By Maria Akopyan (Guest Contributor)
His eyes watered, his voice trembled, his pain-filled words struggled to surface as my grandfather recalled the tragic story of his mother’s fight for survival during the Armenian Genocide, and the inner battles she faced in the aftermath of 1915. Mari grew up in a small Armenian village now found in modern day Turkey. She lived a humble and modest life, as most Armenians did living in rural villages in the late 19th century. She was very well liked in her community. Others frequently addressed her as “Mari kurik,” (Sister Mari), a sign of respect and adoration. She was known for her kind heart, vigor, and vitality, but these qualities would soon be overshadowed by the events that followed in 1915.
Turmoil between the Ottoman government and the Armenian population had slowly been rising for several years. Many Armenian villages and communities were being brutally massacred by Turkish hands. Mari and her family received word that her father was being recruited by the Ottoman government under the Young Turk regime. Armenians assembled in fear, as word had spread that Armenian men in the army were being disarmed and placed in labor battalions, only to be murdered afterward. Her family’s devastation only grew worse in April of 1915, when the Ottoman government pillaged through their town, and ordered all Armenian civilians in the villages to be deported from their homes through the Syrian Desert. Initially assured by Ottoman soldiers that deportation was simply an effort to relocate the Armenians, Mari was soon to learn the disturbing truth; that this “relocation” effort would essentially become a march of death.
Mari, her family, and the rest of her village were rallied, along with hundreds of others from surrounding villages, mostly all women, children, and elderly. With nothing but the clothes on their backs, they walked. For miles under the blazing desert sun, not a single Armenian was given anything to consume, no food nor water. Those who dared to stop walking or tried to escape were immediately killed, with no warning or mercy given. Mari watched as the young, the elderly, and the fragile collapsed one after another, dying of deliberate starvation and exhaustion, their bodies all left to rot. Mari watched as young girls and their mothers were brutally raped, some even shot to death immediately afterward.
For weeks Mari marched, scared, hungry and weak. The majority of deportees were deceased. Among the dead were countless relatives and friends with whom Mari grew up. Mari managed to barely survive by succumbing to desperate measures, such as drinking her own urine. What happened next could only be described as a miracle. While at a concentration camp, Mari was blessed with an opportunity to escape, and with the help of a few strangers, Mari finally found herself free. Severely traumatized and barely evading death, she fled to Greece wielding a second chance at life, a chance to start over.
A few years later, Mari married and soon brought a daughter into this world. She was blessed with a second child in 1924, a son – my grandfather. Life was starting to look up for Mari and her new family. She cared for her children with love and affection. However, despite the joy of motherhood, Mari could not shake her depressing past. Mari survived the genocide, but her vitality and vigor were lost somewhere along the way; the newly empty spaces compressed with memories embedded far more securely. To her loved ones, Mari appeared to be a strong woman, but on the inside she was miserable and her misery was only accumulating. She was fighting a battle within herself, continuously failing in her attempt to let go of pained memories. In 1929, the 30 year-old mother of two took her own life, a life that she had fought so hard to save. My grandfather was only five-years old.
Only a small population of Armenians had survived the deportations of 1915, one of whom was Mari. The Turkish government successfully annihilated over a million innocent Armenian men, women and children that year but Mari marginally managed to survive. Mari fought for her life every day through the genocide and although she physically escaped, it was impossible to escape emotionally. The Turkish government may have failed to eliminate Mari during the march of death, but they succeeded in killing her spirit, which ultimately led to her suicide.
Maria Akopyan was born in Yerevan and raised in California. She studied politics and philosophy at UCLA and is a recent law school graduate. Maria is passionate about helping individuals resolve conflicts and live fulfilling lives.