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Armenia: April 24 — Genocide Memorial Day

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Armenian Genocide Memorial

Yesterday marked the 93rd Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide [1] and the deaths of approximately 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. Often described as the first Genocide of the 20th Century, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin [2] invented the term in the 1940s with the Armenian and Jewish Holocausts in mind.

Every year on 24 April, a date marking the roundup of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in what is now Istanbul, Armenians commemorate the massacres and deportations worldwide. In Yerevan, this is particularly the case with hundreds of thousands marching up to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial overlooking the capital to lay flowers and pay their respects.

This year was no different, but as my Caucasus Knot describes [3], the event started the night before with a candlelight procession by youth affiliated to the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation — Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D).

[T]housands of young Armenians affiliated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation — Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D) assembled in Yerevan’s Liberty Square before embarking on a now traditional candlelight procession to the memorial overlooking the capital. Of course, this being the most nationalist of commemorative events, the Turkish flag was doused in petrol and set alight first. Interestingly, but not convincingly at all, Armenian Public Radio reports that the organizers deny such an act is ever planned.

ARF-D Demonstration

Blogian provides a comprehensive post accompanied by photos [4] from the day itself as remembered throughout the world. The blog notes that even if Turkey held its own event to instead remember the First World War battle of Gallipoli, the day was very different elsewhere. It also examines the larger context of the Armenian Genocide and continuing attempts to have the tragedy recognized internationally [5] as well as in Turkey itself.

Ninety-three years after the Armenian Genocide started Armenians still remember their unforgettable tragedy. Ninety-three years after the extermination of western Armenia started Turkey denies it ever happened. Ninety-three years after the Genocide started it continues for many Armenians. It continues in denial, hatred and continuous oppression of Armenian culture in Turkey.

For Armenians, April 24 is a day of sorrow, reflection and pride. Sorrow for the uncountable lives lost and an ancient culture reduced to dust; reflection on how to deal with the past in the present for a better future; and a pride for surviving the worst crime in this world.

For Turks, it is a story rather to remain untold. Challenging Turkey’s very right to exist, the Genocide is seen a threat to national pride and legitimacy by many Turks. But for others, it is also a fundamental question of human rights with universal and apolitical applications.

Yet, despite the fact that the day should be one where Armenians of all political and religious persuasions should come together, the commemoration took on a more political tone in Armenia itself. Following the recent and disputed 19 February presidential election [6], the radical opposition led by former president, Levon Ter-Petrossian, held their own march where rather than remember those that died, slogans from the several thousand which attended instead supported his bid to return to power.

Opposition March

Thankfully, the march was held without incident as my Caucasus Knot explains [3]. Given tensions in Armenia since the presidential election [7], there was the potential for clashes.

Although there were many police escorting the protesters, they were unarmed and not decked out in riot gear. Moreover, and setting quite a precedented compared to any other opposition rally in close proximity to the government buildings on the road, the police outside the presidential palace were also wearing normal uniform. There were no red berets or riot police although I’m sure there were probably some hidden away on an adjoining street in case the situation got out of hand. As it was, apart from whistles and the near-constant shouts of “Levon, President,” there were no incidents.

The situation remained the same until approaching Tsitsernakaberd with senior police officers even communicating with senior members of Ter-Petrossian’s team about the route. And all this despite the perhaps inappropriate slogans and emotions from some among Ter-Petrossian’s supporters.

Seetizen, the blog of a local youth activist, was dismayed with the opposition's use [8] of the day for political purposes.

Some Armenians went to an opposition rally today, against i don't understand what…. They were shouting I dont understand what and why… and I really dont get how could an rmenian person go to an opposition (oBOZition better to say!!!) rally on this day??????! Hey dears, common, go rest a while, think, and then do whatever you are doing!

Such a shame to be an Armenian when I see what other Armenians are doing here! I hope those rally-dudes never get what they wanted! I am pretty sure they anyway will not get anything good after all…:) shame

Supporters of the radical opposition, however, also used the day to attack the government. Even though their leader, Levon Ter-Petrossian, is noted for his conciliatory position on relations between Armenia and Turkey, Nazarian criticizes the present government [9] for also taking a more moderate position — or what the blog considers a “defeatist path.”

