The Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia
Roughly 3,000 miles away, nestled between the Sierra Madres and some of the most fertile agricultural land in all of the world, is the city of Fresno, California, which, with over half a million people and a variety of ethnic groups, is one of America’s great agricultural metropolises. Growing up in Tulare County, roughly 40 minutes south of Fresno, I was always conscious of the Armenian-American community. With roughly 40,000 members, the community has one of the highest concentrations of ethnic Armenians outside of Armenia and is a center of linguistic, religious, and cultural revitalization.
My best friend in high school was Armenian, and for the longest time I was painfully aware that I didn’t completely understand the magnitude of what the third week of April meant to her and many others. As the weekend would near she would become quieter, more reflective, and more removed and on Friday would make a short pilgrimage down Highway 99, like many Armenians in our area, and crowd into Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. Candlelight, religious chants, and words of caution and remembrance fill the halls of the oldest Armenian Church in the western United States, built in 1913. The older members of the community recount the stories passed down to them by their parents and together remember the trials and horrors of their shared past. As black-and-white photographs are passed among the communities members, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that this is ground zero. It is here that the community seeks to mobilize and where efforts to preserve the history of the genocide are most fervent.
For roughly two years, Fresno and the Armenian community has worked tirelessly to make the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide as important as possible. Streets along former Armenian neighborhoods have been changed, the City has codified Armenian Remembrance Day through City Ordinances, services will be held at Ararat Cemetery, a remembrance garden will be planted, and the city will inaugurate a monument at the local state university that is a partial replica of the genocide memorial in Yerevan. For many, this event will be the only major opportunity to learn about the genocide, to meet members of the community, and to remember a moment in history covered only by a single paragraph in Californian textbooks. Thousands will attempt to remember the 1.5 million Armenians that died from 1515 to 1523 at the hands of Ottoman Turks and all efforts will be made to ensure that their stories are never forgotten.
Yet beyond the Central San Joaquin Valley and Glendale, California (home to the highest concentration of Armenians outside of Armenia), few will hear of the events occurring throughout the country and fewer will know that the Armenian Genocide occurred in the first place. In the United States, only 43 states even acknowledge that the genocide occurred. Of those, only California has a statewide day of remembrance, which unfortunately amounts to little more than barely noticeable print on state calendars. Even Barack Obama, who campaigned in 2007 on the premise that if elected President he would “recognize the Armenian Genocide,” has refused to use the term because complex geopolitical relationships and uncertainty in the Middle East mean that a strong relationship with Turkey, NATO’s most powerful Southern European ally, trumps all. As the Armenian-American lobby recoils in anger, the Turkish Embassy and the Turkish-American lobby ignore all requests to publicly assert a position on the issue. Only 21 countries worldwide acknowledge that the genocide occurred, and few of them call upon Turkey to accept what the Ottoman Empire did nearly a century ago. Not only does Turkey refuse to accept it, but there is absolutely no mention in Turkish textbooks that the event even occurred. At Yale, a place that is presented as among the most progressive intellectually in the world, some students don’t know that the event occurred, and only some international Turkish students acknowledge that it occurred. My roommate told me that he only knew about the genocide because a progressive professor had decided to teach it at his private high school, which resulted in major resistance from students and administrators alike.
Two years ago, I had the incredible privilege of going to Armenia to study regional conflicts in the Caucasus. Anyone remotely familiar with this formerly Soviet-occupied region knows that religious and ethnic conflicts are as ingrained in daily life today as they were in the Balkans a few decades ago. Even now, Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a constant state of war, with the region of Nagorno-Karabakh (a contested exclave of Azerbaijan) occupied by Armenia for over two decades. Led by two other Yale students, our group boarded a run-down Soviet Era van and traveled from T’bilisi, Georgia, to Yerevan, the Armenian capital.
During the roughly five-hour drive, the newly paved Georgian highway came to an abrupt end at one of the few border crossings between the two countries. A modern border facility on the Georgian side of the border gives way to a run-down office on the Armenian one, and the road quickly becomes nothing more than a poorly paved two-lane highway. As we begin our ascent into the Armenian mountains, winding ravines, abandoned factories, and now-defunct churches dot the countryside — all remnants of the county’s former status as one of the most important Soviet Republics. I found Armenia in a state similar to that of Cuba, thirty years in the past and caught in the shadow of its own history. I could feel that the place carried an intangible burden. Perhaps it was the season, or perhaps it was the fact that the March had been bitter and the land was as gray as the cloudy sky.
