As part of the Armenian Missionary Association of America’s commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, AMAA Executive Director and CEO Zaven Khanjian delivered a memorial lecture about the life of Hrant Dink at the Armenian Presbyterian Church in Paramus, New Jersey on January 31.
“Long before there was Je suis Charlie there was the slogan, We are all Armenian. We are all Hrant Dink,” Mr. Khanjian told a large and attentive audience, who had braved adverse winter weather to attend the presentation. Mr. Khanjian and his wife Sona befriended Hrant Dink shortly before Dink’s death, and the lecture included not just a witness to the historical record, but personal reminiscences as well. The lecture’s point of departure was an impromptu address Hrant Dink delivered at the United Armenian Congregational Church (UACC) in Hollywood, California, just months before Dink’s death. In those remarks, Hrant Dink recalled his ties to the Armenian Evangelical movement, and in particular a youth camp in Tuzla, Turkey, that was dear to him.
Hrant Dink told the UACC audience that as a boy he lived as an orphan in the “children’s nest” (Bolso Badanegan Doon) on the bottom floor of the Armenian Evangelical Church in Gedik Pasa, Istanbul. The administrator of the orphanage, Hrant Guzelian had a dream of creating a summer facility where children could enjoy the outdoors and continue their Bible studies. And so, Guzellian began the Tuzla camp.
But Dink recalled that in those early years, Tuzla was a far cry from our notion of a vacation camp. Tents were pitched, and at the age of eight, Hrant Dink along with a dozen other boys were taught construction skills, and began the hard work of building the facility that he would later describe as “heaven.” It was, he said, “an untouched shore with fine sand and a piece of lake formed from the sea…a sprinkling of fig and olive trees, and thorny raspberry bushes along the sides of the ditches.”
Not only would Dink work, learn, and play at the Tuzla camp, but he eventually met his wife Rakel there, when she was brought to the camp as a seven-year-old Kurdish Armenian. “We grew up together. We got married there. Our children were born there.”
But eventually, the Turkish government placed camp director Hrant Guzelian under arrest, on an accusation that he was “raising Armenian militants,” a notion that Dink ridiculed. “None of us was being raised as Armenian militants,” he said. But Guzelian’s arrest left the camp without a leader and the church without a pastor. And so, every Sunday, Hrant and Rakel Dink would keep the church open: a guard at the door, Hrant Dink preaching the Bible from the pulpit, and Rakel and their three children comprising the entire congregation.
Eventually, the Turkish government asserted that title to the Tuzla land had been granted to the Armenians in error, and evicted the children’s camp altogether. To illustrate this portion of the lecture, Zaven Khanjian showed the audience the documentary “Swallow’s Nest” by Sehbal Senyrt and Nedim Hazar, in which Hrant Dink is seen walking through the neglected ruins of the Tuzla camp, the “heaven” of his childhood and early adulthood. As he walks, Dink recalls the injustice of the seizure of the land, and finds in that experience the roots of his passion for social justice for Turkey’s minority communities.
Because of his advocacy as a journalist, Hrant Dink was eventually charged by the Turkish state with a violation of the infamous Article 301, which criminalized offending Turkishness. He was convicted and given a suspended sentence, but Dink realized that, even if he was not sentenced to jail, the conviction made him a marked man. He remained in Turkey, he said, out of respect for the many thousands who supported him, but he said he lived like a pigeon, “obsessed just as much [by] what goes on my left, right, front, back. My head is just as mobile…and just fast enough to turn right away.”
Dink continued, “I may see myself as frightened as a pigeon, but I know that in this country people do not touch pigeons. Pigeons can live in cities, even in crowds. A little scared perhaps, but free.”
Tragically, Hrant Dink would not share that freedom. On January 19, 2007, a 17-year-old, Ogun Samast, shot Hrant Dink to death as he left his newspaper office. The subsequent investigation revealed that Samast was acting at the behest of members of the so-called “Deep State,” ultra-nationalist forces within Turkey, believed to include officials in government and law enforcement. Those legal proceedings continue.
In recounting the life of Hrant Dink, Zavan Khanjian emphasized the values for which Dink lived and died. Those causes included the Christian faith he learned at Evangelical church, orphanage, and summer camp; and the inviolable civil rights of all minorities living in Turkey. Those causes also included a commitment to freedom of expression, a commitment so absolute that Dink vehemently opposed the enactment of a statute criminalizing Armenian Genocide denial in France.
Mr. Khanjian ended on an optimistic note, predicting that the forces opposed to the truth will eventually be defeated, and expressing his hope that goodwill – and recognition of the truth of the Armenian Genocide – will prevail.
Peter Kougasian, Esq.