Kosovo-the Turkish Ottoman Empire Revisited?

An editorial by Christos and Mary Papoutsy

Having just returned from Athens, Greece, we wanted to share with our American friends some of the beliefs held by many people in Europe concerning the current Balkan conflict. There are many instances indeed of ethnic cleansing and genocide to which we can turn our attention. Our recent trip to Greece only underscored some of these terrible injustices which have gone largely unnoticed by western news media, injustices which now play a crucial role in grasping a fuller appreciation of the current events in the Balkans. Nearly twenty-five thousand demonstrators marched nightly through the streets of Athens from Constitution Square to the American Embassy, loudly protesting the violent actions of NATO in Yugoslavia. While the Greek populace in no way defends the actions of Yugoslavian leader Milosevic, and even joins international criticism of him, it cries foul over the uneven application of American indignant righteousness.

Greek-speaking peoples of the Balkans, Cyprus, and Asia Minor remember all too clearly the genocide of the Armenian Christians of Asia Minor in 1915, and the widespread ethnic cleansing of their own Orthodox Christian relatives from all ancestral Greek places on the coast of Asia Minor, along the Black Sea, and I the city Constantinople (now called Istanbul). This campaign by the Muslim Turkish leaders and military, which far overshadowed any reports emanating from Yugoslavia today in terms of brutality and violence, will forever remain in the collective consciousness of all Armenians and Greeks. Over two million Greeks and Armenians were slaughtered. Many of these innocent civilian victims were brutally mutilated in front of family members, being killed only after barbaric torture and violation.. Others were forced to march for many miles across deserts until they died. The people of coastal Smyrna (now Izmir) who had managed to escape murderous Turkish furor in the Greek and Armenian quarters and who had found their way through the streets among the fire and heaps of dead bodies and limbs were burned alive on the quay as Turkish soldiers and citizens set fire to their huddled and screaming masses. American and European troops stationed in the city and on ships in the harbor witnessed all and raised no hand to help the victims.

But what makes this example particularly noteworthy is that the Turkish government has no acknowledged this crime against humanity. Not then and not now. In fact, the official policy and strategy of this country is one of revisionism. Every mention of an Armenian genocide is met with outspoken denunciations and flat denials, while all references to Hellenic culture or inhabitants are euphemized as "Roman." No such event ever happened, they try to tell us. And information coming from a country that regularly jails journalists-there is no freedom of the press-and prohibits public criticism of the state, can certainly not be considered objective.

Fortunately, reliable witnesses from around the world have recorded these appalling sights. Diplomatic officers, Christian missionaries, servicemen and others have offered their eye-witness accounts to numerous researchers and scholars. One of the most gripping and scholarly investigations is Smyrna 1922 by Professor Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, a work highly acclaimed by reviewers of the London Times and by other notable critics. Professor Dobkin painstakingly sifted through masses of information, many of them official documents from the world's leading countries, to lay bare the lie that has been perpetuated for many decades. And she has noted the close association between Turkish authorities of that time and German officials who had advised the Turks on methods for systematically eliminating the Armenians and Greeks, a fact which she relates has been confirmed by German scholars. Thus, the terrible genocide of Jews in World War II had it heinous precursors in the Nazi-collaborating Turkish military leaders early in this century.

But the story does not end for the Greek people with this revelation. It continues. For in 1974 Turkey invaded an independent and sovereign nation, Cyprus with American arms. Over 1600 Cypriots, including some American citizens, were massacred by Turks during and immediately after the invasion. Up to that time the Greek and Turkish Cypriots had lived together peacefully without strife. Forty percent of the island still remains occupied by Turkish troops, ostensibly to protect a Turkish minority of twenty percent who did not want to see the island become united with Greece. Despite repeated U.N. resolutions and calls for Turkish troop withdrawal, Turkey still occupies the northern portion of this independent state. And many hundreds of thousands of Greeks lost their homes and possessions, not to mention the systematic desecration of centuries-old Christian churches, facts which seem to be continually ignored by the international community.

Still, ethnic and religious cleansing by Turkish authorities does not end with the Cyprus occupation. The Orthodox Christian minority in Constantinople (Istanbul) continues to decline in numbers because of discrimination and persecution. At one time there were almost a quarter of a million Greek people in this city founded by Greeks in ancient times and continuously inhabited by Greeks for millennia. But now only a few thousand remain, their numbers decimated from repeated persecution and pogroms. These few are mostly religious figures, priests and monks who dedicate their lives to serving and protecting the Patriarch of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of more than three hundred million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The place where Christianity was first officially recognized as a religion in the fourth century A.D., Constantinople has served continuously as a central locus ever since-more than 1500 years-for Orthodox Christians. Surrounded by a fortress-like compound on the holy grounds of a millennia-old Christian site, Patriarch Bartholomew 1st lives in constant fear of violence. Priests have been murdered and churches sacked. Local officials always promised to find and punish perpetrators, but justice for persecuted minorities has moved only slowly there, if at all. No culprits have been found for a bombing attack in 1998-only one of many such incidents-whose aftereffects we witnessed firsthand when we happened to visit the next day. The Orthodox theological school has been closed for some years by Turkish authorities. Despite repeated calls by American and other officials for reopening this venerable institution, the doors remain closed. And with them any hopes for the continuation of an Orthodox tradition practiced for thousands of years, for authorities have declared that only a Turkish citizen may serve as the Patriarch. Turkish pogroms have indeed worked. Few signs of Orthodoxy or Hellenism remain outwardly visible in this city founded and held for many, many centuries by Greeks.

