Momentum Gathers as Armenian Genocide’s Centennial Commemoration Approaches

Catherine Yesayan

Catherine Yesayan


My faith in people’s good judgment and ability to be unbiased was renewed when the Carson, California, City Council unanimously rejected the Los Angeles Turkish-American Association’s proposed monument to controversial Turkish dictator Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to be set in the city’s International Sculpture Garden.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a Turkish leader who established the Turkish Republic and continued the genocidal policies of the Ottoman Empire, whose leadership masterminded the attempted annihilation of Armenians. Who would want a statue of such a person in their city?

Carson is located 13 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. The city is not known to many, but on March 4, hundreds of people from all across L.A. County thronged to the City Council chambers.

Many opposed the erection of the monument, while others proclaimed their admiration of Ataturk. Supporters consider Ataturk the father of modern-day Turkey, a visionary leader who brought reform, democracy and liberation to Turkey and to Turkish women.

I nervously watched the whole session from my home via a live-streamed broadcast. I had many nail-biting moments, especially when supporters quoted Winston Churchill and President John F. Kennedy praising Ataturk.

When the time came for the vote, my heart skipped a few beats. Councilman Albert Robles said that he had high regard for Winston Churchill, and even has a poster of Churchill in his office. His statement gave me chills, as I feared the councilman had been swayed to the other side. Fortunately, City Council members had done their homework and had studied the history of the Armenian Genocide. They unanimously rejected the proposition.

It was a happy victory for us Armenians and I shared the good news on Facebook. Over the next two days there were a barrage of Facebook posts rejoicing in the triumph of good over evil.

Since the Carson City Council meeting, many other events have given momentum to the Armenian cause. Led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), more than 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan resolution (H.Res. 154) calling for recognition of the Armenian Genocide, a global call for truth and Justice.

On March 31, Vermont Legislature unanimously adopted Armenian Genocide centennial resolution. I again watched the beautiful ceremony on Internet, where there was Armenian music and two authors Chris Bohjalian and Dana Walrath presented their published books and gave a detail talk about their experience visiting the Historical Armenia and their family history of surviving the genocide.

We rejoiced when Kim Kardashian and her family visited Armenia, bringing so much attention to Armenia and our cause. And then when Pope Francis used the term “genocide” at the Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica to describe the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks 100 years ago, it drew a strong international response. Armenians worldwide expressed deep gratitude to Pope Francis, while Turkey reacted in anger.

There have been numerous events commemorating the centennial of the “genocide” in the Los Angeles area. I’ve attended some, however a few lectures that were organized by the Glendale Central Library stand out in my mind.

The first one, by film historian Anthony Slide, was about the movie “Ravished Armenia.” Mr. Slide gave us a great presentation about the history of the movie and its leading lady, and he screened about 20 minutes of the film that has been saved from 1919

The film shares one of the earliest genocide survivor stories, that of a young woman named Aurora Mardiganian. Aurora, her real name “Arshaluce” which means aurora, was 14 when Turkish gendarmes came to her family’s door and forced them out of their home.

Mardiganian was tortured and sold to a Turkish pasha in an auction. Miraculously, she was able to flee her captors, and with the aid of the American charity Near East Relief, came to the United States. By mere chance, again, an American film producer learned about her story and turned it into the silent movie “Ravished Armenians.”

In an interview 70 years later, Mardiganian told Slide about a crucifixion scene, where naked women were crucified. Slide said from the mouth of Aurora, “The scene was a [misrepresentation] of what in reality happened. The Turks made little pointed crosses and after raping the women, they made them sit on the pointed wood, through their vagina.”

The next program was a power point presentation of the Ghazir Armenian Orphan’s Rug by Maurice Missak Kelechian, who had traveled for several months to Lebanon and Washington D.C. to bring us the story of where and how the rug was woven. It was a detailed account of how the orphanage was created by Near East Relief in the Msar Palace 20 miles away form Beirut in Lebanon.

In December 1925, the 11.7 by 18.5 feet rug was presented to United States President Calvin Coolidge as a token of gratitude, and it stayed with Coolidge and his family even after he left the office. The rug was returned to the White House in 1982, and kept in a storage room for thirty-two years until November 2014, when it was exhibited at the White House Visiting Center for only one week. Kelechian told us about his disappointment oh how the rug was displayed at the visiting center, when he went to the see the rug in Washington D.C.

Last night I saw another emotional presentation by Matthew Karanian at Glendale Central Library about his latest book Historic Armenia after 100 Years. He shared awe-inspiring stories about many sad experiences he learned while investigating sites in historic Western Armenia. He closed his talk with a story about one of his great grandmothers who was a survivor of genocide. I was all goosebumps.

It is sad to see that the Turkish government today denies that a genocide happened and make sure United States doesn’t join the 22 countries—including France, Germany and Canada—that officially have recognized the Armenian Genocide. Unfortunately Britain and the USA in the fear of alienating Turkey, a key NATO ally, have remained silent.

During his presidential campaign, then Senator Obama used the phrase “Armenian Genocide.” The adviser who became his United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power, effectively assured Armenian-American voters that he would continue to do so once elected.

Every year since then, on April 24, President Obama addresses and sympathizes with his Armenian-American constituents for their loss. However, he avoids using the term “genocide.” During the first year of his presidency, in his April 24, 2009 address, he said, “Nothing can bring back those who were lost in the ‘Metz-Yeghern.’” He used the Armenian phrase that translates into “The Great Calamity,” but avoided the word “genocide” to describe the atrocities of the Ottoman Turks.

On April 24 of this year, my fellow Armenians and I will be watching to see if at the Genocide’s Centennial, President Obama will make finally good on his promise.

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