what had happened and had to respond to their allegations.
However, this is what I think: First, I am not responsible for any of these events, nor is the Republic of Turkey and the Turkish nation because Turkey was formed after the WWI, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and after the
torn-apart “Treaty of Sèvres” (10 August, 1920) which was never adopted, and superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne. Second, I am not a historian nor do I have any official capacity for it. My personal point of view is, mainly most of the documents are manufactured, only recording the losses of Armenians to propagandize against the Ottoman Turks. And there were decisive attempts to ignore the losses of Ottoman Turks; their sufferings were not found worthy of reporting or mentioning in a book by the Western countries. Therefore, I consider that the events of “1915” were conducted and manufactured by the emperor powers of the time; and as a result, the 600 years old Ottoman Empire collapsed; and the Ottoman Turks were victims as much as the Armenians in 1915; and the Turks who are born after 1923 have nothing to do with the events of “1915”.
Furthermore, the term “genocide” was accepted after the WWII that none of the official institutions, including the United Nations, countries, and governments can be held responsible and accountable for any event that happened prior to their official formation, governing, and international recognition. Above all, in my opinion, “all wars are genocide.”
During the Friday lecture and based on the similar questions that kept coming, I stated that one of my dream projects is that if I ever have the financial capacity either as an individual or within the organization’s capacity, I will seek internationally renowned bilateral scholars and historians who would compile a book and documentary about the issue. By the participations of several authors, scholars, and historians, the events of “1915” would be brought under the light with its all spectrum within the global context of the time, illustrating clearly the emperor key conductors who led and supported the “1915” events behind the scene, and caused both the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the forced migration of the Armenians, as well as those who initially signed “THE TREATY OF SÈVRES” (August 10, 1920) against the existence of Turks. The Turkish nation, which was formed in 1923, has the fear that the Armenian Diaspora actually aims to reactivate and put into practice the “Treaty of SÈVRES,” which was initially torn apart by M.K. Ataturk.
For the above reasons, I tried to avoid visiting the 1915 Genocide Museum; I did not want to be drawn into another trial in which I was already labeled guilty (simply for being Turkish). Artak suggested that it was part of my official program, in order to help me better understand the Armenians. As a result of my respect to Artak, CSI, and the Armenian people, I agreed to visit. There, I once again found myself at trial as the one who was responsible for the events of 1915 and felt as though I was expected to accept all of the blame and guilt for the pain and tragedy of it. The museum visit created some tense dialogue between me and Armine. I proposed to Armine that I continue my day alone because I did not want to burden her; however she refused, and accompanied me. We went to the Vernisadj, a flea market in the center of Yerevan which had Armenian hand-crafts, paintings, books, music, kilims, rugs, and many other items for sale. I took a few general snapshots from the Vernisadj. I then invited Armine for lunch near the St. Grigor Rusavroich Church. From that point on, we talked as friends. Armine told me that the day was “St Sarkis Day,” which was the original Valentine’s Day for Armenia, even though today Armenians celebrate both.
After lunch, we went into the St. Grigor Rusavroich Church; it was filled with young couples, families, and children. Candles were lit, and church goers were lined up to either buy candles or light them. Feeling one with the culture and St. Sarkis Day, I also bought three candles and lit them up with three wishes.
Later, we went to the Republic Square and stopped by a bookstore and briefly visited an exhibition. Armine then left. I walked around the Republic Square and behind avenues and streets; I was surprised and impressed to find several public parks with great size and 5 or 6 meters high sculptures around the Opera House. There were people gathered around a small artificial lake that served as a ski platform during winters. I greatly enjoyed watching life in the parks, around the Republic Square, and the Opera House, and also liked the street art fair.
I also would have liked to pay a visit to the National Gallery and the Mother Nadaran Museum, but they were closed when we arrived to the Republic Square. I also wanted to go back to Mayr Tachar to take some pictures of Edzmiatcin, however I did not have enough time for that either.
Until I arrived in Yerevan on January 24th, I had only met with Diana in person once in Istanbul on January 12, 2010. Through Diana, I had met with Maya via Skype a few times since September 2009, and therefore with the Civil Society Institute. Upon my arrival to Yerevan, I met Diana’s own family and almost the entire staff of CSI, along with their volunteers, about 60-70 students in four different schools, and the teachers and principals of these schools.
