All eyes on Armenia

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian , Friday 1 May 2015

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian describes the sorrow mixed with defiance and solidarity in Yerevan that characterised events marking the centennial of the Armenian Genocide

A man holds a sign that reads "Turkey is guilty" during a rally to commemorate the 100th anniversary of mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, in Buenos Aires (Photo: Reuters)

Friday, 24 April 2015. Finally, the centennial of a genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turks against Armenians in 1915.

Although mass killings and deportations started before that date, 24 April marks annually the day when some 250 Armenian intellectuals from the community in Constantinople were rounded up, arrested and killed on orders given by Ottoman Minister of Interior Talaat Pasha.

First observed in 1919, the date is considered the day on which the Armenian Genocide began. The day has since been commemorated annually by the Armenian Diaspora and has become a national holiday in Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

Yerevan city, the capital of Armenia, was fully packed and secured since 20 April this month. Not only Diaspora Armenians came to take part in the commemorations of the centennial and pay tribute to their ancestors.

Non-Armenians also came to share the Armenian people’s sorrow, either in official delegations or individually. Official delegations from 60 countries took part in the commemoration events that started with the Global Forum “Against the Crime of Genocide” on 22 and 23 April. The two-day forum brought together around 600 participants from over 50 countries.

President of the Republic Serj Sarkissian delivered the opening speech at the forum. In his remarks, President Sarkissian said he strongly believed that the views expressed at the forum would trigger a broad international reaction that in turn may prove invaluable in raising global awareness on this key issue.

“The agendas of international organisations, diplomatic efforts exerted by small and large states alike, and international media headlines have recently been addressing specifically one of the tremendous challenges humanity faces. I speak of the Middle East, modern civilisation’s cradle, where surging extremism and intolerance resulted in violence and, in some places, even genocidal acts against a number of minorities,” Sarkissian said.

President Sarkissian added that greater recognition of the 1915 tragedy would not only do justice to the Armenians but also prevent future crimes against humanity.

“One of the reasons for the recurrence of crimes against humanity and genocide has been the international community’s lack of consistency, unity and determination in recognising and condemning the committed genocides, and eliminating the genocidal environment and denialism.”

He continued: “Remembrance, meanwhile, is the best remedy for the descendants of those who perpetrated genocide to face their own history, and the best opportunity to restore justice. The crimes of genocide  Medz Yeghern, the Shoah, those committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere, shall be commemorated by both the successors of the victims and perpetrators. The path to reconciliation is not paved by denial, but rather by the consciousness of memory.”

Prominent experts in international law, renowned historians and genocide scholars, including William Schabas, Israel Charny, Ragip Zarakolu, Michael Bohlander, Donna-Lee Frieze, Donald Bloxham, Roger W Smith, Henry Theriault, Patrick Dumberry, Cengiz Aktar, Esther Mujawayo and Yair Auron took part in the forum.

The first session of the forum, under the chairmanship of human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson, focussed on the development of instruments of international law to prevent crimes against humanity and genocide.

The executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, Israel Charny, called for the establishment of an organisation of peoples that survived genocides, to be led by Armenia. “This organisation will become a powerful blow to the policy of genocide denial. Its main function should be prevention of genocides,” Charny said.

Speaking about the Armenian Genocide under the Ottoman Empire, Charny stressed that it actually began in 1895, when Sultan Abdul-Hamid issued an order for Muslims to start killing of Christian Armenians. He added: “This fact alone shows that Turkey’s counter-arguments are baseless.” Charney said that calls for jihad against Armenians are actually the same calls made by the Islamic State group today.

The second session focussed on responsibility issues and consequences, including reparations, restoration of rights and guarantees, along with positive experiences in providing redress and unsolved grievances from crimes unaddressed.

The second day of the forum meetings focussed on “Parliaments Against Genocide”, with representatives of parliamentary delegations giving speeches.

Kalusd Sahagian, president of the National Assembly of Armenia, opened the session. Sahagian called on world parliaments to be a platform where politicians, elected by citizens, could speak freely and sincerely, regardless of their nationality and country.

Sahagian thanked not only those countries whose participation denoted recognition and condemnation of the Armenian Genocide, and who have adopted laws criminalising denial of genocide, but also called on all parliaments to fight practically against the phenomenon of genocide and its denial. “This is the demand of time, all human values, and morality, which hung in the air for at least 100 years,” Sahagian added.

One of the most powerful speeches was that of Baroness Caroline Cox, a member of the British House of Lords. Cox expressed her happiness at being at the forum. “I wouldn’t like to be elsewhere,” she said.

