Arpi Sarafian

The Armenian Genocide Centenary: Six Years Later


Six years ago, it was the euphoria of Gank, bidi mnank. I remember reflecting on the Centenary of the Armenian Genocide in a mood of extreme pride and jubilation, of nonchalance almost. Yes, there were countless unresolved issues regarding the welfare and the future of our homeland, but there was also the certainty that nothing could hinder our determination to keep on. Armenians around the world were celebrating a hundred years of the triumph of life over death. The mood was one of “rebirth from ashes.” We had the luxury to “remember and demand.” The systematic attempt to wipe a people off the face of this planet had failed. Nothing could threaten our identity as Armenians. We would get what we wanted. Our ongoing creativity evidenced it. History was clearly on our side.

Then something terrible happened. History changed course. In September 2020 the Azerbaijanis, with the support of Turkey, attacked the Armenians living in the mountainous enclave we call Artsakh. The horror of the massacres and the deportations of the years 1915-1919 was, once again, unfolding right before our eyes. In forty-four days we lost over four thousand lives, a significant part of our territory, and had to sign a most humiliating cease-fire agreement. It felt as if the natural course of things had reversed. Instead of moving forward towards the good and the just, as history must, we were reverting to a reign of evil. The beast had taken over.

We now find ourselves in the defendant’s seat, needing to argue that the mass murder of one and a half million Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey in the First World War years was the crime of genocide, committed under the pretext of deportation. Also, despite the piling evidence that what occurred in the recent Artsakh War — along with the ongoing vandalizing and desecration by Azerbaijan of our cultural artifacts and religious monuments — is ethnic cleansing, we have to go to Human Rights Courts to “prove” that the destruction of entire villages and the aerial attacks on the civilian population was a genocidal act.

Human Rights Organizations don’t seem to be able to do much to stop the perpetrators in their violations of right and law. To all appearances, the international community has compromised on its moral obligation. Perhaps they have chosen not to intervene because, to borrow renowned critic Edward Said’s words, we are not “worthy victims.” If the courts are “useless” one could argue, why not proceed as though the verdict has been pronounced in our favor? To say that the world is against us and to despair would be an invitation to doom. Constantly invoking our defeat and focusing on our, only a few months ago non-existent, existential fears would paralyze us.

Indeed, the deep shock of our military defeat could be a source of inspiration. Pain is known to enhance one’s perceptions and one’s imagination. Artists have used their life-changing illnesses to tap into their creativity, making their pain part of their “recovery.” We too could use our calamity to keep going forward, with even more determination.

Most amazing in our current reality is the ability of Armenians to go about their daily business as though nothing has happened. There is a sense of “normalcy” in the country. We read about the national soccer team’s surprising lead in the World Cup Qualifying Games. We also read about a beauty from Vanadzor participating in the upcoming Miss Universe Pageant. Armenian designers are featured in Vogue Italia. Three new collectors’ coins have been released by Armenia’s Central Bank. The Armenian rap group, Orinak, have started a program in a village in Artsakh to teach local kids to rap. On March 27, Armenia celebrated International Theatre Day “with proper pomp and circumstance fit for the occasion,” writes Gerald Papasian from Yerevan. The list grows longer every day. These are not matters of urgency or of emergency. Folks engage in such activities only when they can claim a stable, prosperous, and peaceful everyday life.

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No less significant is the input from the non-Armenian world. Editorials, urgent appeals, online petitions call for pressure on Turkey for its human rights violations. The protection of Armenian Cultural Heritage was discussed at the National Commission for UNESCO. Organizations around the world are involved in saving from destruction the thousands of cultural and religious monuments which are the material evidence of the centuries-old history of the Armenian people in the region. “Fransesco”, a new documentary on Pope Francis, features the Pope’s efforts to “raise awareness about the Armenian Genocide despite geopolitical pressure to stay silent,” notes Eric Esrailian, one of the producers of the film. Here again, the list keeps getting longer.

There has been much talk recently about Genocide recognition by the United States government. Despite the broken promises of past presidents, anticipation is high. In 1919, the US Senate unanimously adopted a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey. Earlier, the House of Representatives had recognized the deed as genocide. The resolution now awaits ratification by the Executive Branch to become law. “What’s important is the truth and honest recognition of history. President Biden needs to call the Armenian genocide by its name,” writes the LA Times Editorial Board in a recently published editorial: “Yes, it was Genocide.”

Recognition is not something to be overlooked or derided, as is sometimes done. Even if it changes nothing on the ground, to be seen and to be heard is extremely helpful for us. The international community’s solidarity with our cause will give our leaders and political analysts the moral power and the stamina to critically examine where we went wrong and what we can do to avoid a repeat of the same. Making detailed and thoughtful recommendations requires a clear vision of what life could be like in a rehabilitated homeland, and the support of the world community would help create the mood to construct those visions and bring them to fruition. We have an obligation to use every tool at our disposal to make Armenia livable again. Thus, rather than focus on how to evade a terrible doom, we could focus on how delightful life could be in a healthy and strong Armenia. “Enough of death,” would say dear old Virginia Woolf. “It is life that matters.”

If Turkey dared use violence in Artsakh it is not because our efforts at recognition failed. (More than two dozen governments have already formally recognized the Armenian Genocide.) The Turkish government has never signaled a desire for peace or for harmony. More importantly, in a morally bankrupt world, in other words, in a world devoid of ethical or spiritual values, one can commit acts of violence with impunity. Rather than regret or repent, Turkey is unabashedly threatening and acting on her threats. Her growing power has become an existential threat to Armenia. Receiving the solidarity of the world community would boost our sense of worth and give us the confidence needed to prosecute Turkish and Azerbaijani human rights abuses against Armenians in the courts. That confidence is something we cannot afford to lose.

Moral values are easy to dismiss because they are not tangible commodities like an arms arsenal or material wealth. They are, nonetheless, the driving force behind every worthwhile human endeavor. If we find ourselves at the edge of the abyss today, it is because we have reneged on those values and have allowed greed to take over. At the turn of the century, it was still possible to believe with French writer and statesman Andre Malraux that the twenty-first century would be a spiritual century. That prediction is becoming more and more difficult to maintain.

Time and time again we have shown the world that beauty transcends despair. If we have fallen and risen throughout the centuries, it is not because of our strategic geographical position or of our rich natural resources. It is because of our rich cultural heritage and our beauty as Armenians. We have so much to be positive about. This awareness is our most effective weapon as it is something no one can take away from us. Along with the concrete plans and the specific recommendations needed to rebuild Armenia, it is the key to our survival. Let us confidently say then that, rather than weaken us, the recent Artsakh War came to reaffirm our identity as Armenians.

(Arpi Sarafian holds a PhD from the University of Southern California and a BA and MA from the American University of Beirut.  She is the author of Endless Crossings:  Reflections on Armenian Art and Culture in Los Angeles.)


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