Remembering regrettable history

Edmonton Sun (Alberta, Canada)
April 24, 2004 Saturday Final Edition



Armenians around the world today commemorate the beginning of what
they view as the darkest period in their long history, which is
saying something for a people who have been subject to almost
constant invasion and persecution.

On Wednesday the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly (153 to 68) in
favour of a motion that “acknowledges the Armenian genocide of 1915
and condemns this as a crime against humanity.”

The history of Armenia is a litany of tragedy and suffering,
endlessly repeated. But it is also a story of survival, against all
the odds and in the face of every possible indignity and handicap we
humans are capable of imposing upon one another.

The Armenians are the oldest Christian nation on earth, a forgotten
remnant of the ancient world from a time before Islam conquered the
Near East. You may not think you know any Armenians, but unless
you’ve never heard of Cher (full name Cherylin Sarkissian), tennis
great Andre Agassi or chess master Gary Kasparov, you are wrong.

They are all children of the great diaspora that followed the
massacre of Turkish Armenians in 1915 – the “crime against humanity”
deplored by a majority of our MPs. It began on April 24, 1915 with
the arrest of Armenian professionals and intellectuals, and ended two
years later with Turkey’s Armenian population having been reduced
from around three million to fewer than 200,000.

What happened to the missing Armenians is still a matter of hot
debate for our NATO ally, Turkey, which vehemently denies systematic
slaughter. Hundreds of thousands fled to Russian Armenia, and
thousands of others eventually made their way to Europe and North
America, but somewhere between 600,000 and two million died as a
result of forced relocation, starvation and the actions of Turkish
troops and civilians.

The actual number seems less important than the fact a brutal
slaughter took place, documented by eyewitness accounts from
survivors, and from credible reports by mostly American diplomats and
aid workers on the scene. There was no Auschwitz, no Treblinka, and
the weapons of choice seem to have been the bayonet and the knife,
but the massacre of the Armenians was in no way less systematic and
inhuman than the Holocaust. An entire population was driven from land
it had occupied since the beginning of recorded history, and those
who were not killed were left to starve or die of exposure.

There is no little irony in the fact Adolf Hitler used this genocide
as a prototype for his own final solution, apparently noting that 25
years later no one remembered what had happened to the Armenians. But
at the time he was wrong. The story of the Armenians received wide
publicity in the years between the world wars, particularly in the
U.S., Canada and Britain.

There was even a time when the Turkish authorities themselves
acknowledged what had happened. Several of those responsible were
tried for their crimes by Turkish courts and executed. But as a
valuable ally during the Cold War years, as NATO’s bulwark against
Soviet Central Asia, there was a concerted attempt to forget and
finally to deny Turkey’s past.

What’s the point of remembering a regrettable slice of the past?
Apart from simple honesty, humanity is the accumulation of its
history and it is impossible to learn from events if we deny they
happened. In Turkey’s case, denying the massacre of the Armenians
guarantees the memory will fester.

Some Turkish leaders in 1915 were openly critical of their
government, others bravely refused to implement genocidal policies,
while ordinary Turks were summarily executed for trying to help their
Armenian neighbours. The present Turkish government would do better
to remember their example than to deny history.