A genocide century: Armenia's light, Turkey's denial

A hundred years after the Ottoman genocide, Armenia is turning the page on a dark century and looking outwards. When will Turkey?

Vicken Cheterian
25 April 2016

Yerevan is consumed by passionate commemoration of the end of the centennial of the Armenian genocide. What is striking is the new, humanist message.

When the commemorations started on 24 April 2015, the slogan was “I remember and I demand”: a political message in the tradition of the century-long Armenian struggle, demanding recognition that the mass slaughter that took place during the first world war constitutes a genocide – which remains to be addressed.

This year, the message emanating from Armenia has a significantly different tone. It is no longer angry, but serene; it is no longer about Armenians, but about humanity still struggling to cope with its own self-destruction.

Among the many events taking place in Armenia's capital, the most important is the first “Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity”. This celebrates contemporary heroes who, by taking high personal risks, save lives in conditions of war and massacre. The prize, with a value of $1 million, was awarded to Marguerite Barankitse, a courageous and energetic woman who has struggled for years and saved the lives of thousands of child victims of Burundi's civil war.

The other three finalists for the prize were equally impressive personalities: Syeda Ghulam Fatima, a Pakistani activists from Lahore fighting slave labour in the brickmaking industry; Tom Catena, a surgeon living and working in South Sudan's conflict-zone, the only surgeon among a population of 500,000; and Fr Bernard Kinvi, a priest from Togo, who provides shelter to victims of sectarian war in central Africa. By choosing to give the prize to Barankitse, the committee wanted to attract global attention to the deteriorating situation in Burundi, which risks becoming yet another genocide in the heart of Africa.

Ruben Vardanyan, a Moscow-based visionary and businessman, and one of the initiators of the Aurora Prize, explained the intention behind the initiative. “As a people that survived genocide, it is important not only to remember the past and demand justice, but also to help those who are threatened from similar genocides today.” The idea of the prize began in a collection of life-stories of survivors of the 1915 deportations, after which it became evident that a large number of orphans survived the ordeal thanks to the actions of a few courageous individuals.

The Aurora Prize is thus a way to say “thank you” and to pass on the favour to a new generation of life-savers amid extreme difficulties, whether in Africa, the Middle East, or south Asia. In 1915 a handful of philanthropists saved the lives of thousands of orphans, and thus restored to a nation on the verge of destruction. “We have given one hundred scholarships to Syrian children to come and study in Armenia”, Vardanyan said, as a symbolic way to thank the Syrian people who had given refuge to the deported Armenians 100 years ago.

Several other initiatives place Armenia on the map of the global humanitarian industry. The Humanitarian Index, which studies the gap between the numbers of refugees and displaced caused by wars, and public perceptions, is one. The Aurora Dialogue, and the Global Forum Against the Crime of Genocide, discuss urgent humanitarian issues. 

The war in Syria and the humanitarian disaster it created was present in most debates. Shirin Ebadi, Iranian lawyer and Noble peace-price laureate, reminded the audience that the humanitarian crisis is the result of a deeper political malfunctioning: why, she asked, are there so many life-presidents and autocratic regimes in our region? She criticised the way Middle Eastern states have behaved towards the Syrian humanitarian crisis: “Why aren’t Muslim states helping the refugees? Why aren’t Qatar or the Emirates taking in Syrian displaced people? They need a workforce, but still they don’t take in refugees, and want Europe to solve this problem.” 

Listening to the young Nadia Murad was another deep experience. She talked about Daesh's kidnapping and enslaving 6,000 Yezidi women and girls in Iraq, of which 3,500 still remain in captivity. “I was one of them”, she said, sending shivers down my spine. And then, she looked at the audience, recalled the Armenian genocide of the past, and the ongoing atrocities of today, and said: “The threat is still there. But we even fail to tell the truth, but I decided to be the voice of that truth.”

Beyond the past

The world's political class has failed again on the day of 24 April. The United States president, Barack Obama, despite his electoral promises, in his message addressed to the Armenian people failed to call the 1915 annihilation by its true name, “genocide”. European leaders, including Angela Merkel, were on the same day visiting Turkey to see how to return Syrian refugees to the country to their potential huge risk.

Many people in Armenia question the wisdom of giving monetary prizes to others, while the country itself is in dire need of humanitarian assistance. There are many unemployed here, and up to a third of the population lives below the poverty line. The four-day war launched by Azerbaijan in early April 2016 inflicted hundreds of dead and wounded, and left hundreds of others homeless. “Charity begins at home,” says the proverb. Yet the very need at home makes a prize given to heroes saving lives in extreme conditions all the more powerful.

The new discourse emerging in Yerevan can best be appreciated by contrasting it to the message coming from Turkey. As I argued in my latest book Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide, the annihilation of the Ottoman Armenians is a history not just of the Armenian people, but also of Turks, Kurds and Arabs, which were all members of the same Ottoman Empire at the time. The denial of the genocide shaped both the lives of the surviving Armenians and the political culture of modern Turkey.

A century later, the message coming form Ankara is poor and backward-looking. On 24 April, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sent a message to Armenian church leaders saying that he “commemorates the Ottoman Armenians who passed away and extend my condolences”, but warned that “we will never give up working for amity and peace against those who try to politicise history”. This message of peace is contradicted by his acts: only three weeks earlier President Erdogan had expressed his support for Azerbaijan in attacking Armenians in Karabakh, saying Ankara supported Baku “until the end”.

Moreover, Turkish authorities recently confiscated land in the historic part of Diyarbakir, including the recently renovated Armenian Surp Giragos church, one of only six Armenian churches still surviving in Turkish Anatolia. Turkey could be a power for peace in the Caucasus, but instead Ankara has chosen to support one side of the conflict against the other. A century after the genocide, and for twenty-five years since modern Armenia’s independence, Turkey imposes a suffocating blockade on Armenia that bleeds its economy and threatens its security. This state of denial has poisoned Turkish culture for a century. The decades-long conflict with the Kurds is only one of its most violent expressions: to deny the political agency of others, and to attempt to destroy them by force.

Armenia, despite its open wounds and existential difficulties, is turning its back on the criminal and dark age that was the 20th century. By expressing solidarity with other victims, Armenia is able to transcend its own suffering and victimisation, and transform its painful experience into a universal message. In contrast Turkey looks increasingly left behind, still struggling with its own legacy, unable to free itself from its past, from its own heart of darkness.

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