Nearly five months ago the AYF organized a concert in downtown Los Angeles with Armenian folk legend Ruben Hakhverdyan. Ruben evoked longing for the homeland and highlighted the urgency to return amongst the crowd. Last night, accompanied by some great friends, I had the opportunity to see our old friend Ruben at The Opera in Yerevan.
Ruben’s poetic words were clearer than ever, as if it was Armenia herself speaking to the entire diaspora….waiting for our inevitable return home to see our old friend…
Հին ընկեր իմ անգին ընկեր: Արդյ՞ոք ուր ես դու կորել:
[Old friend, precious friend. Where have you gone?]
Հին ընկեր իմ անգին ընկեր:Չեմ կարող ես քեզ գտնել:
[Old friend, precious friend. I can’t find you..]
Ին՞չ կախարդ է քեզ կախարդել: Ին՞չ թակարդ ես դու ընկել:
[What wizard has cast a spell on you? What trap have you fallen into?]
Հին ընկեր իմ անգին ընկեր: Ես կարող եմ քեզ փրկել:
[Old friend, precious friend. I can save you.]
For years, we’ve been caringly looking at our old friend from a distance, empathizing and always wanting the best for her. Our old friend wants us back. Living abroad, there is an inevitable realization that something is missing; something that no fancy car, no 80 hour work week spent climbing the corporate ladder, and no adopted culture can replace.
Monument commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Lebanon. Symbolizes the rebirth of the Armenian Nation.
Ամէն տարի Զատիկի օրը ընտանիքներ քով-քովի գալով կը նշէն ու կը յիշէն Յիսուսի Յարութիւնը: Հայ ընտանիքը այս տարի Ապրիլ 24-ին պիտի յիշէ Յիսուս Քրիստոսի Յարութիւնը եւ ոգեկոչէ Հայոց Ցեղասպանութեան մէկ-ու-կէս միլիոն Հայ նահատակներու վերածնունդը:
Երկար դարեր շարունակ Հայը ենթարկուած է կոտորածներու, հալածանքներու եւ ապրած է ուրիշին տիրապետութեան տակ: Սակայն, այս բոլոր դժուարաթիւններով հանդերձ, ոչ մէկը յաջողած է մեզ հայ ըլլալէ դադրեցնելէ եւ հեռացնել մեզ մեր կրօնքէն: 1915-ին Թուրք կառավարութիւնը կանխամտածուած ծրագրեց ու գործադրեց մէկ-ու-կէս միլիոն անմեղ հայերու տեղահանումն ու ցեղասպանութիւնը: Այդ անմարդկային ոճրագործութիւններէն ետք հայ ազգին սիրտերը խոցուեցան ու շարունակաբար սգացինք:
Դարերու կորուստները արիւնը, ցաւերն ու արցունքները թող այս Ապրիլ 24-ին քարանան:
-Յիշենք որ Թուրքը չարաչար ձախողեցաւ մէկ հայ իբր նմուշ թանգարանը ցուցադրելու:
-Յիշենք որ ունինք գերիշխան պետութիւն:
-Յիշենք որ ունինք նաեւ հզօր Սփիւռք:
Յիշելով այս նուաճումները հայերը իրենց միասնական ուժերով ու զօրաւոր կամքով պէտք է վեհանձնութեամբ նետուին հայ դատի պայքարի դաշտ: Հայերը այս տարի պէտք է վերահաստատէն իրենց նպատակը ու հաստատ քայլերով պայքարին անոր յաջողութեան:
Այս վերածնունդ է, որպէսզի հայը սորվի ու արժեւորէ անցեալը ու ձգտի կերտելու ապագան: 1920-ական թուականներուն Թեհլիրեաններու ու Շիրակեաններու պէս անձնուրաց հայեր հարուածեցին ցեղասպան կազմակերպողներուն ճակտէն: Տարիներ ետք Թեհլիրեաններու արժանի ժառանգորդները փամփուշտներու գոռոցն ու ռումբերու պայթումի ձայները խուլ ականջները բացին ու արձագանքեցին աշխարհի 4 կողմը:
Այսօ’ր հայերը զինուած են իրենց իրաւունքներուն վերատիրանալու կամքով, չեն մոռցած իրենց նախահայրերուն կտակն ու պատգամը եւ գիտեն թէ նպատակ մը ձգտելու համար պէտք է պայքարին:
-Թո’ղ այս վերածնունդի օրը հայ աճիւններուն յաւերժական հանգստութիւն ննջէ, գիտնալով թէ Հայ երիտասարդը հաւատքով, կամքով, ու զօրաւոր քայլերով կ’առաջնորդէ հայ դատը հասցնելու իր նպատակին:
-Թո’ղ այս վերածնունդը առիթ ընծայէ վերանորոգելու մեր ուխտը եւ այս նոր թափով պայքարինք աշխատանքով, գրիչով, դիւանագիտութեամբ եւ ուսումով:
-Թո’ղ այս վերածնունդի շրջանին արդարութեան բազուկը հարուածէ ցնցելով ամբողջ աշխարհը:
-Թո’ղ արդարութեան բազուկը քանդէ կաշկանդող բոլոր շղթաները:
-Թո’ղ հարուածէ արդարութեան բազուկը կուլ տալու բոլոր այդ արգելքները որ կը բաժանէ հայ ազգը իր երթէն:
Յիշենք ու անպայման յարգանք մատուցանենք մեր գլխատուած մեծ հայրերը, բռնաբարուած մայրիկներ, հրկիզուած որբերը ու խեղդուած կոյսերը: Բայց նաեւ յիշենք որ իբր առաջին Քրիստոնէութիւն կրօնքը ընդունած երկիրը մենք միշտ ունեցած ենք հաւատք եւ հաւատանք ու ապաւինենք մեր ուժերուն կերտելու Հայոց Աշխարհի Սուրբ Երազ:
Օրինակ առնենք Առիւծ Մհերներէն, Վարդան Մամիկոնեաններէն, Գէորգ Չաւուշներէն, Թեհլիրեաններէն, Լիզպոնի 5 տղոցմէ, Վիգէն Զագարեաններու եւ Սուրբ պայքարի ճամբուն վրայ ինկած մեր ազգի հերոսներէն: Այս հերոսներն ու մեր նահատակները դեռ կը գոռան ու վրէժ կը պահանջէն իրենց գերեզմաններէն: Բայց, իւրաքանչիւր նահատակի ցաւը ու խոր վէրքը պէտք է մեզի շունչ տայ, մեր սրտի տրոփումը դառնայ եւ խօսքի ու գործի վերածուի մեր ընդմէջէն: Մեր նահատակներուն ձայնը բարձրացնենք որպէսզի պատռենք խուլ ականջները աշխարհին լսելի դարձնելու մեր կանչն ու պահանջքը:
Ինչպէս Յիսուս Քրիստոս հանգստացաւ ու Յարութիւն առնելով արժանացաւ երկնքի արքայութեան, թող հայ աշխարհի նահատակները հանգստանան թէ հայ ազգը կը յիշէ իրենց նախնիներուն կտակը, կ’ուխտէ հաւատարիմ մնալ եւ անոր համար պայքարիլ: Թո’ղ անոնց հոգին բարձրանան երկինք ինչպէս եռագոյն դրօշակը որ վաղ թէ ուշ պիտի բարձրանայ Արարատի գագաթին:
