The US decision to recognise the Armenian Genocide has urgent relevance for the country in the wake of last year’s war in Nagorno Karabakh
“You have not seen Mount Ararat how I saw it growing up. I promise, one day I will take you back home.”
Since childhood, my grandfather grew up listening to these words of his great-grandfather, Baghdasar, who fled to Armenia with his family during the 1915 genocide.
My grandfather recollects how Baghdasar would tell stories of their home in Bayazet, or Doğubeyazıt in modern Turkey, in the shadow of Mount Ararat, and promise his grandchildren that one day they would return to their home. In 1915, to save his family from the massacres, Baghdasar closed the doors of his house, crossed the Araks River, which flows along the borders of Armenia and Turkey, and ended up in the Armenian city of Gavar. According to my grandfather, when Baghdasar died, he still had the key to his old house in his pocket.
Many Armenians left their Turkish homes, wealth and gardens in 1915 and fled to Armenia, knowing that they would one day return. Today, people build new houses close to the Armenian-Turkish border in order to be in sight of Mount Ararat, a symbol of Armenia.
But one of the best views is from the Tsitsernakaberd, Armenia’s Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. When you step on to the memorial’s roof, it feels like Mount Ararat is a few metres away, as the Ararat valley opens before you.
I was at the Tsitsernakaberd last month, on the day of Genocide Remembrance, 24 April, and so were a group of young Armenians, waving the flags of states that have recognised the genocide. On that date this year, the United States recognised the 1915 massacres of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide. When someone shouted out the news, the US flag quickly appeared at the front of the line.
President Biden’s decision has urgent relevance for Armenia in the wake of last year’s war in Nagorno Karabakh, a territory disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey. Many Armenians draw a direct straight line between the 1915 genocide in Turkey and the war that began in Nagorno Karabakh in the 1980s for national self-determination – and which erupted last autumn.
During the 44-day war last year, thousands of young men died in the frontlines fighting against Azerbaijani soldiers, Syrian mercenaries and Turkish attack drones. Hundreds of soldiers are still missing, and hundreds were taken captive and transferred to Baku. At least 19 Armenian civilians and servicemen have been tortured and killed, according to representatives of Armenian captives in the European Court of Human Rights. Four of them were women.
Article 2 of the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as an act committed with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. In this regard, Azerbaijan’s mistreatment and killings of Armenian civilians and soldiers for ethnic or religious reasons has elements of genocide.
Azerbaijan denies the Armenian genocide, and denied the presence of Syrian mercenaries fighting in Nagorno Karabakh, as does the country’s principal supporter, Turkey.
As the Turkish-backed war raged in mid-October last year, Erdogan made a public address on the conflict, in which he made an ominous reference that Turkey “will continue to fulfill this mission which our grandfathers have carried out in the Caucasus region for centuries”.
Then, a month after the close of the 44-day war in Nagorno Karabakh, Turkish President Erdogan gave a speech in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, where he made a glowing reference to the Turkish leaders responsible for the massacre of Armenians in 1915 and 1918: “May the souls of Nuri Pasha, Enver Pasha […] be happy.”
But Turkey’s support goes beyond terrifying rhetoric: it backed Azerbaijan by providing arms, diplomatic support and transporting mercenaries to fight against Armenia (and, reportedly, promised them $100 for each dead Armenian). And once again, Armenians looked to Russia to protect the Armenian-Turkish border.
In 1981, then US president Ronald Reagan first used the term genocide to refer to the massacres of 1915. Presidents George Bush Sr and Barack Obama both promised to recognise the genocide, but did not make a formal acknowledgement. Perhaps it’s because US recognition is what the Turkish leadership, which has always repeated that the genocide never happened, feared the most. After all, genocide is a crime that does not have an expiration date.
Indeed, the US recognition might create the conditions for discussions and criminalising the denial of the genocide. And it could force Turkey to compensate both the financial and property losses of Armenians during the genocide to their legal successors.
When I was a schoolboy, it was my grandfather who took me to the Genocide Memorial for the first time – it was a sunny day, no clouds, I could even see the Araks river at the Turkish border. My grandfather wasn’t moving and stood like a statue. His eyes weren’t blinking, but his lips were trembling. I had never seen him cry.
After a few minutes, he finally spoke. “Do you see it?” he said, looking at Mount Ararat. I was a kid. I didn’t know anything about history or the genocide or my ancestors. He repeated the question again, but I didn’t answer. “Do you see how beautiful it is today?” he said. Every time we visit the Genocide Memorial, I always hear him asking that question again and again. But I never answer. His question isn’t directed to me, but to his own grandfather, who left Bayazet in 1915 – and never went back.
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