Not just genocide
We mark today the 93rd anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It is a dull number, 93. It is a good number to forget, or else to spend on old arguments, old parallels and that famous quote from Hitler who, pondering if he could get away with a Holocaust of his own, reportedly remarked: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”
But on this most unremarkable anniversary, please allow me, the great-grandson of genocide survivors and an Armenian who has spared no cliché in the service of genocide recognition, to speak freely, to discard my diaspora’s favorite tropes and congressional resolutions, to discard even the distinction that ours was the first genocide of the 20th century.
Indeed, for a few hundred words, let us forget the term “genocide” itself, and let us recalculate the terms of our ethnic grief toward a tragedy whose survivors are mostly dead and whose victims, had they survived, would now be dead.
It is inadequate to call it genocide. That word is perhaps an efficient but not an effective substitute for the crime of “murder” that was perpetrated and should be recorded, separately, 1.5 million times. (The full list of the names of the victims would fill the pages of four Bibles.) But more than this, what “genocide” cannot convey is the reality that loss of life in historic Armenia was accompanied by the loss of homeland, which had been ours for more than 3,000 years.
The Armenian genocide was, first and foremost, the killing of homeland. The Ottoman Turkish government intended not a one-generation fix to the Christian Armenian problem that was festering within its empire; it intended a permanent solution. Its crime was not mere murder of people; it was deportation and displacement, that the civilization and all its children be murdered.
Of course, many children of forced immigrants have grown to bless their past. The sons and daughters of exiled Russians or enslaved Africans, having traded rags for riches in the United States, can still return to the old world for summer vacations or nostalgic visits.
But I cannot return to the homeland of my great-grandparents. I cannot return to Garin, where in a corner house now occupied by a Turkish woman, my grandmother’s father once lived. Nor to Kharpert, where my grandfather’s father, a teenage boy in 1915, witnessed the massacre of his entire family.
Deportation by design seems now to be the more trivial of Ottoman Turkey’s crimes, but it is the more enduring one, and the one that finds today’s Turkey complicit in its past. The state of modern Turkey is not guilty of the murders of 1915, but it is guilty of depriving me of the city, Garin, whose name and identity are my own.
The children of our diaspora are named for Christian saints and Armenian writers. But we are also named for our towns, counties, rivers and mountains -- Daron, Van, Sassoun, Ani, Arax, Ararat -- which together make up a living map of Armenia the homeland that was lost with the genocide. I myself have seen Ani, the fabled City of 1,001 Churches. The churches, now crumbled and empty, are just on the other side of the border present-day Armenia shares with Turkey.
Today is a day to remember the Armenian genocide that began in 1915. But it is also a day to recognize the Great Armenian Dispossession that continues in 2008.
I am proud, without a doubt, of the moral victory of the word “genocide.” But you’ll forgive me, please, for not being able to forget that the homes, churches, schools and bones of my forebears are still buried in the soil of eastern Turkey, which is western Armenia.
Garin Hovannisian is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and blogs at LuckyFrown.com.
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