January 19, 2007. Istanbul, Turkey. At this place and on this date, a middle-aged man in a brown suit was shot dead at point-blank range. The three gunshots that shattered the cool air that day sent shockwaves through his country and the world at large.
Before looking into the identity of this man and the significance he had in life and in death, it is fitting to take a step back and take a good, long look at the city where he lived and died. Istanbul can be described as a crossroad between East and West, where the mystic Orient melts smoothly into the hustle and bustle of European urban centres. It can also been seen as a panicked metropolis caught between two competing identities, a microcosm of issues that plague Turkey at large. Both visions of this city hold true, and one cannot understand the assassination of Hrant Dink without understanding the society – and the city – where he lived and in which life was taken from him.
Dink, ethnically Armenian, was the editor of Agos, a bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper. When Agos was founded in 1996, many realised that drastic changes needed to be made within Turkey’s politics and society if it was to become a democratic country. However, he became one of the very few individuals who would put themselves in danger in order to make that dream a reality.
He spoke out bravely about the need for democratisation, respect towards the freedoms of expression, press and assembly, and sought to dispel the strong taboos against discussion of the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. For his activism, he was prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, an oft-condemned censorship law that grants the Turkish government the legal authority to imprison anyone who “publicly denigrates the Turkish nation, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey”.
As a result of three very public trials, Dink found himself at the receiving end of a large-scale intimidation campaign. He received death threats (which were ignored by the authorities) and a constant stream of hate clogged his inbox and telephone line. In his last editorial he wrote, “The judge had made a decision in the name of the ‘Turkish nation’ and had it legally registered that I had ‘denigrated Turkishness.’ I could have coped with anything but this. […] Those who tried to single me out and weaken me have succeeded.”
Hrant Dink was murdered by Ogun Samast, a 17 year old Turkish youth who had travelled 900 km to kill the journalist. After his arrest, Samast was photographed posing with a Turkish flag, flanked by two proud-looking policemen. Four years after the crime, observers of Turkish judicial law note that Samast may be released if the murder trial – already criticised for its slow pace – isn’t wrapped up by 2012.
What has changed since January 2007? Within the administration, not much at all. Some notable stories that made headlines are the imprisonment of a 15 year old Kurdish girl who was found guilty of throwing rocks during a political rally, the possible banning of Facebook (YouTube has been blocked since 2007), and the proposed dismantlement of a Turkish-Armenian friendship statue.
For over a century, successive Turkish governments have been using shallow half-measures to appease foreign observers and to feign true democratisation. Homogenisation of the Anatolian peninsula through suppression of ethnic diversity is not a new state policy. After most Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians had been eliminated by Ottoman leaders during the 1914-1923 genocide, the new Republic focused its attention upon its Arab and Kurdish citizens, subjecting them to policies of forced assimilation.
Use of the Kurdish language in the public sphere was illegal from 1925 to 1991. Fortunately, over the past 20 years, some new policies have appeared to give Turkey’s Kurdish minority equal standing with their fellow citizens of Turkish ethnicity. However, Prof. Amir Hassanpour of the University of Toronto looks beneath the surface: “No one can deny that this is a different Turkey. There is, for example, Kurdish broadcasting by the government on a limited scale. One should appreciate that it is now possible for media to be published in Kurdish – it is no longer a crime against the state. What has not changed, however, are the government’s assimilation policies. These new ‘rights’ are a way to satisfy the European Union, but to maintain the linguicidal policy.”