“You are a phoenix, but unfortunately Azerbaijan continues to threat and to kill. I’m sure that Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) and Kosovo have a justifiable claim for being independent. I express my support to the people of Artsakh,” referring to the Karabakh conflict. According to Cox, Azerbaijan’s attempt to eliminate the Armenians from their historic land, Artsakh, was genocide, too. “I am honoured to be with you, to be in Artsakh. I feel proud to have had the opportunity to see the rebirth of Artsakh. Today, Artsakh has the right to demand recognition as Kosovo,” Cox said, whose statement greeted with applause at the forum.

Cox showed appreciation, meanwhile, for Turkish speakers at the forum. “Several years ago I was in Turkey. There are activists there who want the Armenian Genocide to be recognised. Those Turks who were able to support the Armenian nation should also be honoured.

It is known that genocide denial encourages the repetition of such crimes in the future. When ordering the killing of women and children, Adolf Hitler said: ‘Who remembers the Armenian Genocide today?’ But we remember, and will remember the Armenian Genocide. As parliamentarians we have an obligation to fight against it. God bless you,” Cox concluded.

At the conclusion of the Global Forum, Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian gave a closing speech in which he recalled with gratitude the important documents adopted in the course of the last month alone: the Resolution on the Prevention of Genocide adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, the European Parliament resolution, the statement of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the statements of Pope Francis.

“These important steps give confidence that in the 21st century humanity will establish a more unified position and will eventually be able to develop effective mechanisms of prevention of genocides, based on the belief that the recognition and condemnation of past genocides, and the exclusion of denial, are among the guarantees for the harmonious progress of the world civilisation,” Nalbandian said.

“We can already affirm that during the discussions of the Yerevan Global Forum, fresh ideas and constructive proposals have been made, summarised in the Draft Declaration of the Global Forum. I believe that it would be accepted as a guide for the implementation of the truly global mission facing us, for the sake of unified determination in preventing the crime of genocide,” Nalbandian concluded.

As part of the Global Forum, a photo exhibition titled “Genocide” was organised that displayed works of eight best photographers of the world pertaining to genocides as well as to violence which caused different conflicts and human tragedies. Also organised was an exhibition of books by the National Library of Armenia titled “The Armenian Genocide in Literature”. The library presented more than 900 books translated into 23 languages representing 37 countries.

A canonisation service took place at the main cathedral in Etchmiadzin, after the forum came to an end. The Armenian Church conferred sainthood on the 1.5 million martyrs of the Armenian Genocide. The ceremony, which took place at an open-air altar, is believed to be the biggest canonisation service in history.

“During the dire years of the genocide of the Armenians, millions of our people were uprooted and massacred in a premeditated manner, passed through fire and sword, tasting the bitter fruits of torture and sorrow,” Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II said at the ceremony. “The canonisation of the martyrs of the genocide brings life-giving new breath, grace and blessing to our national and ecclesiastical life,” he added.

By pontifical order of His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, 14 Holy relics, out of the numerous Holy relics of the Armenian Church, were used during the service of canonisation of the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.

Among them was the Right Hand of St Gregory the Illuminator, made in 1657, which is the symbol of the highest spiritual authority of the Armenian Church. The 12 sufferings of the Illuminator are depicted on it. The Right Hand is also used to bless and consecrate the Holy Chrism (Muron) of the Armenian Church.

At the end of the ceremony, and at a symbolic hour of 19:15pm Yerevan local time, 100 bells rang out across Armenia’s churches, symbolising the year when massacres started and the centennial of the genocide. A minute of silence was observed. Church bells around the world, too, rang 100 times at the same moment as they were ringing in Armenia.

On Friday, 24 April, early morning, world leaders gathered at the Dzidzernagapert Genocide Memorial Complex to pay tribute to the victims. Each leader walked alongside the memorial with a yellow rose and put it into the centre of a wreath resembling the “forget-me-not” flower that was made the symbol of the centennial commemorations.

Among country leaders who came to pay their respects were Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.

“We will never forget the tragedy that your people went through,” Hollande said. Putin stated that, “There cannot be any justification for mass murder of people. Today we mourn together with the Armenian people.” The 91-year-old French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, also paid tribute to his ancestors and laid flowers at the complex’s eternal flame, together with his son.

Meanwhile, Turkey has insisted for 100 years that those killed — mostly Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Turks — were victims of civil war and unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I. Turkey’s president reasserted that.

“The Armenian claims on the 1915 events, and especially the numbers put forward, are all baseless and groundless,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “Our ancestors did not persecute.”

In a statement issued the same day, US President Barack Obama called the killings “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century”. Obama drew criticism, however, for breaking a promise he made on the 2008 presidential campaign trail to use the word “genocide” to describe the events. “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” Obama said.

