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.

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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.

Survivors: Ohannes Mardirossian

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Erzurum // 1910-2005

Ohannes Mardirossian was born in 1910 in Erzurum to Ghazar and Nano Mardirossian.  He was one of five children; Makroohi, Yeghsapet, Megerdich, and Garabed.  His family owned a wheat farm and a vast amount of land where gold was often excavated.  This wealth was lost as soon as the Armenian Genocide commenced.  Five-year-old Ohannes watched as his father gasped for his last breath as Turkish gendarmes hung him in front of his family.  The sight of his father’s last moments and the sound of his mother’s screams and desperate pleas were never forgotten.  His two older sisters, both stunningly beautiful with blonde hair and light eyes, were kidnapped by Turks and never seen again.

Megerdich, Ohannes, and Garabed, ages ten, five, and two, and their mother were sent on the march of death to Deir Zor.  Their mother died during the death march from dehydration, leaving the three young boys all alone on a march that had no end.  Sadly, the three brothers lost each other during the march.

An Arab man saved Ohannes; not out of goodwill, but for selfish reasons. He was taken to Kirkuk, Iraq where he was worked as a slave despite being a mere child.  In the years that he spent with this Arab family, he became fluent in Kurdish and Arabic but completely forgot how to speak Armenian. However, he never forgot the fact that he was an Armenian.

Ten years later, his fate finally changed.  A local man started coming to this Arab family to purchase fresh milk every morning.  Everyday, he would watch as Ohannes worked tirelessly on the farm while the rest of the family spent their mornings together indoors.  The man quickly noticed that Ohannes was treated differently and decided to approach him in the fields one day.

Ohannes took a chance and admitted to the man that he was an Armenian and not a blood relative of the Arabs.  The man, an Armenian himself, immediately offered his help to Ohannes.  They devised a plan to escape and executed this plan successfully the following morning.

At fifteen years old, Ohannes was finally free from the Arabs and in the hands of a fellow Armenian who was willing to help him create a new life and find his family.  The Armenian man found him a job at a bakery, where Ohannes not only worked but also lived.  Lonely and orphaned, Ohannes longed for his brothers.

One day, a customer named Dikran entered the bakery and introduced himself to Ohannes, who had only recently been employed there.  After discovering that they are both Armenian, they begin speaking about the Genocide.  Ohannes tells Dikran that he is from Erzurum and is looking for his brothers Megerdich and Garabed.  Dikran is immediately taken aback and tells Ohannes, “I know a Megerdich from Erzurum who survived the genocide.” Overwhelmed with the possibility of reuniting two lost brothers, Dikran immediately leaves the bakery in search of Megerdich.

Upon finding him, Dikran explains to Megerdich that he may have found his little brother. However, Dikran did not receive the reaction he was expecting. There was no joy or excitement in his eyes; Megerdich was doubtful.  After all, what were the chances of two brothers ending up in the same village in Iraq after being separated a decade ago in the Syrian Desert? Nonetheless, he agreed to accompany Dikran back to the bakery.

In the meantime, Ohaness was impatiently waiting at the bakery, consumed by the prospect of once again having a family. He had been alone for so long but remained hopeful, wishing so desperately to find his older brother.

As the two men walked in, Ohannes looked into Megerdich’s eyes and found tears in his own, as if he knew at that moment that he was staring at his older brother.

“We have the same eyes,” said Ohannes, but Megerdich was not yet convinced.

“My brother Ohannes fell when he was very little and he had a large scar on his right knee.  The only way I’ll know that you’re my brother is if I see that scar.”

Ohannes lifted his pant leg, revealing a scar that proved that he was, in fact, Megerdich’s brother. Megerdich’s expression immediately shifted, the doubt emptying from his eyes and suddenly being replaced with longing. The brothers embraced one another in a way that words could never express. Megerdich, who had recently married, took his brother home and never left him out of sight. Ohannes lived with Megerdich and his wife, and began to learn how to speak Armenian once again.

Megerdich found Ohannes a job at the Iraqi Petroleum Company where he established a stable and successful career.  In 1940, while attending the local Armenian church, he met and fell in love with Takouhi Mekhtarian, an orphan who was the daughter of genocide survivors from Ourfa.  They married and had six children; Mako, Ara, Yeghso, Alice, Raffi, and Sossi.  His two eldest daughters were named after his two sisters who had been kidnapped and whose fate he never learned.  He sent all six of his children to a private Armenian school, ensuring that the Armenian language would never be lost again.

Years later Ohannes and Megerdich found their youngest brother Garabed, who was only two years old during the Genocide.  It was with heavy hearts that Ohannes and Megerdich learned that their brother was raised by a Muslim family and considered himself to be a Muslim, rejecting his Armenian identity.

In 1975, Ohannes and his family moved to the United States, but brought with him memories of his past.  He would tell his grandchildren about the Armenian Genocide often, always with tears in his eyes.  Although he had never experienced love and affection during his childhood after the Genocide, he was a man full of love and laughter.  He spent much of his time playing cards and dominos with his grandchildren and always had pockets full of candy for them.

