Forget Me Not

By Dr. Kay Mouradian

I first heard about Ayline Amirayan’s talent from her voice coach Charles Gevoian whose tenor voice is well known here in Southern California.  When Gevoian told me Ayline would perform her first original song Forget Me Not for the 100thcommemoration at Montebello’s Armenian Genocide Memorial last April, I made a special effort to be there. When Gevoian opened the program with the finest rendition I have ever heard of The Star Spangled Banner, I knew the entire program would be filled with quality. I was not disappointed.

The Montebello Genocide Memorial opened in April 1968 and is the oldest memorial in the United States dedicated to Armenian Genocide victims. A yearly outdoor memorial service held every April attracts members of the Armenian community from all over the California southland and a capacity crowd of more than 500 attended the 1915 Centennial event on April 23rd.

Two well-known Armenian bands, the Element Band and the Greg Hosharian Band, along with solo vocalist Ayline Amirayan, helped elevate the somber energy. As I listened to Ayline, who was accompanied by pianist Greg Hosharian, violinist Garik Terzian and percussionist George Bilezikjian, I wondered why I previously had not heard of her.

Amirayan opened with three Armenian songs and her obvious love for Armenian music resonated throughout the audience and affected me deeply. I, an Armenian American born in Boston, do not speak or understand our Armenian language, and I realize how much of my heritage I have lost.

When I interviewed Ayline Amirayan she told me why she chose the Armenian songs she sang for the Centennial. Her first song “Kani Vur Djan” by Sayat Nova was meant to remind the audience that Sayat Nova’s music lives on and still influences the poetic artistry of the Armenian people.

Her second song “ Yeraz Im Yergir Hyernik” written by Yerevan’s songwriter and musician Robert Amirkhanyan is about the love for Armenia.  With today’s talented musicians such as Amirkhanyan, Amirayan understands the preservation, authenticity and beauty of Sayat Nova affecting Armenian music a hundred years later.

Her next song was “Hye Herosneri Yerke”. “I wanted to thank the heroes ofArmenia and honor those brave soldiers who have fought for the Armenian cause,” she said.

Amirayan prepared the audience for her closing song, Forget Me Not. “It was extremely important for me to write Forget Me Not in English”, she said. “As Armenians we know our story. For 100 years we’ve heard horrific stories through the eyes of our parents and grand parents. But I wanted the lyrics to be in English so non-Armenians would understand and feel why the title is “Forget Me Not!”

When I listened to her latest rendition of Forget Me Not, the melody and lyrics kept playing over and over in my head, which suggests to me that this is a song that will be remembered. I wanted to know and asked her about her creative process.

“The melancholy melody came to me easily as I pictured my ancestors,” Amirayan said. “The lyrics spoke to me through the forget me not flower, and I sang the song as if I were the flower itself. My voice reflects the flower’s black circle with the dark aftermath, the purple colors stretch toward unity and the yellow heart of the flower speaks to my vision of hope and my love for creativity.”

The day after the Montebello event Amirayan joined 160,000 Armenians in the April 24th 6 mile Marching to Justice walk in Los Angeles from Little Armenia in Hollywood to the Turkish consulate in Westward.  “We have a beautiful culture,” she told me and added, “the strength and determination of the march says we are all here, we hear the voices of our ancestors and as I walked uphill and looked back it was as if I saw thousands of our ancestors marching out of Turkeytoward Dier el Zor.  But, we were marching not to death. We were marching toward life.

“We are still here and free,” she continued.  “Not marching to death but marching to freedom.  How could an Armenian not be proud?  We are unique. Hearing stories like my grandfather, who at age six, while hidden in the barn, witnessed Turkish soldiers decapitate his three older brothers. We are the voices of those children who survived because of their strength.  Had my grandfather been killed I wouldn’t be here today.”

The story how Amirayan’s grandfather survived is every Armenian’s story.  It has taken 100 years for the world to recognize the depth of our Armenian loss in 1915 and Amirayan’s first songwriting experience gives our community a musical rendition of our tragedy. Forget Me Not needs to be in every Armenian home to acknowledge those who never returned.

Who knows how many beyond our community will be affected listening to the haunting melody and even just the first verse?  “My black eye weeps a suffering tear, Painful dark memories of 100 years. My heart wilts, my soul is denied, I cry out for truth for those who died.”

Dr. Kay Mouradian is an educator, filmmaker, and author of My Mother’s Voice, a book depicting her mother’s story as a victim and survivor of the Armenian Genocide.  She also wrote, narrated, and co-produced My Mother’s Voice, a documentary based on her book.  She holds a doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University and holds degrees from Boston University and UCLA.

Our Old Backyard

By Nora Serghany (Guest Contributor)

Let the night vie and struggle to shadow the land, but the light of truth will always pierce the darkness.

Nora Serghany is a 22-year-old Buffalo native who subsists off coffee fumes and late night studying.  She is currently studying medicine and has a passion for writing, inspired by Russian novelists.  More of her work can be found here.

100 Years Later

By Melissa Lake

There is absolutely no rebuttal in saying that the Armenian Genocide was a horrific and senseless display of human cruelty and indifference. It is a large, unsightly stain upon the history of the world. I’m certain that if it were scientifically possible, most people would have it so that such an immense human tragedy had never happened.

However, while some may think it callous to say so, it would be historically and culturally ignorant to not take into consideration the few positive outcomes that resulted from the Armenian Genocide.

