THE WEIGHT OF A TRAGIC PAST IN ARMENIA
New York Cesar Chelala
April 24 has a special resonance for Armenians. That day, in 1915, is considered by Armenians all over the world as the start of the Genocide. As the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes, over a million Armenians were massacred, and many others were forced into exile from the land that had been theirs for centuries.
During a trip to Armenia, I was once again reminded of man's inhumanity to man, the unforgivable brutality to fellow human beings. I also found myself face-to-face once again with the power of memory and of hate, and asked myself if there is any way to overcome the lingering and pernicious effects of murderous, even genocidal actions.
More recently, in the 1970s in my own country, Argentina, the military conducted what has become known as the "dirty war" against those who opposed its ruling. In the process, the military made "to disappear" thousands of people -as many as 30,000- never to be seen again or accounted for.
In the Argentine case, many years later, military officers -including members of the former ruling junta- were tried and imprisoned. While this action couldn't bring back the "disappeared," it was a necessary act of justice for their families and partial closure for their losses.
During my trip I was able to attest the Armenians’ distrust and even hate for the Turks, almost a century after the devastating events of 1915. And I asked myself if the antagonism between the two peoples can be overcome so that a civilized relationship between the two countries can be brought about. It is obviously too late to bring those responsible to justice. However, it should be possible to reach a level of understanding between the two peoples.
While in Yerevan, I spoke with Professor Mira Antonyan, director of the Fund for Armenian Relief, about the effects of those events on Armenians today. "The only thing that unites us now is our resentment against the Turks for the events of the past. Being Armenian means having sad memories," she told me. I could feel the anguish in her words. That feeling was shared by her husband and a friend of both, who regularly trade with Turkish businessmen.
I told them that I felt Armenians were in a quagmire, unable to move forward because of the tremendous weight of history. "Perhaps you are right," Mira's husband answered, "but genocide is a very heavy burden on our shoulders. We cannot just forget what happened. We cannot erase our memory." He also told me how he cannot avoid sobbing every time he listens to “Adana,” a song devoted to the victims of the 1915 genocide (The song is also called “The sorrow song of Adana.”)
Broadly speaking, I believe that there is a generational divide on the problem affecting both societies. The older generation -those over 50- insist on the need for an apology from the Turkish government. The younger generations, without rejecting the facts of history, feel the need to overcome those memories. They believe that such visceral attachment to the past is self-defeating.
Kamilla Petrosyan, a psychiatrist, told me how her 4-year-old son arrived home one day from kindergarten frightened to death on learning about the 1915 massacres. "We have to stop this culture of victimization," she said, "otherwise we will never be able to move forward."
What we now desperately need is a change of paradigm, to move from a culture of violence to one of peace. Recent times have been characterized by the use of violence over dialogue and of aggression over diplomacy. Some small scale initiatives, however, have been carried out recently to break the barrier of misunderstanding, ignorance and lack of empathy between Turks and Armenians.
For example, the “Forum for 21st Century Leaders,” an Armenian non-governmental organization along with its partner “The Earth Association” in Turkey organized a workshop in Aghveran, Armenia, in 2012 that brought together 12 young environmentalists from both countries working on issues of common interest.
Another initiative is one carried out by volunteers from the American Peace Corps in Armenia organizing summer camps for Turkish and Armenian children. In talks with several Armenian schoolteachers, I found them eager for contact with Turkish teachers and schoolchildren.
In another project, cheese makers from the Armenian town of Gyumri and the Turkish town of Kars, which are only 45 miles apart, are working with colleagues from the Georgian town of Ninotsminda to produce and market a “Caucasian cheese,” developed in 2008 to foster cross border cooperation.
These are small but valid initiatives that can contribute to create an atmosphere of peace and understanding between Turks and Armenians. It is only by constructing bridges of communication -particularly among young people, still untainted by the weight of the past- that we will be able to change the present paradigm of violence and hate for one of collaboration and peace.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is the co-author of "Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims," a New York Times Magazine cover story, for which he shared an Overseas Press Club of America award. He is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia).