Thursday, December 10, 2015

Suman Keshari: The Ghosts of Ararat

April 24, 2015, marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide: how many of us remember?

The Ghosts of Ararat

After all, who today talks about the murderous dispersal of the Armenians? 
Adolf Hitler, 1939

Hitler is believed to have said this whilst commenting on the genocide of Armenian residents of the Ottoman Empire during the period overlapping the end of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth. History is witness to the inspiration this might have given him in his murderous attitude towards his enemies, and the Jews of Europe. To this day, the mere mention of Hitler’s name causes a shiver to run down our spines - but what of Armenia? It is indeed an irony that in India, nay, even the world at large, so little is spoken about what by all accounts is accepted as the twentieth century’s first act of genocide.

Prior to the Great War of 1914-8, there were approximately 2 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Between 1915 and 1923 about 1.5 million of them were done to death, and the remaining half million were forced to flee. To this day Turkey refuses to acknowledge this act of genocide. Till this day most countries in the world, including India and the USA, remain silent about it – only twenty countries acknowledge this genocide - they include Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Belgium, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.
The official position of the Turkish establishment has been that the fate of the Armenians was a result of the so-called ‘re-settlement law’ and the conditions prevailing in wartime. However, the re-settlement law was enacted on May 27, 1915 whereas the Interior Affairs minister Mehmed Pasha Bey had – under the orders of Talat Pasha  - ordered hundreds of Armenian intellectuals, leaders, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and traders of Constantinople (contemporary Istanbul) to be killed or jailed a month earlier, on April 24.

The decimation of their entire intellectual and social leadership on a single day is why Armenians commemorate April 24 as Armenian Genocide Day. In just eight years, from 1915 to 1923, an ancient, prosperous and industrious community lost 1.5 million people, three-quarters of its size. The entire Armenian population of Anatolian Turkey had disappeared. Today, there is scarcely an Armenian family in the global diaspora which lacks a memory of someone lost to the genocide. The entire community is traumatized by loss. This year marks a century of the genocide, yet Armenians are still screaming for justice and acknowledgement for what was done to them.

The forced displacement and violence inflicted upon Armenians has a long history. But let us begin our story in the last decade of the nineteenth century. That was when the Armenian revolutionary federation, the Dashnaktsutyun augmented its demands for autonomy with the establishment of guerilla groups. This was a time when nationalist ideologies were on the rise everywhere. It was also the period when the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II was in perilous decline. Between 1894 and 1896, the Sultan caused thousands of Armenians to be put to death on charges of demanding autonomy and other rights. This changed little. Later, when a movement for better governance and against the Sultan’s despotism convulsed the empire at large, Armenians took enthusiastic part, in the belief that they were joining forces with democratic forces that would protect the rights of ethnic minorities. But what transpired was the opposite, because in the build-up to the First World War, the Ottoman Empire had joined the camp within which the forces of extreme nationalism were fast emerging. This was the atmosphere in which the incipient Young Turk movement was sharpening its weapons, and the outbreak of war was their political opportunity.

The Armenians lived in an area that was strategically significant, and it was their misfortune that the eastern portion of this area fell under Russian control, and the western part under the control of the Ottaman Empire. The Armenians were followers of the Christian Apostolic Church, their branch of which was established as early as the first century after Christ. In the year 301 AD, Armenia became the first state to adopt Christianity as its state religion. On the other hand, the Ottaman Empire (established centuries later) was populated in the main by Muslims.

In such a situation, when the territory of an ethnic minority is occupied by two sides at war with each other, the patriotism of that minority comes under question. Such doubts acquire a firmer basis if religious difference is added to the mix. Armenia was no exception to this pattern. When the Ottoman Empire entered the war against Russia, its ruler expected the Armenians resident in its eastern territories to come out openly against Russia. When this did not happen, the Young Turks obtained their opportunity to crush the Armenians. Between 1913 and 1918, the leadership of the Young Turks was held by three Pashas: Anwar Pasha, Talat Pasha, and Kamal Pasha. Ultra-nationalist in inspiration the three were very close to Germany. Turkey and Germany were on the same side during the Great War, whilst Russia was aligned with their opponents, the Allied Powers. The Ottomans had already decided upon a ‘final solution’ to the Armenian ‘problem’ – the first phase of which was unleashed on April 24, 1915, with the attack on Armenian intellectuals and business leaders.

In the next phase, thousands of Armenian men were rounded up for the ostensible purpose of Army recruitment. They included peasants, teachers, shopkeepers and shepherds. No social group was omitted, they were ordered to move as and when and wherever they were, immediately. Once they arrived at the collection points, there was no going back, nor were they allowed to bid goodbye to their loved ones. As for the families left behind, even amongst them few were left to tell the tale. The men who had been rounded up were not, after all, recruited into the Army, even though the Turkish Army was in need of recruits. They were forcibly made workers and porters. If they fell ill due to hunger and brutal conditions, they were either killed or left behind to die. This wasn’t all - thousands were attacked and murdered by armed gangs.

