Martyrs Day: Witnesses to genocide
As the 20th century’s first mass slaughter of civilians slips from the memory of a world grown accustomed to atrocity, the Armenians’ resolve to remember grows stronger.
This article originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee’s Forum section on April 24, 1988.
By J.D. Lasica
It was a remarkable gathering. Salpi Ghazarian, a 32-year-old Armenian activist, studied the strong, lined faces of the men and women who sat before her in the slat-wood chairs of Sacramento’s St. James Church on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Yervant Ohanesian, 92, and his wife, Vart, 83, were here. Many years ago they had separately survived the forced march across the barren Syrian sands that Armenians came to know as the Desert of Death.
Aghasi Ivazian, 77, sat close by. As a boy of 4, during his family’s flight from the massacres in Armenia, he escaped an ambush by Ottoman Turk soldiers when a Russian Cossack on horseback spirited him from the battle site.
And Blanche Kasparian, 81, had come, too. She tearfully recalls the day during the government-ordered evacuation of her home town that her mother took her aside, made the sign of the cross and said, “Honey, remember, whatever they do to us, don’t ever forget who we are.” The 9-year-old girl and her mother survived the deportation, but their Armenian village was reduced to nothing.
All four Sacramentans are survivors of the Armenian massacres of 1915-18 — the madness on the high plains of Armenia that left a million or more Armenians dead and more than half a million exiled from their ancestral homeland. (That region, historic Armenia, consisted of six provinces in the eastern Ottoman Empire. The modern Turkish state rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.)
Armenians call it the forgotten genocide. But if the 20th century’s first mass slaughter of civilians has slipped from the memory of a world grown accustomed to atrocity, the Armenians’ resolve to remember grows stronger.
Today they will mark Martyrs Day, their most important secular holiday of the year. The occasion recalls the night of April 23-24, 1915, when Ottoman authorities arrested 235 leaders of the minority Armenian community. It was the tripwire of the genocide.
And now, many years later, Yervant and Vart Ohanesian, Blanche Kasparian, Ivy Ivazian and a handful of other survivors and their families gathered to hear a young Armenian-American woman tell them that their ordeal is not yet over.
“YOU ARE VICTIMS once again,” Ghazarian tells them, “because the political situation says that you’re wrong, nothing happened, and there will be no acknowledgement of the traumas you lived through. You won’t be allowed the dignity to put this trauma behind you.”
This comes as no news to her listeners.
In the past few years, the Turkish government has stepped up its public relations effort to reduce those distant events to the status of “allegations and falsehoods.” The U.S. State Department, apparently more concerned with Cold War geopolitics than with the evidence stored in its own archives, has downgraded the events of that era to an “alleged” genocide. And the news media, including The Bee, have begun to refer to the “reported” genocide.
What is one to make of this? Was there a genocide or wasn’t there?
It’s no academic question. The blood feud between Armenians and Turks, once restricted to the hills that embrace Mount Ararat, has moved into the classrooms and legislative chambers of the United States.
• Beginning this fall, students in California’s public high schools will study the Armenian genocide, together with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, in their social studies classes. Two films documenting those events are scheduled to be made this summer.
• A spokeswoman for the Turkish consulate, distressed by the Legislature’s refusal to include Turkey’s side of the story in the classroom curriculum, vows, “The Turkish- American community is not going to lie down on this.”
• The recent protests in Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan, centering on demands for Armenian control over a region of Azerbaijan, have been described as the most serious episode of nationalist unrest in Soviet history. Clashes between Azerbaijani Turks and Armenians, which reportedly left hundreds dead, fanned old hatreds between the two ethnic groups dating back to the genocide.
• The unrest may have a corollary impact on U.S. immigration; up to 5,000 Soviet Armenians a year are expected to arrive in this country, and most will settle in California.
• Two bills are pending in Congress to designate April 24 as a day of remembrance for victims of the Armenian genocide. While resolutions dealing with events 70 years ago may seem far removed from today’s political realities, Turkey has threatened to reconsider the status of U.S. military bases if such a bill passes.
As Irving Louis Horowitz, a Rutgers University sociologist, observes, ”Every argument about ancient history is an argument about tomorrow.”