The Armenian Genocide

Monday 21 September

After putting off for some time to write about a subject that I’m ashamed to say I knew little or nothing of, it seems fitting to address that tardiness today.  The 21st of September is Armenian Independence Day, enjoying 25 years’ independence from the former Soviet Union.  A public holiday, it’s a very special time for the Armenian people, and in Yerevan they’ll be celebrating with an open air concert later this evening.  However it’s a much darker chapter in history I want to write about, and one which possibly – like me – many of you will have no idea existed, or to what extent.  But a word of warning; this isn’t going to be an easy read.

The memorial at the genocide museum

The memorial at the genocide museum

Under the cover of WWI (and indeed there’s strong evidence that their entry into the conflict was solely to commit their “solution” to the “Armenian question”), the Ottoman government declared Jihad on all Christians except their German/Austro-Hungarian allies.  Very convenient.  They set about the systematic and organised destruction of the Armenian people.  Also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the sheer scale of the genocide is difficult to comprehend and describe here, and would take me many hours to even scratch the surface.  I visited the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial a number of weeks ago, and found myself reading every bit of information I could find, resulting in spending well over four hours shaking my head in bitter sadness.  To my shame, I had no knowledge of the massacre – the 20th-century’s first of its kind – and a “blueprint” for the extermination of the Jews.  Unlike the more recognised “final solution”, I don’t recall the Armenian Genocide ever being mentioned in history class.  The German government were complicit in the massacre, often sending over officers to foresee the atrocities.  A number of its perpetrators would go on to advise the Nazis in mass extermination techniques.

Inside the museum

Inside the museum

And these “techniques” the Ottoman Turks used to almost eradicate an entire race are overwhelming.  At the beginning of WWI, there were some two million Armenians in the crumbling empire.  By around 1922, there were less than 400,000.

“They died all the deaths on the earth, the deaths of all the ages.”

Armin Wenger

In the interim, a party known as The Young Turks would incite, organise and implement the entire Ottoman populous and armed forces to butcher the Armenian way of life.  Many of these perpetrators were deliberately released rapists and murderers, forming “killing squads.”  Armenian men, women and children were driven from their homes, arrested and executed.  Villagers were rounded up for mass burning, where even children were simply given to the fire.  Some 80,000 Armenians burned alive on mass town pyres.  In Trabzon, women and children were loaded onto boats and thrown overboard to the Black Sea.  It’s estimated around 50,000 lost their lives in deliberately capsized vessels.  Mass hangings in the streets, beatings, firing squads, toxic gas, and medical experiments were commonly used in the extermination.  Typhoid inoculations.  Marched to death.  Starvation.  Stripped and died under the unforgiving sun.  Armenian men of military capability were forced to work in concentration camps under the pretext they were helping the war effort.  Then they were butchered by any whimsical means that would get the job done.

Thousands of shocking images and evidence

Thousands of shocking images and evidence

In what was for me perhaps one of the most horrific chapters of the massacre; hundreds of thousands of Armenians were marched out to the Syrian desert town of Dier Ez-Zor in an incomprehensible, hard-driven exodus.  Providing no food and provisions, the government simply let them die on the road, staving, littering the road with corpses, to become infamously known as The Death March.  To this day, the Syrian desert is a mass grave of Armenian victims, scattered with skull and bone, not yet giving up all its secrets.

Rape was commonplace.  Generals gave their men a free rein, ordering them to do whatever they wanted.  Women were displayed naked in the streets and sold as slaves, beaten, tortured, and crucified.  The “good-looking” girls were sexually abused on a regular basis.  The “really beautiful” girls were gang raped by up to fifteen men.  Then they were all left for dead.

Chilling words from Hitler as you leave the museum

Chilling words from Hitler as you leave the museum

With bullets in short supply, many people were just hacked to death, open season. I saw pictures of children missing the backs of their thighs, soldiers posing with disembodied heads, tortured women lying dead in the streets.  If you can think of any way to brutally murder someone – it was happening here.

The allies did little to stop it.  In spite of some pockets of resistance and international humanitarian “Schindlers” saving hundreds of orphans, there were thousands of refugees, and millions beaten, raped and murdered.  Not to mention the confiscation of property, ancient history destroyed, and forced conversion to Islam. A cultural extermination of mind, body and building while the world watched idly by.  Does this sound familiar?

Recognition required

Recognition required

The fallout of the genocide is still being felt today.  Armenians are scattered all over the world, a population so close to being wiped out, and they want answers and apologies.  Only some 22 countries recognise these events in the face of cold, hard fact and evidence.  In Turkey, it is illegal to talk about it, and they refuse to acknowledge these acts ever took place.  They cite a “messy” war, and – much like the Serbs with the Srebrenica genocide – hark back to ancient history in tit-for-tat playground tactics.  “They did this to us  first…in AD something, something”.  The Turkish government will not take vital steps to heal Armenian relations, the borders remain closed, and tensions constantly high.  It’s hard to hide the extermination of 1.5 million people.

Outside the museum, fir trees planted by countries and organisations who recognise the genocide

Outside the museum, fir trees planted by countries and organisations who recognise the genocide

And yet there are many Turkish who acknowledge, apologise and want to open a channel to a much-needed reconciliation.  No nation is completely blameless when it comes to heinous acts either, and war has collateral damage.  History is written by those who hang heroes, and there are two sides to every story.  Communication is key.  But when you’ve got incessant altercation like the following examples in comments sections of documentaries:

“hahaha fucking black armenian gypsy must die hahaha we fucked your mothers hahaha my grand grand father’s father is killed 17 armenian orthodox bitch during the genocide hahahahahaha”

And:

“God bless Armenia and my Christian brothers and sisters across the world. Fuck the genocidal Turks.”

And:

“…this is a topic of pride around turkish dinner tables. just like ISIS today the Turks were proud of what they did to innocent Armenians. What a scum of the earth people you Turks are. your true colors are coming out today with what we see Isis doing to people….scum of earth.”

And: etc, etc…

What chance have we got?

I urge you to do a little research about what happened here.  Pay heed to the evidence and testimony.  Be a witness.  I didn’t include the graphic photographs available at the museum and online, because it’s not easy, and some of the stories you’ll hear and pictures you’ll see will make your blood run cold.  But it’s vitally important, and something we must all do to understand the consequences of ignorance.  We’re allowing it to happen all over again.

We're not learning from history

We’re not learning from history

But here in the summer sun there’s hope.  The Armenians are a wonderful people and I will be enjoying their hospitality for a few days more, basking in their warmth and friendship, before my hitch to Iran.  Happier prose soon to come.

Viva Armenia.  And viva an honest Turkey too.  Yes you also have your victims and they dearly need to be remembered, but the sheer size and scale of this act can only and obviously be recognised as a genocide.  Take the first steps.  You can stop the pain and the hate.

“I remember and I demand.”

The memorial eternal flame

The memorial eternal flame

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