Who Speaks For The Dead?

Russell Crowe has directed his first movie, which opens in the U.S.A. on April 24th. The Water Diviner is the tale of an Australian father travelling to Turkey in 1919 to try to find his three sons who never returned from the Gallipoli battlefields of 1915. The film covers family love and reconciliation between Australians and Turks before taking a strange detour three quarters of the way through into the dark territory of Turkey’s genocidal past.

Most of us are aware of the 1915 massacres and deportations of the Armenian population of Turkey but less is known about the same blueprint being used by the state against its Assyrian and Greek populations. Figures can’t be precise but in total between 1914 and 1922 the Near East Christian Holocaust saw the deaths of around 3 million men, women and children. Of these close to one million were Greeks, with another million driven into exile to escape the same fate.

The shell shocked survivors of a town called Livissi were even patted down for gold and currency on the dock before being put on the boats that took them to Greece. It’s important to remember that Greece was not their homeland. They had been born in what is modern day Turkey and their ancestors had been there for thousands of years. In the north of Anatolia, on the Black Sea coast, the Greek region of Pontus had been established for three thousand years and was a prosperous, fertile area where relations between different religious groups were harmonious.

In 1919 during a lull in this Holocaust and after Turkey’s World War One surrender the Greek Army occupied the far western tip of Anatolia to protect the Greek populations there. Local atrocities were carried out by Greek civilians as revenge for treatment in the previous five years and military authorities arrested and punished the guilty. George Horton, the US Consul General in Smyrna, commented on the short Greek occupation, “the only civilized and beneficent regime which that country had seen since ancient times”. Horton also later witnessed the remnants of the Greek Army retreating after a two and a half year campaign that saw them reach central Turkey. In a furious and leaderless rout they burnt towns and took sporadic revenge on civilians. Horton contrasted this with the victorious Turkish Army committing wholesale slaughter and destroying villages with the full authority of their commanders.

The fact that Russell Crowe’s scriptwriters decided to include this genocidal chapter of history from a biased Turkish viewpoint is shocking, especially given that one of them is from a Greek background. Briefly, Russell’s character, Joshua Connor, jumps on to a train with friendly Turkish veterans heading to answer the call of Mustafa Kemal to form a Nationalist Army and fight the Greeks and occupying British and French. In the film the train is heading for the centre of Turkey. In real life the enemies were everywhere except there. The British in Constantinople (North West), the French in the South and the Greek Army in the West. Mustafa Kemal was in the North in Pontus, where he had been sent to protect the Pontian Greek population.

Rather than protect them he initiated another round of genocide based on massacres, forced deportations and death marches to the interior. Three years earlier the German Consul Kuchhoff had reported to Berlin that, “Exile and Extermination in Turkish are the same, for whoever is not murdered, will die from hunger or illness”.

So, back to the movie, the train is happily rattling along the wrong way and Joshua is teaching the veterans to play cricket when suddenly they are ambushed. The poorly armed veterans are up against a military force with machine guns, cavalry, artillery and overwhelming superiority. They surrender but are killed in cold blood by what one character calls, “Satan’s Army”. It’s the Greeks, who have been mentioned as destroying towns and terrorizing the people, as they attack the Turkish Major exclaims that he never expected them so far inland.

What the audience are being led to understand is very clear; that the Greeks are bloodthirsty terrorists. Just in case we missed the point the snarling, beast-like Greek Commander slits the throat of the loveable Sergeant and is about to execute the Major with his surrendered pistol. Cementing Turkish-Australian relations Russell saves the Major by smashing the Greek on the back of the head with the cricket bat.

Russell and the Major then steal some horses and escape to a Turkish town that is eerily deserted. The camera pans past a pathetic huddle of corpses in an orchard. The glimpse we get shows colorful clothes and smaller bodies, so that our subconscious understands that these are women and children massacred by the Greek invading terrorists. Remember they have come so far inland during their invasion and atrocities were carried out in the 1919 to 1922 war.

Never mind that these atrocities were carried out by civilians hundreds of miles from this scene’s setting and that they were punished by Greek authorities. Never mind that the soldiers portrayed are wearing black costumes with daggers in their waistbands and crossed bandoliers of bullets. Greek soldiers of the invasion force wore khaki uniforms. The baddies are in fact dressed as the Pontian Andartes, the resisters of genocide in the North, also hundreds of miles from there.

Even before the genocide was launched Turkish authorities were faking evidence against the Greeks. Brooklyn author Thea Halo mentions one instance from 1914 in her book, “Not Even My Name”. Fake lithographs were produced in Turkey’s western area to show Greeks massacring Turks and pasted up in schools and mosques in order to encourage retaliation against the Greeks. Similarly, Armenians were massacred in the villages around the city of Van to try to provoke a rebellion. This single act of resistance is used to this day to justify the destruction of Armenian life in hundreds of other towns and cities in a highly organised plan that was established long before the rebellion.

In fact, denial is an industry in Turkey where the government funds special departments and units in overseas missions,”whose sole purpose is to dilute, counter, minimise, trivialise and relativise every reference to the events which encompassed a genocide of Armenians, Pontian Greeks and Assyrian Christians in Asia Minor”.

Gregory Stanton, the president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, is quoted as saying, “Denial is the final stage of genocide…..It is a continuing attempt to destroy the victim group psychologically and culturally to deny its members even the memory of the murder of their relatives”. Holocaust survivor and political activist Elie Wiesel calls the Turkish denial a “double killing”.