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, although Kurds now have the “right” to their own press, newspapers continue to be shut down and their journalists incarcerated based on fictitious ties to terrorism. Another such “right” is the legalisation of Kurdish-language education, a development which is handicapped, says Dr. Hassanpour, by three strict preconditions: lessons must be given only on weekends, when kids have little incentive to study; teachers must be approved by the government, ensuring that the state’s nationalist discourse is not challenged; and students must be over 12 years old, ensuring that they are brought up “Turkish” during their key formative years.
Winds of Change
Within Turkish society, the development of a conscious and reflective populace can be seen and has to be encouraged. During Hrant Dink’s funeral, 100 000 people marched down the streets of Istanbul carrying placards which read “We are all Armenian” and “We are all Hrant Dink.” His weekly newspaper, it should be noted, was a meagre 12 pages long and had a subscriber base of only 6 000 readers in a country of 70 million. Yet his words rang loudly against the oppressive taboos of the Turkish government and conservative society.
Before his death, in September 2005, a conference about the Armenian Genocide was held at Bilgi University for the first time ever. Originally set for May, it had to be rescheduled and relocated after the justice minister made charges of treason against its organisers and the courts attempted to censor the speakers. Since 2007, similar events have included a celebration of the work of Armenian composer and Genocide victim Gomidas, an exhibition of Armenian architecture, and four separate – though painfully small – Genocide commemoration events in Istanbul.
In recent years, crypto-Armenians have been gradually coming out of hiding and openly acknowledging their Armenian lineage. One of the most moving examples of this is written about in My Grandmother, a book by lawyer Fethiye Cetin. She tells of how her grandmother, at the age of 90, reveals to her that she is in fact an Armenian, abducted as a young girl from a deportation caravan in the desert and married off to a Turkish man. Having received unprecedented popularity, Cetin’s book is now in its 7th edition.
In Dink’s absence, his vision of Turkey continues to be pursued by other outspoken members of Turkish society. Among them are Ragip Zarakolu and his late wife, who have been taken to court over 40 times for the books they publish; Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk; Hrant’s son, Arat Dink; and Hasan Cemal, grandson of a genocide mastermind who has drawn attention to and denounced the policies of his ancestor. These intellectuals are slowly overcoming the monolithic taboos that have fragmented Turkish historical identity and are paving the way for a new – and more honest – Turkey.
Although Hrant Dink died four years ago, his memory and legacy live on. Every year following Dink’s assassination, thousands have gathered outside his office. They stand together not only to commemorate, but also to show the state that they have not forgotten the way in which their government betrayed their fellow Istanbulu.
As we commemorate Hrant’s death every January 19th, we cannot help but look back as we move forward. There must come a time when instead of immortalising genocidaires by naming streets and erecting statues in their honour, the government of Turkey will choose to celebrate the true heroes of its history: the hundreds of Turks and Kurds who saved Armenians in 1914-1923.
Only through honest introspection can Hrant Dink’s dream be realised: a Turkey which accepts its past and respects the rights of all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity. In the meantime, we wait with bated breath, wary of when the next gunshot will ring.
As a result of the world’s inability to criminally punish the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide, the Ninth World Congress of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation made the decision to track down and execute the most culpable Ottoman leaders in a covert undertaking called Operation Nemesis. By the end of 1922 dozens of top Turkish leaders were extra-judicially brought to justice.
Understanding the chain of events which led to Nemesis offers important insight to the current difficulties faced by Armenians to achieve reparations and restitution for the crimes committed by Ottoman Turkey.
Post World War I
As early as May of 1915, the Allied powers formally accused the Ottoman government of crimes against humanity (a term which would be made infamous thirty years later following the Holocaust). However, following World War I, France focused its outrage on Germany and pursued rapprochement with the Turks. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Russia lost all interest in bringing the Young Turks to justice. And despite the well-documented and harrowing accounts of American diplomats, including Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr., America did not take serious steps to punish murders that killed non-Americans. More than any other Allied Power, Britain took the massacre of Armenians seriously.
In 1918, Britain had an occupying force of over a million soldiers in the Ottoman Empire which allowed it to exert extensive pressure on the post-war government of Sultan Mehmet VI. Furthermore, the developed British legal system wanted to hold individual members of Ottoman leadership criminally responsible for war crimes. The Sultan, however, feared that if he took large-scale action to prosecute the Young Turks it would provoke a nationalist revolution where he would be overthrown.
In 1919 under British pressure, the Sultan ordered domestic Turkish courts-martial to try Ittihadist (Committee of Union and Progress) leaders of the Ottoman Empire. By April, over 100 top Turkish officials were under arrest. In custody were the grand vizier, the sheikh ul-Islam, the president of the council of state, a former director of intelligence, the commander of the garrison at Yozgat (the site of some of the most heinous Armenian massacres), several former valis (provincial governors) from Smyrna, Bogazlian, Mosul, Broussa, and Diarbekir, the ministers of justice and public instruction, along with dozens of others. Subsequently four major trials began: for Armenian massacres and deportations in Yozgat and in Trebizond, of Ittihadist leaders, and finally for wartime Turkish cabinet members. There were lesser trials for atrocities in Harput, Mosul, Baiburt and Erzinjan. More trials for atrocities in Adana, Aleppo, Bitlis, Diarbekir, Erzerum, Marash, and Van were planned but never held.
