BY KYLE KHANDIKIAN
Today marks the 100th day of resistance at Kamp Armen after Nor Zartonk, an Armenian youth movement based in Istanbul and self-described as “an unavoidable new awakening that breaks through assimilation, enslavement and subordination for the Armenian people,” staged a sit-in to stop the demolition of the historic Armenian site on May 6.
For the last 100 days, Nor Zartonk and other allied communities of Turkey—Armenian and non-Armenian alike—have been engaged in an unprecedented show of struggle and solidarity, literally revitalizing the Armenian spirit of the once abandoned camp. The number 100 has been a resounding and indeed symbolically powerful number for Armenians around the world this year, as we remember the start of the Armenian Genocide 100 years ago in 1915. But in Turkey the Genocide continues, as a banner sprawled across one of Kamp Armen’s buildings declares to its visitors loud and clear.
Kamp Armen is just one reminder, particularly for the descendants of those who remained in the Armenian homeland after the Great Crime, of the pain endured and the injustices that continue to be levied against Armenians in Turkey. But the last 100 days have signaled the turning of a new chapter in our collective search for recognition and reconciliation, perhaps the most important.
The story of Kamp Armen begins in the wake of 1915. With most Armenian properties either confiscated or destroyed, Armenian orphans in Istanbul were living in the basement of the Gedikpaşa Armenian Protestant Church in the neighborhood of Kumkapı. In 1962, the Church, overwhelmed by the number of Armenian orphans and poor children arriving from other parts of Turkey, purchased a plot of land from a local in Tuzla, east of Istanbul, for a summer residence for the children. On July 31, 1964, the “Kumkapı Armenian Protestant Church Foundation” became the registered owner of the land upon which Kamp Armen would sit.
The children themselves constructed the first buildings of Kamp Armen. 30 of them, ages 8 to 12, dug the foundation of the main hall, and carried the stones, sand, and other materials used for the construction of the building from the seaside to their future home. 1,500 children would eventually spend their summers at Kamp Armen, or as Hrant Dink called it, their “Atlantis.”
“We had created our own Atlantis civilization, our own home, like a swallow creating its nest. […] And they took it away from us. They said, ‘You have no right to this.’ They did this. They took away our home.”
That is how Hrant Dink described the seizure of Kamp Armen by the Turkish state in a 2007 documentary aired on CNN Turk. The renowned Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated in broad daylight outside the Agos newspaper office in Istanbul on January 19, 2007, arrived at Kamp Armen at the age of 7. It was at Kamp Armen that he met his future wife, Rakel, and where he spent a large part of his youth. He and Rakel would eventually come to run the camp themselves. In Dink’s eyes, and indeed now for Nor Zartonk, the confiscation of Kamp Armen represented a century of impunity and denial—denial not just of the Genocide but of the very right for Armenians to exist in Turkey and to freely associate with their own culture and history without forfeiting their right to equal representation and treatment under the law and in civil society.
In the early 1980s, amid worsening domestic strife in Turkey and after a third military coup, rumors that Kamp Armen was a training ground for Christian terrorists began spreading, and a slander campaign, together with bewildering (and discriminatory) court rulings, forced Kamp Armen’s doors to close in 1983. After Turkey’s second military coup in 1971, minority organizations—deemed a threat to national unity—were banned from owning property in 1974. All land acquired between 1936 (when a law requiring minority religious organizations to register their properties was passed) and 1974 were either confiscated by the state or returned to their previous owners.
Kamp Armen was returned to its previous owner, and since 1983 has been abandoned and shuffled between 6 different proprietors. But when news broke on May 6 that the land’s current owner planned to demolish the camp and replace it with apartment buildings, activists sprang into action. In true Gezi Park style, Nor Zartonk launched a campaign to save Kamp Armen, with activists literally sitting in front of bulldozers that had already begun to destroy part of the camp. Nor Zartonk was there during the 2013 Gezi Park protests that rocked Turkey, and today we see a very similar occupation of the campsite and an outpouring of support from Turkey’s left. As organizers in Istanbul have pointed out, Kamp Armen has brought together groups and peoples of Turkey from diverse backgrounds—Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Alevis, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists…
The fight to save Kamp Armen is just one piece of a larger patchwork of movements for a more free and democratic Turkey, which came together in June as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to strike a key blow against President Erdoğan and his authoritarian AKP party’s 13-year majority rule in parliament. While politicians have been scrambling to form a coalition government amid growing political tension that has turned violent in recent weeks, on the ground at Kamp Armen, it’s been nothing but grassroots organizing as Nor Zartonk brings the camp back to life.
