On the 175th day of the occupation of the former Armenian orphanage known as “Camp Armen,” located in the Tuzla suburb of İstanbul, the deed was returned to the Gedikpaşa Armenian Protestant Church Foundation, 28 years after the property was usurped by the Turkish government.
On Tuesday, Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy Markar Esayan posted pictures on Twitter of the foundation’s lawyer Sebu Aslangil receiving the deed to the premises, writing, “We managed [to perform] the impossible.”
The orphanage was opened by the Gedikpaşa Armenian Protestant Church Foundation in 1963 and was built in part by the orphans who were at the camp. At the time of its construction, the suburb of Tuzla was an open space with few buildings around, located three hours from the heart of İstanbul. It has now become an affluent neighborhood with gated homes and houses with gardens.
In 1974, a high court ruling stated that “minority foundations cannot own property.” In 1983 the camp was closed and the deed to the land was returned to its former owner despite legal action that was taken to prevent its closure by the Gedikpaşa Armenian Protestant Church, which owned and operated the camp. After a string of sales, the parcel’s ninth owner, Fatih Ulusoy, ordered demolition teams to knock down the former orphanage in order to build villas in its place.
Bulldozers first arrived on May 6 and successfully demolished one part of the desolate building that had been left untouched since it was emptied by force in the 1980s. Then-parliamentary candidate (now serving as a deputy) Garo Paylan and former resident of the orphanage Garabet Orunöz acted immediately when informed by local Tuzla residents of the presence of demolition teams.
The effort to return the property was a difficult one, with activists taking turns to stay at the site day and night to protect the property in case another demolition team arrived without notice. Many of the activists on duty live and work in İstanbul, therefore having to commute for three hours in the morning to continue their lives after camping out at the site.
The occupation of the property began just one month before the June 7 election and was one matter that three of the four major political parties seemed to agree on. In addition to the efforts of Esayan and Paylan, Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Selina Doğan, of Armenian descent, also participated in the occupation by visiting the site and taking part in the marches on İstiklal Avenue for the cause.
One of the reasons the orphanage holds such symbolic importance is due to the fact that the assassinated journalist Hrant Dink spent his summers there as a youth and was later a counselor at the camp. Dink was the founding editor-in-chief of Agos, a Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper. He was one of the leading figures in the trials attempting to the retrieve the ownership of the parcel of land the orphanage sits on and was generally a dynamic and influential leader for the Turkish Armenian population. Dink was murdered outside the Agos newspaper’s headquarters on Jan. 19, 2007. The great efforts made by activists were dedicated to the memory of the murdered journalist.
Armenians are a minority in Turkey and lost a significant portion of their population on the soil of the former Ottoman Empire because of the massacres against the demographic that took place during World War I. While they made up a little over 5 percent of the total population of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians living in Turkey today make up a small minority group ranging from an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 citizens in the country’s population of 75 million. Although Turkey faces calls from international communities to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide, the Turkish state has a strict policy of opposing such a notion.