It was an unexpectedly uplifting experience.
Of course the sadness was always present, as it is every day for Armenians everywhere in this world. But the sodden heaviness of April 24 became nearly unbearable as I stepped slowly, head down, toward the chamber that holds the eternal flame at the Genocide Memorial.
Then I looked up and saw more Armenians than I have ever seen in one place in my life—and still more coming from every direction. Almost all had walked for miles, and some probably had walked for days.
A few carried banners, many carried flowers but together they carried a clear and loud message to the world:
We are alive.
Armenia is alive.
I felt privileged to add to this vital testimony with my presence, on behalf of my father. He survived 1915 but didn’t live long enough to stand on the soil of free Armenia as I did.
I was struck by this same message of survival and determination everywhere we went, often wordless but unmistakable and delivered with the confidence that came from knowing that, at long last, Armenians weren’t just speaking to themselves.
Despite Turkey’s frenetic attempts to divert the world’s attention, many nations and leaders stepped forward to express solidarity with the Armenian people. Pope Francis celebrated mass in memory of the Genocide’s victims and called on Turkey to tell the truth.
The European Union recognized the Genocide and urged Turkey to do the same. The president of Germany also called the Genocide by its rightful name and admitted that his nation had been complicit as Turkey’s war-time ally.
Looking back, I wonder: Did we really believe this would last?
I certainly hoped it would, but Armenians know from painful experience that the world’s empathy is ephemeral. Few crimes against humanity have elicited as much genuine outrage as the Armenian Genocide, yet none has been so quickly discarded.
And that is exactly the word: discarded. Not forgotten, as you might forget to feed the cat or forget where you put your car keys, but tossed aside and left in a muddy rut along a side road of history that can be easily bypassed by demagogues.
Unfortunately, the world has an abundance of them along with a constituency of fools who are easily misled. As a result, the truth of the Genocide is once again under assault—and this time, so are Armenians.
Temporarily quieted but never silenced, Turkey has launched a vicious media blitz using print ads as well as editorial copy written by Turkey’s shills. The common theme is that America’s loyal and truthful ally is being undermined by duplicitous Armenia and its evil Russian overlord.
This may seem laughable but it goes beyond the usual topsy-turvy Turkish campaign of denial portraying Armenians as fabulists who dreamed up their own slaughter. This is sophisticated propaganda crafted by American public relations and marketing experts and placed in upscale publications such as Forbes Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
More chilling, billboards suddenly loomed over city centers in Boston and New York where Armenians planned to gather for this year’s memorial. The images showed Armenians with fingers crossed, a not-so-subtle message that young and old who come together in commemoration each year are liars.
Why should anyone in America be taunted while mourning their murdered grandparents?
Shameful as this is, we are merely forced to defend our honor. Armenians in Artsakh, also known as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, have been forced to defend their homes and lives.
Increasingly over the past year or so, sniper fire and the artillery shells have torn at the fragile ceasefire that ended the fighting with Azerbaijan more than 20 years ago. Then on April 2, Azeri forces opened a large-scale assault that lasted several days. Civilian victims included an 11-year-old boy and an elderly couple.
Dozens of Armenian defenders were killed, some reportedly beheaded ISIS-style.
You might shrug this off as a border brawl in a region where violence is endemic, but the repercussions could be extraordinary. Any further conflict might easily become a full-scale war involving Armenia and Turkey, which has vowed to back Azerbaijan, as well as Russia, which supplies arms to both sides. There’s also Iran just across the border, with deep religious ties to the Shiite Azeris.
If you want to know what led to this tangled mess, listen to this talk by Dr. Levon Chorbajian, who knows a million times more than I do. But here’s my short take: Just forget this separatist nonsense repeated so often in the American press. Artsakh is historic Armenia, settled by our Urartian ancestors a few thousand years ago.
The population was still nearly all Armenian when Stalin gave it to the Azeris in 1922. At least the Communists had enough sense to keep a lid on things for 70 years. War was probably inevitable when the Soviet Union disintegrated. But why must it be perpetual?
Putin makes a public show of being a peace maker without a commitment, leaving Armenians to wonder if he would defend Artsakh as well as Armenia itself if the worst came to pass. There’s no good reason for him to delay making a real contribution to a permanent settlement by simply acknowledging his predecessor state’s meddling and admitting that Artsakh never rightfully belonged to Azerbaijan.
It’s clear that expecting the truth from the Kremlin is as much a fool’s dream as expecting it from Ankara, or Washington.
Turkey’s reinvigorated propaganda campaign may actually be the least troubling aspect of its government’s aggression, including persecution of the Kurdish minority just across Armenia's western border. The war on the Kurds has even become cover for Turkey to seize historic Armenian churches.
Histrionic President Erdogan’s crackdown on press freedom and his prosecution of critics is widely seen as a lurch toward dictatorship and has drawn condemnation from around the world,
There are significant exceptions in the West, however.
Among the most alarming is Germany, which is kowtowing to Turkey and offering it billions of Euros in hopes that it will stanch the flow of Syrian refugees. Given Turkey’s treatment of refugees and its human rights record, this is like hoping Charles Manson is available to babysit.
Yet Chancelor Angela Merkel is so deeply mesmerized by Erdogan—or perhaps so afraid of Syrians—that she has agreed to prosecute a German comedian who poked fun at him. This is outrageous, yet in an odd way Merkel and I agree: Erdogan’s behavior is no laughing matter.
Nor is President Obama’s.
As a candidate in 2008, he promised to recognize the Armenian Genocide. This year he broke that promise for his eighth and final time as president.
Aram Hamparian of the Armenian National Committee of America was quoted as saying administration officials told him privately that offending Turkey now could “introduce uncertainty” into the region at a time when Turkey is playing a pivotal role in important matters.
This is tragically comic in light of Turkey’s incursion in Syria, its war on the Kurds, its threats to back Azerbaijani aggression “to the hilt,” and its expansion of military bases on Armenia’s flanks. I shudder to imagine the sort of certainty the president is hoping for.
Thinking about this takes me full circle to last April.
The first person I spoke to in Yerevan was an airport employee who helped us with our luggage. He knew we had come from America, and he saw the forget-me-not Genocide pin on my jacket.
“This is the year,” he said. “I believe it.”
He wanted to believe America would tell the truth, at last. I wanted to believe it too.
A year later, the sadness of April 24 is once again almost too much to bear.