Other than his family, Ohannes had two other loves in life; the Lakers and Vegas.  He was a die-hard Lakers fan who never missed a game, and a frequent Las Vegas visitor.  Ohannes and his son would often plan 6 am road trips to Las Vegas but Ohannes would be up bright and early, dressed in his suit at 4:30 a.m., impatiently waiting for his son’s arrival.  He is remembered as being an adventurous, hard-working, kind-hearted, and loving man.

During his last years, his granddaughter visited Erzurum and surprised him by bringing back soil from his birthplace.  Ohannes was moved to tears upon touching this soil, as it brought back pained memories of loss and heartbreak.  He treasured it more than anything and kept it on top of his dresser.

Ohannes passed away in December 2005 in Los Angeles, where that cherished soil was poured onto his casket.  He is survived by his six children, thirteen grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren.

Honored by Elizabeth Cholakian, Mary Manoukian, and Ara Mardirossian

Survivors: Verkin and Flora Munushian

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Hadjin // Verkin Munushian 1900-1973 // Flora Munushian 1902-1989

Sisters, Verkin and Flora Munushian, were the only two in their immediate family who survived the Armenian Genocide. They and their family were deported from their home in Hadjin, Turkey on May 24, 1915.  Their 70 year-old grandmother died from exhaustion as she tried to keep up with the Hadjin caravan, and their 18 year-old brother Levon who stayed with their grandmother was taken away by Turkish soldiers and never seen again.

Soon after this heartbreaking loss Verkin and Flora were nearly kidnapped by two Turkish soldiers. From that time on they never left their father’s side.  Their father, Hagop Munushian, was their protector and he knew things would become worse before decency came their way. He decided it best to leave his beautiful Verkin and his feisty daughter Flora in Aleppo and begged a stranger to save both girls from the Turks. That stranger, an Armenian, took the girls to Reverend Eskijian.  Reverend Eskijian found work for the girls in different homes. While the family that gave refuge to Verkin was kind, it was quite the opposite for Flora. That nasty family worked Flora as a slave, barely gave her enough food to eat and six months later they sold her to a Turk for his harem.

When Verkin learned of her sister’s plight, she struggled to find a way to rescue her sister.  How would she find her way to the harem? As the hours passed her choices grew into incredible fear. She had never left the house fearing being picked up by Turkish soldiers who would either send her to join a caravan to Deir Zor or take her to a Turkish soldier’s brothel…and most probably the latter because of her striking beauty. With supreme courage and the help of a young street savvy cousin, she found her way to the harem after dark, managed to steal Flora away and helped find a kind Syrian home for her sister.

When the war was over an uncle found both of them in Aleppo, brought them back to Turkey and would not answer questions about their family. When they arrived in Adana, Turkey they were taken to a relative, a recovering eyewitness of the blood bath that took 13,000 lives including all of the Munushian family. The girls were devastated. What would happen to them?  Months later their uncle forced Verkin to marry a man she would never have chosen for herself. Flora, determined not to let the same thing happen to her, was given an opportunity to marry a man in America. Having only a picture of him, she agreed to travel with the man’s mother, my grandmother, and met her husband to be in Ellis Island.  They were married the following day.  Flora had four children with my father and lived in Boston, Massachusetts. Verkin and her family had to flee Turkey when Kemal Pasha with his irregular army drove the surviving Armenians out of Turkey. Settling in Lebanon Verkin also gave birth to four children. Thirty-five years would pass before Flora and Verkin saw one another again.

Verkin Munushian passed away in 1973 in Beirut, Lebanon.  She is survived by three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.  Flora Munushian passed away in 1989.  She is survived by her daughter and three grandchildren.

Honored by Dr. Kay Mouradian

Survivors: Atanas Demirdjian

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Kemah // 1904-1987

Atanas Demirdjian was born in Kemah in 1904. His family owned a store where Atanas and his older brother would help deliver products. In 1915, he traveled to Istanbul with his older brother. Atanas later learned that during his time in Istanbul, the Turks had set up slaughterhouses into the Kemah gorge, in which some 25,000 people were killed in a single day. Atanas’ immediate family, friends, and relatives were among those killed in Kemah. In Istanbul, the two brothers were taken in by strangers and hidden in an attic. Since Atanas was the younger of the two brothers, he would slip out of the attic to gather information of what was happening to the Armenian population, while his brother remained confined to the attic to avoid capture. One day, a Turkish officer realized that there were two Armenian boys hiding in the attic of a local resident. Instead of turning them over to Turkish officials and causing harm to the two young boys, the officer helped them flee the region. During their escape, Atanas and his brother were separated due to unforeseen circumstances. Atanas eventually made it to France with a group of other Armenians who managed to escape. It was among this group of genocide survivors in France where Atanas met his future wife, Anahid. Atanas and Anahid had three sons. Years later, they decided to leave their stable and comfortable lives in France, moving back to Armenia so that their three sons could marry Armenians and continue their Armenian bloodline.

Atanas passed away on June 6, 1987 in the city of Yerevan. He is survived by his three children, six grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren.

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Honored by Arthur Demirdjian