The first verdicts handed down by the tribunals found Major Tevfik Bey, commander of the Yozgat police, and Yozgat lieutenant governor Kemal Bey guilty of organizing deportations, murder, pillage, robbery and crimes against humanity and civilization. Tevfik was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor and Kemal to death. Kemal Bey’s funeral became a rallying point for Turkish nationalists who were still not convinced Turks had done wrong during the war and were insulted that punishments were being doled out for killing Christians.
The courts-martial continued against prominent leaders including Said Halim Pasha, as well as those who had fled to Germany, including Talaat and Enver, who were tried and sentenced to death in absentia. The indictment of Talaat and Enver read in part:
“The disaster visiting the Armenians was not a local or isolated event. It was the result of premeditated decision taken by a central body; and the immolations and excesses which took place were based on oral and written orders issued by the central body.”
At the same time, politics began destroying the domestic tribunals. The British army presence shrank by over two-thirds—along with its authority. As dozens of the accused Turks began being released, the British gave up on the Ottoman trials and decided to take custody of sixty-eight of the most prominent prisoners who were guilty of the most heinous crimes and transfer them to a British detention center in Malta. This left the Turkish courts-martial a toothless farce.
Malta International Tribunals
After taking custody of the prisoners, the British assumed that they could implement British-style trials to attain a just conclusion. The idea of having show trials or summarily executing the prisoners was dismissed outright. However, an unusual problem presented itself: the Armenians were slaughtered en masse, but the massacres were carried out under Ottoman sovereignty and not under British law. Since international law had not yet developed, a new kind of criminal law was needed: a crime against humanity (this same problem flustered the planners of Nuremberg).
Unfortunately, the British were slow to set up tribunals even after the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920, which included five articles on war crimes including language calling for Turks “guilty of criminal acts [to be] brought before the military tribunals” and even carved out a new independent Armenian state. The British were left in a quagmire, not wanting to release the prisoners and not having the political will to prosecute.
As Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s nationalist revolt gained strength, defeating French troops in Cilicia, the British began cutting their losses. By 1920, War Secretary Winston Churchill was clearly weary of the entire issue. He wanted to make sure that Ataturk would not be pushed into the arms of the Soviet Union. When pressed to choose between prosecuting war criminals and protecting British soldiers, Churchill did not hesitate to advocate choosing the latter.
The final straw came in August of 1921 when Ataturk’s nationalists took a group of 29 Britons hostage and demanded the release of all Turkish prisoners who remained in Malta jails. All fifty-nine remaining Turks in custody were subsequently freed. Finally, as a further insult, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in July 1923 by Ataturk, containing no clauses on war crimes tribunals and no mention of an independent Armenia. British Prime Minister Lloyd George referred to the treaty as an “abject, cowardly and infamous surrender.”
In Comparison with Nuremberg
The lessons learned from the failed attempts of international justice following World War I, along with the political commitment to punish wartime aggression led to the Nuremberg trials, criminally prosecuting the leadership of Nazi Germany. Henry Morgenthau Jr. (son of Ottoman-era US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr.) led calls to summarily execute all top Nazi leaders without any trials. However, the plan set forth by War Secretary Henry Stimson to put the criminals on trial won out.
The Allied effort (led by the United States), to punish the Nazis was undertaken mostly out for retribution for the Nazi instigation of the war, rather than just punishing the perpetrators of the Holocaust. While the intention was to punish the Nazis for starting the war, the legacy left by the trials is that it was an effort to punish crimes against humanity, namely the Holocaust. By 1963 over 2000 Germans were sentenced, nearly 700 to death. These trials have subsequently led to the 1948 adoption of the UN Genocide Convention as well as the later creation of the International Criminal Court.
Had the war crimes tribunals held in Constantinople been given the opportunity to uncover evidence and document high-level testimony, as was stipulated by the Treaty of Sevres, it would have been significantly more difficult for subsequent Turkish governments to deny, distort or minimize Turkish culpability for the Armenian Genocide. For Britain, it was in their strategic interest to leave Constantinople. For Ataturk, nationalist fervor led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic on the blood of murdered Armenians. For the Armenians, abandoned by the international community, justice became an elusive concept.
Unlike Germany, whose Nazi-era leaders were held criminally responsible and punished, the Turkish Republic has never confronted the Armenian Genocide. In the short-run, the lack of adequate criminal prosecution of Young Turk leaders following the Armenian Genocide led to vigilante justice to preserve Armenian dignity. In the long-run it has caused decades of denial, and has given a path for the successor state to avoid reparations. However, during the past five decades, Armenians worldwide have persevered to attain global recognition of the Armenian Genocide. While the perpetrator generation of Turks may have escaped justice, what remains is the civil and territorial compensation to the Armenian people from the benefactors of Genocide.
I am the (un)fortunate grandchild of four individuals who all had their respective immediate experiences with the Genocide.
On my mother’s side, my grandfather Hagop DerHagopian was orphaned, (and only given his last name at the orphanage on account of his first name). He was dropped off at an Armenian orphanage by the Kurdish family who took him in after his entire family was murdered and they sought to raise him as one of their own, giving him the Kurdish name, Sedya. They realized the child who was crying for his “mama” fiercely resisted the Kurdish ways and might never replace “mama” with “ummi” as they had hoped. My grandmother, Yeghsapet Minasian survived a bit more unscathed, losing only one brother during the marches in the confusion and chaos of deportation.