Armenians today could be described as a diaspora culture. Our ethnic heritage may have its roots placed in a small area in the west of Europe but the branches of our cultural tree have grown far and wide across the globe. A culture once fenced in and limited to a specific geographical region of the world has both developed and evolved, changing and morphing into something much different from what it began, as well as much different from other branches on the same familial tree.

Armenians are a people united in origin and fundamental cultural and dogmatic practices and yet it seems almost as if that is where our unity ends. The mass displacement of Armenians during the years preceding and during the genocide caused an irreparable cultural tear from traditional practices that we can easily see the effects of today. Armenians raised generationally in Syria, or Istanbul, or on the East Coast of the United States, while sharing some lasting and vital cultural characteristics, could be labeled as their own unique subcultures, somewhat similar but still astoundingly different.

I first realized this when I dated an Armenian who had grown up in New York City. At a young age, he had been adopted from Armenia. Both his parents were Armenian, so he spent the entirety of his young adult life immersed in his personal sect of Armenian culture- a small diaspora located in the New York/New Jersey area. So much of his appeal to me was a chance to connect with someone with a similar cultural background- to be able to share common beliefs and ideals and family lifestyles. But the more time I spent with him, the more acutely aware I became of the dissimilarity we shared culturally. His family life was much more reserved and conservative, full of professionals who behaved, well, professionally. And my family life was far different. The Armenians I grew up with were carefree, eccentric and astoundingly loud. So when I tried to joke with him about how the most cheetah print and stripper heels I’ve ever seen in my life were at the Armenian church on Easter Sunday, he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. And it was then that I realized exactly how much our culture has changed. The diaspora I grew up in, a large community of mostly Turkish and Syrian Armenians, was bound to be immensely different than others across the world. So much of our cultural traditions had adapted and grew with our change of scenery so that now, intermingled with our traditional beliefs and practices, are customs native to the places Armenians have found themselves. So my reality was that my culture was as much Turkish as it was Armenian, regardless of the fact that my mother and my family had spent their whole lives immersed in “Armenian” culture.

Many see this as a terrible tragedy, as an egregious calamitous aftermath of a horrific event. Yet it seems that the people who see it this way are also those that believe that change is terrifying. Cultural evolution, especially from a biological and historical context, is not only intrinsically necessary but humanitarianly beneficial. Culture changes with the evolution of time. The fact that Armenians as a people were able to experience such an immense tragedy and still maintain a base foundational cultural identity is less of an unfortunate loss and more of a remarkable achievement.

For a people who were ignored for much of history, Armenians across the world have been gaining renown and spreading Armenian awareness with their success, all while breathing new life into Armenian cultural identity. And still all Armenians share the cultural pain of our genocide. For such an immense act of human injustice, the Armenian Genocide is in all likelihood one of the largest sources for encouragement on Armenian communal gathering today. To say it is culturally irrelevant or unimportant would be to disregard what Armenian culture has become. Through such immense hardship and strife, Armenians have endured, and this shared strength and pride and yet also immense sadness has woven itself into a key block in the foundation of Armenian culture.

So through all of the varying differences Armenians culturally share today we are bonded together foundationally by our shared history and our distant past. Where we may lead different lifestyles and have different beliefs, as a culture we are bonded by what we were and what we’ve endured but also by what we may become. As the 100 year anniversary of the genocide looms ever closer, Armenians have become more active in their communities than ever and slowly but surely gaps that have existed between varying diasporas are narrowing. For a country that once struggled to maintain its cultural identity in the midst of war and systematic annihilation, it has flourished and grown into something even greater than what it began.

Irrepressible

By Semaline Joukakelian (Guest Contributor)

semaline

Semaline Joukakelian is a graphic designer living in Montreal, Canada.  She enjoys painting and reading, and finds inspiration in the voices of Arthur Meschian and Ruben Hakhverdyan.   

Love In 1915

By Taleen Mardirossian

Based on a true story.

Male or female, a lion is a lion.”

The only difference between my mother and father was one thing; my father did not fall prey to the expectations of society.  At eighteen years old I had committed the sin of all sins, as my mother would say. I had rejected a man’s hand in marriage without good cause; a sin I repeated time and time again.  And she rightfully blamed my father for my fervor and tenaciousness.  Father raised me, his only child, as he would a son.  While the girls my age were already married, I was committed to my books. They had all mastered the art of cooking while I had acquired the skills necessary to hunt and skin animals in the nightfall.  I knew how to handle knives before learning to properly hold a spoon and preferred wild horses to tamed ones. To my mother’s dismay, I openly shared my views on topics that were off limits; politics, religion, and love. When other prominent leaders would gather in our home for dinner, father would seat me right across from him, at the head of the table.

And if my mother dared to question his intentions, which she often did, for teaching his daughter to partake in tasks inappropriate for a lady, he’d remind her, “Male or female, a lion is a lion.”

It was sometime in the spring of 1914 when father joined me in his library as he did every morning.  He handed me a stack of letters, “Read these and speak of them to no one.  I want you to be aware, always aware.”

So I read every single word of every letter, not once, not twice, but ten times. These words revealed the social, political, and economic conditions of Sassoun, a neighboring village where there were mountains upon mountains, where its people were often without food but never without arms.  I immediately recalled father speaking so fondly of this place, “The only thing that stands taller than Sassoun’s mountains are its people.”

Freedom fighters had been protecting their lands from the Ottoman Government’s persistent desire to oppress, and eventually, occupy Sassoun.  They had already twice resisted in the last two decades against Kurdish and Turkish invasions, marking them a threat to the Ottoman Empire.  Mush is not any less of a threat than Sassoun. We must arm our fighters and our people.

