Returning to Turkey, in search of a lost Armenian past
"My grandparents were killed here. My mother escaped with her two brothers," said Gerard Bodigoff, 70, as he made his first visit to Turkey and the land of his ancestors.
Like many descendants of Armenians killed in the Ottoman massacres of 1915, Bodigoff is visiting his roots in what he describes as a duty to his mother to mark the centenary of the calamity that befell Armenians.
Armenians believe that 1.5 million of their ancestors were killed in a targeted campaign of genocide ordered by the Ottoman security leadership to wipe them out of Anatolia.
Turkey, while saying it shared the pain of Armenians over the World War I events, has always vehemently rejected use of the term genocide and contends that hundreds of thousands were killed on both sides.
Partly as a result of the campaign of deportations, Armenians are now spread all over the world with a diaspora which outnumbers many times the population of around three million in the country itself.
"I had told myself that if I was still alive for the centenary, I would come for the commemorations of the genocide," said Bodigoff.
"I am coming to see this country, that could have been mine. This country that neither wanted me nor my parents."
Bodigoff, a retired butcher from the Paris region said: "Today, I am living in in France and feel that I am 120 percent French.
"But part of my blood is here. There is a pain, a sense that something is wrong," he said. "There are so many emotions in my head."
A century ago, Bodigoff's family were living in Erzincan, an Ottoman frontier town close to the Russian empire and now a big city in the Turkish northeast.
Both his maternal grandparents were killed in 1915 and his mother Siranush was forced to take to the road along with her two bothers.
She managed to survive by finding work with a Turkish family but emigrated for the French port of Marseille in 1924 to begin a new life.
"Everything at home was Armenian. But you became French as soon as you crossed the threshold onto the street," said Bodigoff.
- 'Can be reconciliation' -
The memory of the 1915 events was never forgotten. "Everything that they went though was passed down to us. It's part of me, I am not going to get rid of it but I am not going to cry about it every day," he said.
"She (the grandmother) always left a beautiful picture of the country where she lived," said Bodigoff's wife Jacqueline.
"There were many shadows but she always spoke well of it."
Gerard Bodigoff insists he harbours no dislike for Turkey.
"It is not the country that is an enemy it was the regime of the time. It's not the fault of the Turks of today."
Bodigoff says his sole desire is not an apology from Ankara but a recognition of the historical truth.
"All I say to them is 'it is the past, recognise it!' That's all. It's really all. I am not going to go tomorrow and ask for our lands back."
"Everyone would feel relieved. We could put the dead to rest. And they (Turkey) would walk taller."
He expressed hope that while the issue appears blocked on the 100th anniversary, attitudes could change fast.
"Only through education will people understand what happened. Sooner or later they will. One day, even if it is not in five or 10 years, they will know. And then there can be a reconciliation," he said.
© 2015 AFP