I am currently working on translating my grandfather’s life memoirs from Armenian to English. I’ve included an excerpt here wherein my grandfather describes his agonizing solitude in Marash in 1922, when his mother, with no choice after her husband and his brother were murdered, flees from Marash, eventually making it to Damascus and wherein his younger siblings eventually join her via the American missionaries and generous efforts of the Near East Relief. My grandfather was 21 years old in 1922 and unable to legally leave Turkey because he was of conscription age, and only succeeds in leaving Marash when he surrenders to his fate.
In the beginning of 1922 my brother Nshan left Marash and headed to Lebanon to the city of Jebeil where he stayed approximately one year at the Near East Relief Society orphanage before heading to Damascus to join our mother.
A few months after Nshan’s departure, Mairanoush, my sister, also left to Haleb with American missionaries/orphanages and from there joined my mother; my mother hadn’t yet made it to Damascus.
It was after Nshan and Mairanoush left Marash that I was completely and utterly alone and my situation seemed unbearable to me.
Every minute of every day, I would ponder and contemplate how I also might be able to escape Marash, my birthplace, which before my very eyes looked like nothing other than hell; but not a means nor a method presented itself as the obstacles in my way were many.
Two or three times I made attempts to requisite governmental divisions to gain legal exit, however my filed petitions were rejected. I failed. I was unsuccessful given that I was of age for conscription. After my petition would make its way past a few divisions, it would remain stuck at the military officer’s desk. I could not be seen by them, and in that way I would face failure.
One day I took my petition request to the police station. A few days later I returned to receive an answer but the police chief, a man with a brute face, told me that my background check did not raise any suspicions however, since I’ve shaved my mustache they are concerned that I do not resemble the photograph on file.
I replied, “Efendi, my mustache stubble is new, however one side has grown in black while the other blond; I have shaved it in hopes that they will grow in similar color.”
Wouldn’t you like this response from the police chief? He told me to come back in eight days without shaving my mustache in order to verify my reply.
He wrote his notes on my application and gave them to me. I took my papers, and pursued a few others avenues but my papers once again got stuck in the military office. And that’s where they remained as I never went back to claim them given my unsuccessful attempts thus far.
Days would pass, months would pass, however I still remained in Marash unable to gain a means to escape the borders of my ravished birthplace.
The majority of the city’s Armenian population, with no choice in the matter, left their homes, properties and riches and fled to Syria, Lebanon and beyond. Every day my worry intensified; when would I also, and through what means, would I free myself from this hell incarnate of a place? I was burdened by my own constant questioning; there were hardly any Armenians left in Marash. Only God knows how many times I got up on my feet to head away from the city, however, I did not succeed due to one thousand and one obstacles. Many a times I thought to embark on my exit with my government papers in hand, but those were no longer in my possession. And it was like this that I surrendered to what fate had in store, to what was literally written on my forehead, my destiny, my jagadakeer, though I had never believed in such a surrender before. For, how is it that without your own extension of your hand that an apple will make its way from the tree to your mouth?
My grandfather’s escape reads like a movie script; the scenes are vividly haunting and though I myself am proof of his survival, every time I re-read the pages, I do so nervously, biting my nails, forgetting to breathe, incessantly flipping the pages just to make sure he escapes successfully and that no one points out his ingenious disguise to Turkish gendarmes. My grandfather was of the fortunate few who not only “made it” but who was also lucky enough to be reunited with his family whom he had no contact with for over two years. The scenes he recaps of their reunion are gut-wrenching and bittersweet, although they are not unique. So many stories like his occurred, but so many are unfortunately lost, or might only circulate orally and will soon be lost.
My grandfather made it very clear that he realized his good fortune in surviving the Genocide, in being reunited with his family members who had also survived and he thus wrote thousands of pages during his lifetime to preserve those stories so that his children and then unborn grandchildren would avenge the injustices that befell the Armenians, and that the world would thus never forget the monstrosities they faced. I now hope to do my humble part as I attempt to translate his story, Our Story. Armed with his words, which serve as my inspiration and compass, I hope that I am one step closer to realizing his wishes.
*Latin proverb which, literally translated, means “spoken words fly away, written words remain.”
Moscow airport. Waiting to board the plane to Armenia. As I look around I think about how context around us affects us on the most cellular level. How the scale of buildings, the materials that are around us, people’s faces, colors, temperature etc, have an immediate effects on our mental and physical selves. I rewind to the last immediate contextual change that had taken place before the airport and that placed me in my father’s pickup truck driving to the airport in a context that is more personal to me. The 1996 Ford F-150, a beast of a truck, mowing down the road on the 8 lane concrete highway as we converse about my father’s ideals for the future. I kiss my father goodbye, jump out the truck, grab my bag from the back I immediately realize that I have entered the context of LAX airport; a context shared by all the travelers there. A context not new to me, a context that lacks permanence, a context of transition and transition. The larger then life interior spaces, with people moving around on their way to different ticketing counters, or the seats that people only sit in for temporary comfort on their way to another context of their choosing. In my case I was about to change the context of my life in Los Angeles to Yerevan in 32 hours, having covered 1500 miles of separation, a context that is unclear yet defined from previous experiences and memory.
As I check in my bag and walk through security clearance, I start thinking about all my previous travels and the different contexts of my life experiences since my youth, and how they have changed my perception of the world, and especially its people all of which have left positive influences on my life, including the people of Armenia.