Never had I read words crafted in such an eloquent and articulate manner.  It was evident that while most men sought comfort in false naivety, this writer, whoever he was, found solace in confronting the enemy.  I searched the letters for a name, but I found only a single letter, M.

“Father, who wrote these letters?”

“Moushegh.”

I had never met Moushegh but I knew of him.   The men in our village described him as the young man who did not know that such a thing as fear existed.  He was orphaned at age six when his father was killed fighting Sassoun’s first resistance in 1894.  “Just like his father, an untamed tiger disguised as a human,” father would add.  And my mother, for some reason, always felt the need to make a point, “Unfortunately, a man who is willing to die for his people cannot make a good husband,” as though she had some kind of premonition.

The words in his letters and the words spoken about him told me one thing; this man was capable of striking with his words as meticulously as with his sword.  If he cannot make a good husband, then who can?

If it is at all possible to fall in love with people you have never met and places you have never seen, then I was in love with a man named Moushegh and a place called Sassoun.

Several weeks had passed when I heard a knock on the door late one night. I had been cleaning father’s knives in my stained skirt, half of my curls still intact while the remaining half was flouncing out of my bun and onto my shoulders. I answered the door only to find a man with an unfamiliar face.

His skin was as white as the clouds in a clear sky and his hair as dark as a winter’s night.  He was tall with piercing blue eyes and he looked like no one I had ever seen.  He stood, staring at me, completely silent.

“Are you lost?” I asked.

He shook his head, no.

“Are you here to see my father?”

He nodded, yes.

“Is he expecting you?”

He nodded once more.

“I’m Manouchak.”

As he gently took my hand in his, he finally spoke, “Moushegh.”

I must have forgotten to breathe because instead of inviting him in, I stood there, my hand in his, staring into his eyes.  My stomach was turning, head spinning, as I realized that this beautiful face belonged to an even more beautiful mind. I was at a complete loss of words and he wasn’t helping.  The man who filled pages and pages with words, stared back at me and said nothing, that is, until father came to the door.

His presence filled our home as he spoke to my father with such grandeur.  He was self-less, undeniably brilliant, and passionate beyond belief.  Evidently, he was more than capable of carrying conversations, as long as they weren’t with me.

That year, he came and went often.  We seldom exchanged words, mostly glances, which is why he caught me off guard when he followed me into the garden one night, grabbed my waist, and softly whispered, as though he was telling me a secret that even the flowers and trees were forbidden to hear, “Marry me.”

There was no ring, no priest, no one to witness that these words were spoken.  And with my word in exchange for his, we were engaged.  His hopes were now mine and my dreams were his. Our love was of the kind that despite belonging to someone, made you feel free.

Whereas other women viewed his fearlessness and daring nature as indicators of a man to admire, not marry, these unparalleled traits of his had quite the reverse effect on me.

Between the two of us, there existed no logic or reason or sensibility, only impulsively wild recklessness.  There was not a regime in the world that we couldn’t overthrow, not a war we couldn’t win, together. We were inseparable, until we were forced to be apart.

I frantically woke from my sleep thinking I was having a nightmare, only to find that the screaming voices ringing in my ear were real.  I heard the doors of the corridor opening and closing, footsteps barging in and out of rooms accompanied with deep voices yelling in Turkish.  I knew it was just a matter of seconds before my bedroom door would swing open.  I quickly pulled the blanket over my bed as if no one had slept in it, pulled my shoes over my feet and jumped out the window, closing it behind me.  My window led to the fields behind our house where father and I had built a safe haven below the ground.  It was in this small cellar where we hid our gold and weapons, along with a generous amount of walnuts and dried fruits.  It was pitch dark inside as I silently climbed in, familiar with every centimeter of this confined space.

Study your surroundings and never attack with blind eyes, father had taught me.  As I began to carefully pull out weapons, I was trying to make sense of what was happening while I counted the number of voices to determine how many men I would be going up against.  I could hear commotion coming from inside the house but I couldn’t make out words until the voices came closer to where I was.  And so I began counting, one, two, three, four.

“What am I being arrested for?” father screamed but there was no response. I could hear mother’s cries as I loaded the ammunition.

Four against one, I could do this.

“We want your daughter.  Where is she?”

Five voices.

I brought my ear as close to the entry as possible.  What do they want me for?  And then I heard my sweet father’s voice speak with conviction.

“She is not here.”

“There is no need to lie.  We don’t kill beautiful girls.”

Six voices.  How many more of them could there be?

“We know better than to waste that kind of beauty.  Where is she?”

Seven voices.

“There are fifteen of you and only two of us.  You think my daughter would be hiding if she were here?”

And it was in this moment that I buried my face in my hands, unable to control my emotions.  Father knew exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing.  He knew I could never leave him.  He knew I was counting voices and he knew I would attack.  And this was his only way of letting me know that there were too many of them and only one of me.  He was indirectly asking me to stay in the cellar, pleading and begging for me to listen to his words instead of my heart.

As I was sinking in an overwhelming range of emotions, I noticed my mother’s cries stop at the sound of a gunshot.  She was killed, gone in an instant, her life used simply to provoke my father and I.  My father yelled and screamed, asking questions that would forever remain unanswered.

“Now, are you going to tell us where your daughter is?”

“She’s not here!  God himself cannot make her appear.”

My father knew me all too well. He knew I would reach an uncontrollable point, that my impulsive nature would force me out of the cellar. And so, he was reinforcing my decision to respect his words, demanding me to stay put no matter what would happen next.  I put down my weapons, covered my ears, and closed my eyes and felt the enormity of love I held for my father.

