From Brian Todd
Friday, April 29, 2005
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- We shudder at images from Darfur, Sudan, wince at memories of Rwanda and look at grainy pictures of the Holocaust and say "never again."
Nearly forgotten is a brutal campaign from nearly a century ago, that historians say may not have been a model for those genocides, but certainly provided a rationale.
"The fact that a state could in fact carry this out under the eyes of the international community and get away with it, became in fact a hallmark of what the 20th century, the tragic 20th century, was really all about," says Charles King, author of "The Black Sea: A History."
Adolf Hitler himself was reported to have made a reference to it in 1939, as he prepared to invade Poland. He was quoted as saying, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
In April, 1915, the Ottoman Empire, which covered the general area of what is now Turkey, was battling on two fronts in World War I, and was disintegrating in the process.
Armenians, long part of that empire, were restless for independence -- and were getting encouragement from Russia.
The Ottoman Turks, fearful of a Russian invasion on their eastern front, saw the Russian-Armenian alliance as a huge threat and targeted the Armenian population inside their borders.
"They embarked on an extermination plan by deporting the entire population, close to -- a little under 2 million Armenians -- in the empire into deserts and by killing and starvation and disease," says Harut Sassounian, editor of "The Armenian Genocide."
Between 1915 and 1923, Armenian leaders were rounded up in cities and executed; villagers were uprooted en masse and driven south toward the deserts of what are now Syria and Iraq. Many were shot or butchered outright by Turkish forces, but most died in forced marches.
The numbers -- to this day -- are still in dispute. Armenians say 1.5 million were killed. The Turkish government says not more than 300,000 perished and that Armenians weren't the only victims.
"These few years both sides suffered [and lost an] incredible number of people to war, to famine, to harsh climate," says Turkish Ambassador to the United States Faruk Logoglu.
Objective historians say the Armenian death toll is likely between 600,000 and 1 million.
The fight is not only over numbers, but also a word.
Neither the Turkish government, nor any U.S. president, except Ronald Reagan, has ever called this event "genocide."
Sassounian is the grandson of survivors.
"I describe it as a deep wound in the psyche of every Armenian that is not healing, is not going away, because it's like an open wound as long as that denial is there," Sassounian says.
The U.S. government says between 60,000 and 146,000 people have died in Darfur, Sudan, over the past two years, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell called that a genocide.
Historian King believes what happened to the Armenians was genocide by any definition, but "labeling it genocide among politicians has very severe political ramifications, particularly in terms of the U.S. relationship with Turkey -- an important strategic partner in southeast Europe and the wider Middle East," says King.
As Armenians mark the 90th anniversary of their darkest days, many say all they want is acknowledgement.
The Turks say they're willing to set up a commission to examine the historical record.
Two countries with a closed border and no formal relations -- still haunted by a distant tragedy.