The third phase was even more remarkable. All the elderly people, women and children were ordered to march towards the Syrian desert. The Ottomans were not to be found wanting in the brutal treatment that vengeful powers mete out to women and children. So aside from being targeted by Turkish soldiers, they were also hunted down by Kurdish and other tribesmen. Famine and sickness killed them in thousands, and the wayside houses where some took shelter were burnt down. Standing fields of food-grain were destroyed. The districts of Bitlis, Agn and Khapert saw the murder of thousands of children, many of whom were burnt alive or poisoned. Some were cut down and thrown into the Euphrates – there are stories of the river waters turning red with blood. There were also stories of forcible conversions. Armenians were not the only victims of these depradations, which included Assyrians and other ethnic minorities.

Some child survivors of this massacre were sent by the Allied powers to countries where there were Armenian immigrants. Some even came to India – there is an Armenian quarter in Calcutta, with its Apostolic Church. It is said that the first Armenians to arrive in India had been soldiers in Alexander’s army. Commercial links with Armenia go back across millennia. The first Armenian settlement is believed to have been the one in Malabar, Kerala; and during Akbar’s reign Armenian traders were reported to have been active in cities such as Agra, Calcutta, Madras, Gwalior, Surat, Lahore and Dhaka. It is said that one of Akbar’s wives was Armenian and so too, was one of the female doctors in his harem. Akbar had permitted them to live and work in India. Armenians had opened a printing press in Madras in the eighteenth century, as well as an armaments factory in Lahore. They were so populous in Calcutta that an Armenian College was opened there in 1821. Till today there is an Armenian Church there, although the population is on the decline.

So deeply embedded was the memory of genocide in their collective memory that it became the well-spring of creativity for most Armenian writers and artists. Modern Armenia lies close to the home range of Mount Ararat, the peak made famous by the Biblical story of Noah’s ark. The ark, made by Noah at Gods command to save all of earth’s animals from drowning in the cataclysmic flood, was believed to have been brought to rest by Noah at Ararat. Although the mountain lies in Turkish territory today, it remains an essential part of Armenian culture. The Armenians call their country Hayk, after their legendary patriarch, a descendant of Noah. The word Armenia is derived from the name of one of Hayk’s descendants.

The origins of Armenian culture may be traced to the copper age, beyond 4000 BC. The fifth-century linguist Mesrop Mashtots, gave the Armenian language its script in 405-406 AD. The period following this is considered a glorious epoch in Armenian history. Mashtots remains honoured till this day, and a road in Yerevan is named after him. This January, on a trip to Yerevan, my mind was stirred by this. The naming of roads after writers and artists is a common occurrence in Armenia. There is an entire repository of ancient manuscripts in Matenadaran, in Yerevan. Museums and repositories of history, culture and the arts look after the heritage entrusted to them. You can pick up a phone today in Armenia and hear the songs of the poet and musical genius Comitas, the same man who went mad upon beholding the genocide of his people. In his poem The Unsilenceable Belfry, dedicated to Comitas, the well-known poet Paruyr Sevak commemorated the genocide in these words:

They, the murderers
Tore open the breasts of mothers,
Whose laps had nurtured our genius.
Before their eyes, they broke open
The heads of those who had once
Seeded art!

In much the same manner, did the poet Daniel Varoujan (born 1884) dedicate a poem to his late father:

I came, small and alone,
To meet you, father,
In a dark prison
Mother was ill, and I,
Rudderless,
In that bed between mother and prison

Daniel Varoujan’s famous collection of poems entitled The Song of the Bread, was a celebration of Armenian village life and traditional myth. It was confiscated in 1915, but miraculously survived the genocide. On April 24, 1915, Daniel Varoujan, along with other Armenian intellectuals, was brutally murdered by the Turkish authorities. He was 31 years old. In his famous poem Dantesque legend, the poet, writer and public activist Yeghishe Charents (1897-1937), still revered as Armenia’s soul, described an event much like this:

Water – whispered the lips
As I crawled to the well’s rim
And looked inside, to the surface
To impenetrable darkness; only that darkness, as
I tied a rope to a bucket, swung it toward the depths,
As in a moment, it crashed into the water,
Intent, I pulled it out and looked inside again
And saw, in that instant,
Body parts shimmering in the water

There are numerous such descriptions of the genocide.  Mothers and sisters would be molested in front of children, who would be ordered to clap – failing which they would be murdered with lances in front of the women. Adam Stephen Garebian was uprooted from Anatolia in 1915, and was lucky to have survived. He took refuge in Bombay. Years later, he related the story to his son Keith, now resident in Canada, but whose childhood transpired in Bombay. Keith Garebian’s poem, Pain: Journeys Around My Parents describes the experience of a group of Armenians who “walked for three days without food or water. Struck low by severe hunger, cruelty and exhaustion, my grandmother agreed to give her daughter Arshe into the care of a childless couple. In my father’s fleeting memory, his middle sister was left crying under a tree, with the assurance that her mother would soon come and get her. The vision of a five year old girl with disheveled hair, weeping alone under a tree became indelibly burnt into my father’s mind.”

Every Armenian family possesses stories like this, and more frightening ones as part of its store of memories. This year, I spent the second half of January in Armenia, where I met many people. There was talk of lost relatives, of their material culture, and of course, of the genocide, to which a museum is dedicated. But there is also awareness of the significance of September 21, 1991, when Armenia became independent of the dissolved Soviet Union, with the determination to build a new Armenia. The path ahead is hard, but it represents the re-iteration by Armenians of their determination to continue living.

This essay appeared in the Sunday Magazine section of Jansatta on April 26 
Translated by Dilip Simeon

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