It was this love and utmost respect for him that kept me in that cellar while they slowly tortured him to death, hoping that I would emerge to save him.   And God knows, I almost did.  I fought with myself, eyes drenched in my own tears, as they cut each of his fingers.   Those fingers that had held mine, that taught me to count and write, dance and pray, fell to the ground one at a time.  How he screamed, how he screamed God’s name, how he called for God’s help.

And while he endured excruciating pain, he spoke his last words to me.

Gyankud talar lini lao.”

These words were followed by silence, until a voice finally spoke, “She definitely isn’t here.”

But I was.  I was below them, cowardly listening as my parents were killed and I couldn’t tell if I felt more shame or guilt.

I didn’t leave the cellar that night; partly because the footsteps and voices remained in the distance, but mostly because for the first time in my life I was afraid.  My chest was moving but I couldn’t feel myself breathing.  How could I find bravery within me to escape when I knew death was waiting for me?

I stayed in the cellar for four days, hoping that Moushegh would return for me. He had left to Sassoun the day before the attack; he should have arrived two days prior. Moushegh never came. As soon as the sun set on the fourth night, I climbed out of the cellar and witnessed a view that I could have never prepared myself for, an image that would never leave my mind.  There laid two bodies, belonging to my parents, half-eaten by stray dogs and the remaining flesh rotten by the scorching sun.

I collapsed, unable to hear my own screams, unable to feel my legs, or trust my own eyes. I placed my bare hands into the dirt, digging graves for my parents.  I dragged what was left of them, said my goodbyes, and buried them beneath the earth.

I returned to the cellar, cut my long locks of curly hair and changed into a set of father’s spare clothing. I took only as many weapons, food, and gold as necessary, before leaving the land that belonged to me. In four days, this sacred land had been turned into a roadside slaughterhouse. The prosperous population of Mush had become casualties. The corpses of children lay wherever I looked, their faces peacefully asleep, their bones protruded out of their skin. Wherever I looked, each glance was worse than the one before.

I dropped to my knees when I noticed three bodies hanging from afar. What if Moushegh is one of them? What if he had been hanged while I sat waiting for him in that cellar?

I picked myself up and ran towards the hanging bodies. I never knew that one could feel relief and pain simultaneously. Moushegh was not among these men but I knew all three, all prominent leaders and friends of my father who I had grown up with. These were the men who accepted me among them, who dined with us on our table, who brought me books, who asked me for my opinion before sharing their own.

With the little strength I had left in me, I cut the ropes that had suffocated the life out of them, and buried them alongside each other, paying my last respects to the immaculate men of Mush.   They deserved at least this much, to become one with the soil that they had died to protect.

For my own sanity, I began to hide during the day and walked only at night, as I oddly found comfort in the darkness that concealed the devastating realities of this inhumane world.

Two weeks had passed before I spotted an elderly woman collecting berries just as the sun was rising.  I watched her from a distance as she raised her hands to the sky and spoke words that I couldn’t make out, before bringing three clenched fingers to her forehead, then her abdomen, crossing her heart. I was in an unknown place with an unknown destination but I was able to breathe for the first time in weeks because this simple gesture told me she was an Armenian.

I desperately approached the woman, confiding in her that I too, was Armenian.  She immediately threw her arms around my neck, kissing my cheeks, as if she had known me all my life.  She introduced herself as Tello, while grabbing my hand and urging me to follow her.  We walked through the shrubs of a nearby field where there sat two young women and a child.

“We found an Arab man who knows a shortcut to Syria.  He will be fetching for us as soon as the sun sets.  I have already paid him four gold coins, I will give him another and you will join us.”

“How can you trust him?”

“My sweet girl, tell me, do we have any other choice?”

We remained in hiding until the sun came down and silently began walking towards the olive tree, where we would meet the Arab man.  But we all stopped in our tracks at the sound of Turkish voices.

Tello peeked through the shrubs and whispered to me, “That’s the Arab man.”

I put my finger over my lip, demanding that the others remain quiet while I took a few steps closer, intently listening to the words that were being spoken.  Two Turkish soldiers were pressing the man for information, “Are you hiding Armenians?”

To my surprise, the Arab man denied every accusation, leading the soldiers to tie his wrists.  I reached for my knife, thinking that it would be only a matter of seconds before the Arab man confessed and put our lives at risk to save his own.  But he never did. His hands restrained, each soldier took out a knife and I knew his death would soon arrive. Although the world had lost its conscience, I still had mine. For weeks, I had been haunted by the screaming voices of my parents and I couldn’t stand idly by again.  Muslim, Kurd, Arab, Turk, whatever this man was, whatever God he did or didn’t believe in, was irrelevant to me.  He was a good man with a good heart who was risking his own life to save the lives of complete strangers.  So I did what I knew I had to do, I attacked.

I killed two men that night taking two malice hearts to save a kind one, but even this justification didn’t change the fact that my hands were stained with blood, my soul tainted and numb, desensitized to human tragedy.

Soon thereafter, we crossed into Syria’s borders. I became a foreigner in this land and a stranger in my own body. This place was not Mush and I was no longer Manouchak.

While Tello and the others were healing in this so-called sanctuary, I constantly found myself suffocating; while both awake and in my dreams.  Sometimes I was drowning in the deepest end of the ocean.  Other times, I was back in that cellar surrounded by darkness that grew heavier and heavier on my soul.

