Whenever you met Diran Bakar, you would be struck by his humility, profound pain and endless resilience. Up until his death, Bakar, an Armenian lawyer, was one of those calm-mannered but consistent defenders of minority rights, and of Turkey’s Armenians in particular.
He was a distinguished member of the community, and his early death -- at 60 years old -- was a great loss for all of us. I will always remember our private talks in the mid 1990s, which led to the publication of AGOS.
When I looked through the huge book “2012 Declaration: A History of Seized Armenian Properties in İstanbul” yesterday, I knew how proud he would have felt. Much of this “must read” text is based on his professional archive, a source of painful memories on the official looting which took place since the early years of the republic.
“This book is not the story of seized buildings made of stone or cement, but the story of flesh-and-bone human beings. These seized institutions and buildings were the cherished belongings of human beings rich and poor, young and old, men and women, who had worked hard to create or acquire them. These unjustly seized buildings gave life to the schools, churches, orphanages and retirement homes of the whole community. The social and cultural fabric of the Turkish-Armenians depended on this economic foundation. It is our wish that similar injustices will not be carried into the future, as people read in this book the documented ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the attempts to wipe out the life and culture of our community.”
This introduction is followed by almost 500 pages that span the treatment of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire and the republic. The story is divided into three sections. In the first we read not only about the minority foundations and the changes in official policies, but also about the impact of the Lausanne Treaty.
There is a very interesting chapter where a striking comparison is made on the constant mistreatment of the Turkish minority in Western Thrace (Greece) and the Armenians in İstanbul. It leads to lucid conclusions on how similar state policies in the two neighbors were ruthless and in defiance of international law.
“Stories of seizure” is the second, and most engaging, part of the book. The first story tells the story of the historic Kalfayan Orphanage Building in the Old City which was entirely wiped out from the map when the Bosporus Bridge was being built. The second is about how the owner and foundation of the historic Bomonti Mıhitaryan Elementary School was forced to pay rent for its own property. The third one is a story about how an educational institution, the Andonyan Armenian Monastery and School, was seized. The fourth is about how a foundation called the Kasımpaşa Surp Hagop Church was declared defunct by official decree while the fifth one is about how the Tuzla Armenian Children’s Camp (where the late Hrant Dink was raised) was turned into desolate ruins.
Detail after detail, the reader follows a dark history unfolding. One can say, certainly, that times have changed and thanks to the “glasnost” policies of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), we now have access to more concrete data. But the sad part is that the damage done over the decades is irreparable. It is a shame and, speaking in terms of the total destruction of some properties, a cultural crime.
The third part of the book is a huge inventory of the properties of 53 foundations, filing them district by district and street by street, supported with photos, maps and graphics.
The book makes it clear that of the 1,328 properties that belong to foundations, 661 were seized, while no one knows anything about the fate of 87. Only lately, as of the past decade, were 143 of the seized properties handed back to the foundations that owned them.
The pretext of injustice was the notorious 1936 Declaration, which was used by the government at that time to launch confiscations. The Nazi era was also a source of inspiration later on. This book sets the record straight after more than seven decades.
“I have grappled with the ‘36 declaration for years,” Bakar had said. “Therefore, I welcome even the slightest improvement.” Let his hope come through, let justice be done.