Some call it the Armenian Genocide, others the Great Catastrophe. Some even deny it ever took place. One hundred years later, there are signs that the truth will finally be recognized.
In 1915 atrocities were committed against Armenians because of their race and their Christian religion, beginning with the rounding up of several hundred dissident intellectuals in Constantinople on 24 April. In later years, the “Young Turk” government was accused of being responsible for what three governments formally declared a “crime against humanity”.
The genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacres and subjecting army conscripts to forced labour. This was followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches into the Syrian desert. Driven on by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre.
The destruction of a substantial part of the Armenians in Turkey became, in the years before the Shoah, an example of what was later recognized as the crime of genocide. Unfortunately, it was also subjected to a process of state-sanctioned forgetting: when not only crimes committed in the late Ottoman period against Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks – but also the suffering of the Turkish Muslim population in a string of wars – were systematically obscured in the creation of a new Turkish state.
The first commemoration of the Armenian genocide, organized by a group of survivors, was held in Istanbul in 1919 at the St. Trinity Armenian church. That date has since become an annual day of remembrance. Until recently, governments have been weighing up every strategic political and economic advantage or disadvantage before recognizing or denying the genocide. Now, slowly but surely, political and public opinion is changing and 2015 may be the turning point, when justice will be seen to be done.
But, as Meline Toumani perceptively noted in “We Armenians Shouldn’t Let Genocide Define Us” (The New York Times, Sunday Review, 17 April 2015), “The next century ought to be one of harder, riskier questions — not about whether the events of 1915 fit the legal and political definition of genocide, for that question has been answered many times over. But the question of what healing looks like beyond the use of a single word; of how children can be taught about their histories in a way that does not leave them hating the descendants of their ancestors’ killers.”
Gurgen Mahari (1903-69) was born in the city of Van, Armenia, but escaped to Russia during the 1915 massacres. He spent his late childhood in orphanages, but later attended Yerevan State University. His lyrical poetry began appearing in 1917. During one of Stalin’s 1936 purges he was jailed for displaying nationalistic tendencies and exiled to Siberia and only in 1954 was he allowed to return to Armenia. His suffering in the gulags is described with dark humour in the novel Blossoming Barbed Wire (1983).
The following poem “Night” by Mahari celebrates the land of Armenia and a people who claim descent from the great-great-grandson of Noah.
The whole night through the poplars
Rustled near the fence,
The whole night through my heart
Listened to the sound,
Nightlong there brushed softly past my ear
An old longing of long ago,
It trilled a name
Far and away across the fields.
Cymbals were set tinkling
And silver-sounding bandoras,
Ah, lightly, ever so lightly
The winds danced the whole night through;
The whole night through I held my way
Along a timeworn lane of long ago,
And dead days all around me
And the petals of dead flowers.
Your songs are mine once again
And now, when the nighttide is upon me,
My tumble of desires rushes again
Like the rising springtime streams,
And so it is my autumn days
Seem to me still remote,
And my days appear to me
Carefree still and brightly aflame.
I grow again with you,
O poplars, my white brides,
My dream’s golden fabric,
Heaven’s priceless charm-
My fruits have ripened beneath you,
From you my crops have come,
In the burning sun of my native land,
O golden Nairean lyre.