Turkey’s Armenians in Street Protests over Demolition of Orphanage

Armenian activists stand in the rubble of a partially demolished Camp Armen as they continue protesting for the handover of the property to the Armenian community. (Photo: Sabah)

Armenian activists stand in the rubble of a partially demolished Camp Armen as they continue protesting for the handover of the property to the Armenian community. (Photo: Sabah)

ISTANBUL (Al-Monitor)——Armenian youth in Turkey have launched a protest campaign against the demolition of Camp Armen, an Armenian orphanage that housed hundreds of Armenian children in summer sessions. The Armenian community demands the orphanage be preserved and handed over to it. This does not sound likely, but it is significant as being the first street protest by Turkey’s Armenians to express their demands in recent times, Al-Monitor reports.

Camp Armen symbolizes the long saga of the deportation and massacres Armenians suffered on Anatolian soil in the wake of the Armenian Genocide. Its history starts with the purchase of a plot of land by Gedikpasa Armenian Protestant Church from a private party to house Armenian orphans who lived in Anatolia and were labeled as “sword leftovers” by the Armenians. The orphanage camp was built in 1962 by the orphans themselves under supervision of a master builder.

The existence of the orphanage camp, where 1,500 children were housed and educated, was endangered by a decision by the Court of Appeals in 1974, ruling that minority foundations cannot own immovable property. The state, empowered by the court decision, seized the orphanage in 1986 and returned the property to its original owner free of charge, including the buildings on it.

The owner couldn’t cope with the implications of owning an orphanage camp and immediately resold it. The new owners, once they found out the background of the orphanage camp, also sold the property without touching it. The property remained abandoned, untouched for a while. In 2008, the Aydinlar family, one of the richest families in Turkey, bought the property and this year decided to build on the lot.

This is why on the morning of May 6, bulldozers approached walls built with the hands of the camp’s orphans. Armenians, when informed of the demolition, rushed to the scene and stopped the bulldozers from razing the structure. Armenian activist Garo Paylan found the new owners and requested they postpone the demolition until after the June 7 general elections. The new owners agreed.

At the moment, a part of Camp Armen is crumbling, but most of it is still standing. It has become the symbol of a new Armenian attitude. Since May 6, Armenians have been standing guard around the clock in front of the building. This can well be interpreted as a first such move in the recent history of Armenians in Turkey.

The protests and posting of Armenian guards led to some colorful displays. A huge banner that says “Camp Armen should be returned to the Armenian people” was hung on the building. Armenian musicians showed up to play music.

Rakel Dink, the wife of Hrant Dink, the slain editor-in-chief of the Armenian newspaper Agos that has an important place for Turkey’s Armenians, is one of the ardent supporters of the protest. Hrant and Rakel Dink attended the camp; during the discussions that took place in front of the building, Rakel Dink told the youths standing guard about their days in the orphanage camp.

The goal of the protest is to restore Camp Armen to its original status. They have started an Armenian Workshop. Ani Balikci, the mother of Armenian Sevag Balikci, who was killed by a fellow soldier on April 24, 2011, while he was doing his national service, is giving Armenian language lessons. They are planting trees and watching documentaries. Political parties, civil society organizations, university students and activists frequently visit the Armenian protesters to express solidarity.

Garo Paylan, an Armenian activist and a candidate for pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) in the June 7 elections, told Al-Monitor, “This place was seized by an action of the state. We want it returned but I don’t think the state can do it just like that. We had thousands of properties confiscated like this. If the state returns Camp Armen, then it will have to return the others.”

Paylan says that in recent history there has been no such public protest apart from the funeral of Hrant Dink. He said, “The fact is the Armenian community is becoming truly politicized after [the killing of] Hrant Dink. There are now more Armenian actors who are more sensitive. They have orators and spokesmen. But their pigeon jitters still prevail. [Hrant Dink used to define Armenian fears as ‘pigeon jitters.’] That fear is still there, but alongside politicized people. We now have people and actors of divergent views who are active in various political parties, indicating that our community is increasingly politicized and ready to react to unfair practices.”

Meanwhile, the Turkish government said it is discussing ways to save the Armenian orphanage in Tuzla from demolition, according to the head of the Foundations Department, adding that nationalization is the best option, Daily Sabah reports.

According to the source, the government is planning to nationalize the Armenian orphanage to save it from demolition. The orphanage will be nationalized before being handed over to the Armenian community. This way, the current owner of the property will not suffer from the transaction.

Foundations Department President Adnan Ertem, speaking to Sabah daily, said some were trying to cloud the issue and attack the government, arguing that everyone needs to understand that the government was doing everything it could.

Ertem said that it is impossible to hand over the property to the Armenian community without first nationalizing it. The property has changed ownership several times, and the present owner needs to be fairly compensated before anything happens, Ertem said, adding, “The only solution is for the state to nationalize and take over the property. After which we can discuss handing it over to the community.” Ertem cited the example of the Madimak Hotel in Sivas (Sebastia in Armenian) where 37 people were killed in 1993, being used as a restaurant for years before being nationalized and turned into a science and culture center.

According to a report by Uygar Gültekin from Agos, the Armenian community is “cautiously optimistic” that the building will be saved. However, he also said that the community does not want the property to be nationalized, but rather totally handed over to the community. However, the orphanage is not covered by the government-initiated law that orders the return of minority foundations’ properties seized by the state.

In addition to the discussions over nationalization and the handing over of the deed to the Armenian foundation, the Tuzla Municipality is also expected to revoke the site’s demolition license.

Markar Esayan, a prominent Armenian Turkish citizen and a candidate for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) for the June 7 parliamentary elections, is also involved in the discussions. Esayan, who is also a Daily Sabah columnist, said he knew Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was involved in the matter, asserting that it is now impossible to demolish the structure. He accused the current owner of deceiving the municipality by arguing that the structure was close to collapsing, which is how he was able to obtain the demolition license. He said the Armenian foundation was also to blame for not filing the necessary legal claims for the building in time.


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