The Water Diviner show the Greeks as perpetrators of massacres and suggest that they were invaders from a separate country, rather than people who had been in place for thousands of years. It defines them as terrorists and murderers of women and children and backs that up by showing the Greek defiler cutting the brave and kind Sergeant’s throat. We cannot feel any pity or fellowship with them, they are disgusting. At the same time the Turkish defenders of the deserted village are weak and poorly armed but obviously heroic and righteous.

It is as if the script was prepared by the appropriate Turkish Department of Denial and delivered intact to the Australian scriptwriters. The story’s ending couldn’t suit their purposes more wholly. That purpose currently is to get ahead of the world’s acknowledgment of the genocide. The Armenian Genocide has been recognised in parliaments around the world and state after state in the U.S.A. while the Pontian Genocide is beginning to be accepted more widely.

Turkish sources are trying to suggest that Pontian history never existed, that villages, towns, schools, churches and monasteries were never there and that 350,000 Pontians did not die at their hands. It is a difficult genocide as it largely happened after the fall of the Young Turk government, so they can’t be blamed. It happened squarely under the watch of the founder of modern Turkey, with much of the operation carried out by officers closely aligned with him personally. The Turkish campaign seeks to prove that any Greeks in the Black Sea region were bandits who had come over the border from Soviet Russia.

Back with The Water Diviner – one of the film’s writers, Andrew Anastasios gushes on his blog, “The Turkish government, meanwhile, is considering decorating Crowe for his recent film “The Water Diviner,” which is set four years after the Gallipoli campaign in World War I and follows the journey of an Australian farmer who travels to Turkey to discover the fate of his three sons.” You bet they are and at the opening in Instanbul the audience stood and turned to Russell clapping until their hands ached. Here was an artist who truly understood their suffering and Turkey’s birth pains. No wonder the government was so helpful when they were filming and seeking locations.

The production team were looking for a, “a Roman theatre, a hilltop Turkish village, a ruined church and a fortress wall. Miraculously, production found them all within striking distance of Fethiye, in the abandoned village of Kayaköy and ancient ruins of Tlos….. this abandoned Greek village that inspired Louis de Bernières’ novel Birds Without Wings. During the forced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, the Greeks of Kayaköy, or Livissi as it was known then, were relocated and the town never resettled. Hundreds of forlorn homes slowly crumble into the hillside.”

It’s certainly true that the Livissi Greeks were resettled, those that were left alive at that stage. In 1912 it had been home to 6,500 Greeks and 500 Moslem Turks. After the persecution and extermination of the community only a few hundred were left to herd to the dock and send away with only the clothes they stood up in. Three thousand men were taken from the district and worked to death in quarries, mines and road construction. The rest of the population were raped, tortured and murdered until being marched inland to the desert, intending for deaths from hunger, thirst and other privations during a march as a soft way to murder. They even developed a name for death by indirect means – a White Massacre. So 2,000 elderly, handicapped, women and children were marched and starved for 15 days, leaving a trail of dead in their wake.

Those who survived the march were beaten, blinded, buried alive and tortured to death as an example to all. The process was repeated twice and then had to be discontinued as there was no one left to take in the town and surrounding area. So, a strange setting to choose to show the snarling depravity of the Greek invaders in 1919, for Livissi was outside the area touched by the Greek army’s invasion, in fact it is in the South, far from Pontus.

In this abandoned town Russell’s character finds his surviving son repainting murals in an abandoned Greek church. Is this a subtle suggestion that any Greek settlement in Anatolia was already far in the past in 1919? The facts are that in 1914 25% to 30% of the population of Anatolia were Christians. In 1923 this figure was 3% to 4%. These figures are given by the Turkish historian Taner Akcam, who has researched using the original Ottoman and Turkish documents. Akcam states, “Denial of the Armenian genocide has developed over the decades to become a complex and far-reaching machine that rivals the Nazi Germany propaganda ministry. This machine runs on academic dishonesty, fabricated information, political pressure, intimidation and threats, all funded or supported directly or indirectly by the Turkish state. It has become a huge industry”.

It seems that Russell Crowe’s film has come as a godsend for the Turks. National myths are preserved and audiences around the world will be left with a bad feeling about those Greeks. Substitute Greek for Armenian in American historian Justin A McCarthy’s address to the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 2005 and you have a blueprint for their portrayal in “The Water Diviner”.

He told the gathered parliamentarians, “The question of who began the killing must be understood, because it is seldom justifiable to be the aggressor, but it is always justifiable to defend yourself…..If those who defend themselves go beyond defense and exact revenge, as always happens in a war, they should be identified and criticized. But who should be most blamed are those who began the wars, those who committed the first evil deeds, and those who caused the bloodshed. Those who began the conflict were the Armenian nationalists, the Armenian revolutionaries. The guilt is on their heads”. It is not recorded if he then got a standing ovation to match Russell’s at the movie screening. I expect he did.

In Australia the film is lauded as a fantastic box office success and other filmmakers are being urged to follow Crowe’s example. Reviewers question how they can make films that no one wants to see, while Russell has made a blockbuster that has raked in money. Where are the others going wrong? My question is, “Who will speak for the dishonored dead and who will be heard over the ringing of the cash registers?”

The final indignity is that the movie opens in the US on April 24th – the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide.

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