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24 April 2015updated 03 Aug 2021 11:55am

The Armenian genocide: the journey from victim to survivor

The global activity around the Armenian genocide centenary is unprecedented – reality TV stars, western lawyers, Turkish intellectuals, metalheads and the Pope have all spoken out. But has this brought international recognition any closer?

By Anoosh Chakelian

When I mention that I’m Armenian to new people I meet, I usually receive one of two reactions. One involves Kim Kardashian. The other is a vague awareness of something horrible that happened during the First World War. It’s particularly noticeable this year, as the world (including cousin Kim) has lingered a little longer than usual on the events of the Armenian genocide as it reaches its centenary.

Today is 24 April, a date that has resonated for me ever since I was born. Well, the Armenian pronunciation of it has, anyway (“Uhbril Ksan Chors”). Today marks 100 years since the Ottoman Turks rounded up hundreds of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople, and executed them.

This was the first phase of a genocide that lasted throughout the First World War. The ensuing century has perpetuated the pain with silence and denial.

The facts are already out there – pretty much every western journalist or historian who has written about this subject, and many Turkish ones at that, will give you a similar account. During death marches and massacres perpetrated by the Young Turk regime as the bloody conclusion of its “Turkification” programme, 1.5 million Armenians were killed of an estimated population of 2.1 million.

A collapsing empire, war, religious hegemony, and a rumbling resentment towards the flourishing Christian people living in the heart of their empire, led the Ottomans to this final solution to the “Armenian question”.

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And every Armenian in the vast diaspora today has been touched by the story. My grandparents on my father’s side were both born in Cilicia – a historic Armenian community to the south of Turkey. Their families both managed first to flee to Iskenderun, which was then part of Syria, when my grandparents were very young. Just before the Second World War, when Iskenderun fell into Turkish hands, they then escaped to Lebanon. My grandparents only met and married years later, in Beirut.

The Turkish government has always denied that its ancestors committed genocide. It maintains there were deaths on both sides (or, what the Independent’s Robert Fisk calls, “the old ‘chaos of war’ nonsense”). This has led to certain countries (like Britain) and leaders (like Barack Obama) being too craven to use the word “genocide”, for fear of angering a strategically useful ally.

Those writing about the genocide will repeat the same telling quotations from history: Winston Churchill calling it “an administrative holocaust” and “a crime planned and executed for political reasons”; Adolf Hitler asking his generals ahead of his invasion of Poland: “Kill without mercy men, women and children… Who, after all, today remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”; the lawyer Raphael Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” using the case of the Armenians to formulate his definition, which was  adopted by the UN in 1948.

All compelling, but it’s time to focus on the present. The global activity around the Armenian genocide centenary is unprecedented. Will it change anything?

Kim Kardashian, the Pope and some metalheads

The coalition of people and institutions urging Turkey’s government to move on from denial is now overwhelming. The Pope angered the Turkish regime by using the term genocide to describe the events during a mass two weeks ago. The European Parliament adopted a resolution last week calling on Turkey to recognise the Armenian genocide. Germany is poised to recognise it this week.

And aside from politics, Kim Kardashian caused hysteria on her visit to Armenia as she tweeted and broadcasted to an adoring audience the truth about her family’s past. Simultaneously, the popular Armenian-American metal band System of a Down has been on a world tour raising awareness of the Armenian genocide, playing a special free set in the land of their ancestors for the first time.

Plus countless books and articles have been published by western, Armenian and Turkish scholars alike giving ever more forensic examinations of the crimes against humanity committed 100 years ago. A prominent British example is the QC and judge Geoffrey Robertson, who recently represented Armenia alongside the barrister Amal Alamuddin (now Clooney) at the European Court of Human Rights. He has written a book called An Inconvenient Genocide, which contains reams of evidence.

“The deaths of Armenians were not a ‘tragedy’,” he says at an event to promote his book in London. “They were a crime, a crime against humanity – the class that we now call genocide.”

So an odd army of top British barristers, wildly popular reality TV stars, the Pope and headbanging goths around the world are just a few examples of an eclectic, broad-based side in a debate that is becoming increasingly difficult for the Turkish government to win.

“I think, for the coming years, that the Turkish political elite will be alone in denying the genocide, because the Turkish intellectual elite is moving on,” Vicken Cheterian, the historian and author of Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide, tells me.

