A small country but a big nation: how genocide shaped the Armenia of today

As Armenians mark the beginning of violence that left 1.5 million dead, Turkey’s lack of contrition leaves descendants struggling to reconcile loss and renewal

In the beginning you hardly notice them: little lapel buttons in purple, yellow and black to mourn the dead and a lost homeland. But then there are the posters, T-shirts, umbrellas, bumper stickers, even cakes, all bearing the same forget-me-not flower designed to commemorate the tragedy of a nation.

It is the symbol of the centenary of the Armenian genocide of 1915, being marked this week in solemn ceremonies in Yerevan and wherever in the world this ancient people fled in the wake of the mass atrocities suffered in the dying days of the Ottoman empire.

This newly invented tradition, a poppy-like throwback to the killing fields of eastern Anatolia, has triggered complaints about commercialisation. But it has caught on. Across Armenia, in schools and homes, and as far away as the diaspora community of Glendale, California, children have picked up crayons and scissors to make their own paper flowers or have planted the real thing in remembrance of the horrors that beset their forebears.

Rosa and Tamara, Yerevan sisters of 10 and six, wrote a name on the back of their homemade forget-me-nots: Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish scholar who coined the word genocide in 1944 – and cited the Armenians as a seminal example.

The centenary on 24 April provides a rare opportunity to focus global attention on killings that were once notorious, then faded from view, were fought over in a vicious propaganda war, and are now widely seen as a crime on a monumental scale – and a grim precursor to the Nazi Holocaust. In their different ways, the pope and the reality TV star Kim Kardashian both highlighted the issue last week, much to the fury of Turks who continue to dispute the Armenian version of events.

Final preparations for Friday’s commemoration are under way at Armenia’s genocide memorial on the Tsitsernakaberd plateau, overlooking Yerevan. It features a bunker-like museum and a tapering grey stele pointing skywards like an accusing finger. To the south, on the Turkish side of the long-closed border, Mount Ararat beckons through spring clouds, snow-covered and majestic.

The big names on the day will include Vladimir Putin and François Hollande, leaders of the largest of the 20 countries to have formally recognised the genocide. But western governments that have not, including Britain, are sending low-profile officials to Yerevan, and far more senior representatives to Turkey to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, the date deliberately and cynically chosen by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – so furious Armenians believe – in order to sabotage their own ceremony.

“I am proud to be here and I understand why I am here,” said Milena Avetisyan, 16, looking formal in black suit, white blouse and sensible pumps, standing with an honour guard of her classmates outside the memorial’s cone of basalt slabs, an eternal flame burning at its centre. “It is a call to the world to recognise the Armenian genocide. It is to show that we remember and demand.”Advertisement

The slogan lies at the heart of the campaign for the Turkish state to recognise that its Ottoman predecessor annihilated up to 1.5 million Armenian citizens, starting on 24 April 1915 with the arrest of intellectuals in Constantinople and continuing with a centralised programme of deportations, murder, pillage and rape until 1922. The shadowy Teskilat e-Mahsusa (“special organisation”) drew up plans and sent coded, euphemistic telegrams to provincial officials and dispatched its victims on railway journeys to oblivion in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador, described the Turks as giving “a death warrant to a whole race”.

On 23 April, at Etchmiadzin, seat of the Armenian Apostolic church, the martyrs will be canonised collectively – renewing a tradition dating back 1,700 years. “We have to liberate our own people from hostility and hatred,” explained Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan. “And we have to liberate the Turks, to cleanse themselves from the pain of genocide.”

It was at Etchmiadzin in 1965 – the 50th anniversary of the slaughter, a key moment of Armenian national awakening, and when many witnesses were still alive – that the bleached bones of the dead were brought from Deir ez-Zor in Syria for reburial.

Numerous centenary events, such as conferences, exhibitions and concerts, underline how closely this country’s identity and future are bound up with the bloody past. Raw emotion, competing narratives and an ongoing diplomatic crisis make for a difficult combination.

“International recognition is fine but, if Turkey doesn’t do it, then we won’t have the security we need,” said Tevan Poghosyan, an MP for the nationalist Heritage party. “It is a security issue because the genocide happened to us. It is our nation that lost its homeland and was scattered around the world. It is not just a historical issue.”