I am sitting on the floor of the Moscow airport, my back to the glass, behind which is the airplane is being prepared for our 2.5 hour flight to Armenia. I left Los Angeles alone and now I was traveling with 4 people who I met at JFK during our 8 hour layover. Two younger men my age who were heading back to see family, one older gentlemen whose family lived in Armenia who was bringing guitars back to sell and cover the cost of his trip, and a fourth who would be there for only one week seeing family after which he would travel to Moscow for a week and return to Los Angeles and reopen his body shop business on Foothill in Tujunga.
We somehow all came together and decided to create a new context, and proceeded to do so by sharing our food, ordering sandwiches, drinking coffee and playing cards. We created a context more familiar to us in the context of transition. Afterwards we were all together, we would check in together go through security together sit on the same row in the plane together, and move around the airport together. Until Armenia these 5 men were inseparable from each other.
As we landed at the airport and walked out to our waiting friends. I remember the last face of relief as he slowly nodded his head in approval of our choice to create our own experience throughout the contextual transition of Los Angles to Yerevan. We had stuck with each other the whole way never leaving each other to be alone and we were back in the context of our homeland free to disperse into the unity of our people.
A few days later as I round the corner of the building where the First Republic of Armenia was proclaimed, I run into a group of my friends all waiting outside for the opening ceremony of the 31st World Congress of the ARF. My context has changed and my eyes scan the faces looking my memory sends inputs to my consciousness with information about their identity. I am amongst friends we talk recall the past, shake hands, hug, a few of us who had interact often in Los Angeles shake hands with each other with smiles as we are happy to see each other at the doorsteps of a meeting that will bring together the will of the people it was created to serve and strategize on how to make that a reality in the next four years. As I enter the context of the hall with its strong walls and heavy quality, I am surrounded by people that are here to make change, the hall is packed with Armenians from near and far with one common goal, the betterment of the lives of the Armenian people wherever they may be. I think about the context of my life at the moment and come to the conclusion that when me and my four friends met at the airport we created a small Armenia for ourselves in an absolutely unfamiliar transitory context of different airports. What would this group do of hundreds, that would spent the next few days together in the context of their homeland.
Now I sit on my friends balcony, my immediate context is an abandoned factory with broken glass, a yellow Lada with fruit boxes in the backseat, a few unkempt trees, birds chirping, the heat of Yerevan in the summer, and a man strolling through the alley street.
This is my context now, this is my reality, this is where I write to you from, it might not be shiny, it might not be as clean as we’d like, but it is my context, the context of the capital of our homeland. I write in between phone calls as we make arrangements for the arrival of the participants of AYF Youth Corps, with the hopes that they will come to understand and appreciate the context of our homeland in the way that we have.
From 1923-1988, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh lived under the jurisdiction of Soviet Azerbaijan, with the territory designated as an autonomous region separated from Armenia proper.
May, 1994- As a result of the war over 11,500 sq. km are liberated. The Shahumian region remains under Azeri control. There is no international recognition of Karabakh.
November, 1994- A Russian-brokered cease-fire between Yerevan, Stepanakert, and Baku brings the conflict to a de facto end. It is assumed Russian peace keepers will be deployed to facilitate return of refugees. Cease-fire is superseded by the Bucharest summit on December 5-6.
July, 1997- OSCE Minsk Group submits a package agreement to resolve the conflict, proposing the return of Nagorno-Karabakh as a region within Azerbaijan consisting of 4.4 thousand sq. km and the Lachin corridor. The proposal calls for the deployment of international peacemakers to secure and the return of displaced Azerbaijanis, while the Armenians of Karabakh are to receive Azerbaijani passports. The Armenian side rejects the proposal.
December, 1997- Step-by-Step proposal is presented which would withdraw Karabakh forces to 1988 boundaries (keeping the Lachin corridor) and leave the permanent status of Karabakh for future determination. The proposal is rejected by Nagorno-Karabakh.
A Map of Nagorno-Karabakh
November, 1998- Common State solution is presented where Karabakh forces would withdraw to 1988 boundaries. Nagorno-Karabakh would become an independent state and, with Azerbaijan, form a common state. The status of Lachin is left undetermined. The proposal is rejected by Azerbaijan.
Spring, 2001- An unofficial proposal is presented during talks in Paris and in Key West, Florida suggesting the unification of Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh and the Lachin corridor. In exchange, Azerbaijan is promised a corridor of its own through connecting to Nakhichevan through southern Armenia. The proposal is rejected by Azerbaijan.
November, 2007- OSCE Minsk Group proposes the so-called “Madrid Principles” to Yerevan and Baku outlining a step-by-step approach to resolve the conflict. An international peace-keeping force to secure the return of Azeri refugees is envisioned, while 7,000 sq km of liberated Karabakh territory is returned to Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh is reduced to 4,400 sq km, with its only connection to Armenia maintained through the Lachin corridor and Kelbajar. Karabakh is promised an interim status to be determined at an undeclared date in the future by referendum. This is the current proposal under consideration today.
The ARF on Karabakh
Armenian Revolutionary Federation
Karabakh is an integral part of Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation has pursued its reunification with Armenia. The annexation of Karabakh to Azerbaijan was a result of arbitrary plotting by Stalin in the early 1920s and the people of Karabakh have never accepted that arrangement.
During Soviet rule, at every opportunity, and most recently in 1988, the majority of the population of Karabakh had peacefully raised their quest for reunification with Armenia; Azerbaijan responded by violence not only in Karabakh, but all over Azerbaijan.
