I feel spoiled. It’s not the delicious kind of spoiled, where you’re dripping in luxury and drowning in overindulgence. It’s the other kind. The one that’s dirty and gross, your existence is tainted and there’s a constant sense that there’s someone you’re disappointing. Having been bestowed the burden of intergenerational trauma at a young age, getting to live a life seems selfish.
As part of the Armenian diaspora, one traditionally has two options to learn Armenian properly. The first – the path many of my friends have taken – is to attend Armenian day school, where you’ll develop a comprehensive understanding of our history, language, and culture. The second – the avenue that I inevitably took – is to attend Saturday school for a few hours every week. I read very slowly and struggle to spell. My vocabulary is limited and I have difficulty expressing myself. It’s also where I first learned about the Armenian genocide. I was seven and I don’t think I fully understood the implications of what they were trying to tell me. As I got older and my own personal family history was revealed to me, the weight of what happened became clearer and heavier. The very existence of Armenians today is a miracle.
But the difficulty in navigating the world is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of people I encounter do not know about and will not understand any of my experience. To them it is merely a lecture they will probably skip or an Instagram story that they’ll just swipe through. Without direct exposure, you’re just living in an insulated world saturated in privilege and safety – this is a luxury I, nor anyone with a similar personal history, can never, ever afford. It’s easy to appear engaged as a bystander, but in reality, us members of the diaspora continue to have to describe these atrocities over and over again. Yet, the world continues to refuse to recognize our history and the perpetrators have consistently repudiated their guilt for over 100 years.
As a background, let’s start at the very beginning. On April 24th, 1915, the religious and intellectual Armenian leaders living in Constantinople, which is now Istanbul, were rounded up and taken away, never to be seen again. That was the start of what we now call the Armenian Genocide, where 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the ruling Ottoman Turks.
Christians living in the Ottoman Empire had far less rights than the average Muslim citizen. A few examples: they paid higher taxes, had further prohibitions on their legal capabilities, and were not allowed to bear arms. In seeking legal equality, these minorities became targets. Before 1915, there were decades of massacres to quash unrest and quell religious and racial tensions. As the Ottoman Empire began falling apart, Christians and other non-Muslim minorities were targeted because they were perceived threats to the loyalty and unity that threatened the health of the Empire. So, they killed us. They dragged us out of our homes, torched the churches, and slayed us in the streets. If you were lucky enough to escape this horror, you were sent into the Der Zor desert without food or water, often perishing along the way. If you somehow managed to live, you were often orphaned or without family, penniless and in a foreign country. They carved into our country, erasing the buildings and monuments that had stood there for millennia. Armenians in Van, Arapgir, and Kars? How would you know if their footprints are erased?
That’s what happened to my great-grandfather. He and his brother survived, living in an American orphanage in Beirut for years. His mother and sister died in the desert. His father was called into town and killed. Nearly all Armenians I know have a story similar to this one, with minor variations. Traversing the desert and ending up in either Beirut, Aleppo, Haifa, Amman– any Middle Eastern country that you survive to walk to.
Holy Saviour’s Church in Gyumri, Armenia –– taken by me on July 23rd, 2018
It’s hard to disagree with the logic that genocide is bad. Yet somehow, it seems like something so easy to get away with. The Turks did it so easily to us and without consequence. The Myanmar government did the same to the Rohingya three years ago, and the Chinese government is performing outright cultural genocide against the Uyghurs right now. Now, again, we face extinction.
In an attempt to maintain peace in his growing empire, in 1923, Stalin redrew borders in the Middle East, giving Azerbaijan the region known to Armenians as Artsakh, and to the international community as Nagorno-Karabakh. Historically, it’s been Armenian territory for millennia– there are monasteries and churches that date back to the 5th and 9th centuries, respectively. In December of 1991, by referendum, Nagorno-Karabakh seceded from Azerbaijan, but with little success. Territorial battles occurred throughout the 90’s until a ceasefire was brokered with the help of Russia in 1994, though this same ceasefire has been broken many times since.
Little over a month ago, fighting broke out again on September 27th 2020, with Azerbaijan now being backed by the Turkish military. That’s what’s terrifying. The same people that attempted to destroy my great-grandparents are back to finish what they started. It takes very little research to see that Turkey’s president is a tyrant. He has stated that he wants to model his government like Hitler’s, under his watch, journalists are suspiciously killed, and vehemently denies the occurrence of the Armenian genocide. A gorgeous church I visited in 2014 was purposefully bombed on October 8th 2020, now covered in dust and rubble and nearly unrecognizable. What is a regional issue started by some an egomaniac with colonial ambitions has become a thinly veiled attempt to finish the genocide they started over 100 years ago.