I allowed myself to drown in my own misery, pushing away anything and anyone with enough buoyancy to possibly pull me up to the surface. All the help in the world can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.

And so I started living in my own mind, where Moushegh and I were together, where father and mother were alive, and where I was still a human being.  Tello would drag me to church on Sundays.  And there I would sit, surrounded by a sea of people, people who had suffered the same black fate as me, yet I felt completely alone without him.  While Tello helped at the church, and cooked for the orphans, trying to save the world around her, I selfishly cared about the well-being of only one person.

The fighters of Sassoun have been captured and killed, I heard over and over again.  But I preferred to relive through the horrendous realities I had already come face to face with then accept the fact that Moushegh was dead.

A year came and went but nothing changed, except that the value of every second, minute, and moment of my life was depreciating. After rejecting seventeen suitors, Tello had decided to try another tactic, instilling guilt within me.

“You must marry, have children, and pass on your story. God saved you for a reason.”

“I never asked to be saved.” My loyalty was to Moushegh, not God.  And if there was a God, I was afraid we had nothing in common.

“We have a guest tonight for dinner,” she casually mentioned one afternoon.

“Who?” I shot back, frustrated with her inability to give up on finding me a husband.

“A young man.  He helped me at church today and I insisted that I prepare him dinner.  But don’t worry, I didn’t tell him about you.  He said he’s not interested in a bride, I asked.”

Of course you asked, I rolled my eyes.

My hair was finally growing back to the way it was before and my scars were finally healing but I was still far from possessing that bold personality that once belonged inside of me. I was missing Moushegh and mother and father. If I could only hear father’s voice say once again, Male or female, a lion is a lion.

There was a knock on the door. Lost in my own thoughts, I answered only to find a familiar face. My knees grew numb, my heart stopped, my eyes froze at the sight before me.

It was Moushegh, but I had fallen so deep into my profound thoughts that I couldn’t trust what my eyes were showing me. We were staring at one another, much like the first time we had met, until he put his hands in my hair, his lips on mine, and we both realized that this wasn’t another dream. He pulled me to him, as we both fell to the floor, entangled into one another.

But moments later he pulled back, as if he came to some kind of realization. And the expression on his face made me feel sick. Reluctantly, he grabbed my two hands and gazed at each finger as if he was studying every nerve, wrinkle, and cut while searching for something. As he finally looked up, I noticed the tears streaming down his face, witnessing vulnerability in his eyes for the very first time, as he finally gathered the courage to ask,

“Did you marry someone else?”

I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move.

Tello stood with her mouth cupped in her hands in disbelief, as she realized what had just transpired, “She turned away seventeen men and she waited for you. She’s been waiting for you.”

The untamed tiger came back to life with a smile on his face.  He jumped to his feet, kissed Tello’s forehead before pulling me up to him.  He carried me, walking hastily as we left the building, heading to church to be married then and there. He kissed every inch of my face, as I rested my head on his shoulder.  I had been frail and broken for days, weeks, months, a year, and all it took was one moment, one person, one act of God, to bring back the person I once was.

Survivors: Ohan Akaragian

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Kharpert // 1898-1980

Ohan Akaragian was born in Agn on June 12, 1898 to Baghdasar and Haiganoush Akaragian.  He was the youngest of six; Serpouhi, Melkon, Makrouhi, Pilibos, and Varvar.  The Akaragians were well known in the region. They owned farmland, as well as a store in Romania. The profit that generated from this business was used to create an irrigation system to support farmland in Agn.

Before the Armenian Genocide was orchestrated, the Akaragians lived in peace.  The Armenian population in Kharpert was educated, hardworking, and extremely close with one another.  Every morning the entire village would attend badarak at the local church before heading to work or school.

Ohan’s two older sisters, Serpouhi and Makrouhi, were married and lived in Bolis, Turkey.  Melkon was married with three children and worked in the financial district before opening a jewelry store. Pilibos studied in Romania and in 1912, at 21 years old, he died from an illness.  In the meantime, their youngest sister, Varvar, had been asked for her hand in marriage at the tender age of fourteen.  The Akaragians agreed to the marriage with one ultimatum, that she would continue her education, and she did before giving birth to three children.

As soon as orders to begin the mass killings of Armenians were given in 1915, the entire region was devastated.  Ohan’s grandfather and brother, Melkon, were hung.  Melkon’s wife and children were killed, along with Varvar and her entire family.

Ohan’s grandmother was approached by a group of Muslims who informed her that if she were to abandon Christianity and convert to Islam, they would allow her and her family to live. Without hesitation, she responded, “I will give up my life, but I will not give up my religion.”  And so her entire family, including Ohan, was put on the death march.

They managed to purchase a horse with gold to carry Ohan’s grandmother since her old age kept her from walking. The remaining members of the Akaragian family walked while witnessing the most horrifying sights.  Ohan saw a group of young girls, holding hands, jumping into the Yeprad Ked. Corpses lay everywhere they went; along the roads, in the rivers, scattered all over the region like fallen leaves in the wintertime.  Ohan and his mother quickly realized that surviving was nearly impossible.  Ohan’s mother, determined to save the only man left in the Akaragian family, bribed the surrounding Turkish soldiers.  She offered them a quilt that she had sewn gold into and in return, the soldiers would allow Ohan to slowly fall behind the march so that upon reaching the end of the long line of people, he could run.  But once he was at the end of the line, he would be on his own.  The soldiers would not help him escape, simply, give him a chance to get away.

