Siranous was 8 years old when her throat was slit by her own countrymen. The Turkish assailants left her for dead alongside the rest of her family, who perished that day.
But the child was still breathing when a Turkish friend found her, wrapped her in a sheet and delivered her to her older sister, age 12, who was already married living in another village.
As far as anyone can tell, Siranous’ crime was her ethnicity – she had committed the offense of being Armenian in Ottoman Turkey.
This was the story told to Siranous’ grandson decades later.
Hayk, a Turkish Armenian, was a teenager and had already moved to Belgium with his family when he noticed the scar on his grandmother’s neck. His parents probably kept the scar, and its story, a secret because when they were living in Turkey, their Armenian heritage had to be hidden.
Although they didn’t speak directly about Siranous’ ordeal, Hayk’s parents quietly told tales of murders, death marches and persecutions of Armenians. Those were the tails Hayk learned as a young Armenian.
“But there is a difference between hearing about genocide and realizing,” said Hayk, now 37.
The weight of the atrocities hit him in Brussels after his family had moved there from Istanbul in 1979. His older brother, together with other Armenian friends, established the Armenian Youth Association. The group came together for sports and socializing as well as organizing political activism.
It was through this group that Hayk, 37, came to a life of activism. And through the activism he came to believe that the attempt on his grandmother’s life was no random act of civil war, but was instead initiated by a powerful government for no other reason than to eliminate a people.
“The first time you are in front of the Turkish embassy you realize,” Hayk said. “Most of us were hiding our faces to avoid our pictures being taken as we had family in Turkey that might suffer from our activism. We couldn’t express ourselves freely even in a free country. We still were afraid of this government we escaped from, even thousands of miles away from there. That’s when you realize you have to hide who you are because some people frightened you and tried to delete your identity… and it follows you where ever you go.”
The State of Armenia
An ancient civilization, Armenia was established around 800 B.C. It was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301.
But Armenian borders have been pulled and pushed for thousands of years. The country has been invaded by Persians, Mongols, Byzantines and Turks. It fell under Russian rule in the 1920s and became an independent state in 1991.
Armenia now covers about 11,500 square miles (29.8 thousand square km) in southwestern Asia, excluding the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, it is bordered by Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Today there are between 6 and 8 million Armenians in the world. One estimate puts the current population of Armenia as less than 3 million. More than 3 million live in about 60 other countries.
The events that spawned this prolific Diaspora began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Violence against the Armenian minority in Turkey, beginning in the 1890s, escalated in 1915. It is estimated that between 1915 and 1917 an estimated 1 million Armenians were killed.
Some nations, including Turkey, deny these deaths were a result of genocide. Turkey calls them a result of civil war. But many governments, historians and scholars agree that this was indeed genocide, a state-ordered assault on an ethnic or religious group.
The Genocide Aftermath and Today’s Armenians
Genocide survivors fled to Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, eventually establishing communities in such places as Canada, the United States (large Armenian communities can still be found in California and Michigan) and France. Families often migrated two or three times as geopolitical pressures changed. Recently, Iranian Armenians fled the Islamic revolution and Armenians in Iraq fled the violence of the Gulf wars.
Despite, or perhaps because of, these fluid borders, Diaspora Armenians cherish their culture above most other traits. Keeping tradition is a means to maintain identity when so much has threatened it. They have been successful in organizing social groups and lobby organizations to promote the language, art, music and religion. Armenians have even taken advantage of 21st century technology, connecting globally via their own Web sites and Internet communities.
One pillar supporting this cultural edification is the history of genocide. Stories are passed down, keeping in the forefront of minds events nearly a century old.
“Diaspora is formed as a result of genocide,” said Hakob Simonyan, director of the Armenian Center of Cultural-Historical Heritage in Yerevan, Armenia. “It mostly consists of people who lost many relatives. Stories are told from generation to generation, and this intensity to remember the genocide does not go down.”
Remembrance reaches a pinnacle every year on April 24. On this day in 1915 the Young Turks, a nationalist party known as the Committee of Union and Progress that ruled Turkey from 1908 through 1918, effectively eliminated the Armenian leadership by arresting hundreds of intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, then the Ottoman capital. Most were eventually executed.
Armenians often refer to this day as the darkest in their history, a day to reflect on their national loss, and a day to remind the world that they haven’t forgotten.
