By Nairi Hokhikyan
The city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey suffered terrible damage during the 2015 clashes between the Turkish military and Kurdish armed groups.
Thus, many residents, estimates range up to 200,000, fled the city.
Mehmed Demir, an Armenian businessman, also left Diyarbakir, and today mostly divides his time between Istanbul and Izmir. Demir says that the necessities for survival are lacking in Turkey’s eastern regions and that, when it comes to working, he had no option but to leave for western Turkey. Nevertheless, he says that the economic crisis all over the country has gotten worse these past two years.
The 52-year-old Demir tells me that his ancestors miraculously survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide and for many years identified themselves as Kurds. While the Armenian origins of the Demir clan isn’t openly talked about, all in Demir’s circle of friends know that the family once bore the surname Demirjian.
Mehmed Demir complains that the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate does little to support Armenians still living in the provinces, regarding them as little more than liars when they claim to be Armenian.
“There’s the one function Armenian church in Diyarbakir, St. Giragos. But there’s no priest. So how can Armenians their express their identity? Will they only look at the stones? Will they say that only their grandfathers were here one hundred years ago, during the genocide? If we were to collect those openly speaking Armenian in Diyarbakir, a part of western Armenia, there’d only be thirty people. Why? The reason is simple. It’s due to that leaderless mentality,” says Mehmed Demir, adding that despite the hurdles, hundreds are openly saying they are Armenian and are filing conversion requests at local municipal offices.
Mehmed Demir has been to Armenia three times. He’s gone to the Tzitzernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, familiarizing himself with the history of the tragedy, and has also met with state and civic leaders. Demir confesses that he’s jealous to see his compatriots in Armenia speaking about their own state and government. He cannot do the same. During debates in Turkey, Demir often accuses the Kurds of carrying out the genocidal orders of the Turks.
“During the genocide, the Turks gave the orders, but who carried them out? Didn’t the Kurds commit massacres. They did. The idea was prompted that whoever kills Armenians would go to heaven. The Kurds were also complicit in this. The Kurds were in the Hamidye Corps that massacred Armenians. But now, the Kurds ask for forgiveness. So too do the sons and grandchildren of those who committed the massacres. They say that their fathers or grandfathers did dishonorable things. It was really treasonous.”
Demir, who has carved a successful career in the auto repair field in Turkey, says that one must look forward and must overcome the challenges with something other than enmity.
“They will respect you if you are economically strong and politically stable,” Demir stresses. Thus, he wants to invest heavily in Armenia and help foster light industry.
“One cannot talk about a developed economy in Turkey. There are some large factories in a few cities that provide the country’s entire manufacturing output. If investing a few million dollars in Turkey is considered a small figure, in a small market like Armenia, I would think that thirty million dollars could be quite attractive.”
Demir wants to try producing textiles and plastic items in Armenia. Neighboring Turkey and Iran are giants in these sectors and Demir doesn’t see why Armenia shouldn’t join them. He doesn’t want any help from the government, just the permission to invest and create factories. Demir also isn’t looking for tax privileges, since he has sales contracts for the finished goods in the European market. The Eurasian Economic Union will afford him additional marketing opportunities.
So why invest in Armenia, a country that doesn’t have normal diplomatic, and some would say unfriendly, ties with Turkey?
In response, Demir asks how long will stereotypes govern our lives?
“There is no superpower that can reconcile Turkey and Armenia if there isn’t pressure from within. Turkey has committed a crime and must come to grips with its bloody past. But it will not do this because there is still no internal pressure to do so. I’m Armenian. My forefathers were Armenian, but they were stripped of their identity because of that country. Now, I know who I am. I have lived in western Armenia. So has my grandfather and his grandfather. Maybe I’m an atheist, but all the same, I’m Armenian. Sure, the economy is an important part of peoples’ lives, but money isn’t everything. As the Turkish proverb says – money is important, but it’s not the end all.”