By Ayla Jean Yackley
(Reuters) - The secret guarded by Turkish writer Fethiye Cetin's family for three generations is now helping to break a nation's silence over one of its darkest eras.
Cetin's late grandmother Seher was not the typical Muslim woman she seemed. She was born with the name Heranoush, the daughter of Christian Armenians before internecine violence during World War One tore the family apart.
Seher's story is now a book that tells how, at the age of nine, she watched Ottoman soldiers storm her village in eastern Turkey, rounding up the men before slitting their throats. The women and children were forced on a march to Syria. Most died of disease and starvation along the way. Seher was snatched from her mother by a military officer, who raised her as a Muslim among eastern Turkey's largely Kurdish population.
For many Turks, Cetin's heart-rending book "My Grandmother," published in November and now in its fifth edition, has put a human face on a 20th century tragedy that has largely become political polemic between Turkey and its neighbor Armenia.
"This issue has been debated in terms of numbers and terminology, and the people who suffered were forgotten. My aim was to tell the human story," said Cetin, a 55-year-old lawyer.
Armenians around the world on Sunday mark the 90th anniversary of the start of what they say was a genocide perpetrated by Turks that claimed 1.5 million Armenian lives. Turkey, founded upon the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, denies a systematic campaign to annihilate the Armenians. It says hundreds of thousands of Turks as well as Armenians died in partisan fighting amid the chaos of the empire's collapse.
As the country prepares to start European Union entry talks later this year, it is forced to grapple with a subject that was strictly taboo to date. Some European politicians have called on Turkey to acknowledge the killings were a genocide, and the EU wants to see Turkey open diplomatic relations with Armenia. Proudly nationalistic, most Turks see recognition as tantamount to admitting a historical lie.
"A vast majority cannot accept this, and they have no reason to," said Gunduz Aktan, a former senior diplomat. "This creates tension, and it's normal for there to be nationalist reaction."
Death threats against Turkey's most celebrated novelist Orhan Pamuk, who said earlier this year that a million Armenians had been wiped out, reveal the pitch that fervor has reached. Turkey's 65,000 ethnic Armenians are "on a knife's edge," anxious the debate may spark a backlash against the beleaguered community, said Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian weekly Agos.
"We never deny our own history. But Armenians are unable to discuss it for fear it will harm the community's existence."
Schoolbooks here describe Armenians as a kind of fifth column, pawns of imperialists who attacked Turks, and say Armenians died during a mass expulsion.
"If we acknowledge the genocide, we have to declare some of the heroes of the Turkish Republic were murderers and thieves," says Taner Akcam of the University of Minnesota, one of a handful of Turkish scholars who argue genocide was committed. "But we will never have an open, democratic society without confronting the historical injustices."
There are signs of growing curiosity about this shadowy chapter in history. "People are beginning to ask, 'What really happened? Where did all of the (Armenians) go?'" said Dink.
What is difficult to dispute is that the strife, followed by decades of assimilation and poverty, contributed to the end of Armenian culture in eastern Turkey, where it had thrived for more than 3,000 years. Massacres "happened in front of everyone's eyes. They were deported through villages. People saw them dying on the road. Those collective memories have now been triggered," Cetin said.
EU-inspired reforms allowing freer speech have spurred some discussion, albeit limited, in the media and among intellectuals of an issue that could have previously brought prosecution. Istanbul's normally taciturn Armenian patriarch earlier this year called the atrocities of 1915 "the Great Disaster".
Still loath to admit wrongdoing, the government has nevertheless called recently for an international probe and the Turkish parliament held an unprecedented debate on the issue. Cetin said she resisted publishing her book until she felt the climate in Turkey had improved enough to tolerate it.
Like her granddaughter, Seher too was at first reluctant to share her story, only telling Cetin when she was 70 years old. But she never forgot the tragedy. Though Seher no longer spoke Armenian, she remembered family names for more than a half-century and asked Cetin to locate her surviving relatives in the United States.
Seher's children gave her a Muslim burial when she died in 2000. Her legacy to Cetin is "a rich identity. Sometimes I feel Armenian, sometimes Kurdish and sometimes Turkish."