Both the coordinators and the volunteers who participated in the Habab project enjoyed a quite unique experience. Volunteers from Armenia, Turkey and European countries established or reestablished their bonds with the Armenian past and culture, and also contributed to the revival of memories about the Armenian cultural heritage in a positive manner. The project fueled hopes that the Turkish state might one day confront its past wrongdoings since local authorities also supported the project. Equally important, Muslims around the village of Habab became far more tolerant of the project’s aim of preserving the Armenian heritage in the region. An opportunity emerged to build trust among the Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian communities, mainly among non-state actors, thus challenging the state’s century-old exclusionist discourse, which had alienated Muslims from Armenians. Moreover, news and reports disseminating information about the project increased its impact on a wider audience.
Before the Armenian genocide took place in 1915, Armenians had inhabited Anatolia since ancient times. The Turkish Republic, established after the Armenian genocide in 1923, has never acknowledged the 1915 massacres of Armenians. In official state discourse, the period in which the genocide occurred was an exceptional time, during which Armenians allied with enemy forces and constituted a security threat that resulted in their deportation from war zones. According to official Turkish accounts, mass murders mainly happened as part of reciprocal slaughter between Muslims and Armenians. This perspective not only denies the historical reality, but also engenders attempts to eliminate any traces of the Armenian past in Anatolia. The Turkish state also aimed to assimilate the surviving Armenians into an Islamic Turkish identity. Other ways of erasing Armenians from the collective memory of new generations were the appropriation of Armenian property by the state and distribution of this property to Muslims. To a great extent, the state also tolerated local actions that destroyed anything representing Armenian culture. That is why it is crucial to engage in memorialization work that restores the memory of the Armenian past in Anatolia. In the late Ottoman period, the village of Habab, populated mainly by Armenians, had 500 households, 3 churches, one monastery and 2 fountains. The restoration of the Armenian fountains, which were originally constructed in 1634, also represented a restoration of the Armenian past in the collective memory of Turkish communities, as well as acknowledgment of the suffering caused by the Turkish state.
The extent of the physical damage to the Habab fountain was analyzed by volunteer architects in 2009, after which the Hrant Dink Foundation began the restoration. Most of the restoration work was completed during August-November 2011. The Hrant Dink Foundation and the volunteers did not consider the process of restoration to be merely a technical matter. Rather, they used it as an opportunity to develop interactions with people living in and around the village. For example, Armenian and Turkish volunteers played games and organized painting workshops with children in the village, and project coordinators organized gatherings and discussions with adults in the surrounding villages. All those interactions happened in the course of the restoration process, and the memories compiled were recorded and later included in a documentary about the project. After the restoration work was completed, a festival was organized in May 2011 with the participation of local government authorities, local residents, project supporters and the project team. The organizers intend to continue this festival in the years to come.
The greatest challenge for the project was the prejudices and paranoia of the local Muslim population, since the Armenian genocide has engendered one of the hottest debates in Turkey and has polarized the social and political environment. Negative reactions by local communities had been experienced towards prior memorialization efforts that shared similar goals. Because the family of Fethiye Çetin, the project coordinator, was among the Armenian inhabitants of the village, it was possible to gain the support of local authorities. The commitment of the project team in developing social interactions with local people also helped to overcome these problems.