Following their agreement, Ohan started walking slower, slowly separating from his family and falling back within the line of people.  And each time that he would almost be out of sight, his mother would call for him with unstoppable tears in her eyes.  And he would quickly come back to her towards the front of the line.  His mother would hold him in her arms, refusing to let go because she knew that they would forever be apart.  And so she called back for him three times and he came back to her every time.  As she finally let go of him the third time, she had one last request.

“Don’t come back.  Even if I call you again and again, don’t come back.”

These were the last words she spoke to Ohan.  Once again, Ohan slowed down his pace, leaving his family ahead.  And it was only a matter of minutes before he heard his mother’s voice, screaming for him, again.  Each scream louder than the one before, her cries intensifying with every passing second.  And he honored his mother’s last words with tears in his eyes and longing in his heart.  He kept his eye on his family from a distance until they were too far to be seen.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the Turkish soldiers held their part of the bargain and turned a blind eye to Ohan while he ran.  He headed back to Agn, only to find that Turks now occupied his family’s home. Having nowhere to go, 17 year-old Ohan knocked on his neighbor’s door. His Muslim neighbor took him in and kept him in hiding for several months.

Knowing that there was no life left for him in Kharpert, Ohan took off once again, this time to Bolis to search for his sisters and their families.  He hid during the day and traveled by foot in the nighttime and every time he came across a farm, he would study the people, and the possible work that needed to be done.  If he felt comfortable enough, he would seek work for several days, weeks, or months at a time, before continuing on his journey.

It took Ohan two years to arrive in Bolis and to be reunited with the only family he had left.  Serpouhi, Makrouhi, and Ohan had lost sixteen members of their close family during the genocide; their grandparents, parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. Ohan stayed with his sisters for a year until he finally decided to move to Romania.

In Romania, Ohan met his future wife, Elisabeth Tevanian, and had two children, Baghdasar and Haiganoush, naming them after his parents.  Despite being in a new country and creating a new life, Ohan was often consumed by dark memories of the past.  He did not talk about the genocide often, as it was too painful of an experience to share. However, he consistently had nightmares, causing him to frantically wake up during the late hours of the night.  And it was in these moments that he would confess to his wife the inhumanity he fell victim to in 1915.  Knowing that Ohan could not speak about the genocide without emotions taking over, Elisabeth would tell Ohan’s stories to their children, ensuring that they were aware of their father’s past.

In 1963, Ohan and his family relocated to Los Angeles, California.  Although he didn’t speak a word of English and had no experience in the shoe business, he purchased a shoe store that was for sale near their home. While his family wondered how he would start a new business in a new country, Ohan took a piece of paper and drew a line through the center of the sheet.  On the left side he wrote down shoe sizes, parts of a shoe, and days of the week in Armenian; gosheeg, guroong, yergooshapti, yerekshapti… He handed the sheet to his daughter who listed the English equivalents of these words on the right side.  And it was with this one piece of paper that Ohan provided for his family and went on to create a successful business.

Ohan passed away in 1980.  He is survived by his two children, three grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. He is remembered as an honest and respected man, who loved abundantly.   He loved his family, his church, his people, and his community.

Honored by Haiganoush Akaragian, Ara Akaragian, and Jeannette Akaragian

 

The Armenian Genocide- Where is Justice?

By Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., Founder and Executive Director of World Without Genocide

‘Race murder,’ Henry Morgenthau, US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, called it – the extermination of all Christian Armenians by the Ottoman government during World War I. And ‘race murder’ it was, with 1,500,000 men, women, and children dead of torture, starvation, and killing. Although this catastrophe was widely documented by eyewitnesses while it was happening, there was no global intervention to stop the slaughter.

The Armenian catastrophe became almost a footnote to history. In fact, when Hitler was asked how he thought he would be able to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews, he infamously replied, “Who today remembers the Armenians?”

This year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and we remember the Armenians.

Ending Impunity

What happened after the Armenian genocide? Following massive human rights abuses like genocide, people need to restore their belief in justice. This also restores their dignity and brings the truth to light.

When the war ended in 1918, Britain, France, and Russia wanted the leaders in Germany, Austria, and Turkey to be held responsible for violating the laws of war and the ‘laws of humanity.’ They began planning for an international war crimes tribunal, the first one ever, to try the German Kaiser and Talat, Enver, and Jamal Pasha, known as the Young Turks, along with other leading Turkish perpetrators.

The new Turk leaders hoped that, by blaming a few members of the Committee on Union and Progress, the Young Turks, they would shift blame away from the Turkish nation as a whole.

However, the three Young Turk leaders were convicted in absentia. They had fled the country; two were ultimately assassinated and one was killed in battle.

The British Foreign Office demanded that 141 Turks be tried for crimes against British soldiers, and another 17 tried for the crimes against Armenians during World War I.

Government and military leaders were arrested. Military courts-martial and at least six domestic trials were held in provincial cities where massacres had occurred. Ministers from the Young Turks’ government, party leaders, attorneys, governors, military officers, and other officials were arrested.

However, despite public hatred for the previous regime, the response to these courts was lukewarm. On April 4, 1919, Lewis Heck, the US High Commissioner in Istanbul, reported, “It is popularly believed that many of [the trials] are made from motives of personal vengeance or at the instigation of the Allied authorities, especially the British.”

Under Ataturk’s leadership, a nationalist had movement emerged and many people were afraid that the trials were part of an Allied plan to divide the Ottoman Empire. On August 11, 1920, Ataturk’s government ordered a stop to all the court proceedings.

