A friend of mine once remarked that his Armenian friends were the only people he knew who attended genocide symposiums for fun. This was in 2005. At the time, I lived in Yuma and was getting ready to visit my sister in the Bay Area for a few days, and on our itinerary, in addition to going to a Warriors game and eating Ethiopian food and visiting friends, was attending a genocide symposium. I don’t know that fun is the right word, though, maybe more like a sort of obligation or responsibility.
Five-plus years later, I was finishing my master’s degree at the University of Nevada, Reno and I had an elective class on Film and Geography. Early in the semester I chose genocide as the theme for my project. Given that I had other classes, a grad project to finish and defend, and a tendency to procrastinate, I put off watching the eight or so films until the very end of the semester. Films about the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, Cambodia, Rwanda and others. At this point, I was somewhere between six and eight weeks pregnant with Pumpkin, and I barely made it through watching them. It was so difficult to see such an ugly part of humanity while preparing to bring a new life into the world.
April 24 marked the 99th anniversary of the date that is regarded as the beginning of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey). I’ve always known that my grandfather was born in America just a few weeks after this date in 1915, but it wasn’t until this year that I considered what it must have been like for his mother at that time. Anticipating that things were getting bad, my great grandparents left a village outside of Constantinople (Istanbul today) in 1913 and escaped to France. From there, they took a ship to America. My great grandmother would have been eight months pregnant on April 24, 1915, when hundreds of Armenian leaders in Constantinople were rounded up and arrested. Shortly thereafter, deportations of Armenians from their ancestral homeland began, and as they marched through the Syrian desert many were robbed, raped, starved or dehydrated. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians died during the genocide, including all of my great grandparents’ relatives.
My great grandmother was in a new country where she didn’t speak the language. The atrocities were covered in publications like The New York Times, but I wonder what kind of news she got from home and how she got it given the language barrier and that Armenians were forced from their homes. According to my dad, she was well aware of the genocide – although that term did not exist at the time. Her English was poor, and he was too young to fully understand, but she would try to explain and he knew that very bad things had happened. She was a hard worker who grew a garden, quilted, cooked, bottled and canned, and every Sunday attended church.
I wonder how it could feel to be carrying a child knowing what was happening. To raise four children in a foreign country, knowing that in the place where your family had lived for centuries their last name would be a death sentence. To me, three generations later, knowing that the Turkish government continues to deny what occurred, it feels as though there’s an open wound, a sort of ache. I can’t imagine the pain my great grandmother would have felt, that even after starting fresh in a new country and rebuilding their lives that she ever could have been at peace. For her, and millions of others, I hope to see the day when what was done is acknowledged and the healing process can begin.