This pattern of aggression, repression, and revisionism continues today even against other minority groups. In a country of more than sixty million people, the Kurds of Turkey and bordering areas number more than one quarter, nearly twenty-five million people. They are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Turkic peoples and continue to inhabit their ancestral homeland in the southeastern part of the country. Denied the right to speak their own language and maintain their ethnic identity, they have decided to fight back for the freedom to live in lands occupied by them for thousands of years. Stated in more simple terms, they were there first, long before Turkish invaders arrived. Yet the Turkish government has waged an unrelenting bloody persecution of the Kurds, having slaughtered tens of thousands of them and having hazed complete villages under the pretext of eliminating terrorists. Little information about this tragic injustice reaches the west because of the government's control of the press. But the refugees who have managed to escape to other countries, their numbers now totaling more than one million across Europe, have brought with them credible stories of genocide and ethnic cleansing. "Where are the Americans?" they ask. "Why have you not helped us?" they cry. "Don't you stand for freedom and justice?" they protest. As their numbers increase on the streets of Europe where some have been reduced to begging, it will become increasingly difficult for honest and compassionate westerners to ignore their pleas as American and NATO bombs drop upon Kosovar and Serbian targets alike.

The Kurds are now experiencing some of the tragic difficulties borne by Greeks, Armenians and Cypriots. They join the ranks of many ethnic groups who have suffered from these inhuman practices at the hands of hostile Turks. And they similarly cry for even-handed social justice as the view the strong western reaction to reported atrocities in Yugoslavia. Together with Romanians, Bulgarians, and Serbs, these groups share a historical enmity toward the Turks. The Balkan countries bitterly remember that they were slaves for hundreds of years during the Ottoman Empire, a regime which collapsed only decades ago in some area. And all remember tha their Christian members were treated brutally by barbaric Muslim overlords, victims of ethnic and religious cleansing and genocide. A bond of common suffering because of their religion and/or ethnicity binds these countries and peoples together.

Dreams of freedom preserved for over four hundred years during Muslim Turkish occupation-and kept alive in Slavic countries even during eras of iron-fisted Communism-will not easily deter a people who have forsworn ever again being subservient to another religious or ethnic group. Passions therefore run high among the peoples of the Balkans. Well educated and nearly all English-speaking, all of these groups have a clear understanding of the current situation in the Balkans. We westerners, however, have not been so fully informed. We have seen only pictures of fleeing refugees and refugee camps alongside the latest NATO and American defense briefings on the accuracy of bombing runs. Our perception of the Balkans is thus not as comprehensive as theirs. How many of us knew tha the economy in Albania had nearly completed collapsed several years ago, causing hundreds of thousands of economic refugees to flee into surrounding countries? How many of us knew that Greece alone had already absorbed nearly one million Albanian refugees? How many of us knew that these refugees have already caused enormous hardships for the host countries, that the desperate economic situation of the refugees had forced many of them to engage in widespread illicit behavior? How many of us knew from the outset that these ethnic Albanians were also Muslims, allies and descendants of the same Turks who had brutalized an entire peninsula of ethnic groups? How many of us read reports the Muslims (Turks) from other countries had been inciting and arming the so-called ethnic Albanians for years? How man of us had heard reports the Muslim Turkey was arming and inciting Muslim Albania as a step toward redrawing Balkan borders, including Kosovo, and creating a Greater Muslim Albania? How many of us had heard reports that Turkey was building a naval base in Albania, realizing a long-cherished dream to dominate the Mediterranean and revive the old empire, raising the specter of fear in all of the Christian Balkan countries? How many of us knew that there was a centuries-old enmity between the Muslims and Christians in the Balkan peninsula and in the northern coastal regions of Asia Minor? How many of us knew that the Serbs had been slaves for five hundred years to the Turks? How many of us knew that Kosovo province holds the sites most honored for millennia by the Serbian people, sites connected with the founding and freedom of their people, much like our Old North Church in Boston or the Alamo in Texas, or the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.? How many of us realized the complexity of the delicate balance of power and the bitter historical wounds of the Balkan peninsula? How many of us knew that the outbreak of violence might be an intended outcome for those who would like to see borders redrawn? Not very many, that's certain. And this lack of information may prove a very costly unintended lesson for many millions of people.

Instead of perpetuating violence as a solution to injustices and ethnic cleansing, we as world leaders should develop alternate, non-violent means for assisting in the resolution of civil wars. If we claim to assist on humanitarian grounds, then we must also be prepared to understand fully the ramifications of all of our actions and comprehend the history of the areas and peoples to which we have committed. But most importantly, if we wish to bring an end to violence, we must put forth and implement non-violent and fair means for settling conflicts if the resolutions are to have lasting and positive effects. This, then, is what we should be promoting, instead of creating long-term ill-will and enmity throughout the entire Balkan peninsula.