I am well aware that nothing can be fully accomplished in a short time without major steps by both parties, at the governmental level, in long-term exchange education and culture programs starting from elementary to high schools, investment in rehabilitations of the relations through various long-standing active participatory programs with children, families, educators and policy makers along with partnerships and collaborations with the government agencies, private sector, non-governmental organizations, civil society institutions, and all forms of the non-profit sector.
Overall, both parties must come together on all social, economic, and cultural levels. Only this will help and empower the peoples of the two nations and fade all sorts of hostilities on both sides.
Sunday, Jan. 31:
As conclusion, I took a few family pictures of my host family on Sunday, January 31st prior to my departure for Istanbul. Diana and her mother Maria accompanied me as I left their apartment, and both made the same joke about me bringing the snowy weather from Istanbul to Yerevan on January 27th. I remembered a Turkish proverb, and said, “I might have dragged my feet to carry the snow from Istanbul to Yerevan.” Suddenly with a smile, I said to Diana and Maria that if I had the power, I would like to drag my feet back and forth between Yerevan and Istanbul for Peace!
P.S: CSI removed all the TASI and LM related links on their website: http://www.csi.am
Especially right before and after my Power Point presentation at the CSI on Jan.29, I had sensed that CSI had already made its decision not to continue our collaboration for the TASI. In all personal communications with the staff of the CSI, school and public presentations, as well as in person meetings, I clearly reflected that I do not accept the 95 years old allegations of “genocide” in any pre-condition or definition as a ground for continuing the collaboration with the CSI or with any individual or institution. Regardless of this, my visit to Armenia was a great hope for me for further collaborations with the CSI and with other potential NGOs there. However, the Advisory Board of the Civil Society Institute via Diana Khachaturian, who was initially the co-founder of the TASI, informed me and a related group within the LM and the CSI that the CSI has terminated any collaboration with the Light Millennium for the Turkish-Armenian Synergy Initiative as of February 6, 2010. As a result of it, TASI still exists as a vision under the Light Millennium without CSI and we will continue to seek new collaborators and partners in order to reactive it, in particular, to jointly work for UN – TASI Launching programs when the necessary conditions are met.
TASI has formed under the LM in collaboration with the CSI on Sept. 30, 2009. Through the launching programs in Yerevan, the CSI and LM also aimed to launch the TASI at the United Nations (NY), and the U.S. at large as well as in Turkey. As a result of the decision of the Advisory Board of the CSI, this collaboration has ended as of February 6, 2010. Yet, no action that took place can be undone based on the organization’s ByLaws and the NYState Charities Law. Thus, CSI’s decision is effective as of February 6, 2010, and this also needs to be approved by the Board of Directors of the Light Millennium during its next meeting. Related links: 1) The Light Millennium and the Civil Society Institute together formed the Turkish-Armenian Synergy Initiative. 2) TASI Launching Programs in Yerevan
The Civil Society Institute-CSI in Yerevan, (Armenia) hosted and presented the Turkish Armenian Synergy Initiative-TASI during the week January 25 to January 29, 2010 in Yerevan with the visit of the president of Light Millennium (New-York, USA) Bircan Ünver.
Through the TASI Launching programs in Yerevan/Armenia, which focused promoting development of relationships between the two countries, and the two communities world-wide, better understanding one to another, on collaborations, connections, cultural exchanges and reaching out from the mid schools to university students, media and NGOs via various presentations-workshops in four schools, a special screening and meetings with the UNDP and students.
UN TV for supporting with the "21st Century" Episodes
- CSI for hosting the TASI Programs in Yerevan
A Final Closing note:
The Power Point presentation for the TASI and the Light Millennium was originally scheduled for January 27. Initially it was uploaded to the LM's website prior my trip to Yerevan on Jan. 23 in Istanbul, informing and requesting the CSI's potential inputs. Based on the changes in the program in Yerevan, I updated it on Jan. 25 at the CSI, and provided a CD including a copy of it to Maya Barkhudaryan right there on Jan. 25. Therefore, the PP presentation on the LM website is based on the Jan. 25th version, prior to the "removal request" of the CSI dated Jan. 29. As far as the Light Millennium's mission of “promoting freedom of expression” is concerned, removal of a previously published matter is considered "censorship" for it means to erase actual references and documents. For this reason, the organization will not make any changes on or remove any of the previously announced and e-published documents on the website. B.Ü.
- Edited by: Irmak Karayal and Figen Bingül, The Light Millennium
- Posted on Feb. 28, 2010
©February 28, 2009, Bircan Ünver, Turkish-Armenian Synergy Inititiative/The Light Millennium - http://www.lighmillennium.org