Genocide Watch, an orgnaization that aims to “predict, prevent, stop, and punish genocide,” has listed Azerbaijan’s invasion of Artsakh as a Stage 9 alert. Stage 9 is extermination. Three separate ceasefires have been negotiated since this September and each time, Azerbaijan has been quick, if not eager, to break them. Once a ceasefire is brokered, there is no incentive for Armenia to continue fighting since all we want is peace. The situation gets more difficult because the media refuses to acknowledge what is actually occurring. This isn’t war–– it’s genocide. This isn’t a territorial dispute, this is our fight for our indigneous lands that a white man ripped away from us when he decided it wasn’t our land to keep.
The lack of international support from governments is both disappointing but also expected. Institutions with roots in colonialism and tyranny that do not favour justice and indulge the oppressor will not assist in keeping us safe. It isn’t a coincidence that they’ve decided to reignite their aims of destruction now, when world powers capable of assisting are busy with the pandemic, economic failure, and the American election. The same thing happened in 1915 – when the world was busy fighting the Germans, the Turks quietly got away with the first genocide of the 20th century.
Field and lake halfway up Mount Aragats –– taken by me on July 20th, 2018
A couple weeks ago, I was playing Settlers of Catan with my housemates and I suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to cry. It was a mix of fear and dread, knowing that on the other side of the world, boys younger than you are being slaughtered because of their ethnic identity. There’s a crippling anxiety that accompanies the fact that someone– or in this case, many someones– out there wants to destroy you and everyone just like you. It’s terrifying and it’s also very difficult to explain. There’s a feeling of luck: I am lucky to live in Canada. There’s a feeling of despair: people want to kill us. There’s a feeling of hope: look at my friends, family, crying out loudly for justice. There’s a feeling of frustration: why can’t they leave me and my people alone?
It’s frustrating because this issue, specifically, is another in a long line of geo-political problems that have arisen in the Middle East that have resulted because colonial countries like the US, Britain, and Russia want to impose “Western” culture to otherwise “uncivilized” countries. This happens over and over again, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. It’s even more frustrating because then, when they’ve wiped their hands clean of their meddling, people actually die. Because of Stalin’s careless decision in 1923, people are dying today.
In shows and movies, the Middle East is always portrayed as this war-torn region, drenched in heat and lawlessness, its people barbaric terrorists. Governments act like our countries are their playground, performing coups and installing regimes in ways that are far from democratic. It wasn’t until I started watching Ramy that I saw a family who looked like mine, talked like mine, acted like mine on television. Ramy has an amo, I have an amo. (Amo is uncle in Arabic. After the genocide, Armenians were so dispersed that Arabic words have become colloquilaisms in Armenian.) He has a country ravaged by political unrest and so do I.
Since early October, my Instagram feed has been plastered with posts and tweets about what’s happening in Artsakh– but that’s because I follow hundreds of Armenians. There’s been stark media coverage of this issue, governments aren’t easily swayed to condemn genocide – only 32 countries have recognized the Armenian genocide, Canada being one of them – and the silence is overwhelming. A friend of mine shared a post to her story, highlighting the COVID-safe protests in Toronto from a few weeks ago. As I scrolled through the comments, my heart began to race. Even as I type this, that same feeling is back. My hands shake a little, when I look down at my chest, my shirt quakes with my heartbeat. I knew it was a mistake as soon as I started swiping downwards– I made the same blunder a week earlier, reading the comments on a Washington Post article written by an Armenian journalist in Moscow. I recognized a few people’s handles, thanking the account for their support, but it quickly devolved into a tirade of genocide denial, backlash, and apathy. It scared me to think that I could easily watch my country vanish and people wouldn’t know a thing, or even worse, rejoice at its destruction.
Another girl I know from Australia who I met in Armenia posted a series of DMs she’s gotten on her story– I won’t get into graphic detail, but the usual language of Internet trolls of rape and murder is included.
I have to pander to my followers, display information in a way that’s neat and tidy, not too atrocious to divert your eyes but enough to force you to care. And I know you don’t, because you have no skin in the game! How can I blame you? But I implore you to try.
Before the pandemic began, I was supposed to go back to Armenia for my third visit in 2022. We don’t know when this will end (am I talking about the virus or genocide?), it could be in a year, it could be in 10. When we can freely roam the globe again, I want to be sitting in a plane, slightly uncomfortable in my pleather seat waiting for the flight attendant to bring me my breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever. I eat my food. The cup of water that accompanies it tastes like plastic, but that’s okay, at least I’m going somewhere. Hours pass quickly, I nap easily on a full stomach. I’m awoken by the pilot announcing our descent into Yerevan. All I want is a country to go back to.
If it is within your means, please donate to https://www.armeniafund.org. I thank you in advance for your contribution.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Alexa Margorian