History does cast a long shadow. Modern Armenia won its independence in 1918, but was taken over by the Soviet Union two years later and only regained its freedom in 1991. Landlocked and poor, its 3 million people include many descendants of the survivors of the genocide, though far more of them live in the diaspora of 7 million to 10 million, concentrated in Russia, the US and France – a split that has had a powerful effect on the politics of commemoration and the closely linked question of the troubled relations between Yerevan and Ankara.

Scholars say denial is the last stage of the crime of genocide

Vigen Sargsyan, Armenian presidential adviser

Turkey’s behaviour is seen as consistent with its traditional animosity towards the Armenians. The border has remained shut since 1993, part of the continuing stand-off over Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian region of neighbouring Azerbaijan, in which Ankara supports Baku. That “frozen conflict” has heated up into a shooting war in the past year so the issue is live and dangerous. People and goods do get through from Turkey by air and by land via Georgia but the blockade is damaging to an already fragile economy and ties it uncomfortably closely to

“Turkey has engaged in a proactive policy of denial, and scholars say denial is the last stage of the crime of genocide,” said Vigen Sargsyan, the presidential adviser in charge of centennial events. “Genocide is based on xenophobia and it has a tendency to affect the current policy of the state that denies it. Turkey has an anti-Armenian policy. The burden of proof is with them to show that it does not.”

Independent Armenian voices readily acknowledge the changes that have taken place in Turkey, where liberal intellectuals, civil society and Kurdish groups accept that genocide occurred. Thousands signed the “We Apologise” petition in the spirit of the Armenian-Turkish writer Hrant Dink, who was murdered in 2007. Memorial ceremonies will be held in Istanbul and elsewhere, and Turkish delegations will be in Yerevan on 24 April. Last year Erdoğan referred to the victims as “Ottoman citizens” and sent “condolences” to their descendants.

But his Gallipoli manoeuvre has been a crude reminder of the refusal of the Turkish state to go any further than what many in Yerevan dismiss as “repackaged denial”.

The cultivation of memory is presented as a national duty. There is a striking parallel with Israel, where the Nazi holocaust is seen as part of the state’s raison d’etre. Like Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, Yerevan’s genocide memorial is invariably the first stop for visiting foreign VIPs – many of their names inscribed on plaques under the trees in its “alley of memory”.

New interactive exhibits are being installed so that an Armenian child of today can connect to one of his or her own age in those times of savagery and terror. “We try to avoid the most horrible photographs of human remains,” said Suren Manukyan, the museum’s deputy director, “or at least to use them on touch screens rather than on public display.”

It is not only the atrocities that are remembered

Individual memories do not need to be curated by the state. It is common to hear stories of a grandmother fleeing to the screams of men burning alive; of orphans blinded and girls abducted.

But it is not only the atrocities that are remembered. In Nerkin Sasnashen, a village of simple stone houses, unpaved roads and a ruined 7th-century monastery, locals talk animatedly about their roots in Sasun, a mountainous region of what is now Turkey’s Batman province and a stronghold of Armenian resistance to Turks and Kurds – who carried out a notorious massacre in 1894. The second word of the village’s name means “built by people from Sasun”.Advertisement

Handfuls of earth from Sasun are thrown into graves and at one recent baptism the proud parents gave the priest consecrated oil brought from there. “We even name our children after the towns and villages of western Armenia,” said Andranik Shamoyan – his own first name recalling the most celebrated of his people’s national heroes.

Arayan Hendrik, a leathery-faced 72-year-old sitting back after a festive lunch of kebab, lavash bread and vodka toasts, sang movingly of the beauty of Sasun in the dialect spoken there in 1915. “Our children dance the same dances as their great-grandparents did,” he said. “They are part of our history that we want to hand down to the next generations. They are a connection between us and the lands we left.”