We here in the U.S. should also be aware of events and facts underreported in the west. The Greek people have been waging massive demonstrations against NATO's violent campaigns for some days. Recent reports indicate that opposition to NATO bombing is increasing steadily in Greece. We have personally witnessed a number of these demonstrations in Athens. The Greek-and other Balkan-peoples are convinced that NATO and American bombing in Yugoslavia will not solve the region's conflict, but only serve to entrench positions of opposing sides and eventually to draw all Balkan countries into the conflict. Many Greeks speculate privately that the people of Greece will not allow NATO troops to land in Thessaloniki en route to the [Former Yugoslav] Republic of Macedonia or Yugoslavia and predict that massive demonstrations will prevent the use of this port to further the region's strife. They cry that other ways, non-violent ones, must be sought to rectify the injustices in the name of humanity. Other ways must be sought to eliminate and neutralize the actions of Milosevic, they shout. We agree. We intend to support a number of relief organizations in Greece set up to support all victims of the Balkan conflict, organizations whose contact information is regularly published in the Greek press. Among these, for example, are the Greek Red Cross, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Unicef, Doctors of the World, Greek Solidarity Caravan, Humanitarian Aid, Association of Hellenic Serbian Friends, Commercial Bank Union, Ergobank Union, Macedonia and Thrace Bank Union, Mega Channel, and Solidarity with the Yugoslavian People.

But an even more insidious, and unspoken, fear lies behind some of the protest against NATO and American actions: the role of Turkey in fomenting and nurturing a Balkan conflict. Small countries in this region of the world have experienced and survived centuries of brutal domination by Turkish overlords. The peoples of these ethnic groups thoroughly know the history of their region and the founding of their own modern states. And what's more, they carefully monitor local news reports on current Turkish actions. For many years they have noted with concern Turkey's refusal to acknowledge its genocide and ethnic cleansing of Greeks and Armenians [among other groups] along the Black Sea, on the coast of Asia Minor, and in northern Cyprus, unlike the repentant actions of its former collaborator and mentor, Germany. They note with concern Turkey's revisionist governmental policies and the implications these have for the country's overall trustworthiness and reliability with respect to basic human rights and the formulation of its domestic and foreign policies. They note with increasing concern the lack of a fair and just settlement of an independent country invaded and still occupied by Turkey with American arms. They read with concern and disgust the latest reports of church desecration and sacking in northern Cyprus by Turkish Cypriots and Turks. They observe with concern the rising number of false claims Turkey makes against Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. They witness regular news reports about persecution of the Kurds and listen to firsthand accounts from the tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees now in Greece. They read about accounts of Turkish aggression toward Patriarch Bartholomew 1st and the other priests and monks in Constantinople and Turkey's refusal to allow the reopening of a centuries-old theological school on an island. And finally, they watched with great concern nightly news accounts of American and NATO allies using Turkish bases to launch bombing sorties against Iraq and to enforce the "no-fly" zones, knowing by historical exempla that there would be a quid pro quo for this use of the bases. And they were right, of course, since our government's covert agencies participated with Israel in an almost unprecedented fashion to capture Ocalan, deemed an enemy by the Turkish authorities, but a freedom fighter and hero to twenty-five million people whose only wishes are to speak their own language, to retain their own ethnic identity, and to live in their own ancestral lands. Yes, they were right, of course, because Turkey has sought intervention in the Balkans with an eye toward territorial gains, pressuring our government behind the scenes to take action. Yes, they were right, of course, to note the timing of the capture of Ocalan and the hasty, UN-disapproval-circumvented bombing of Serbian targets. Yes, these people of the Balkans who now protest American and NATO actions fully grasp the enormity of the stakes at hand. They know that our foreign policy is for sale, because our righteous indignation is not applied even-handedly.

We urge everyone to explore these topics of genocide and ethnic cleansing in greater detail. Abundant examples of these social injustices abound everywhere, examples which play a crucial role in our understanding of world events and the role we must assume if we wish to effect lasting peace. At every turn we must thwart violence and set a clear example that violence only begets violence. But we can only do so if we are fully informed about the circumstances of our countries' actions and participation abroad and the ramification of any intervention. Let us carefully and thoroughly discuss and debate the best methods-preferably non-violent ones-for helping to resolve this strife. Clear missions, strategies, and plans should be developed and implemented with straightforward objectives and exits. Surely the estimated four-billion-dollar cost of U.S. involvement in this Balkan conflict could be better applied to assisting the peoples of the region directly. For our own part, we will continue personally to support non-violent approaches of resolution and relief aid for victims. We pry that no harm comes to our servicewomen and men who are dedicated to our country and that peace returns soon to this region.

(Originally written in 1999 during the Kossovo conflict and appeared in the Portsmouth Herald of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and posted online in 2005)

2000 © Hellenic Communication Service, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.