Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Author Seeks to Ease Armenian Suffering

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Human rights lawyer Fethiye Cetin grew up believing she was like any other Muslim Turk.

So when the 55-year-old discovered nearly three decades ago that her maternal grandmother was an ethnic Armenian Christian who had survived a mass killing by Turkish forces during World War I, her "whole life was turned upside down," she said in a recent interview.

As a 9-year-old caught up in the violence, her grandmother was rescued by a Turkish officer after witnessing countless horrors: men from her village killed and tossed into a river, families torn apart.

"May those days be gone and never return," she was to later tell her granddaughter.

After her grandmother died in 2000, Cetin, who spent much of her career defending members of Turkey's ethnic and religious minorities, decided to reveal her secrets in a book called "My Grandmother."

Published in November and already into its fifth edition, the book coincides with growing calls from within the European Union for Turkey to acknowledge the genocide as a condition for joining the organization.

Debate on the Armenian issue, counted among the most sensitive topics in this strongly nationalistic land, has been deadlocked in sterile wrangles over statistics and terminology.

Armenians say 1.5 million of their people died from 1915 to 1923 in a genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government. Millions of Armenians worldwide are set to mark the 90th anniversary of the start of the violence April 24.

Turkey has consistently denied that a genocide occurred, saying that several hundred thousand Armenians died of malnutrition, exposure and disease during forced deportations to Syria after they collaborated with invading Russian forces in eastern Turkey.

Using language that is at once wrenchingly emotional and determinedly neutral, Cetin's work is significant because "it introduces a human dimension to the debate," said Hrant Dink, chief editor of the Agos weekly, which serves Turkey's 60,000-strong Armenian community. "She has melted the ice."

Cetin says the debate is degrading. "The Armenians' suffering has been reduced to a single word and to squabbles over figures," she said during a reading last month before a small group of Armenians in Istanbul.

"The reality -- that every single one of these numbers represented a child, a woman, a man; in short, innocent human beings -- has been overlooked," Cetin said as members of the audience wept.

Cetin said recent Turkish legislation aimed at easing the country's entry into the EU has stimulated freer discussion on a broad range of topics that were taboo. "My aim is not to provoke but to reconcile," she said.

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed calls for a joint commission of Turkish and Armenian scholars to research the events of 1915. He said the findings would disprove claims of genocide -- an indication, said a Western diplomat who requested anonymity, that "they are not willing to consider any other outcome."

The Armenian government has rejected the initiative as a ploy, and critics allege that Turkey's archives have been purged of incriminating documents. Still, it is the first time Turkish leaders have invited international scrutiny of the deaths.

Turkish analysts acknowledge, nonetheless, that any steps toward restoring ties with Armenia remain hugely risky for Erdogan amid a tide of resurgent nationalism.

Cetin was herself surprised not to receive a hostile reaction. Rather, she said, she has been flooded with letters of support and phone calls from readers with similar hidden family stories. "It's extraordinary how many people have Armenian blood -- and even more extraordinary that they would admit it in a country where the word 'Armenian' is commonly used as a slur," she said.