Nor Zartonk has cleared the camp’s main halls of trash and debris, and begun rebuilding what’s been lost, making Kamp Armen inhabitable once again. Many of them do live there now, just as 1,500 Armenian children before them did. They cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner there, sometimes with the camp’s former inhabitants—now adults. They’ve re-cultivated the camp’s garden with fruits and vegetables. They organize public workshops and lectures on a wide variety of topics, including hate speech and the media, issues on gender, the Genocide and illegal land seizures. They also hold Armenian language and history classes, including this one on Mesrob Mashdots and the Armenian alphabet. They organize film screenings, photo exhibitions, and concerts. They flyer on the streets of Istanbul and invite the public to join their protest movement. During Ramadan, they hosted Muslims and Christians alike for an iftar dinner. They celebrated Vartavar. When Electric Yerevan was in full swing, they sent messages of solidarity to activists in Armenia fighting a proposed increase in electricity tariffs, and even hosted a lecture on police violence in Armenia. When Turkish police forcibly dispersed the annual Istanbul Pride march on June 28, they expressed their support for Turkey’s LGBT community, and hosted activists from Armenia for a presentation on the status of LGBT people across the border. When a horrific suicide bombing in Suruç killed 32 Turkish and Kurdish volunteers on July 20, they planted 32 trees at Kamp Armen in their honor, and lent their voices to a collective cry against violence and extremism, and the Turkish government’s complacency in the activities of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
All this, documented extensively on social media, is a testament to the rigorous spirit and determination of Istanbul’s Armenian community to not only remember the past and reverse nearly a century of “white genocide,” but also to secure a safe future for themselves and their countrymen in Turkey. Nor Zartonk truly is what its name suggests—a second, new awakening of Armenians in Bolis.
Before he was murdered, Hrant Dink had made Kamp Armen’s return to the Armenian community a very personal goal. “I am not dead yet, nor is this community. We still carry the effects of that wrong deed in our flesh and bones,” he said in reference to the camp’s usurpation and perhaps in reference to the Genocide. He was right; the Armenians of Turkey are not dead yet, and they are working very hard to keep our memory and history alive in a near the Armenian homeland. What Nor Zartonk has done at Kamp Armen is nothing short of beautiful and inspirational. Nor Zartonk is the new face of a growing chorus of support for Armenian Genocide recognition in Turkey, and a uniquely progressive Armenian political movement that deserves serious attention. It rejects capitalism, militarism, nationalism, racism, gender inequality, homophobia and transphobia, and ecological degradation in its struggle for a “borderless, free world without exploitation,” all values and ideals that speak to a growing number of Armenians worldwide, particularly young people.
Nor Zartonk’s efforts, and especially their display of international solidarity with other socio-political movements across borders and nations, should serve as a model for us all in our struggle against the forces that allow genocide to continue today. Since the beginning of the campaign to save Kamp Armen, activists there have sent a clear message to the other Armenian diasporas of the world: “Come to Kamp Armen.” Their work has contributed to a growing interest in the Armenian community of Turkey in recent years, and now they’re reaching out for our support. Just last week, Nor Zartonk members were in Yerevan to raise awareness about the issue, and called for “public support from the residents of Armenia.”
Turkey remains the final frontier for the resolution of the Armenian Question, and it is clear that the cause rests safely in the hands of Nor Zartonk. But whether or not we will contribute to what Nor Zartonk has started is up to us. Kamp Armen has yet to be returned to the Gedikpaşa Armenian Protestant Church Foundation. Supporting Nor Zartonk is one of the most direct ways we can ensure a freer and more democratic Turkey, one that respects its minorities and that has reckoned with its past.