Souls in unrest

[A]lmost a century and three generations separate Sevan Hajinian from the Armenian genocide, but that doesn’t make what happened any easier to comprehend. The upcoming anniversary of the Armenian genocide on April 24 only makes it more difficult.

“When the month of April comes, it’s really a sad month for us,” Hajinian says. Not only has Hajinian studied the genocide since she was a teenager, but her family was also directly impacted by it – her great-grandmother saw six of her seven children killed before she fled the Ottoman Empire to Syria with her only son, Hajinian’s grandfather.

“He was always telling us he remembers walking through the desert and getting to Syria, how tough it was for them to start all over,” Hajinian says of her grandfather, who died in 1982.

Hajinian’s story is not an isolated one. From 1915 to 1923, around 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were killed by government forces, the first action being the deportation of 250 Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915. Many of the deaths were the result of deportations, where Armenians were marched out of the country and left in the Syrian desert. Along the way, thousands died from starvation, exhaustion, and attacks on the convoys.

By 1923, the worldwide population of Armenians had dropped from 4 million to 2.5 million. The Armenians that fled were dispersed around the Middle East, and many eventually moved to North America. Today, it is estimated that around 70,000 Armenians are living in Canada, with Toronto having the largest Armenian community in the country.
The genocide label, although widely accepted, still stirs up controversy 97 years after the fact.

Armenians have long been advocating for the events to be recognized as genocide, and April 24 is a national day of remembrance in Armenia. Over 20 countries, including Canada, have acknowledged the genocide, as well as 43 states in the United States and two provinces in Australia, even though the federal governments have not.

Genocide scholars and many historians support the label, deeming it “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Scholars say that the systematic approach the Ottoman Empire used to kill Armenians and decimate Armenian culture are in line with the UN Genocide Convention, a resolution enacted in 1951 that legally defines genocide.

The genocide resonates with younger generation of Armenian-Canadians as well.

“It still continues to affect us just because the people who are descendents of the genocide [survivors] have had to go through so many things,” says Daron Mardirossian, president of the Armenian Students’ Association at Ryerson University.

“A lot of people were traumatized, weren’t able to have children, weren’t able to lead normal lives afterwards,” he says. Like Hajinian, Mardirossian has personal ties with the genocide – his great-grandparents on his father’s side were business owners and mayors in the Ottoman Empire, and were forced to leave everything behind when escaping the violence.

However the Turkish community has a very different view on what happened.

“There’s no genocide to revoke,” says Demir Delen, former president of the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations. His view is shared by most Turkish scholars and some historians. Delen has spent over four decades researching the history of the Ottoman Empire and Armenian community.

“In order to understand the events of 1915, you have to really look at the historical context,” says Delen. “It’s in the middle of the First World War.”

At the time, Turkey was facing attacks from British and Russian forces. There were Armenians enlisted in Russian and Turkish armies, and it was believed that Armenians in Turkey were aiding the Russians.

“It was a purely military decision… to move the Armenians that lived in the eastern Anatolia [where the Russians were attacking] out of the way so they couldn’t assist the enemy,” says Delen.

Delen notes that over a million Turks and Muslims were killed during the time of the genocide. He cites scholars’ lack of willingness to look at Turkish accounts of what happened as the reason the Turkish perspective is under-represented.
Delen also dismisses the governments who have recognized the genocide.

“These are not historians, they are politicians,” Delen says. “How many of them even know the area or what happened?”

Along with academics, the genocide is a hot topic in the political world.

Turkey strongly rejects the notion that a genocide happened. It has arrested journalists who acknowledge the genocide under Article 301 of the Penal Code, which makes insulting Turkey and “Turkish-ness” illegal.

There have also been deadly consequences. Hrant Dink, a Turkish-born Armenian journalist who wrote about Armenian identity and the genocide, was assassinated outside his Istanbul office in 2007 by a Turkish nationalist.

As well, Turkish and French relations were strained earlier this year when France passed a bill, later revoked by Senate, that would have made denying the Armenian genocide illegal. The Turkish government froze military, economic, and political ties with France and accused French president Nicolas Sarkozy of trying to grab the votes of France’s Armenians population, estimated to be around 500,000.

Turkey’s resistance to the genocide label has only strengthened Armenians’ resolve to have it recognized.
“It gives us more reason to commemorate the events,” says Daniel Ohanian, president of Armen Karo Student Association. The association is a national body offers resources to Armenian university-student groups.

Ohanian points out initiatives that spread awareness of the genocide in Toronto. The Toronto District School Board has included a section on the Armenian genocide in its Grade 11 genocide course, and every year near the end of April, a vigil commemorating the genocide is held at Queen’s Park.

Sevan Hajinian though, will not be in the city come April 24. Along with hundreds of Armenians from across the country, Hajinian will be heading to Ottawa.

“It’s a thank-you rally in front of Parliament [for recognizing the genocide], and then we walk to the Turkish embassy,” she says of the annual event. “We don’t have any problem with the Turkish people, the problem is the government, who is denying the genocide.”

“Our souls will not rest ’til the perpetrators are brought to justice.”