At the same time, Armenians are some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet. Open to negotiating prices, laughing, and opening up their homes, my first experience with the Armenians involved delicious roadside kebabs, a pack of dogs, a beer, and a heated game of backgammon. The Armenians were amused both by the ragtag state of our American group and of the outrageous linguistic barrier that we encountered, noting that a few of us had to resort to Russian (Armenia’s second most common language) to communicate. I remember stepping back and talking to an older woman in her late 40s about what there was to see in Yerevan and what she recommended we do first. She looked at me and in a rough English accent said, “Go to Tsitsernakaberd.” I didn’t know then that this was the Armenian Genocide memorial complex, but I recognized the name as important, so with a quiet Շնորհակալություն (thank you) we went off on our way. Much like Fresno, Yerevan also finds itself nestled among mountains and rolling fields; the city of roughly 1 million inhabitants has a third of the nation’s population and is by far the largest city in the country. As we drive into the valley below, Mount Ararat, a nearly 17,000 foot mountain and the holiest site for all Armenians, looms over the city like a stone guardian. The unbelievable contrast between the city and mountain is what makes the city have an intangible sense of power and majesty.
Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide memorial complex, sits atop a hill overlooking Yerevan, making it visible on clear days from many parts of the city. Made up of a 145-foot-tall spire that juts into the sky as a symbol of national rebirth, 12 angled slabs sit at the base, facing inwards and creating a semi-enclosed circle the center of which is made up of a large eternal flame. Carved into the side of the hill is also the museum, a modern building, which holds one of the largest collections of ethnographic and historical material. The site is well kept and boasts dozens of trees and gardens planted by foreign dignitaries and gifts from Armenian-immigrant communities from across the world. The memorial is the primary, most public source of remembrance. Here thousands of Armenians gather on April 24th to mourn loved ones, pray, walk through the museum and actively open the wounds of the past. Dressed in their finest clothes, thousands of flowers are brought to the eternal flame and wreaths dot the 328-foot-long memorial with the names of towns and villages where the genocide took place.
The museum itself is organized in a large circle. A large tomb with an Armenian cross guards the entrance, and as you move your way down the hall, elevated tombs each representing 10,000 victims glow in a faint blue light. Following a chronological history of the event, from the role of Armenians in Ottoman society, the early decrees, and then their forced marches into deserts, over cliffs, and through other life-threatening conditions. Letters, photographs, and stories are scattered through the building, and objects forcibly taken from the victims are put on display. Shoes, lockets, and other objects can be found in glass cases and the story of Armenia’s quest to make the genocide known worldwide can be found at the very end. As tears filled my eyes and my heart ached in pain, I signed the last name of my best friend’s family into the book and left to continue reflecting on what I had seen.
The politics of remembrance both in Armenia and across the world has made preserving the memory of the Armenian genocide imperative to the very survival of the nation’s heritage while also fostering a nearly unbearable political and economic climate. Armenia has maintained a permanently closed border with Turkey, and when I was in the country, the Armenian government acknowledged that little was going to change by the time of the centennial. Indeed, little has. To the south is Iran, a political force to be reckoned with and a dangerous political and economic ally that Armenia is forced to flirt with. At the same time, Armenia risks losing its foreign donations, primarily from the United States, which provides roughly $235.65 million — 3% of the nation’s economy — in foreign aid. Caught in a constant state of conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia’s only fully-functional open borders are through Georgia, where poor land infrastructure fails to make the northern route as economically profitable as it could be. In addition, Georgia’s conflict with Russia, which resulted in a 2008 invasion, has ensured that Georgian aerospace is closed off to any Russian carriers, even though Russia is Armenia’s main export partner, taking in roughly 20% of all exports. As a result of this situation, Armenia is constantly strapped for cash, faces 17% unemployment, has more than 30% of the population living under the poverty line, and in turn has to negotiate its policy with respect to preserving the history of the Armenian genocide.
Looking forward, Armenia is caught between a rock and a hard place: it can choose to preserve the most important event in its history or it can allow the genocide to drift out of the national conversation in order to move forward. Faced with this dilemma, it is Armenian immigrants living in relatively stable conditions around the world who become Armenia’s messengers for remembrance. Liberated from any political or economic baggage, Armenian immigrants are as much a source of economic life through the millions in money orders and donations they send home as they are informal diplomats of the Armenian Genocide. Armenian immigrants change communities, build churches, teach their language, and use their influence to build monuments, transform dialogues, and pressure governments across the world to remark this harrowing event. Ironically, it is those furthest from Armenia that are tasked with protecting it and upon which this great burden is placed. It is then up to them, the so-called 1%, to teach the rest of us and to share their stories. Ultimately we too carry a burden, to remember the Armenian Genocide and uphold human dignity by actively confronting past and present violations of it. While to some of you it may be a name you’ve never heard or one could you never place on the map, to some, Armenia is home. And to millions of others, it is living proof that nations can survive unspeakable horrors and that above all, we are tasked with ensuring that history does not repeat itself. We must vow that the memories of those that have come before us will be preserved for generations to come.