On April 24, 2015 Armenians worldwide commemorated the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. In 1915, Ottoman authorities arrested approximately 250 prominent Armenian community figures and intellectuals in Constantinople, the majority of whom were executed. The great poet Daniel Varoujan was disemboweled before his eyes were gouged out. The carnage spread like a malignancy across the land; cultural leaders were rounded up and murdered, silencing voices of resistance and leaving communities vulnerable to attack. Tens of thousands of able-bodied Armenian men serving in the Ottoman Army were forced to disarm, transferred to labor battalions and then butchered by bayonet or gunshot while performing work duties. Wholesale deportation of all Armenians from Eastern Anatolia to concentration camps in the scorching Syrian Desert was ordered. Deportation was code for massacre. Men, women and children were slaughtered. The barbaric methodology varied. Those who survived the death marches were left to starve in the camps. One and a half million lives were lost.
Fuelled by a pan-Turkic ideology, the chauvinist nationalist wing of the Young Turk Movement, under the banner of the Committee of Union and Progress, planned and conducted the Armenian Genocide. The First World War created ideal conditions for systematic annihilation to take place, allowing the Armenian minority to be cast as a threat to national security. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s modern Turkish republic, soaring from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, was built on the myth of resistance against the imperial powers. The truth was that his immediate predecessors had expunged minority peoples from their homeland, creating the monolithic state Ataturk desired. Kemalists initiated the vehement denial of the genocide, refusing to acknowledge that large Armenian communities ever existed in Turkey. Propaganda depicted the Armenian minority as a rebellious, violent insurgency and attributed deaths to internal conflict. This has been the Turkish governmental line of argument from Ataturk to Erdogan.
Coupled with the ideological reasons behind the Turkish state’s perpetual denial of the Armenian Genocide are the practical reasons. Recognition of the Genocide would strengthen the argument for reparations to be paid to the families of Armenians who had property expropriated and redistributed by the Ottoman government. If Turkey were deemed to bear legal responsibility for the meticulously calculated theft that took place, the financial implications would be monumental.
The politics in this context have a deeply personal foundation for all Armenians. This is not just about history. This is about our lives, our identities, and our very existence. I have previously written of how our battle for recognition and against denial continues. I have addressed the wounds inflicted upon our collective consciousness from a safe distance, occupying myself with the big picture. However, when I consider the details of my own family’s survival of the genocide, the unrelenting weight of history becomes too much to bear. It is when I pause and reflect on their suffering that I feel the blade of the Ottoman gendarme’s bayonet wedged between my own shoulder blades.
My father, Armenag, first son of Vahe and Rebecca Kazandjian, was born in Cairo in 1951. He carries the middle name of Abraham, in honor of his maternal grandfather, Abraham Tudjarian. The holy city of Urfa was the birthplace of the prophet Abraham/Ibrahim. In the 5th century, Mesrop Mashtots created the Armenian alphabet there, signaling the dawn of Armenian literature and ensuring the survival of our ancestors as a distinct people. On the eve of the Genocide, Urfa was home to the Tudjarian family and 45,000 other Armenians. In the scorching summer of 1915, Ottoman soldiers arrived at the Tudjarians’ property. Abraham was 6 years old and the youngest of four brothers. His parents were taken away. He would never again play backgammon with his mother. He would never again feel his father’s kiss on his forehead. The soldiers returned. Abraham’s brothers suggested that as he was so small and slight, he hide in the barn. The older boys insisted that no matter what he heard or saw, Abraham must remain hidden amongst the straw. Cowering in his hiding place, Abraham looked on as his brothers’ young lives ended beneath the shade of olive trees.