“From my research, I’ve been discovering new people – so many Turkish and Kurdish individuals, scholars, writers, historians ­– who are dedicating their professional life, and sometimes more than that, to the study of Armenian history as part of their own history, and this is extremely encouraging.”

Robertson too is optimistic. He tells me: “There’s a terrific amount of literature coming out for the centenary, and I’ve met a lot of the authors. We’re getting over this silly, pointless argument over whether it was or wasn’t genocide, and instead exploring how it can be rectified…

“I think that the signs are good. The lack of response, very little response from Turkey, is significant. They don’t seem to have anything more to say. I sense the truth is now out.”

A rattled response

Turkey’s response has given the Armenian community and its international supporters reasons to be cheerful. The President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s clunky efforts to distract the world from the centenary have been embarrassing. They include rescheduling the date for the Gallipoli commemoration to fall on 24 April, inviting over 100 world leaders to Turkey for the day. The date should be, and always has been, 18 March.

To seal his “PR disaster”, as Simon Heffer describes it, Erdoğan recalled the Turkish ambassador to the Vatican following the Pope’s intervention, threatened to convert the ancient and venerated Orthodox church Hagia Sophia in Turkey into a mosque, and his foreign affairs ministry accused the EU of succumbing to “Armenian propaganda”.

When multitudes of Turkish people mourn the Armenians each year, urge their leaders to accept the truth, and protest that “We are all Armenians” – with the world echoing the sentiment – the Turkish regime looks increasingly neurotic, paranoid, rattled and alone.

Wake up, world

But does the world really echo the sentiment? There are currently more than 20 countries that officially describe the events as genocide. Yet the UK has shied away from doing so, in spite of an unofficial political consensus that it did take place.

This is clear in Robertson’s Freedom of Information request that threw up a memorandum from the Foreign Office: “Turkey is neuralgic on this subject; our position is unethical. But given the importance of strategic, political and commercial relations with Turkey, it would be inconvenient to acknowledge the genocide.”

The US is slightly different. It does recognise the Armenian genocide, in the sense that 43 of its states do, and its House of Representatives has adopted three resolutions commemorating the Armenian genocide in 1975, 1984 and 1996.  Obama, in a 2008 campaign speech, used the G-word:

The Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution, as president I will recognise the Armenian Genocide.

He hasn’t used the word since becoming President, instead referring to the genocide as “Meds Yeghern” (“great catastrophe” in Armenian) – a phrase that merely inspires hollow laughter among Armenians frustrated by our politicians’ semantic dances.

Moving on

As a British-Armenian, I would like to see the UK recognise the Armenian genocide, hear Obama use the word before he stands down as President, and for Turkey finally to come to terms with its history.

Even if you discount the injustice felt by Armenians around the world, the deathly cycle of annihilation should be reason enough to force the world to recognise the genocide. Places like Deir ez-Zor in the Syrian desert, where mass graves of Armenians were found, are the exact same killing fields occupied by Islamic State today.

So not only did the Armenian genocide give Hitler his idea for the Holocaust, but a century of impunity has made the very land where it took place ripe turf for further massacres of civilians.

Yet ultimately Turkey and its fearful Nato allies must call the crime by its name for the sake of Armenian identity. As if the culture hasn’t come under enough strain throughout history, it is weighed down by the burden of constantly being associated with death, sorrow and endless injustice.

The lead singer of System of a Down and modern Armenian hero Serj Tankian is reticent about Armenians being defined by their bloody history:

I think, with justice prevailing, I would like to see the Armenian culture move on from talking about the genocide,” he tells me. “We don’t want to be known as the lost orphans of the near east forever. We want to be known for what we are today, and for what we’ve represented through our history in general.”

I find that encouraging, as someone who has attempted to bring the unique and joyous nature of Armenian culture to the attention of friends and fellow journalists.

Armenia has its own language and alphabet that is part of no other language family. It also boasts a formidable mastery of chess, a curious cultural obsession with pomegranates, numerous madcap proverbs, and lays claim to a delicious smorgasbord of enigmatically-named dishes (“The Priest Who Fainted” is a personal favourite). The country itself is a compelling clash of Soviet brutalism with the pretty symmetrical solemnity of its Orthodox churches. And you should see it take on Eurovision.

Only when denial turns to recognition can the genocide become part of that list, rather than always being the headline. And only when the silence on this issue is drowned out will Armenians be truly able to define themselves as survivors, and no longer victims.

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