Nouritza Matossian remembers Armenian journalist and campaigner Hrant Dink, who was murdered on this day (19 January) in 2007
Is it true that a whole year has passed since we lost our beloved friend Hrant Dink? By my desk is a photo of us taken in the Agos office on the day we met, when he changed my whole way of thinking. Whenever I see or even write words about his death, I cannot believe they are about reality. These words seem to belong in a novel, a bad surreal novel.
Hrant Dink was one of a kind. An Armenian born in Turkey, who spent his childhood in an orphanage with two brothers, with the courage and strength of character to become an international campaigner for peace and harmony between Armenians and Turks, is rare. An Armenian who developed countless friendships with his fellow citizens, printed a small weekly paper in both Armenian and Turkish which rocked Turkey. He wanted to tell it like it is and not to hide for safety. His name became synonymous with fearless reporting of minority issues, including the denial of a long Armenian history and 20th century killings and deportations in Turkey. He was equally concerned about Kurds, Ahlevis, disenfranchised women and others who are treated unjustly. Even his opponents found it hard to believe that such a man could be persecuted and shot dead in front of his newspaper office by a teenager.
We have lost a whole year in which Hrant, who was so full of vitality and strength, would have lived, talked, written, argued, campaigned, travelled, lectured, loved, lived with his friends and family, watched his children and grandchildren grow up. We have been robbed of his words and his guidance, his breadth of spirit and generosity. We would have taken up his newspaper eagerly to read what he was saying next, to listen to his opinions and maybe test them against our own.
Before meeting Hrant Dink I had a very different idea about Turkey and the Turks. My father, a survivor whose parents escaped with him to Cyprus from Anteb, could not accept my visiting Turkey. “Why do you want to go there? Do you want to break your heart?”
When finally I went, it was behind the armour of professionalism. I went to find Arshile Gorky’s birthplace as I was writing a book about him. But on my way to Van I longed to see where my grandparents had lived, and so went to Kayseri and Anteb.
Later I met Hrant Dink. He was the only person who talked to me about the Armenians and the Turks in an open and unprejudiced way. It was as if he made it his mission to clear my mind of the terrors and nightmares I had inherited from my grandparents and parents. He was forthright, but more than that he behaved like any European would behave in a democracy. There was not the slightest shade of fear or hesitation in him. Like an aristocrat who cannot change his breeding, he was a democrat and had decided not to compromise, even if he did not live in a completely democratic country. I wondered what privileged education had given him this civilization, this confidence. It was not escapism. There was his huge desire to communicate to his Turkish compatriots, for that is how he thought of them, to demonstrate who Armenians really are.
I asked him why he founded his paper Agos: “The word ‘Armenian’ had become a swear word. The worst insult. I wanted the Turks to find out that we were human beings like them, that we had a history, that we came from this soil. Just to communicate with them. I also wanted those Armenians who could not speak Armenian or read it to have news about Armenia and news about Armenians. We had to defend ourselves. We had such a bad press. There were unjustified accusations made against the Armenians.”
He introduced me to a large circle of his family and friends—a liberal, intellectual, articulate group, also committed to a free society within a modern Turkey. His son Arat and other journalists and publishers still have cases pending under Article 301.
Hrant Dink came to London on April 6, 2005, to speak to us on the tenth anniversary of the birth of his newspaper. The previous evening he had addressed the Ankara parliament. He was eloquent and upbeat. To a massed audience of Armenians, Turks and British, his message was careful, moderate and cleansed of any bitterness or hatred, as if determined to persuade Diasporan Armenians of a change in Turkey. He urged people to think about the present, not the past, to concentrate on human rights of everyone. “Turkish nationals belonging to non-Muslim minorities will enjoy the same civil and political rights as Muslims. All the inhabitants of Turkey, without distinction of religion, shall be equal before the law.” To a London audience this did not seem such an outspoken view. Hrant went on: “Those of us who live inside Turkey are struggling to effect these changes. I can honestly say that there are a lot of things are changing.”
As I translated, I wondered where his love of humanity and optimism sprang from. He later told me of his sad childhood and separation from his parents, of living in an orphanage and looking after his small brothers. Perhaps this made him identify with that nurturing little collective which taught him to be both a good Armenian and a good Turk, above all a decent person. As he grew up, this instinct extended to a whole society about he cared and wanted to nurture. “You know, Armenians have a great heart, a big muscle.” He said, “but we also need a brain. It is important that we are a nation that for 4000 years was attached to our soil, we have a great culture. We created a culture, a civilization; we must continue using our brains.”
I never heard Hrant Dink speak a bitter word or criticism of others. This why the charge of preaching “poison” against Turks brought against him was so ridiculous. Even when he was receiving obscene death threats, even near the end, when they stole his sense of security and poisoned his peace of mind, he never complained. He did not talk about the hate mail, but of those people who wrote to him with prayers and words of encouragement. Dink burned at the injustice of being considered a racist.
If the cowards who hounded and killed an unarmed man are so proud of Turkey, as they maintain, then they committed the worst crime upon their country and its honour.
A year after his death, millions more have come to know about Hrant Dink, millions more are informed about the injustices in Turkey, and of course of the Armenian history. Article 301, which ultimately took his life is universally condemned as barbaric. People change; history moves on. As he said to me prophetically shortly before he died: “Who knows what history will say about me. Dying is not such a terrible thing. So long as you are standing upright until the end.”
He died with his honour; in Armenian we say, “jagade patz” (baring his brow).
I believe he changed the minds and hearts of a whole generation. Hrant Dink was Turkey’s best ambassador. By killing Hrant they tore out the very heart, the beating heart of Turkey. He is our Martin Luther King. He deserves to be remembered as a great man of peace.
His message has already reached millions all over the world, with new centres opened to continue his work. In Europe we must fight for the adoption of a resolution calling for the abolition of Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code and for respect for human rights and minority rights in Turkey. We will continue to build on his hopes and dreams.
Nouritza Matossian is author of Black Angel, A Life of Arshile Gorky(London).
©Nouritza Matossian, 18 Jan 2008