The “foreign minister” Eduard Nalbandian has said “It is impossible to imagine the future of the Armenians and Turks without reconciliation”.

He said this on April 24! This is serious.

This kind of policies in the past have been labeled as defeatist by the pseudo-president. Why has he decided to embark on this kind of foreign policy now? Does he hope that the Turks will come to his aid when he is about to be kicked out of Armenia?

In fact, the Genocide is one of the most contentious and defining aspects of the present-day identity of most Armenians, especially in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, remembers Hrag Vartanian, who posts a photograph [10] of Armenian-American artist, Kardash Onnig, holding up a sign reading “Un-Hate a Turk This Day,” there are some who believe in the importance of recognizing the Genocide, but also consider that blind hatred towards Turkey is unfortunate.

Always unconventional, Armenian American artist Onnig Kardash, staged a protest/performance on April 24, 1969 in front of the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood. The action seemed to underscore the need for love in the face of hate.

April 24 is the traditional day to commemorating the victims of the Armenian Genocide, Kardash’s protest shocked many Armenian Americans who were angry and confused at the radical protest on such a solemn day.

Like most ethnic Armenians in the Diaspora, Vartanian has his own tale to tell. Indeed, the blogger posts the story of his own family [11] who experienced the Genocide first hand.

My paternal grandmother was born in Marash and was betrothed to a man from Zeitoun where they moved after their marriage. They had a home and children in Zeitoun but then soon the massacres and deportations began. Forced to leave their village, her husband and children were butchered, no one seems to remember the details and perhaps she never told anyone the truth. My grandmother did remember running through the village with an in-law. As they ran hand in hand to escape the terror of soldiers she felt something heavy pulling down her hand and it had been the arm of her relative which had been hacked off by a soldier’s blade. She escaped to the mountains and was discovered by some Muslims who forced her into their home as a servant. […] Alone, my grandmother fled into the mountains where for months she lived on her own and was forced to eat grass to survive.

During her months alone she came across a group of Armenian refugees from her town. She joined the group and they traveled together until Mosul in present-day Iraq. Many members of the group had died but the others arrived on the outskirts of the city naked and destitute. On seeing the group, the city’s government officials could not believe that they were human, months of wandering had taken its toll.

Martinis for Milk also examines the legacy of the Armenian Genocide [12] although its debatable whether such a view represents anything other than that of a minority of Armenians in the Republic and the Diaspora.

All I will say about the Armenian Genocide is this: We have to learn to forgive in order to have a future. We’re never going to get back our lost relatives. Most of them would be dead by now anyway. We’re never going to repair the lives that were severed (on both sides) because of this horrible black spot in history. It's never going to hurt less that an entire government thought that we should be exterminated, or that the world was too busy to do anything about it. But maybe, just maybe, if we could find a way to release the hurt and the anger, we could start over again.

Meanwhile, Blogian says that some soul-searching and openness is materializing [4] in the modern-day Republic of Turkey. However, it also notes that such approaches are fraught with dangers for the ethnic Armenian [13], Kurdish and Turkish writers and journalists who attempt to do so.

[A] Turkish newspaper, Taraf, devoted its front page to the Armenian Genocide yet was careful not to use the word genocide. […] It published the names of the Armenian intelligentsia members who were arrested and eventually killed on April 24, 1915. Taraf’s article was nothing close to recognition or acknowledgment, but given the high degree of ultra-nationalism in Turkey it was indeed a progress. In fact, a dangerous one too. A Kurdish newspaper, for example, was closed down after publishing photographs from a possible Armenian mass grave in 2006 (later cleaned up by the Turkish army and presented by the Turkish historical society as a Roman cave).

But, whatever the politics, the day is most of all for Armenians everywhere. Actually, others would argue that it is for anyone concerned with remembering man's inhumanity towards man, and preventing such tragedies from ever happening again.

Genocide Memorial

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Photos: Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia [14] 2008