Obama said the statement’s wording did not reflect his personal beliefs.

Seven-year-old Tatul amazed guests at the memorial complex with his talent in playing the ancient Armenian instrument the duduk, a double-reed woodwind flute made of apricot wood, characterised by a warm, soft and nasal timbre. The sound of the duduk has a deep effect on Armenians, evoking both sadness and belonging amid the memory of hardship.

The Dzidzernagapert Complex was built in 1967 on one of three hills along Hraztan River, in response to the 1965 Yerevan demonstrations during which 100,000 Soviet Armenians demonstrated for 24 hours to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

“Dzidzernagapert” literally means swallow’s fortress. Twelve pylons are positioned in a circular shape representing the 12 provinces that were subject to deportation during the 1915 massacres, and that are in present Turkey today.

At the centre of the 12 pylons, at a depth of 1.5 metres, there is an eternal flame symbolising the Armenian spirit that can never be extinguished. A unique portion of the monument is the 44-metre needle-shaped column that symbolises survival and the rebirth of the Armenian nation.

A non-official Egyptian delegation of 52 media representatives invited by the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate in Cairo, and 65 Egyptian Armenians took part in the commemorations of the centennial.

Egypt’s Coptic Pope Tawadros II and a group of clergymen were among the delegates who took part in the canonisation service of the martyrs at Etchmiadzin Cathedral. The government of Egypt did not take part in the commemoration events although President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was invited by the Armenian President Sarkissian to take part, for which Egypt was criticised.

Egypt’s Ambassador to Armenia Alaa Leithy Nassef was also absent from the events. In reaction, the Egyptian media delegation refused a dinner invitation sent by Ambassador Nassef.

In the past 20 years, Armenia and Egypt have succeeded in establishing excellent political, economic, cultural, educational and scientific ties. Egypt was one of the first countries in the Arab world that recognised the independence of Armenia in 1991.

Armenia and Egypt have signed more than 40 bilateral agreements. Dozens of high-level official delegations have paid mutual visits. Many significant cultural and public events have been staged.

Following the 30 June protests that ousted former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who was strongly backed by Turkey, tensions rose between the new government of Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan when Turkey accused Egypt of massacring Muslim Brotherhood supporters at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square sit-in.

In response, Interim President Adly Mansour announced that Egypt had decided to officially recognise the Armenian Genocide. Meanwhile, coverage in the Egyptian media of the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide has been wide and extensive for more than one year.

In his Tuesday column in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, novelist, playwright and political commentator Mohamed Salmawy writes: “Egypt’s mysterious and unexplained situation regarding the issue of the Armenian Genocide raises a lot of questions about the motives of Egypt that may please Arab countries at the expense of the national interest, something that may be considered as great negligence which is not permissible on the political level.”

Salmawy asked how Egypt could ignore the significance of the Armenian issue in the context of its diplomatic war against Turkey, which is supporting terrorism against the Egyptian people.

On that rainy Friday morning, and after the official ceremony led by President Sarkissian was over, the non-official Egyptian delegation marched to the Genocide Memorial Complex holding both Armenian and Egyptian flags, showing solidarity with a nation that was slaughtered one hundred years ago. Everyone taking part in the march wore t-shirts designed especially for the occasion, with the maps of Egypt and Armenia connected.

A torchlight procession followed in the evening in Yerevan. In this mass march more than 100,000 people walked around 10 kilometres from Republic Square to the Dzidzernagapert Complex. The march started at 10:30pm and ended at 1:30am. The participants honoured the victims of the Armenian Genocide with a minute of silence and burned the Turkish flag in protest, expressing anger against Ankara’s policy of denial.

Member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Party and director of the Armenian Cause and Political Affairs Office, Giro Manoyan, urged the youth not to stop the fight. “We don’t consider anyone our enemy, but we will not allow any state to violate our rights for their benefit. We will just keep fighting for a better Armenia,” he said in his speech, lighting the first torch and passing it on to the youth.

A large truck with speakers accompanied the procession. National and revolutionary songs were played, urging people to sing, remember and demand. The songs, written long time ago, evoked the strength and hope of Armenians around the world, despite their suffering.

Heard were songs Armenian soldiers used to sing  and sometimes dance to before going to battle to defend their motherland, Armenia. They believed, with some wisdom, that not only heavy weapons are tools in the fight against an enemy, but also song, dance and the writer’s pen, aimed towards victory.

By the time the procession ended at the complex's eternal flame, the overwhelming smell of the pile of flowers had filled our souls with hope.

*This article was first published in Ahram Weekly

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