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Southland Armenians’ long quest

Times Staff Writer

Hrant Zeitountzian, 97, of Pasadena still remembers being forced from his village into Syria by Turkish soldiers in 1915. He was 6 years old.

His father, a mule driver, had already been taken from the family farm by Turkish soldiers. As Zeitountzian marched to Syria, he watched his brother and sister, both toddlers, fall ill and die, bodies in the mud, two of an estimated 1.5 million who would die during the relocations.

It was stories like his, told by Armenian survivors in the decades following the mass deaths, that fueled a growing movement seeking official recognition of the killings. This week, Zeitountzian and others feel that they are closer than ever to winning official recognition in Washington of the genocide.

Until now, their quest has been blocked for geopolitical reasons: The U.S. is a close ally of Turkey, which strongly opposes any official recognition of the genocide.

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Many in Washington have argued that it is more important to respect the Turkish government than to address past wrongs. Congress failed to pass legislation recognizing the genocide in 1975 and 1984, due in part to intense lobbying by Turkish groups.

But the latest resolution, sponsored by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week and has the support of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“We’ve been through this game,” said professor Richard Dekmejian, director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.

But this time, “There seems to be a moral tipping point in favor of the Armenian genocide precisely because it has happened in other places, in Rwanda and Darfur, the feeling that if we don’t come clean, they are going to happen in other places,” he said.

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For Armenian Americans in Southern California, which has the largest Armenian community in the United States, the campaign had become a multi-generational obsession. The movement included outreach to non-Armenians and the Bush administration, which is fighting the measure, saying that it would hurt relations with Turkey.

Many first-generation Armenian immigrants pushed the painful history aside to assimilate in America, settling where they found work in the Rust Belt, the mill towns of New England, in Glendale and Fresno.

A second wave of immigrants arrived in the 1960s, fleeing wars in Lebanon, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, and settled primarily in Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena and an area that became known as “Little Armenia” in east Hollywood. They opened businesses, built ornate churches and schools, and sought elected office. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a third wave of Armenians flocked to hubs in Glendale and Hollywood, boosting the community’s political clout.

Together they would become the country’s largest Armenian enclave, with more than 60,000 in the city of Los Angeles and more than 300,000 in Southern California, a large chunk of the 800,000 Armenians in the U.S., Dekmejian said.

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“Everybody has relatives who were lost,” Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said of Armenians in Southern California. “People are very motivated.”

Each year, thousands of Armenians gather to commemorate the genocide on April 24, and as their numbers have grown, so have the ceremonies. Eventually, winning a national acknowledgment of the tragedy became a civil rights struggle. In 1965, on the 50th anniversary of the genocide, local Armenians unveiled the country’s first memorial on public land in Montebello.

Former Gov. George Deukmejian, who recently recorded two promotional video messages in favor of passing the resolution, remembers standing with thousands of fellow Armenian Americans, watching then-Gov. Ronald Reagan dedicate the white concrete monument in Montebello’s Bicknell Park, with its plaque commemorating the “Armenian victims of genocide” and “Men of all nations who have fallen victim to crimes against humanity.”

Deukmejian said having Reagan attend the event was a huge moment for many Armenian Americans, giving them hope that they could also win recognition in Washington.

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Father Vazken Movsesian, an Armenian American priest in Glendale, agreed.

“We realized at that moment that it wasn’t just a family story, it was a community story,” Movsesian said. “There is a struggle that has to be answered.”

In recent years, the cause has been taken up by a younger generation of Armenians in their 20s and 30s who learned about the genocide from their elders.

Young people as well as survivors have traveled to Washington to share their stories. Armenian youth fasted outside the Turkish Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard, marched from Fresno to Sacramento and last week protested outside the office of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice).

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Harman, a former sponsor of the genocide resolution, recently changed her mind and sent a letter to Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) urging him to withdraw the bill. Harman did not return calls to her office late this week seeking comment.

But in a Times Op-Ed piece Friday, she said that although she recognizes that the Armenians were victims of genocide, she realized after visiting Turkey earlier this year that passing the genocide resolution “would isolate and embarrass a courageous and moderate Islamic government in perhaps the most volatile region in the world.”

The Turkish government acknowledges that hundreds of thousands of Armenians died as a result of the forced relocations from eastern Turkey in 1915, but argues that it was not a systematic Ottoman government effort, but the result of World War I, famine and disease that killed Turks, too.

In response to the House’s action, the Turkish government recalled their U.S. ambassador. The conflict could jeopardize transportation of U.S. military supplies to Iraq that pass through a key air base near the southern Turkish city of Adana.

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A showdown on the resolution is expected on Capitol Hill in coming weeks.

Carla Garapedian, the granddaughter of survivors and a Los Angeles native, is scheduled to travel to Washington next week to screen her new documentary about the genocide, “Screamers,” for members of Congress. Earlier this year she was summoned for a private screening of the film, which features Armenian Los Angeles rockers System of a Down, with David and Victoria Beckham in Beverly Hills.

“We’re angry. It is our generation that is making people listen,” Garapedian said.

The Armenians of Southern California intend to keep lobbying in coming weeks, the old and the young.

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“A lot of people ask me why we care so much, especially the youth because we are a few generations out from the genocide,” said Caspar Jivalagian, 20, of Pasadena, a senior psychology major at Cal Poly Pomona who has fasted and marched for the cause, most recently outside of Harman’s El Segundo office Friday afternoon. “Every Armenian we have it in us, under our skin.”

Zeitountzian, the survivor, said he was cheered by this week’s progress.

“I am glad for the victory we have started,” he said, but his real goal is to live long enough to see Congress finally pass the genocide resolution.

“That will make me very happy if I live,” he said, blue eyes shining. “I am optimist.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


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