Last night in the dimly lit auditorium of the Isla Vista Theater, a group of about 60 people listened as members of UCSB’s Armenian Student Association (ASA) read aloud the memories of survivors of the Armenian Genocide -which began on April 24, 1915, and lasted until just after World War I. Chilling tales were recounted – a father raped by gendarmes while his family was forced to watch; a group of five- to ten-year-old boys thrown into a pile and stabbed with bayonets; families forced to march across the desert for days without water, only to drink from a river filled with swollen corpses. Counts of the number of Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks during that period range from 650,000 to 1.5 million, although the higher number has been disputed.
Today marks the day of Remembrance for the Armenian Genocide, and ASA’s message is clear. Speaking out at the ceremony last night, and staging a protest on UCSB’s campus today, students and Armenians all over are protesting what they say is the Turkish government’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. “For folks like me, [April 24th] is Armenian Memorial Day,” said Mourad Topalian, the event’s keynote speaker and a member of the Armenian Cultural Foundation. “It’s a sad day. We don’t know what we can do to make it better, but when we think about the denial of the Genocide, we become angry.”
Today in particular, ASA students are focusing their attention on a program called No Place for Hate, which is sponsored by the Anti Defamation League, a well known human rights organization aimed at making sure the Holocaust is remembered and other atrocities are not repeated. “[ADL] is a human rights organization, but when House Resolution 106 passed in the House, they came out actively against it,” said Berj Parseghian, the All ASA Representative for UCSB. “How can they be a human rights organization and deny the Armenian Genocide?” Today, ASA students were urging organizations involved in No Place for Hate to dissociate from the organization because of its affiliation with ADL. “ADL definitely doesn’t have an excuse,” said Dalida Arakelian, a Santa Barbara High School student. ADL was unavailable for comment.
While a good part of last night’s ceremony was solemn, the rest was a celebration of Armenian culture, including a dance performance, poetry readings, and a few Armenian songs played by UCSB’s Middle East Ensemble. As they played a popular Armenian folk song, members of the audience could be heard singing along. Since the Kingdom of Armenia (now the secular Republic of Armenia) was the first sovereign nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301CE, Father Hovel Ohanyan, of the Armenian Church of Santa Barbara, delivered a message from the Archdiocese. Topalian applauded efforts by young Armenians to stay connected to their cultural roots. “Be good Americans, but stay Armenian,” he said, “because that defeats the genocide. They tried to wipe us off the face of the Earth, but if you stay Armenian in your language and your music and your culture, you defeat the genocide.”
Topalian, along with others there, recalled stories told by their parents and grandparents about the atrocities they endured at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. “My grandmother was a little girl when the genocide took place,” said Meri Telalyan, a member of ASA. “She escaped from a burning church when half of it collapsed. Her mother had to leave four children [that she had taken when another mother was killed] in the church to escape with her own children. My grandmother said that not a single day went by when her mother wouldn’t cry herself to sleep.”
Today, a struggle still exists from the events which occurred during that time in history, nearly a century ago. “Instead of healing over time, the denial comes,” said Topalian. “Are they saying that my parents lied to me about their brothers and sisters who were killed?” Many Armenians, including Topalian, are calling for an international tribunal to discuss reparations to be paid to Armenians by the Turkish government. “I cannot speak for the Turkish government, but I would say that no party accused of a crime should admit to it unless it is properly and indisputably proven in a neutral forum that provides all of the protections of due process,” said Nurten Ural, President of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. “Turkey already acknowledges a great deal of what constitutes the Armenian tragedy, but because this does not include calling it genocide, Armenians allege that Turkey is blind to this entire history. All nations should deal honestly with their past. Turkey is very openly doing so.” Ural also stated that the Republic of Turkey, formed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, is a distinct entity. “The historical record lacks any proof of centrally planned massacres,” she said.
Regardless of position, all parties agree that people generally don’t know enough about the genocide. “The U.S. public is not adequately informed about the Armenian Genocide,” said Arby Eivazian, a member of ASA. “We are genuinely interested in an objective inquiry,” said ATAA President-elect Gunay Evinch. “We support more information and more speech on these issues. A full assessment of the facts and events is the only way to reach a long term reconciliation [between Turkey and Armenians].” Congresswoman Lois Capps needed no further convincing. “I’m proud to be a cosponsor of House Resolution 106, which recognizes the tragedy of the Armenian genocide,” she said. “It’s important to acknowledge and remember this history, and to learn from it in order to prevent future instances of genocide and persecution. I will continue to support U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide.”