Remembering the Armenian Genocide
BY: Mina Faheim, April 24th 2016
Masses of Armenian deportees being driven into the Syrian desert in 1916.
“Armenia is dying, but it will survive. The little blood that is left is precious blood that will give birth to a heroic generation. A nation that does not want to die, does not die.”
French author Anatole France, 1916
“When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact. […] I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”
U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau Sr., 1919
“It is generally not known in the world that, in the years preceding 1916, there was a concerted effort made to eliminate all the Armenian people, probably one of the greatest tragedies that ever befell any group. And there weren’t any Nuremberg trials.”
US President Jimmy Carter, 1978 White House Ceremony
“America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that President.”
Presidential Candidate Barack Obama, 2008
Among the many tragedies of the first world war, that of the Armenian Genocide is almost unrivaled in its magnitude and brutality. Today, the 24th of April, marks the 102nd annual memorial of what was indeed a shameful stain on the history of humankind. Shameful, that is, on the part of its perpetrators but equally so to those who stood by in approving silence, and others who deny the atrocities to this day.
Historical Questions and Spiritual Ones
I am no WW1 expert nor do I claim special knowledge of the “Armenian Question”. But it is clear that the historical sequence of events surrounding and including this targeted operation are surprisingly well-documented, and I would invite you to peruse the archives for yourselves. As an example, the memoirs of Mehmed Talaat Pasha released before the death of his widow, admit that 1,256,000 Armenians were documented as living in the Ottoman empire prior to 1915, and that 283,157 remained only two years later. Even still, to attempt “wrapping one’s head”, as it were, around the motives for such atrocities is an exercise in futility – an attempt to ‘rationalize the irrational’. That there was growing hatred stirred up by Ottoman rulers and elite members of Ottoman society towards the Christian minority is an undeniable fact of history. But “how” and “why” this hatred was translated into the unspeakable cruelty is more of a spiritual question than a historical one.
April 24th 1915: “Red Sunday”
Although April 24th marks neither the first nor final day of Ottoman brutality against Armenians within the empire, it bears historical significance. The Hamidian massacres targeted the Armenians only two decades prior, and indeed a Holy War was proclaimed by clerics against Christians within the empire as of November 1914. But on this day in the year 1915, over 200 notable Armenian intellectuals residing in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) were rounded up for deportation in a single night known as “Red Sunday”. This took place at the behest of Interior Minister Mehmed Talaat Pasha, whose memoirs I previously made reference to. That number climbed upwards to the order of thousands within only a matter of weeks, and those targeted were mainly elites of Armenian lineage: clergy, public figures, politicians, and members of high professions. This initial blow stripped the Armenian community of its leadership and representation in the capital city, effectively diminishing the potential for any counter-movements of resistance against empire forces. It is needless to say that few survived the ordeal.
As the months progressed, Talaat Pasha’s deportation orders were gradually expanded to encompass the Armenian community en masse, along with other Christian minorities such as Assyrians and Greeks of whom hundreds of thousands were eventually slaughtered. The details are plenty, but suffice it to say that the sequence of events bears every mark of premeditation. Gradual isolation and alienation of Armenians was years in the making, but the events of 1915 marked a change from insidious persecution to overt deportation and extermination.
Disarming and Forced Labour
200,000 Armenian men who had been conscripted to the military were disarmed in February of the same year, sent to labour camps called “labor battalions” and eventually massacred. These were males between the ages of 15 and 60. Below is a photo of disarmed Armenian conscripts of the Ottoman army employed as carrier workers.
Expanding Orders: “Tehcir”
A permanent mass deportation bill ironically named the “Temporary Law of Deportation” was passed by the Ottoman Parliament in May 1915 which authorized the forced mobilization of various groups which included the Armenian population in its entirety, and anyone who was ‘sensed’ as a threat to national security. After this point no longer were the Armenians second class citizens – they ceased to be, in the eyes of their perpetrators, human beings.
Tens of thousands of Armenians residing in the Eastern provinces of the empire (historical Armenia) were mobilized towards the coastal province of Trabzon, loaded onto boats and drowned in the Black Sea. From Trabzon alone, 50,000 were sent to sea and never returned. Almost all were women and children.
The majority of deportees, however, were displaced Eastward towards Ottoman Syria. Treatment by soldiers unmasked decades and centuries of brewing hatred. Killing, rape and robbery were the commonplace. Food and water supplies were quickly depleted as marches continued through the scorching Mesopotamian desert, and any further supplies were intentionally denied. Starvation became a strategic means of extermination. Three quarters of those deported met death in its various forms, disproportionately affecting children and the elderly.
Through a Survivor’s Eyes
Mariam Baghdishian, who was only six years old at the time, recounts the following details:
“Then my small sister needed water, there was no water either. The poor one died in mother’s arms, saying, ‘Water, water’. Together with grandpa, we dug the earth a little, put her in there and went on. […] My Grandpa (also) died there.
I remember, at night there was no place to sleep. Mother slept on the ground, I and my sister, Khatoun, sitting near mother, braided her hair. A woman passed, looked at us and said: “Why, poor darlings, they don’t know their mother has died…”
– From “The Armenian Genocide: Testimonies of the Eyewitness Survivors” by Verjine Svazlian
The Turkish Republic: A New Era?
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, admits to the the atrocities of his predecessors in a 1926 Interview with the Los Angeles Examiner.
“These left overs from the former Young Turk Party, who should have been made to account for the lives of millions of our Christian subjects who were ruthlessly driven en masse, from their homes and massacred, have been restive under the republican rule”
Despite the undeniable clarity of this admission, these words of sympathy (and the many others recorded) are unlikely to have been more than appeasement of the international community at a time of political turmoil. The above quotation was uttered in the context of a plot against his life by his former friends and political dissidents. After all, it was his military forces under his command that had driven out and eradicated the Armenians residing in Anatolia only four years prior to this interview. He is called the “consummator of the Armenian Genocide” for this reason.
Denial in 2017
Today, denial is a matter of national policy in Turkey – both foreign and domestic. In response to a vote by the US House committee on foreign affairs which proposed to pass a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, Turkish President Erdogan made the following remarks:
“There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country. Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country.”
Given the level of economic and military cooperation between the two nations, support for the resolution wavered among lawmakers and the vote was eventually postponed.
Just today, a certain word from President Trump’s memorial statement was suspiciously missing. And it matters.
April 24th 2017
Prayer: God of Mercy and compassion. You are the author of life by whom all things were made. We thank you for all things past, having brought us to this hour in peace. We walk through the present day in the light of your word. We place our futures in your hands and trust that not a hair of our heads will be touched without your knowledge or permission. Give rest to the souls of those who have perished, and enshrine their memory in the hearts of their children and descendants to come for generations. Let this memory be an occasion of joy and hope, not of despair or tears. Soften the hearts of those who have chosen hatred over love, and protect humanity from calamities to come. Remove also the seeds of hatred and scorn which the world seeks to plant in our own hearts: slander, envy, and malice. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
On behalf of the Orthodox Christian Student Association, members and servants, we would like to take this opportunity to stand with our Armenian brothers and sisters, both in mourning and celebration on this important occasion in their history.