Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Armenian Genocide Memorial Day

Today is Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. On Sunday, April 24, 1915, nearly 100 years ago today, the leaders of the Ottoman Empire (the modern day Turks) arrested approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders. This was the first step in a larger campaign of genocide, where through the use of mass burnings, biological and chemical warfare, rape, forced deportations and ensuing marches, between 600,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians were killed in a focused campaign to rid the Ottoman Empire of all Armenians.

The word "genocide" was coined in 1943 by Yale and Rutgers law professor Raphael Lemkin (who lost nearly 50 relatives in the holocaust). Upon coining the term, he said, "it happened so many times… First to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action." Hitler himself stated on August 22, 1939, as part of his argument for instituting the Final Solution, "Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

There are tragedies atop of tragedies here. The first tragedy is the mass murder of upwards of 1.5 million people. This was cold blooded and premeditated: people were forced to leave their homes simply because of their ancestry and then forced to march, sometimes in circles, until they dropped or were murdered by their captors. They were deprived of their lives, their communities, their religion, and everything that made them human simply because they were Armenian. Armenians inhabited the area now known as Turkey since time immemorial, and now, due to this genocide and decisions made by the United States at the end of World War I, they are now deprived of not only their human history, but their cultural and geographical history as well. Mount Ararat, the holy mountain from the bible and the symbol of Armenia, sits within the borders of Turkey today. An Armenian friend of mine once told me that her family still has a key to their ancestral home in Van, which is now in Turkey. Years ago, her father returned there--and the house is gone. They keep the key as a memory of all the people and places they lost as a result of the attempt by the Ottomans to destroy them and their culture.

The second tragedy is the fact that the United States has never formally recognized the Armenian genocide. Each time we step up to the plate to recognize this historically irrefutable event, Turkey begins making noise and we back down. Although our government has used the word "genocide" to describe these events informally, when Congress attempts to formally recognize this event as genocide there are always dire warnings of losing an ally we need for our various wars in the Middle East. During the 2008 campaign, our president stated that, "[the] Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution, and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide." However, since being elected, he has avoided the use of the term "genocide" whenever speaking of this issue. It is preposterous to think that our country and our leaders are so fearful of Turkey's displeasure that they can turn a blind eye to calling the event that the term genocide was coined for as genocide.

The final tragedy is that Hitler was partially right: very few people remember the Armenian genocide. Before I became a Peace Corps Volunteer I had heard of it, but it didn't really register on my radar. In America we are deeply aware of the tragedy of the holocaust, and also grudgingly accept the crimes perpetrated by the United States government against the Native Americans. We've heard of Pol Pot, are aware of what happened in Bosnia, and have heard of many other crimes committed against humanity. But the Armenian genocide only barely registers in our consciousness.

Why is this? For one, it was long ago. This happened around World War I, a period of time that most of us really don't understand. It also happened very quietly, before mass media, and despite being the basis for the term genocide, was eclipsed by the horrible film and still images coming out of post-WWII Germany. There are no photos, no Night and Fog, no writings that put the occurrences in stark relief like Elie Wiesel did for the holocaust. There was no media coverage, as during the modern genocides. There is only the memory of the Armenians, looking out over Mount Ararat, remembering what was, what used to be, before their cultural heritage was ripped from them through rape and murder, when grandparents, great uncles, and great aunts were slaughtered in an attempt to snuff out this ancient group of people from the Earth.

I spent six months in Armenia. During that time I got to know many Armenians and had some conversations about the genocide. Never once did I hear any talk of reparations. Never once did I hear anyone wanting revenge against the Turks for the crimes of their forefathers. In fact the only question I ever heard was "why." Why doesn't America recognize this historical event? Why won't America call this as it is, call it genocide? I never could answer that question because we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, are not to get involved in talking about politics. But now I can say to all my Armenian friends and the rest of you: I don't know why. It makes no sense to me either. And I believe the fact that America hasn't recognized this genocide is a crime in itself, an ongoing affront to the dignity and history of the people of Armenia.

Before I wrote this blog post I got on the phone to each of my representatives in Congress. I explained to their receptionists that I used to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, lived in Armenia, and that I wanted to urge them to recognize the genocide. They kindly agreed to pass my message along to my representatives. One of the receptionists told me that she studied abroad in Turkey for a year. I asked her about Armenian genocide recognition from the perspective of the Turks, and she said that all the young people she knew in Turkey wanted their government to admit the genocide happened. So, maybe, someday, as younger people come to power and the old is washed away, we will see the world recognize this historical event.

Finally, I want to ask each of you to call your representatives today, tell them this is Genocide Memorial Day, educate them about this genocide, and urge them to recognize this historical event. PCVs, you get a pass on this because of that no-politics thing, but RPCVs, I totally see this as a Third Goal issue. The rest of you, well, I hope after reading this you will be moved to contact your representatives as well . This is an important issue, and it is time for our country to formally call this crime against humanity by the only word that can describe it: genocide.