Each year, on April 24, an estimated 1 million people trek to the top to Tsitsernakaberd Park in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, to lay flowers at the eternal flame of the genocide memorial.
Young Armenian Activists
From an early age, children march with parents to memorials and monuments around the world or demonstrate in front of Turkish official offices.
“[Since] I was young, every year on 24 April, we go on strike,” said Vartenie Echo, a French Armenian now living in Brussels. “I’m 25, and this year – again, I strike.”
Echo learned about genocide from family and Armenian school in France. But in 1991, the significance hit home.
“I understood when I saw a film of genocide,” Echo added. “I was 11 years old. With pictures, it’s easier to understand outrageous acts.” Photographs of gruesome tortures and mangled bodies have been compiled as evidence, shown in films. Some are on display in the genocide museum in Yerevan.
Echo, who has never been to Armenia, works at the European Armenian Federation, a lobby organization in Brussels, Belgium. Her family escaped the genocide to Syria and France.
Raising Armenian Children Outside Armenia
Armenian parents want their children to see genocide as a fundamental component of their national identity.
But when they raise a family in another country, “keeping the Armenian spirit is quite hard work,” said Marina Stepanian, an Azeri Armenian living in Auckland, New Zealand. She is the mother of two daughters, now grown.
In a western society like New Zealand outside influences compete for attention of young Armenians.
“We are using the language at home, bringing music CD’s from Armenia… keeping up traditions, especially for the day of genocide,” she added. “It brings up painful memories, but everything comes to stories about genocide.”
As young minds absorb the violent tales, parents are faced with another challenge; perpetuating hatred of the Turkish people. They try to distinguish the politics from the people.
“Kids hear this conversation all the time, so there is some antagonism,” Stepanian said.
A group of Armenian youths agreed that when they were younger, they saw the Turks as “bad people,” they told a reporter who met with them in New Zealand. But now “we can’t hold anything against them,” said Rafi Yeldizian, 18. “It’s not the Turkish people, it’s the Turkish government.”
Beyond Culture, Why Remember
Beyond cultural preservation, Armenians tell the story of genocide in hopes that one day Turkey, and the rest of the world, will legally recognize the acts of 1915 as genocide.
Nearly a century later, however, most Armenians do not believe Turkey will acknowledge the Armenian genocide, at least not in their lifetime.
The last governmental contact between Turkey and Armenia was more than one year ago. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan requested a joint commission be organised for a historical review of the events of 1915. Armenian President Robert Kocharyan responded with his own suggestions for political dialogue. Both refused each others’ requests and the contact ended in stalemate.
Yet groups like the European Armenian Federation in Brussels persist. Parents continue to instill in their children the stories of their ancestors.
There are several reasons for this. Brutality is the first, said Simonyan.
“Turks collected men of the family and raped women before their men,” he said. “Each day millions die in the world, but brutality itself is something remembered. It cannot be forgotten five or 100 years later.”
Another is violence against Armenians in recent history that perpetuates the memory of the genocide.
“Over the decades, history was not very quiet for Armenians,” Simonyan said. “There have been very brutal actions. In Baku, Azeri-Armenians were killed in streets and homes. So this made genocide fresh in their minds.”
Artur, who wished to keep his last name out of print, remembered the first of three attempts on his life while living in Baku, Azerbaijan.
It was the fall of 1988. Artur was on a bus leaving his university when demonstrators carrying signs saying ‘Kill the barbarians’ approached the bus.
As the driver opened the doors, three men boarded through the front door and two more through the side door.
“They screamed, ‘Where are the Armenians?'” Artur recalled, cautiously scanning the dining room where he sat with a reporter to ensure his children could not hear.
“Standing close to the front door with my folder under my arm I was already talking to God. I said ‘excuse me’ in Azerbaijani. He said, ‘OK, my brother.’ I remember that smile. It comes to my memory. From the bus station to my house is 15 kilometers, but I don’t know how I got home.”
Artur and his wife Inna now live in Dearborn, Michigan, with their three children, all of whom were born in the United States.
There are as many stories as there are Armenians in the Diaspora and all have variations on the theme of migration. But one note that carries throughout that theme is genocide.
Whether it is demonstrating for recognition of the genocide in Brussels or storytelling in New Zealand, Armenians around the world have a deep-seeded sense of responsibility to ensure their culture’s survival.
Hayk likes to say, “When you know where you are, you know where you are going. If I get lost, I always know where I am coming from so I can go anywhere.”