armenian cemetery

Tomb of Sevag Balıkçı at the Şişli Armenian Cemetery in Istanbul, Turkey. Sevag, a Turkish national of Armenian descent, was murdered by a fellow military conscript on April 24, 2011. April 24 is the day on which Armenians around the world commemorate the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire. His killer, Kıvanç Ağaoglu, was convicted on chargers of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to four and a half years in prison; other eyewitnesses state, however, that the shooting was not accidental and that Sevag was murdered for being an Armenian.

The Balıkçı family won’t be celebrating Easter anymore–or anything else, for that matter. Under a grey sky, his collar raised against the wind and gaze fixed on the waves crashing against the docks, Garabet Balıkçı chain-smokes mechanically. In his free hand he holds a small bouquet of white flowers. On this Easter Sunday, when Istanbul Armenians are celebrating the resurrection of Christ around a family meal and children are painting Easter eggs, Garabet is crossing the Bosphorus to lay flowers on the grave of his son in the Şişli Armenian Cemetery.

Facing the headstone is a small stool made of the same marble. “They put this stool her so I could sit and talk to him,” Garabet says sadly. “But I no longer hear his voice. He’s dead.” His handsome son won’t ever be coming home. Every Sunday, his father visits his grave, replaces the wilted flowers, burns a little incense, and sits for a few minutes to speak to his son, murdered one year ago, on the Thursday before Easter.

Sevag Şahin Balıkçı, born on 1 April 1986, died on 24 April 2011. “Every Armenian knows what that means,” says a family friend, who has come with his wife and children to pay his respects. April 24th is the anniversary of the beginning of the 1915 genocide. On that day, hundreds of Armenians of Armenian leaders and intellectuals–doctors, lawyers, journalists, politicians–were arrested, held at Sultanahmet prison, and then deported to Anatolia from the Haydarpaşa train station. The Armenians of Turkey have long commemorated that date in silence, but the Balıkçı family is no longer holding their tongues. “They said that, with Hrant Dink, there were 1.5 million + 1 victims. Now, with my son, there are 1.5 million + 2,” says Ani [Balıkçı], still reeling from this double blow. …

On the morning of 24 April, the commander of the Kozluk army barracks [in Batman province] assigned part of the garrison to repair the fence surrounding it. Every spring when the snow melts, military operations and ambushes by PKK rebels resume in full force, and the region is on high alert. Military posts are sometimes attacked, so it was time to beef up security around the barracks, adding a few rolls of razor wire. Half a dozen soldiers, including Sevag, [who was doing his compulsory military service], were happy to grab picks and shovels and spend a few hours working in the fresh air. An armed soldier stood guard: Kıvanç Ağaoğlu. Suddenly, a shot was fired. The bullet tore through Sevag’s T-shirt, hitting him in the abdomen. He died instantly. …

Immediately following the young soldier’s death, the army set to work promoting the theory that it had been an accident. Before the inquiry was even finished, its conclusions were known. “A delegation of officers came to the house to explain that it was an accident and that in reality, Sevag and Kıvanç had been friends,” says Garabet. But the family did not believe it. One week later, the army invited them to visit the fateful spot where their son had died, to tour the Kozluk barracks, and to grieve. Ani and Garabet Balıkçı flew to Diyarbakir and were taken by helicopter to the army base. There, they visited the scene of the crime, were welcomed by the officers, and were even introduced to the soldiers who had witnessed Sevag’s death. “Kıvanç Ağaoğlu was walking around, free as a bird and still armed, as if nothing had happened,” says Ani, disgusted. He told them that “the rifle had gone off by itself while he was returning it to position.” They also met the six young conscripts who had been present on the day of the shooting. “One of them was trembling,” recalls Ani. “I went up to him quietly and asked what was wrong.” Visibly upset, the young man told her that he was the one who had taken Sevag’s body to the hospital, where he had been declared clinically dead. And, above all, that there had been nothing accidental about the shooting. He told her that Kıvanç had deliberately taken aim and shot Sevag.

 But the young soldier would change his story by the time of his first court appearance. For a trial was indeed held at Diyarbakir Military Court to investigate the circumstances surrounding Sevag’s death and determine whether or not it had been an accident. Every one of the hearings held in the large Kurdish city, all attended by Sevag’s parents and his older sister, Lena, was a nightmare for the family. The killer was still free and able to look them in the eye. Over and over again, he claimed that the shooting had been accidental. “It wasn’t an accident,” whispers Garabet, shaking his head. Ani adds, “it was obviously related to the date, April 24th. I told the court that. His friends knew Sevag was Armenian. He even made the traditional Easter pastry–that came out during the trial.” She sighs. “My son was killed because he was Armenian. He was chosen to be sacrificed. All I want is for this to be recognized as a hate crime and for the murderer to spend twenty years in prison.

—  “Sevag Balıkçı: 1,500,000 + 2,” from Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: On the Trail of the Genocide, by Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier