The forgotten genocide
The boy who was bought for a silver coin and other Armenian stories of survival
The following article appeared in The Sacramento Bee Sunday Magazine.
By J.D. Lasica
In the distance, Mesrop Boyajian could see the shimmering outline of the city of Mardin. The sun was high, and it pressed down on the band of villagers as they crossed the desert the Syrians called Der-el-Zor. Soon, the Armenians would give it a new name: the Desert of Death.
Mesrop, a small boy from a small village in Armenia, had seen much in his 6 years. But the past few months — avagh!
He saw the men in his village of Khoolu rounded up and marched off; they would never return. Hidden in the home of a sympathetic Turkish neighbor, he saw Kurdish tribesmen descend on the Armenian women and children who remained behind in Khoolu. The Kurds who had guns used them; those without guns used their quick, scythelike knives. After a time, after the last cry was stilled, Khoolu lay silent.
Then came the waiting. Weeks passed before the government soldiers arrived. A Turkish soldier prodded Mesrop into a caravan of Armenian women and children, and he did not resist. Those in line, perhaps 500 in all, had survived the massacres in the surrounding villages. Mesrop noticed there was not a man among them.
For 15 days, the caravan of exiles snaked slowly across the desert. The march was long and hard, but Mesrop kept pace — he did not dare fall behind in the killing heat, as some of the others had. The soldiers, too, frightened Mesrop. Each day they would carry young women from the caravan into the fields; after a time, Mesrop would hear gunfire and then see the soldiers returning, alone.
Now, as the caravan wound its way through the gates of Mardin, the familiar knot of hunger and fear twisted in the boy’s stomach. A soldier plucked him and a handful of other children from the line and led them from house to house.
At one door, a well-to-do Syrian family showed some interest in one of the boys. Soldier and family haggled, while Mesrop watched in silence. Finally, a deal was struck.
“I remember,” he says. “They gave one silver coin for me.”
It was a fall day in 1915. Mesrop Boyajian spent the next 10 years in slavery.
Now 80 and living quietly at Golden Pond, a retirement community in Rancho Cordova, Boyajian is one of 14 Sacramento-area residents who survived the massacres of his people.
The carnage during 1915-18 on the high plains of what is now eastern Turkey left between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians dead and more than half a million banished from the land of their ancestors.
Armenians call it the forgotten genocide
Armenians know the events of that era by a different name: the forgotten genocide.
But if the 20th century’s first mass destruction of a people has slipped from the memory of a world grown accustomed to atrocity, some have not forgotten. This past week an international symposium was held at California State University, Sacramento, on the topic “The Armenian Genocide,” with Gov. George Deukmejian, the world’s best-known Armenian, participating.
And on April 24, Armenians the world over will mark their most solemn holiday of the year, Martyrs Day. The occasion commemorates the night of April 23-24, 1915, when authorities of the Ottoman Empire arrested 235 leaders of that country’s Armenian minority. It was the tripwire of the massacres.
But there is far more to the story of the Armenians than a closed chapter in the history books. There is also the story of the survivors carving out new identities in a new land while watching what remains of their homeland — Soviet Armenia — beset by ethnic unrest and by last December’s earthquake, which left 25,000 dead.
And there is this, too: the story of how the children and grandchildren of the massacres’ survivors are coming to grips with their heritage and reinventing what it means to be an Armenian today.
Increasingly in the past few years, Armenian-Americans in California and elsewhere have turned to the past as a rallying point in their quest for identity — and as a starting point in their search for the soul of a lost nation.
“However we begin to explain ourselves,” says Salpi Ghazarian of the Zoryan Institute, an Armenian research center in Cambridge, Mass., “we either go forward in time or backward in history and still end up there, at the genocide. It’s not enough to say, ‘It’s over, let’s forget it.’ We need to understand it so that it can be over, and we can move on with our lives.”
About 1,000 Armenians live in Sacramento; 14 of them survived the massacres. Here are the stories of three of them and their families.
Next: The Boyajians