Academic journal article Social Education

Does History Matter? Ask the Armenians

Academic journal article Social Education

Does History Matter? Ask the Armenians

Article excerpt

For as long as I've studied genocide, I have been cognizant of the fact that the Armenian community cares deeply about what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and its aftermath. However, it was not until I recently attended a two-day memorial commemoration in the desert of Syria for the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide that I became fully aware of how profound the memory of that human disaster is for today's Armenians. As I look back, I am still not sure which of the many poignant experiences struck the most resonant chord in my heart and mind-whether it was the sight of some 6,000 Armenians gathered around a chapel in the far reaches of the Syrian desert, a baptism of two Armenian babies in the Euphrates River, a ceremony in the wind-swept desert where bones of the long-now deceased can still be found, or all of these events together.

"The Ultimate Crime, Ultimate Challenge--Human Rights and Genocide"

I was honored to be invited by the Armenian Foreign Ministry to speak at the international conference "Ultimate Crimes, Ultimate Challenges--Human Rights and Genocide" from April 20-21, 2005, in Yerevan, Armenia, which commemorated the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Scholars from across the globe--including the United States, Israel, Denmark, Ireland, and Japan--spoke on a host of issues, including the history of the Armenian genocide, the ongoing denial of the genocide by the Turkish government, and the prevention of genocide. I spoke about Darfur, Sudan, sharing the experiences I had as a member of the Darfur Atrocities Documentation Team which had interviewed Darfur refugees in Chad and whose findings resulted in then-Secretary of State Colin Powell declaring that genocide was taking place in Darfur. (1) In addition to the scholars, other speakers included Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient; and Juan E. Mendez, special advisor to the UN secretary general on the prevention of genocide. An estimated 700 people were in attendance along with international media.

I found that the most moving and thought-provoking talks were by Armenians who had lost family members in the genocide and who spoke about the profound hurt caused by the ongoing denial of the genocide, the importance of memory for a people who were once targeted for annihilation, and the stories of loss (family members, land, villages, towns, sacred areas--such as Mount Ararat, located only 40 kilometers from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, but impossible to reach due to the closed border with Turkey--churches and other cultural monuments).

Robert Kocharyan, the president of the Republic of Armenia, captured the essence of such grief in his speech:

   We pay tribute to the memory of the vanished victims
   as we commemorate the 90th anniversary of the tragic
   events. We do it with doubled pain, since we are still
   bound to continue the struggle for the international recognition
   of the committed crime.

   ... Recognition and condemnation of genocides is
   crucial.... It first of all comes to prove that the crime
   has no expiration clause. It is through recognition and
   condemnation that states educate their citizens. The
   lesson is: the state machinery shall not become a tool in
   the implementation of that terrible crime.

   Another important component is the future fate of a
   people that has survived genocide. The Armenian people,
   due to genocide, were displaced, became a refugee
   people and were scattered across the globe. International
   recognition of the Armenian genocide ... was sacrificed
   to grand politics, [but] humanity pays a tremendously
   high price for forgetting such crimes.

A Commemoration in the Syrian Desert

Moved by what I had heard and witnessed at the conference, I was determined to learn even more about the genocide long ago and thus decided to head to Syria to take part in a two-day commemoration being held in the desert five hours out of Aleppo to its east, in a place called Deir el-Zor. …

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