Many have travelled to Turkey to seek their roots but say they find it an unsettling, emotionally wrenching experience. Others refuse to visit their homeland as tourists. If the border were open, it would be just a 90-minute drive from Yerevan to Ararat. As it is, the journey there, via Georgia, takes 14 hours. Unlike Palestinians, few Armenians articulate a “right of return” to their lost patrimony. “It is not that people don’t dream about their land,” suggested Poghosyan. “But they do have a state now and they need to build it.”

We live in a small territory but we are a big nation

Hranush Hakobyan, Armenia’s minister for the diaspora

Armenian government policy does not include demands for territory or reparations, as organisations in the more militantly nationalist diaspora would like. Yerevan seeks normalisation of relations with Ankara, starting with the crucial reopening of the border, to promote reconciliation that it hopes will eventually bring genocide recognition – even if that takes decades.

Optimism peaked in 2009, when protocols brokered by the Swiss and endorsed by the US and EU were signed in Zurich, crucially with no mention of the horrors of 1915. But they were never ratified – because the Turks insisted on linking them to progress on Nagorno-Karabakh. It has been downhill ever since, relations now frozen in an atmosphere of deep mistrust. The vacuum is being filled by strident, anti-Turkish voices from the diaspora, and attitudes are hardening at home as well.

Talk of greater unity is rife. “We live in a small territory but we are a big nation,” said Hranush Hakobyan, minister for the diaspora. “Anyone who deals with us is dealing with 12 million Armenians.” The country’s entry to this year’s Eurovision song contest will be sung by a six-strong band – one singer each from the five continents of the diaspora and one from the republic. The title of the song is Don’t Deny.Advertisement

“Nationalist tendencies are gaining the upper hand,” warned Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, a highly regarded historian of Turkey. “People feel that we tried to help the Turks to come to terms but they failed, so why should we trust them again?”

No one expects much to change after 24 April, even if Erdoğan comes up with another expression of qualified contrition that avoids the totemic G-word. There are signs, however, of a debate about the style of the genocide commemoration, dominated by the ubiquitous forget-me-not.

“I was a bit critical of this campaign at first but it is the first time Armenians have associated themselves with a symbol,” said Ter-Matevosyan. “This is about modernising genocide discourse, a sort of rebranding. Now it is the fifth generation since the genocide so you do need to reach out to young people with a different message.”

But Tigran Matosyan, a sociologist, warned of “a ritual without reflection” that was not relevant to the country’s needs. “Armenia has lots of problems and I wish the centennial could be used as an opportunity to reflect on them,” he said. “Armenia wants to be a democracy, but it’s not. There’s huge social injustice as well. That’s not becoming for a people who suffered genocide.”

Isabella Sargsyan, who promotes Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, remembers her first meeting as a teenager with a Turk from Kars, her family’s ancestral home, and bursting into tears, lost for words. “It’s not that I am not sorry for the genocide,” she said. “I am. But I don’t like the way it is dealt with publicly. And it is also not the only thing that shapes my identity. The old diaspora is focused on the genocide. It’s an identity issue for them. We are citizens. The fact that we have this tiny piece of land is a miracle. The primary goal for the Republic of Armenia is to be a decent place for the people who live here.”

Still, time alone, it seems, cannot heal the open wounds of a century ago. Remembering is the easy part. Fulfilling the demand that goes with it is far harder. “Other genocides have been recognised, but ours has not been,” said Andranik Shamoyan. “It will be part of our lives always. You cannot just turn this page.”

Famous diaspora

Some estimates put the Armenian diaspora at 10 million. Those with Armenian parentage include:
Cher The 68-year-old superstar was born Cherilyn Sarkisian to an American mother and an Armenian-American father.
Kim Kardashian The 34-year-old US-born reality star’s late father, Robert, was Armenian.
Andre Agassi The ex-tennis player’s father is Iranian Armenian. An ancestor changed the name from Agassian to avoid persecution.
Charles Aznavour Aznavour, 90, is a beloved French-Armenian singer.
Sergei Lavrov Russia’s foreign minister was born to an Armenian father and a Russian mother.
Andy Serkis The Gollum actor was born to an Armenian father.
David Dickinson The 73-year-old TV presenter and antiques expert was born to an Armenian mother and then adopted.

Ian Black in Yerevan The Guardian

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