In Karabakh, Armenians defended themselves and in 1991, declared the formation of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. A just and lasting resolution of the Karabakh conflict should guarantee security and viability for Karabakh and Armenia. Eventually, the de facto reunification with Armenia should be granted de jure recognition.
Attaining this recognition is a priority for the ARF‐Dashnaktsutyun.
I woke up at 8 AM to the face of an old lady wearing a blue dress covered with yellow flowers. She told me breakfast was ready. I smiled because she had a smile on her face. She knew I was up late the night before hanging out with my friends in the courtyard, drinking tea and conversing about our lives.
I made my way to the breakfast table where some of my friends were as well. We all sat down to a breakfast table set with butter, yogurt, cheese, hot dog, and jam made from a berry plant that grew all over the city. At that moment I realized that, other than the hot dog, all of the food came from sources that were within 50 feet of where I was sitting. Most of it was from the cow that was outside in the barn.
I was in Sushi, a war torn city that was taken back a few years ago by a people that were determined to choose their own future and had made it happen. While I was buttering my toast, I was thinking, “Wow, everything I am eating here is purely organic” (I didn’t eat the hot dog). These organic products were what people in LA would easily pay top dollar for. I could already imagine it at Trader Moe’s, priced at $4 a jar, labeled “Organic Raspberry Jam” along with the butter and cheese.
A few weeks later I am in Yerevan sitting at a café. If you’ve been to Yerevan in the last 20 years you know it’s not hard to find a café in gendron (Central downtown). Many of the beautifully designed Soviet era parks that were once there have been covered by Cafés since independence. The free market is well in progress. Restaurants with international names and themes, billboards everywhere, and European fashion walking up and down the streets on the fit bodies of the masses. As they stroll up and down Northern Ave, I watch them and they watch me.
The cell phone store has congestion from people waiting for service, the restaurants are full, the high-end boutiques are well-lit and awaiting customers. Yet, above the stores, all the lights are off. The residents there are corporations or Diasporans who have purchased these larger-than-life homes or offices on the city’s main promenade. They seem to be occupied only a few months out of the year.
I walk around the corner into one of the large supermarkets that have recently opened. Inside, I find processed yogurt with fruit, imported cheeses, frozen chicken and beef products. The place shines, it glows. It’s staffed by younger women in tight clothing who sell racks and racks of imported foods and imported lifestyle. It oozes of sex appeal.
A few months pass by and I am back in Los Angeles. I read in a newspaper that a new law has outlawed street vending in Yerevan. I read another article a few weeks later about how the Pag Shooga (indoor farmers’ market) will close for renovations after which some of the vendors will not be returning due to higher rent costs and larger retail spaces. A few weeks later I read about the workday increasing to six days a week. I start asking, “If everyone in Armenia is complaining that there is no work, then why is the workday being increased to six days a week for certain industries?”
A few days later outside my studio I am conversing with a colleague. I ask her why it is that most people in Yerevan could not wait to shop at supermarkets for factory-farm produced chicken, cellophane wrapped tomatoes, and processed dairy, while the biggest food movement in Los Angeles is organic, small farmer and locally grown foods. She replies, “People want what they don’t have.” I ask her why she thinks that is, and she says, “Well, if you get something that you didn’t have it proves to you and others that you worked hard and got it, that you got something that you did not have before.” We exchange smiles because it makes sense.
See, the have-nots in LA can’t get organic food—which is reserved for the haves—and the have-nots in Yerevan can’t get food from the supermarkets because it’s for the haves. At the end, we both agree that organic food is a better choice overall for the health and long-term sustainability of an economy.
In the end, it comes down to education, choice and discipline. Things are worth the value you assign them. What is two cups of water worth to you? Is it a walk to the kitchen, five-minute wait, a search for a water fountain, or one dollar at a gas station or a convenience store? Hopefully you picked all of the options except the last two, because if you picked the last two, you gave someone a dollar for something you could have had for a much lower cost. I use a bottle of water as an example of how wealth is trickled up by the many and placed in the hands of the few. Bottling water and making it available everywhere can exploit a simple human need for hydration. Every day people give their wealth and power over to others. When you pay $30 for a dress that in materials costs pennies, you trade your labor and efforts for something that marketing has convinced you is worth that by branding it. If your $1,000 dollar purse producer named Smoochi or Louis Mutton, made a great purse with materials that cost a few dollars of leather and zipper, then they could literally sell it for a few dollars, and more people would buy it because it would have the highest demand. But why don’t they? Because then the masses would all have it and the separation of perceived wealth would not exist. So they keep the price high and keep you wanting. It’s the same with cars, food, and what is called lifestyles.
So coming back to Armenia, I ask, “What is going on?” Well, it’s simple! The wealthy open supermarkets, which attract the populous like a moth to a flame, trying to be a have because, all of a sudden, they were told they were have-nots. The international media and local media create further want in the local population. All of a sudden, local tomatoes are not good enough and the dimly-lit grocery store at the bottom of the building starts looking ugly compared to the shiny markets seen on TV. They buy the cellophane wrapped tomato at a premium price and feel accomplished. Soon, the local storeowner realizes his customers are buying less, and eventually a law is created that puts street vendors completely out of business. Now, the supermarkets have less competition and the free market has gotten less free.