Failing to Find Justice

In the end, there was no international tribunal. Some scholars suggest that there wasn’t enough forensic evidence. Others assert there were no international laws to use at the tribunal. However, there also was little interest in a tribunal. The Allies saw a large Turkish population waiting to modernize, a huge potential partner just waiting for trade and economic development. The Allies didn’t want to risk their long-term economic relationship with Turkey.

The British also wanted their prisoners of war back. In 1921, they released 145 Turkish perpetrators who had been held on Malta and exchanged them for 29 British soldiers. This ended any possibility of an international tribunal.

Denying Genocide

Despite extensive personal testimonies, photographs, and court documents, the Turkish government consistently denies that genocide occurred. However, 23 countries, 43 US states and many cities, and leading scholars around the world recognize that what happened was, indeed, genocide and have labeled it as such.

The leading perpetrators were never prosecuted for their crimes. The survivors never received restitution for their losses. The victims’ descendants never found justice for the terror inflicted on their ancestors. But we can remember those who perished and those who stood up against the violence.

In Minnesota, Texas, California, and New Hampshire, every April is designated as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. Six genocides are officially memorialized during April – Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Holocaust, and the Armenian genocide. This year, we will all remember. Attend an event, watch a film, or stage a reading of our play “Upstanders: Taking a Stand against the Armenian Genocide.”

Moving Towards Justice

Holocaust survivor, Raphael Lemkin, read about the tragedy of the Armenians. Lemkin had lost 49 members of his extended family during the Holocaust. He felt that there had to be a word to describe the killing of a people, for which there was no word. There were many words to describe the killing of people, such as homicide, suicide, and fratricide, but there was no word to describe the horrors perpetrated on the Armenians and, twenty-five years later, on the Jews.

Lemkin coined the word genocide, with geno from the Greek meaning tribe or group, and cide from the Latin meaning ‘to kill.’ Once he had the word, he felt that there had to be a law to prevent and to punish this crime. He wrote the United Nations Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide, which was ratified by the United Nations in 1948.

What can we conclude? Some scholars say that the documents (encoded telegraphs and letters) attached to the verdicts of those regional trials prove that the Armenian deportations were aimed at total annihilation of the Armenian population. These trials and verdicts are important arguments against the denial of the Armenian Genocide.

But, just like with the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg in 1946 and subsequent trials throughout Europe after World War II, most of the Ottoman officials who perpetrated the mass killings and property theft later held important positions in the military and political elite of Turkey.

Transitional Justice

The implementation of transitional justice following genocide or other atrocity crimes is critical. We need laws to prosecute the perpetrators. We need truth and reconciliation commissions to bring the guilty together with victims, witnesses, and survivors.

We need reparations for land, artifacts, money, and other assets that have been stolen. We need vetting of public officials to be sure that those who committed atrocities don’t stay in positions of power.

The path to justice in the world perhaps started with the Armenian genocide. Raphael Lemkin’s word and the UN Convention made the intent to exterminate a people, based on race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, a crime. The first international criminal tribunal came close to reality with the attempt to prosecute the Young Turks. Although this tribunal never came to fruition, the three Allied nations of France, the UK, and Russia (later the Soviet Union) became three of the four major participants in the Nuremberg trials of 1946, the first international criminal tribunal to prosecute individuals for atrocity crimes. The Nazi trials at Nuremberg might not have happened without Britain, Russia, and France talking about an international tribunal for the Armenian atrocities.  We remember the Armenians and these small steps towards global justice.

220px-Ellen_J._Kennedy

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the founder and Executive Director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul. The organization provides education about past and current conflicts and advocacy at the local, state, and national levels to protect innocent people, prevent genocide, prosecute perpetrators, and remember those affected by genocide.

Kennedy has received many awards for her work, including Outstanding Citizen from the Anne Frank Center, Higher Education Leader of the Year from the National Society for Experiential Education, Outstanding Service Award from the Midwest Sociological Society, two awards from the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Women’s Press Change-maker award.

World Without Genocide received a Certificate of Merit from the State of Minnesota, Office of the Governor, for efforts to seek justice and to eliminate genocide around the globe; and the 2014 Minnesota Ethical Leadership Award.

Kennedy is an adjunct professor of law at William Mitchell College of Law and is the Minnesota representative to AMICC, a national organization that advocates for the International Criminal Court. She also serves on the Human Rights and Relations Commission for the City of Edina, Minnesota, and on the Board of Directors of the Minneapolis University Rotary Club.

Kennedy received her BA degree from the University of Michigan and doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota.

The Breaking Point

By Shoushan Keshishian (Guest Contributor)

Visiting Armenia has been the highlight of my summers ever since I was a child with a gap in my teeth and a fancy pair of pigtails. Compared to Lebanon, the air is fresher, the streets are cleaner, and the colors are brighter… what’s not to love? As rhetorical as this question may sound, the answer to it is becoming blaringly obvious as I spend more time here, even if for merely two months out of each year.

It may not have to do with the gravity or the capacity of the problems increasing as much as it has to do with me growing older and admitting that my country may actually be less than perfect; however, writing these words down, there is only one issue progressively weighing down on my thoughts.

Before I divulge what that issue is, I would like to state that some may not consider it an issue, much less a problem, but I believe it is both, and that in fact, it can and should be classified as a national concern.

Wherever I go in Yerevan and whichever store I enter, whether it is for clothing, hardware, or food, I am bombarded with Turkish products. Only today I came across three stores selling Turkish hampers. Maybe it has to do with the way my parents raised me, or the school I go to, or the people I surround myself with, but regardless of the “why”, I find being confronted with Turkish letters in every nook and cranny of Yerevan to be truly devastating.

