Why we must recognise the Armenian genocide 1915-1923

By Harry Hagopian
27 Apr 2009

I was six years old when we were deported from our lovely home in Adapazar, near Istanbul. I remember twirling in our parlour in my favourite yellow dress while my mother played the violin. It all ended when the Turkish police ordered us to leave town.

The massacre of my family, of the Armenians, took place during a three-year trek of 600 kilometres across the Anatolian Plateau and into the Mesopotamian Desert. I can’t wipe out the horrific images of how my father and all the men in our foot caravan were shipped to death. My cousin and all other males 12 years and older, were shoved off the cliffs into the raging Euphrates River. My grandmother and the elderly were shot for slowing down the trekkers. Two of my siblings died of starvation. My aunt died of disease and my mother survived the trek only to perish soon from an influenza epidemic.

Of my family, only my sister and I were still alive. The Turkish soldiers forced us, along with 900 other starving children, into the deepest part of the desert to perish in the scorching sun. Most did.

But God must have been watching over me. He placed me in the path of the Bedouin Arabs who were on a search and rescue mission for Armenian victims. They saved me. I lived under the Bedouin tents for several months before they led me to an orphanage in Mosul. I was sad about our separation, but the Bedouin assured me that the orphanage was sponsored by good people.

To my delight, I was reunited with my sister at the orphanage. She too, was saved by the Bedouin Arabs. The happiest days in my life were at the orphanage. We had soup and bread to eat every day and were sheltered under white army tents donated by the British.

Above all, my sister and I were family again.

This is Mannig Dobajian-Kouyoumjian’s spine-tingling testimony of her own experience as a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Last year, she had asked her daughter Aïda Kouyoumjian from Seattle to write her story for the US Holocaust Centre. It is a moving witness, a powerful declaration and a sobering story of the pain and humiliation of one victim of this genocide-driven mass campaign. Yet it is also a story of how our faith helps us when we are coerced to drink from the bitter cup, a reminder of how the tenacity of hope overcomes deep despair and evidence of how the compassionate Arab and Muslim worlds helped Armenian victims, welcoming them into their families and hearths across the whole Middle East.

The Armenian genocide: facing reality

As historians have asserted on the basis of ample archival evidence, this first genocide of the 20th century was perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish government between 1915 and 1923 when it systematically and relentlessly targeted and killed Armenians within its Empire. Ultimately, well over one million ethnic Armenians, who incidentally were Ottoman and later Turkish citizens, lost their lives.

As an Armenian born after this grisly period of our history, I often wonder how our forbears managed to persevere in the face of such immense suffering and adversity. Not only did they, their families and friends, undergo the most harrowing experiences, they also managed to pick themselves up and rebound from the devastation of their orphaned situations. It is due to their intrepid steadfastness and belief in their collective identity as Armenians, that we - the younger generations - can now lead our lives more freely and with more confidence.

But what does this say about modern-day Turkey on the day when Armenians commemorate the 94th anniversary of the genocide? Equally importantly, what does it say of those across the world who still resist tooth and nail the idea of genocide - any acts of genocide, that of the Armenians or subsequent ones - with denial and who debase human life and dignity for spurious political and economic considerations? How can we possibly claim to defend a political order based on human rights and common decency on the one hand only to stifle it on the other? Do deniers not recall George Santayana, a principal figure in classical American philosophy, asserting that “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (in The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905).

As the American NPR broadcaster, Scott Simon, wrote in ‘Genocide’ is a Matter of Opinion, there are times when one has to utter the word ‘genocide’ in order to be accurate about mass murder that tries to extinguish a whole ethnic group. That is why the slaughter of a million Tutsis in Rwanda is not called merely mass murder. This is also why any politician who goes to Germany, for instance, and describes the Holocaust of European Jews merely as ‘terrible killings’ would be reviled without mercy and even prosecuted without appeal.

After all, did President Obama not also assume the high moral ground during the US presidential primaries by stating clearly that the Armenian people deserved “a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides”? Mind you, despite the high expectations and an air of suspense in the USA, this American president prevaricated in his Armenian Remembrance Day on 24th April when his written statement from the White House referred twice to the Armenian genocide as medz yeghern - translated literally as “great catastrophe” rather than “genocide” - and thereby joined a host of former US presidents who have refrained from using the ‘g-word’.

Is there a sad moral in this unfortunate recurrence? Is it that in a showdown between realpolitik and the truth, in other words, between contemporary political expediency and the burden of past atrocities, the former seems to win most times? And if so, does this not sadly alert us - believers and humanists alike - how the values of our global world today often avoid words such as truth, conscience and honour?

Beyond denial to recognition

24 April 2009: six years shy of a century of denial - no matter whether individual, collective or institutional - still contaminates the truth. Is it therefore not high time to put the record straight? Is it not time for Turkish officials to put jingoism, let alone misplaced pride or fear aside by recognising this unfortunate chapter of their Ottoman history during World War One? Is it not time for the Turkish judicial system today to stop invoking Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code and charging reporters or writers, including the Nobel laureate Orthan Pamuk, with the risible crime of ‘insulting Turkish national identity’ simply because they refer to the massacres of Armenians as genocide? Is it not time also for Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to prove their EU-friendly credentials and reformist integrity by mustering the political fortitude -let alone the moral rectitude - to acknowledge past aberrations?

Moreover, is it not time for the world community to embark upon a veritable phase of genocide education by underlining the eight stages of genocide which culminate in denial - as elaborated by Dr Gregory H Stanton in his Eight Stages of Genocide in 1998 when he was president of Genocide Watch? Or as the chartered clinical psychologist Aida Alayarian elucidated in her book Consequences of Denial, does the denial of the Armenian genocide not deprive its victims of the opportunity to make sense of their experience, as well as rendering Turkish society unable to come to terms with its past, and therefore with itself?

Such recognition is not solely for the sake of Armenians. After all, I consider this genocide a historically-recognised reality, even if some governments dither, equivocate and refuse to admit to it for reasons that have more to do with political weakness than historical truthfulness. It is also for the memory of all those righteous Turks who assisted, harboured and supported Armenians during this wounded chapter of history. But as a firm believer in forgiveness and reconciliation, I hold that it is ultimately for the sake of both Armenians and Turks alike so they can begin the painful but ineluctable journey toward a just closure of this open sore.

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(c) Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/). His own website (http://www.epektasis.net/)

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