As the supermarkets increasingly sprout up, foreign banks further fuel the fire by lending money to oligarchs who turn around and happily spend it on their wants of luxurious lifestyles, creating further separation of the haves and have-nots. As small local markets disappear and the supermarkets multiply, the only competition left is between large chains. The prices increase dramatically ever since people decided that the tomatoes at the market were better, that a bottle of water was worth $1, and a Louis Mutton purse was worth $1000. Now since the supermarkets have taken over the neighborhood and the local groceries are closed, the population starts buying cars, which they need to lug the bulk food from the “NEW” discount supermarket located outside of the city.
A few years later, European clothes on thin, petite bodies are replaced by unhealthy Yerevantsis stuck in traffic listening to commercials on how to lose weight. Twenty years later, Trader Moe’s opens in Yerevan and sells them back the raspberry jam that they were tired of, for 300 times more then what it cost before.
All over the world, we are a generation that has been giving away our freedom through laziness, lack of education, and discipline to corporate power which has corrupted many governments worldwide. So I ask Armenians everywhere to start being conscious of their buying choices. It is not easy, due to the prevailing culture in most countries that we are located in, but it is possible. I ask you to think twice when you buy that bottle of water, that Panini, that Smoochi purse. Your sports car payment can buy a tractor for a village. Your Starbucks coffee can feed a family for a week and your new 82” TV is someone’s annual income. Start thinking about how much change your conscious spending can create in our homeland and the countries we are currently in.
This struggle is of one against the exploitation of all people worldwide. It is a struggle against a system that is corrupt and is failing; it is time for us to invest in creating a new system worldwide, while making sure that the failed system of “free markets” does not spread further in Armenia.
Montebello Scouts at Independence Day Celebration, 1949
In the 1940’s, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi army battled Russia for control of Eastern Europe in World War II. Consequently, tens of thousands of people who called these warn torn pieces of land home were reluctantly uprooted and shipped off to labor camps in Germany. Among the thousands of displaced persons, or DPs, were Armenians.
Albert Petrossian, one of the DPs who established Montebello’s Armenian Community, recalls life in these camps. “We lived in labor camps, maybe 800 Armenians in some, 400 people in others. It was a mixture of Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians.”
For the Armenians – along with the estimated 11 to 20 million displaced persons in Europe at the time – the future was uncertain. Many of them, like Petrossian, couldn’t return home because their home was constantly switching borders between the Nazis and the Soviets – life under either regime’s rule was far from enticing.
When the Americans liberated Germany in 1945, the Axis powers made available a large army barrack called Funker Kaseme Camp for the Armenians to live in. “It was beautiful, just beautiful,” explains Petrossian. “All the Armenians found out about this camp near Stuttgart and started flocking there. We eventually had over 2,000 Armenians.”
By 1946, the camp had well over 2,000 Armenians, and was known by many in the region as Little Armenia. Supported by the U.S. Army, the Armenians created a world that somehow seemed indifferent to the hardships and atrocities of war they had all born witness to. They wasted no time improvising the concept of home as the DP’s built a tight knit community from scratch.
“We had a school, church, theater, stores, restaurants, bakeries,” remembers Petrossian. “It was a very happy life for us, especially for the kids.”
Eventually, the DPs of Europe needed to be placed somewhere. Luckily for the Armenians at Stuttgart, General George Mardikian, an Armenian American in charge of the American food supply at the camps, personally saw to it that the Armenian DPs made it to United States.
Displaced again – but experienced in the art of survival. The DPs settled in the East Los Angeles city of Montebello ready to sew the roots of a prosperous and bustling Armenian American Community.
The Montebello Armenians fashioned their community much like the one at the camp, and paved the way for future Armenian communities in the Southern California Area.
The Holy Cross Church, Bagramian Hall, and Tumanjian Hall near the corner of Lincoln and Montebello Blvd were among the first staples of the Montebello Armenian community. The first Armenian school in Los Angeles, Armenian Mesrobian School, opened its doors in Montebello in 1965.
In 1968, the Montebello Armenian community also built the Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument. It is the first and only monument commemorating the memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide on public land in the world. “We wanted to keep our history, teach the history of Armenia, and keep everyone together.”
After much hard work the San Gabriel Valley ANCA recently succeeded in approving the installment of a massive freeway sign on Route 60 Freeway noting the “Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument” near Montebello. This will be the first time the word “Armenian Genocide” will permanently be inscribed on US soil.
With the ideals of community and cultural awareness embedded in the consciousness of many Montebello youth, the Vahan Cardashian-AYF chapter is building on the very foundations set almost 70 years ago- a foundation rooted in community, in our own “Little Armenia”. Ani Petrossian, a grandchild of Montebello DP’s describes the current state of the chapter and community as whole. “Our agoumps [Armenian Centers] have become nothing less than a second home and our members have become extended members of a larger family”.
A place where formalities are non-existent and friendships ever present; Montebello has become a perfect Saroyan cliché. Where members of a displaced community have planted roots for their own Armenia outside the motherland. The local AYF chapter holds cooking classes where mothers teach the younger generation of traditional favorites and the younger badanees hold dinners for families to come together, connect with friends, and make new ones.
Many of the AYF membership come from Displaced Families. Just like their parents and grandparents before them, they have continued to take responsible in the community and their Armenian identities. Nick Cabraloff states, “we feel like it is an obligation for us to take an active role in the community, in one that has done so much for us.”
From the United States to France, Syria to Lebanon, and any other country which boasts an Armenian Population; Dislocated Armenians, such as ones from the Montebello community have come together to prove that Armenia is not just a location on a map, but rather a state of mind.