On the eve of 95th anniversary of the deportation and killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, senior Dutch foreign correspondent Bram Vermeulen and award-winning photographer Kadir van Lohuizen visited the Turkish-Armenian border.
In his 3,000 word feature, Vermeulen shows how the residents of Halikislak, a Turkish town of 300, and their neighbours in Bagaran, a village of 700, deal with the history that both defines and traps them.
The people on either side of the river, whose name they can’t even agree on, have so much in common, Vermeulen describes in his detail-rich prose. They grow the same apricots, they sing similar songs and they are equally poor. But they have no idea what goes on on the other side of the water separating them. The border is sealed and guarded by Turkish NATO troops on the one side, and Russian soldiers on the other.
They are aware of the discourse on the Armenian genocide. They know Sweden has adopted a resolution branding the massacre a genocide and the US House of Representatives may soon do the same. “They judge us from their comfortable chairs,” one man tells Vermeulen. “But if you give them a map of the world, they can’t even find Armenia.”
Every morning, Halikislak’s village elder searches the river bank for enemies, but he would never consider crossing himself. Armenians are “dirty and unreliable”, is the sentiment here.
Vermeulen did take the long road north to Georgia, and back south to Bagaran. The train stopped running there 17 years ago, but the station is still guarded “just in case” the border is ever reopened. That can only be allowed to happen, though, if the “dirty and unreliable” Turks acknowledge the genocide they committed, the villagers say.
Their call for recognition has come to define the national identity of Armenia. But what happened in 1915 was not genocide, say the neighbours on the other side. It was a side-effect of Turkey’s struggle for survival as the superpowers were gnawing at its edges. The Armenians were a Trojan horse for a Soviet invasion, they say.
Suspicion gives security on both sides, where nobody seems to look towards the future, Vermeulen shows rather than tells in this exquisite piece of journalism.