The Story of a Madman”: How José Antonio Gurriarán Lost His Legs Due to the Armenian Question

Photo : from the archive of Armen Petrosyan

The Armenians have always had good friends. For example, Armin Wegner took most of the photographs that are documentary evidence of the Armenian Genocide. After World War I, in the 1920s and 1930s, he repeatedly brought up the Armenian question in the world, when in the USSR and Soviet Armenia it was considered nationalism and could cost the lives of everyone, up to the first secretaries of the Armenian Central Committee, most of whom were simply removed from office and shot by 1937. Franz Werfel published his famous novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” in the USA in 1933, in which the heroic defense of Armenians on Mount Musa Dagh during the 1915 genocide is described. In America, the book became a bestseller within a few weeks and still remains one of the best on this topic.

One can recall Henry Morgenthau, Anatole France, Jean Jaurès, Pyotr Milyukov, Valery Bryusov, Johannes Lepsius, William Gladstone, James Bryce, Fridtjof Nansen, and many others who, as the conscience of humanity, spoke and acted in defense of our long-suffering people. Armenians remember them all. As they remember Gurriarán.

He spent the first half of his life not coming into contact with Armenians and had no idea about the Armenian question. This happened to him quite suddenly, dramatically and with a risk to his life on the evening of December 29, 1980, in Madrid.

After work, he was then the deputy director of the newspaper “Pueblo”, Gurriarán was walking on Gran Via street with two tickets in his pocket for the new Woody Allen film “Stardust Memories”. His wife was waiting for him near the cinema. As soon as he reached the intersection with García Molina Street, right in front of him about fifty steps away from the Swiss airline building, there was a flash, a loud bang was heard and smoke from the explosion appeared. He saw injured bodies on the sidewalk and rushed to the phone booth to call an ambulance and call the editorial office. He only managed to dial the number. There was a second bomb near the booth, and again an explosion…

Gurriarán regained consciousness already in the hospital, in the intensive care unit. He saw his wife’s tear-stained face. His first question was: “Who are these people?… And why?…” The responsibility for the explosions was claimed by ASALA – the Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia. This is how the members of ASALA demanded that the Swiss authorities release one of their fighters – Alec Yenigomshyan, who was in a prison ward of a hospital in Geneva, he had been injured during a bomb test.

Gurriarán spent six months in the hospital, doctors fought for a long time to save both of his legs. He underwent numerous surgeries: removal of fragments, skin grafts, reconstruction and prosthetics of the shattered bones of both legs. The explosion that maimed the Spanish journalist provoked not hatred in him, but a desire to understand what these people were fighting for. He asked his wife to bring him books about Armenians and Armenia. The more he read them, the greater was his surprise and indignation. But this indignation was caused not by the perpetrators of the attacks, but only by what forced them to resort to such methods of struggle. In the end, as surprising as it is, the journalist who innocently suffered from the explosion, himself sided with those who organized this explosion. He surprised his relatives and colleagues by stating: “A much greater injustice has been committed against the Armenian people than against me”.

After being discharged from the hospital, he started learning to walk again, albeit only on crutches, experiencing pain. In 1982, through his lawyer friends, he managed to reach out to the leaders of ASALA. He offered them a personal meeting for communication. They agreed and invited him to Lebanon along with photographer Carlos Bosch. José Antonio brought with him as a gift a stack of books by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. He wanted to convince his interlocutors to apply non-violent methods of struggle. This is how he personally met Monte Melkonian and Alec Yenigomshyan. Gurriarán himself became an advocate for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Shortly after returning from Lebanon, Gurriarán published the book “La Bomba”, where he told about everything that had happened to him. In it, he also acted as a publicist, telling the tragic story of the Armenian genocide. This courageous man, who managed to rise above personal suffering and pain, spoke about the suffering of an entire people. A quarter of a century later, in May 2008, he released a second book dedicated to the Armenian Genocide. This work was written by Gurriarán after visiting Armenia in September 2007 at the invitation of Alec Yenigomshyan. The book is based on stories told to the author by his friends and acquaintances. It is called “Armenians. The Forgotten Genocide”. Thus, he made a significant contribution to revealing the truth about one of the most monstrous crimes against humanity and helped to non-violently explode the wall of silence around the Armenian question.

We recorded an interview with José Antonio Gurriarán in February 2015 in Madrid at his home with the help of our friends in Spain, Gurgen Mikaelian and Ida Ovannisyan. This was on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. He was already very ill and hardly left the house. Excerpts from this interview were featured in our film “THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE. NO STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS”.

And while his entire story was amazing, he surprised us again by saying: “I am grateful to the Armenian people. The Armenian question gave me new strength for life and the defense of such a just issue as the fight against the most brutal genocide committed by the Turks; the struggle against historical lies.”

His explanation about why no one died in December 1980 was also very interesting. It turns out, the fighters of ASALA themselves did everything to make a noise in the newspapers, but the casualties among people would be excluded or minimized as much as possible.

“The bomb on Plaza de España, on Gran Via, at Christmas. It would have been logical if it had killed people. By a lucky chance, it didn’t kill anyone… In fact, they wanted to draw people’s attention in some way…”

About his trip to Yerevan, he said: “Armenia seemed to me a very interesting country from a geographical, cultural and historical point of view… The members of ASALA treated me with respect and welcomed me very well. When I was in Armenia in 2007, I met with them, they received me with honors. Armenian music was playing, they were singing, dancing, then I hugged Alec, he – me, and I said to him: “Alec, we are both victims of terrorism”. You see the state I am in, and Alec doesn’t have one hand, and he is blind”.

José Antonio Gurriarán died in Madrid on March 31, 2019, at the age of 80. “Gurriaran has gone to the heavens of the righteous…”, wrote French director Robert Guédiguian, who made the film “The Story of a Madman” based on Gurriarán’s book “La Bomba”, which shocked everyone who read it.

One of our former ambassadors to Spain often criticized our former authorities for not responding to all his proposals to invite Gurriarán to Yerevan, to honor and celebrate him in his lifetime as he deserved. In the end, he came at the invitation not of the government, but of Alec Yenigomshyan. But now all of this is in the past.

Today, on the anniversary of the death of a great friend of the Armenian people, his words addressed to all of us sound especially touching:

“I want to greet the Armenian people, truly an amazing people. Small, but at the same time, a great people. Small in its area, in its population, but large in its thought, its history. A people that created its own alphabet, has its own church, its own culture. A people that has given the world so many intellectuals and wise people…”

A people that has given the world so many intellectuals and wise people will never forget its friends, neither the ordinary ones, of whom there are already many in the world, nor especially the great ones, who have shown in practice their deep respect and sympathy for us and our history.

by Armen Petrosyan

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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