Some of you are already rolling your eyes to this idea you consider “outdated” and “senseless” as I’ve been told before. In this age where money dictates all the “big decisions”, and where economical gain is the driving force of nations and civilizations, it does seem futile even discussing such a topic. I am aware of that, and I am in no way hindered by Don Quixotian delusions, but when given the chance to express myself I will not refrain from raising my voice and letting people know just how wrong I consider selling Turkish products on Armenian soil is.

First and foremost, why should my country, or more particularly, Armenian wholesalers, importers, or distributers, contribute by no small amount to the flourishing of an economy that dedicates a significant part of its budget to military financing, thus oppressing Armenia. Need I remind my fellow Armenians about the state of our borderline villages? Those villages are repeatedly and frequently submitted to Turkish gunshots which so often leave behind wounded Armenian soldiers and civilians, sometimes even martyred ones. How bitterly sardonic is it that an Armenian businessman may have paid for the bullet that shot down his fellow Armenian?

Here we are on the threshold of the centennial of the Armenian genocide demanding its recognition from Turkey, parading around the globe burning the Turkish flag, organizing protests, holding seminars, building memorials, and declaring Turkey an enemy, an antagonist, a nemesis. All that would have been swell if there wasn’t a “however”… knowing us Armenians, there is always the “however”. This time, it is the fact that there exists an unfortunate parallel overshadowing all those previous acts. Here we are, on the threshold of the centennial, dressing our children with Turkish clothes, stocking our pantries with Turkish foods, advertising that Turkish products are the best and therefore the most expensive.

What is the national image we are portraying to the rest of the world; one of hypocrisy, pretense, insincerity, or maybe illiteracy and ignorance, as if the meaning of enemy is vague or incomprehensible to us? Why should those be adjectives describing Armenians when we are diligent, hard-working, earnest people?

All this brings me back to one underlying issue. Our national dignity, a central value, is missing. Our national pride has dissipated. It does not dignify us Armenians to act the way we are acting when it comes to our relationship with Turkey. As a teenage Armenian living in the diaspora, I consider buying and using Turkish products condescending, as should all Armenians. Our national integrity should ascertain the attitude we take on these matters, not convenience. Only when this incentive becomes collective will we realize true prosperity, in whatever field it may be… but who am I to talk? If the Armenian population finds it more beneficial to let go of its pride and of all the values our nation has kept dear for thousands of years, then so be it.

Armenia, despite all its flaws, is my home and my haven, and it pains me to see it falling through the cracks under the false premise of “globalization” and “development”. But I will keep returning to it, one summer at a time, praying that I will not be let down, or better yet, that I won’t allow myself to be let down because hopelessness breeds indifference, and ultimately, indifference is when we surrender… indifference will be our breaking point.

Shoushan Keshishian is a high school senior from Beirut, Lebanon.  She’s an avid reader and a trivia junkie, in love with dancing and The Beatles.  She’s always searching for inspiration, fueled by literary rage. 

Survivors: Boghos Merdjanian

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Tarsus // 1906-1974

Boghos Merdjanian, formerly Mouradjanian, was six years old when he first came face to face with the terror of the Armenian Genocide.

Once a wealthy family, the Merdjanians enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Boghos’s father, Minas, was a renowned checkers champion and competed all around the region. The police, or “CheChes” as Minas called them, falsely accused him of being a cheat simply because he was Armenian and thus, the family’s fortune was seized.

When a friend of the family, a Turkish general, heard of their misfortune, he protected them from further prosecution and deportation by hiding them in a safe-house. The family, however, never recovered their wealth, so all members of the family were required to work for their survival.

One day, Boghos was sent to deliver food and water to his sisters who were working in a nearby field. He set off on the family donkey and suddenly became entrapped by a group of Turkish gendarmes. One of the higher ranking officials threw a daggar at Boghos but missed and the dagger landed on the ground. He exclaimed “We are killing and killing but you are not dying!” Another realized the inhumanity of his comrade’s actions and asked his superior to spare the boy. He told Boghos to get down from his donkey, retrieve the dagger and hand it back to the official. The gendarmes left Boghos with no way to get back on the donkey. Little Boghos walked the rest of the way to meet his sisters on foot.

In 1919, the family deemed it was time to escape Turkey and immigrate to Lebanon. Under the cover of night, part of the family trudged the rough terrain and rivers to find refuge at one of the many camps erected for Genocide survivors. When they arrived, the customs agents at the border changed the family’s name to Merdjanian because they couldn’t properly translate Mouradjanian.

Boghos forwent education and was immediately put to work as a cobbler’s assistant, often working long and arduous hours.

In the mid 1940’s, Boghos married Armenouhi Tshikian and had five sons. They were very poor but rich in honor and love towards one another. The boys did what they could, at very young ages to help support their family, despite the raging civil war in Lebanon.

Having lived in Turkey most of his life, Boghos never learned Armenian. His wife taught him how to speak and read Armenian by reading him the daily newspaper. Their sons, however, were taught their mother language at home and in school.

When his family found out that Boghos was dying of liver cancer in the 1970’s they did not tell him because they wanted him to be happy during his last days. They took their father to a hospice in the mountains so he could pass away comfortably by receiving the care he needed and deserved. Boghos passed away in 1974.  Soon after his death, his family escaped war-torn Lebanon and immigrated to the United States. They went on to create their own families and establish a successful jewelry business.

Boghos is survived by his five children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Honored by Merdjanian Family

A Survivor’s Suicide

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.