The service on the Azerbaijan Airlines flight was appalling. Having been treated to an atrocious pre-flight video, an attendant who clearly desired to be everywhere but there started thrashing around cups of weak coffee and tried, indolently, to sell stale rolls.
A leaflet called Azernews, claiming to be the “Nation’s No. 1 international newspaper”, offered some interesting insight on the small corner of Caucasus I was leaving behind. Peppered between the ecstatic comments of Spain’s Minister of Industry on the local economy, and a sublimely servile feature on the mum of the current president (and wife of the one before), the only international news was dedicated to Armenia. Armenia had assaulted Azerbaijan. Armenia shelled Azeri villages. Armenian soldiers were so unhappy that suicides were rife in the army. Armenian cops had just caressed with batons protesters and journalists at an anti-war parade in Yerevan.
Nothing of that kind – riots, suicides, beaten correspondents – seemed to be going on when I arrived in Yerevan one day later, despite Azernews’ prophecy of more mayhem to come. I wasn’t surprised, for the laughable propaganda foisted on to me was one aspect of something that was anything but: the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the challenge to the very presence of Armenia as a splinter in the Turkic land.
– § –
The Turkic language family starts from the shores of the Bosphorus and ends on the icy coasts of Siberia’s Yakutia. Different alphabets and borders might convey an image of fragmentation, but a little digging – and a vocabulary – is sufficient to unearth the legacy of an awesome empire built on horseback. Mountain is dağ in Turkish and Azeri, tağ in Uyghur, taw in Tatar and dağ again in Tuvan. Nine is doguz in Istanbul, toğiz in Almaty, toğus in the Russian Altai.
In this vast Turkic ocean, only two islands – two oddities, two differences – exist: Georgia and Armenia. Indo-European and Christian, the two nations share almost nothing with their neighbours: history, ethnicity, religion or even alphabet. Whilst Georgia mostly had its dealing with Persia, Armenia’s history was closely interlinked with the Seljuk’s. Living in the vast Anatolian altiplano, the Armenians became one facet in the kaleidoscope of peoples under the Ottoman Empire.
1915 was a momentous years for the moribund Empire. Its participation to the Great War was going disastrously, the Arab provinces were rioting, Tsarists armies were pressing at the borders and there were risks of an Allied action. The feudal Empire was struggling to compete in an industrial, all-out war. As it often happens in times of crisis, delusional leaders tried to shrug off their failures, laying them on someone’s doorstep. Someone who didn’t quite fit in.
– § –
Standing on top of Cascade, Yerevan sprawling at the feet of this slightly incongruous monument, I noticed a futuristic sculpture on a nearby hill. A concrete spire rose in the cloudy sky so imperiously that it reminded me of one of those Fascist-era monuments that litter Italy. It looked deceptively close and I decided, there and then, to head for it. After all, being within shouting distance of the monument to the first genocide in history, only to snub it, seemed too impolite even for my standards.
The walk took me past the Hrazdan gorge and its crumbling, rusting attempts at canalization, detritus of half-hearted Soviet projects. Memories of the walk to Gethsemane, through a valley of Jehoshaphat similarly engulfed in belching cars, bubbled up in my memory, but they were soon chased away because Jerusalem’s city council – unlike Yerevan’s – didn’t think appropriate to wedge a giant, flying-saucer-shaped stadium at the end of the gorge.
The cityscape changed again, yielding an area where modern block of flats – all seriously tall and desperately ugly – traded places with shopping malls emblazoned with the same sort of logos that adorn similar outlets in London or Dubai. Glimpses of a Soviet je-ne-sais-quoi still resisted, though, under the guises of old Ladas, crumbling GAZ vans and belching PAZ buses, or stray dogs snoring besides the entrance of Yerevan’s first – and so far only – Marks & Spencer.
Finally, having inhaled enough octanes to last me a week, a minimalist grey panel appeared next to an Armenian rarity: a freshly paved road. I had finally arrived to Tsitsernakaberd, or the Armenian Genocide memorial complex.
– § –
Genocide is like a steam machine: it takes a bit of time to gain momentum. No mentally stable human being is capable, by himself, to commit the murder of fellow men and women on a grand scale, or at least this is what I choose to believe. But what if this person is constantly exposed to a media barrage aimed at de-humanising the prospective victims? What if one constantly hears propaganda obsessively repeating how a certain ethnicity is alien, inhuman, an enemy and a potential threat to his own existence? Give it time, and out of this substrate violence will inevitably grow. As Hitler used those very methods to convince an urbane and advanced society that Jews needed to go up chimneys, the Ottomans did the same with Armenians.
The minister of war, Enver Pasha, accused the Armenians of having orchestrated with the Russians a particular bad defeat that the Ottomans suffered. Istanbul’s press echoed it with all sort of absurdities – plots, revolts, and plans to sabotage the war effort. A little later, in February 1915, Enver ordered all Armenian servicemen to be disarmed, leaving their communities without defence. With propaganda pounding, it didn’t take long for local potentates to start taking the matters into their own hands: Van’s Armenian community, one of the most numerous, was encircled and almost wiped out before a Tsarist column was able to broke the siege.
In the night between April 23rd and 24th 1915, as the ANZAC troops landed in Gallipoli, the Ottoman government staged his personal version of Kristallnacht: 250 amongst the most preeminent Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in Istanbul and taken to Ankara, where they were then murdered. Campaigners for the recognition of the genocide use this night as the starting point of the whole thing; however, for me, the genocide started with a very democratic act: the passing, by the Ottoman parliament, of the Tehcir Law on May 29th 1915.
