Sunday, April 7, 2013

Attacks on Elderly Armenian Women in Turkey Awaken Fears

ISTANBUL — The man in the ski mask struck in the twilight of late afternoon, strangling the elderly woman from behind, beating her senseless and leaving her for dead. He ran off with 50 Turkish lira, about $30, and her engagement ring, a last memory of her long-dead husband.
Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Turfanda Asik, 88, was attacked and robbed in Samatya, the Armenian quarter of Istanbul. “He just beat me, over and over again,” she said.
Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
Armenian Turks prayed at a church in in Samatya.
“He just beat me, over and over again,” said the woman, Turfanda Asik, 88, who spent two weeks in an intensive care unit. “He hit my back, my skinny back. What have I done to him? What did he want?”
Ms. Asik was left bruised and blinded in one eye. Her beating is thought to be the first of a string of attacks in the last few months on elderly Armenian women in Samatya, Istanbul’s historic Armenian quarter. Until recently in Samatya, a neighborhood of wooden houses built long ago and centuries-old churches, residents left their doors unlocked.
As brutally as she was beaten, Ms. Asik was lucky. One victim of the attacks died from her wounds.
Along the crooked streets of Samatya, where a conquering sultan resettled Armenian Christians after capturing Constantinople in 1453, and in its teahouses, churches and social clubs, the attacks have awakened fears — rooted in past episodes of repression that residents say had waned in recent years as Turkey became more accommodating toward its minorities.
“The community is always living with fear because the Armenian community has always been under pressure,” said Rober Koptas, the editor of Agos, an Armenian newspaper here that has devoted several issues to coverage of the attacks. “We were always regarded as foreigners, as second-class citizens.”
Armenians and other minorities were once widely discriminated against in modern Turkey, subject to violent attacks by nationalists and shut out from prestige professions like the army officer corps. In Samatya, Armenians were typically artisans and merchants, many toiling in the maze of stalls at the nearby Grand Bazaar.
But in recent times their lot has improved, thanks to reforms brought on by Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, a process that has lately stalled. Mr. Koptas, the newspaper editor, said younger Armenians like him — he is 35 — are speaking and writing “side-by-side with our Turkish compatriots.”
“The fear has decreased,” he said. “But for the older generation, it is always there.”
When the authorities recently arrested a suspect in the attacks who they said was mentally disturbed and of Armenian origin — not a fanatical Turk motivated by hatred, as many assumed — it only raised more suspicions among some residents of Samatya, who said they thought the police had merely found a convenient scapegoat.
Regardless of the perpetrator, the violence has recalled a tortured past and, perhaps, hinted at future tensions as Turkey prepares to face the 100th anniversary of the genocide of its Armenian population in the last years of the Ottoman Empire.
Even though that milestone is two years away, in 2015, the country is already questioning how the anniversary will be treated: as a chance for reconciliation and full recognition of the massacres by the Ottoman Army or an occasion for more tension and hate speech of the sort that appeared on social networks after the recent attacks.
“Turkey has to face this,” Mr. Koptas said. “Only with this will Turkey become a democracy.”
On a chilly afternoon in January, a few hundred protesters marched down a narrow street that connects with Samatya’s main square, which is bordered by cafes and open-air fish shops. “The Armenian people are not alone!” was one chant. “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism,” was another.
“This is normal,” said Ayse Demir, a student who participated in the protest, reflecting the sentiment that Armenians are constantly under threat. “Armenians can be killed.”
Another student, standing beside Ms. Demir, said, “There are lots of racist people in Turkey.”
Sedat Caliskan, 35, a taxi driver who is Muslim, stood watching the marchers. “For years, nothing like this has happened,” he said of the attacks. “I want to believe that these are isolated incidents.”
In simple terms, he spoke of a sense of harmony between Christians and Muslims in the neighborhood. “On Sundays they go to church, and on Fridays we go to the mosque,” he said.
Mr. Caliskan lives three doors down from the murdered woman’s home, which is adorned with red carnations and signs that read: “Don’t touch our Armenian neighbor” and “Don’t remain silent. Don’t be intimidated.”
As he sipped tea and watched the protesters, one longtime resident, a Greek man named Yorgi Eskargemis, a retired textile merchant, said that the neighborhood is still as beautiful as the days it was called “Little Paris.” But the attacks, he said, are a “stain” on the community.
Overhearing the conversation, a man standing at the cafe door piped up. “We are all brothers here,” he said.
Ms. Asik, whose first name means “fresh fruit” in Turkish, has outlived a husband and two children. Years ago, she gave up her day job in a butcher shop but kept her tiny apartment in Samatya. Recently, she lay on a daybed and wept.
“It really hits me hard in the heart,” she said, recalling what went through her mind as she was attacked in her building’s vestibule. “How could you keep hitting me so hard? Don’t you fear God?”
Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.

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