One of the world’s leading experts on the Events of 1915, Justin McCarthy, a history professor from Louisville University, has visited Kars Kafkas University in Turkey to attend a conference in which he made a speech regarding Armenian rebellions against the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Anatolia prior World War I.
During the speech, he described the background events that led to the decision of the Ottoman government to forcefully relocate the Armenian population of eastern Anatolia.
A portion of the Armenian citizens living under Ottoman Empire were relocated by government order in 1915. Before, during and after this event, thousands of people, from all communities living in the region, including Armenians, Turks and Kurds lost their lives.
In order to explain the involvement of the rebels, McCarthy said Armenians supported invading Russian forces in their battle with the Ottoman Empire for eastern Anatolia. He said, “As partisans and as fighters they fought behind the lines of Russian forces and aided their advancement.”
McCarthy detailed how the rebels took armed action against the Ottoman government at that time. He said: “Armenian rebels were planning to start a war against the Ottoman Empire. Armenia wanted to seize the territory that has a Muslim majority of three out of four in the populace. The Muslim community would object to a minority controlled state, therefore the only solution for Armenians, was to drive Muslims out of that land.”
The multi-cultural Ottoman society included citizens from various races, beliefs and communities. The government at that time did not differentiate based on race in official jargon and referred to all Turks, Kurds, Arabs and certain other ethnicities that embrace Islam as “Muslims.” For this reason, historians also use the term “Muslim” to define the various groups that were targeted by the rebels.
McCarthy continued “Before the war began, rebel leaders visited Russia to secure funding for the upcoming war.”
Due to the threat of World War I, the Ottoman Empire made a call to arms on all citizens, including those in minority groups such as Armenians. According to McCarthy, reports by recruitment officers show that almost no Armenian youngsters were left in the region. Some fled because they did not want to be recruited, but most fled to Russia and joined the ranks of Russian Army as spies or fighters. Those that did not flee, retreated to woods and hills and joined partisan gangs and attacked the Ottoman administration as it was fighting in WWI.
McCarthy also said the rebels have received funding for war preparations, propaganda, and hidden arms stashes from European Powers as well as political support.
A striking section of McCarthy’s speech was the part in which he spoke about the attack of Armenian Rebels on government officers and security forces in east Anatolia.
“Innocent villagers and town folks were murdered in masses. Briefly they captured sites such as Urfa, Sebinkarahisar and Baskale. More importantly, Armenian rebels had captured city of Van, one of the most important cities of southeastern Anatolia. They captured most of the city and drove Ottoman armed forces into the walls of the fortress. They destroyed government buildings. They burned down homes of Muslims. They kept the Ottoman army at bay until Russians arrived. When they did, Armenians actually presented them with the key to the city,” said McCarthy.
Further detailing the event, he said “Muslims of Van were being thrown out of their homes and killed. In this context, it became obvious that success of the rebels meant death for Kurds and Turks.”
During the final part of the speech, McCarthy said the Ottoman Empire did not forcibly immigrate any Armenians before these rebellions, and that the decision was not aimed at killing Armenians.
He said “We can clearly see in statistics of the immigration that only those in the conflict regions and those that presented a threat to Muslim community were forcibly relocated. Armenians living in major cities such as Istanbul, Izmir, Edirne and many Western Anatolian districts, or Thracia, were not transferred. Those relocated were sent to regions where they would no longer be a threat.”
He emphasised that: “When studying the case of Armenian forced migration, we should refrain from using sentimental words. Because doing so would compromise the truth.”
The controversy over the 1915 events still looms as a shadow over the relations between Turkey and Armenia. The Armenian state claims that up to 1.5 million Armenians died during the relocation, while Turkey says the number of casualties was much smaller and stresses that thousands of Muslims also lost their lives in the turmoil.