– § –
A man was teaching a girl – quite possibly his daughter – how to ride a bicycle in the Memorial’s parking lot, all while his other son, already a skilled cyclist, ran circles around them. Above, on a belvedere that was offering commanding views of the city, teenagers on a date flirted desperately. Not exactly what I had expected from the main memorial to this nation’s most tragic event.
I emerged in a vast esplanade, empty but for the monument to the murdered Armenians. It was a masterpiece of Soviet futurism: a circle of angled stone monoliths, half Stonehenge and half launch pit of a Soyuz, stood centre stage; slightly on the side-line stood the Soyuz itself, that obelisk I’d seen from Cascade. A closer inspection revealed a fissure, large enough for kids to play in, running the length of the object. A wreath of red flowers, mounted on a pedestal beside the circle of stones, offered the only note of colour in the whole grey scenario. Slowly, I started walking towards the stone circle where I knew lied, in an alcove dug below the ground level, the eternal flame.
– § –
Like most modern-day infamies, those proposing the Tehcir Law made a pathetic attempt at grabbing respectability by masquerading the bill as a public order one. But how can you whitewash a bill thet orders the military to “promote peace” by removing the entire population of villages that happened to be engaging in “acts of espionage or treason”?. With an efficiency that it didn’t seem to possess when facing the Russians, the army began moving hundreds of thousands of Armenian from their homes to the bleak Syrian desert.
Imperial Germany was the Sultan’s main ally; Germans could be found building Ottoman railways, modernizing its industries, supporting the army. Those men weren’t blind, and soon realised that something terrible was going on. From all across Anatolia, horrified German officials began reporting the death marches, the systematic rapes, the sale of women at bazaars in provincial Syria; all this constituted proof that the Ottoman empire, according to Major General Otto Von Lossow, “have embarked upon the total extermination of the Armenians in Transcaucasia”.
– § –
The atmosphere at the Memorial was oddly jovial. Couples kissed each other. Kids raced across the esplanade. Tourists rambled about, followed by gesticulating guides. I was overtaken by a group of garrulous and plump kids on my way to the stone circle: holding flowers and wearing gaudy sweaters covered in racing cars logos – Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull – they arrived to the cenotaph before me.
– § –
Even for an age without today’s mass media, it didn’t take long before reports of pogroms, concentration camps, death marches and mass graves started to appear on the world’s press, whipping up a great deal of interest in spite of the daily butchering already going on in the trenches. Sources were abundant and, for once, bipartisan: American ambassador Henry Morgenthau, British diplomat Gertrude Bell and German ambassador von Wangenheim all denounced the desire of the Sublime Porte to “exterminate the Armenian race in the Turkish Empire”. German doctor Armin Wegner also took hundreds of photos of starving civilians, left to fend for themselves in the Syrian desert.
Whilst the killing went on, the Sublime Porte enacted a second piece of legislation, veritably the real motivation behind the whole barbarity, an act that allowed the government to seize all the possessions of those it’d sent to die of starvation in the desert. Armenians were amongst the wealthiest of the nationalities in the Ottoman society and, in doing so, the Sultan gave himself a much needed lifeline to keep on fighting the war. It is this legacy – the paper trail, if you will – and the related accountabilities that make modern Turkey so weary of admitting the 1915-1918 acts for the genocide they were.
Eventually, even stealing the livelihoods out of moribund Armenians didn’t prove to be enough to save the Sultan. The war was lost, the Empire carved in pieces and those responsible for the war and the genocide – Mehmet Pasha, Grand Vizier; Enver Pasha, war minister; Ahmed Djemal Pasha, minister of the Navy – fled Turkey, where they were sentenced to death in absentia. In the meantime, forces at their orders killed between 800,000 and 1.5 million civilians.
– § –
The inner sanctum of the Memorial was as sombre as the exterior. The eternal flame burnt in a cavity surrounded by the flowers brought by visitors. There was something in the air that stopped me in my tracks; even the kids had fallen silent.
A group of middle-aged men and women, accompanied by a few teenage youths, stood in circle around the flame. Something in their clothing and stride gave me the impression they were French, sons and grandsons of Armenian émigrés, returning to their ancestral land. They held scores and, led by an ample movement by their director, the choir – because that was what they were – began to sing.
It wasn’t a joyous hymn. Mysterious words, sung in a language I couldn’t understand, rolled by and ascended towards the slice of sky above us. I needn’t an interpreter to grasp what stories those songs must’ve been telling.
I stood on the margin of the circle, fearful of breaking the magic spell that had descended on the Monument, listening to the rising and falling of the melodies intoned by the choir. A few visitors kept on arriving and all remained silent, recognising the tones of hymns that, evidently, united this scattered people. I saw a few of the cantors struggling with their emotions, their director weeping openly as she waved instructions, song after song.
It didn’t take long before I spotted the children I met before. Standing solemn with their hands held behind their backs, looking like the grown men they’ll become, they listened respectfully to the chant of those visitors that they didn’t know, but with whom they shared the legacy of the world’s first modern genocide.
I left the Memorial almost on tiptoe as the singing continued, a brick-sized of emotions wedged in my throat. Having seen the human aspect of this tragedy, it was hard to maintain some sort of historic detachment from it, and to try and see both sides of the argument. Before the arrival of the choir it all felt remote, distant and all too political, a object of contention without too much grounding; after, it was a lot more real.
As I left the Memorial, one panel caught my attention. It was a picture of the world, with – painted purple – the countries that recognised the genocide as such. Less than half of the world had. The Armenian question always struggled to gain awareness, since its fleeting mention at the 1919 peace agreements.
This treatment didn’t fail to impress Adolf Hitler, who took this case as the proof that his Final Solution would be implementable with impunity. On the evening of the invasion of Poland, he told his military leadership to be merciless against the Slavs, whom he considered to be inferiors. He didn’t expect the world to raise an eyebrow because, “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”