Adjournment speech, Tuesday 11 October 2011
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:38): Tonight I would like to share with my fellow senators the memories of Australian soldiers who witnessed terrible atrocities during World War I. A few elderly New South Wales constituents have raised with me their concerns at how few Australians know about the genocide perpetrated against the Armenian people by the then Ottoman Turkish government from 1915 to 1923. I was ignorant of these facts and that many of our young soldiers bore witness to these crimes. I thank those who have provided me with this information. Some 1.5 million innocent Armenian men, women and children died in this act of genocide and a further one million were deported from their ancestral homeland.
ANZAC soldiers were taken prisoner on all the battlefronts with the Ottoman Turkish forces. These are a few of their stories. Australian Flying Corps Captain Thomas W White was captured in central Mesopotamia. In his memoir, Guests of the Unspeakable, he recorded that the Allied prisoners who were kept in the Armenian church of Afyonkarahisar used its graveyard as their exercise yard. White wrote that the iron-covered Armenian cemetery gates were 'riddled with bullets as if by machine gun fire' and suggested that some Armenians had 'sold their lives dearly'.
HMAS AE2 Able Seaman John Harrison Wheat wrote in his diary entry for 18 August 1915:
All the Armenians are driven from the town Afyonkarahisar. The principle cause of this is the Armenians are Christians and all the business of the town is carried on by them. There is a very strong feeling against the Christians in this Country. At this time, thousands of Armenians were turned out of these big towns to starve and thousands were massacred.
Lieutenant Luscombe, captured ANZAC 1915, recorded in his memoir, The Story of Harold Earl:
Towards midday we stopped at the rail junction town of Eskisehir, where we were provided with our first meal of the day. At this station we witnessed a sad and depressing sight. On the opposite side of the platform another train was standing. It was composed of a number of empty two-tier steel sheep trucks. On the platform a considerable number of Armenian women and children were huddled together. As our train pulled into the platform, Turkish soldiers armed with whips were driving the women and children into sheep trucks. It was evidently intended to transport them to some distant concentration camp.
Another twist of fate links Australia with this tragedy. The acts of genocide against the Armenian people started on 23 April 1915, just two days before the Gallipoli battle that saw the ANZAC soldiers attempt to invade Turkey. The Australian War Memorial records that this battle cost 26,111 Australian casualties, including 8,141 deaths.
When international jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the term 'genocide' in 1944, he described the deaths of Armenians from 1915 to 1923 as a defining example. Since then more than 20 nations have recognised the Armenian genocide as a crime against humanity, as have a number of international organisations including the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the European parliament, the South American parliament and the World Council of Churches.
The New South Wales and South Australian parliaments have also recognised the Armenian genocide. In New South Wales a motion was passed acknowledging the massacres by the Turkish government. The then New South Wales Premier, Bob Carr, called on Turkey to acknowledge the genocide of the Armenians. The New South Wales motion condemned the genocide of the Armenians and all other acts of genocide, as well as all attempts to deny or distort the historical truth of the Armenian genocide. Sadly, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey, continues to deny the historical reality of the Armenian genocide. Armenian monuments in Turkey continue to be destroyed and under article 301 of the Turkish penal code individuals in Turkey can be prosecuted for discussing the Armenian genocide. It would be worthy of this parliament to pass a motion similar to that passed by the New South Wales parliament.