ONE hundred years ago, a nightmare began for my people. I am Armenian.The date was April 24, 1915. Two hundred and fifty reputable Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested, taken to a remote location, and assassinated.
Thus began the first genocide of the 20th century: The genocide of the Armenian people. What ensued were horrific crimes against humanity that were premeditated, planned, and executed by the Ottoman Turkish Empire with the purpose of destroying the Armenian race, leaving 1.5 million Armenians dead.
Armenian males throughout the region were rounded up, taken away, and executed into mass graves. Women, children, and seniors were forcibly deported for hundreds of kilometers, on death marches to concentration camps in the middle of the Syrian desert. On the marches, they were subject to harassment, sexual violence, and murder, as well as a lack of basic necessities such as food and water. Many died along the way of exhaustion, exposure and starvation, and those who were caught providing support to others were killed.
Mass killings of civilians were taking place throughout the region. Villagers were collected and forced to gather in barns and churches, then burned alive. Others were forced onto boats, taken to the middle of the Black Sea, and thrown overboard to drown.
The region, at this time, including historic Armenia, was under rule of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, led by three pashas (high-ranking Turkish officers) who designed the genocide. The Ottoman Empire was defeated in 1918, and a few years later, in 1923, the Republic of Turkey was established.
For 100 years, Turkey has denied these acts were systematic genocide, and has insisted they were part of the “chaos of war”. For decades, Turkish policy forbidding any mention of the “G” word was strictly enforced, with minimum six years imprisonment for those who dared to utter it.
However, there is little debate among genocide scholars that the events constituted genocide, and there is widespread agreement among historians and authorities in international relations, who have researched these events in detail. The facts are widely documented and supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. Gradually, as facts have been unearthed, and information sharing has become facilitated via technology, the Turkish administration, while still in denial, has softened its approach over the last few years regarding discussion of the “G” word within its republic.
One hundred years. This may seem a long time, but it is closer than you think. My grandparents were survivors of the genocide. Curious to learn more about my ancestral roots, I recall asking my grandfather about his past, his family, and how he came to be in Canada. Before I knew it, tears were streaming down his face. This was the first time I had seen him cry. He was 91.
He was born in Turkey, and was a little boy during the genocide. His father was taken away and never returned. Eventually he and his mother walked until they reached Syria and then travelled by ship to Alexandria, Egypt where his mother made a living by sewing and doing embroidery. My grandmother, a young girl at the time, would also never see her father again, and shared a similar story. My other grandparents were lucky to have left the region to settle in Egypt prior to 1915.
April 24 is a day of remembrance for all Armenians, and 2015 marks the centennial commemoration of the genocide. Throughout the world, Armenians marched in solidarity to remember our ancestors. This year, Canada declared April 24 ‘Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day’, and April as ‘Genocide Awareness Month’.
But April 24 is also a day of hope. For through reflection, may we prevent history from repeating itself, and through recognition, we collectively take the first step towards healing, for Armenians and Turkish people alike. In Kierkegaard’s words, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”.