YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Tens of thousands of people marched to the Tsitsernakabert memorial in Yerevan on Friday to pay their respects to some 1.5 million Armenians who were massacred by the Ottoman Turks 100 years ago in the first genocide of the 20th century.
In what has been an annual ritual in Armenia for almost 50 years, they laid flowers by the hilltop memorial’s eternal fire surrounded by 12 inward-bending columns symbolizing Armenian-populated provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
The daylong procession began amid heavy rain after an official ceremony during which Armenia’s political and spiritual leaders as well as dozens of foreign dignitaries marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide.
“The western part of the Armenian people, who had for millenniums lived in their homeland, in the cradle of their civilization, were displaced and annihilated under a state-devised plan with direct participation of the army, police, other state institutions, and gangs comprising criminals released from the prisons specifically for this purpose,” President Serzh Sarkisian said in a speech at Tsitsernakabert.
“Human language is powerless to describe what an entire people endured,” he said. “Around 1.5 million human beings were slaughtered merely for being Armenian.”
The three-hour ceremony also involved speeches by the visiting presidents of Cyprus, France, Russia and Serbia and a prayer service led by Catholicos Karekin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It ended with an address by Esther Mujawayo, a prominent survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
“It is very important that we stand by our Armenian sisters and brothers sharing their pain, their struggle, and of course their rebirth,” Mujawayo told the participants of the event.
“As one of the participants of the Global Forum Against the Crime of Genocide, held in Yerevan over the last two days, I would like to extend our gratitude to the government and people of Armenia for furthering prevention agenda and raising public awareness to combat the crime of genocide and reach the noble goal of its complete exclusion,” she added.
Mujawayo also read out the forum’s concluding declaration that calls on the outside world to ensure a greater international recognition of the Armenia genocide and condemns its denial by Turkey. The declaration also calls for a worldwide “strengthening of genocide prevention mechanisms.”
In his speech, Sarkisian similarly denounced Turkey’s continuing claims that Ottoman Armenians died in smaller numbers and not as a result of a premeditated government policy. “As Pope Francis rightly pointed out [on April 12,] ‘Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it,’” he said.
Sarkisian went on to thank foreign nations and various international bodies that have officially recognized the Armenian massacres as genocide. “Recognition of the genocide is a victory of human conscience and justice over intolerance and hatred,” he said.
The Armenian leader further praised scores of Turks who were due to gather in Istanbul later in the day to commemorate the genocide victims. “They are strong people who are doing the right thing for their homeland,” he said.
President Serzh Sarkisian’s Speech at the Genocide Centennial Commemoration
Distinguished representatives of states and international organizations;
My fellow compatriots,
We stand on Tsitsernakaberd Hill today to commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide. On the 24th of April, this day a hundred years ago, the extensive enactment of one of the gravest crimes of the 20th century began with mass arrests of the Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and other cities of the empire. It had been preceded by the disarmament and massacre of the Armenian servicemen. What subsequently happened in 1915 and the years that followed was unprecedented in terms of volume and ramifications.
The Western part of the Armenian people, who for millennia had lived in their homeland, in the cradle of their civilization, were displaced and annihilated under a state-devised plan with direct participation of the army, police, other state institutions, and gangs comprised of criminals released from the prisons specifically for this purpose.
Human language is not capable of describing all that was experienced by a whole nation. Around 1.5 million human beings were slaughtered merely for being Armenian, as unimaginable atrocities of the human race became concealed in eternal silence. Some survived, with their life stories conveyed as historical testaments to generations to come.
Yesterday, the Armenian Apostolic Church canonized the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide. They are victims no more. They are saints, whose blood was shed, victorious over death and evil, heavenly soldiers calling for justice.
Unfortunately, April left a black trace in the history of not only the Armenian people, but humankind as whole. April is also the month in which the perpetration of the Holocaust, and crimes of genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia commenced. We stand here today, in the very month of April, in Tsitsernakaberd — the Armenian Genocide Memorial, to proclaim: May there never again be a need to erect a memorial to commemorate new disgraceful chapters of history anywhere in the world! May there be no more need for a new Tsitsernakaberd, Yad Vashem, Killing Fields, and Gisozi!
May this message rise to the skies, intertwining with the profoundly symbolic liturgy served yesterday at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, and the consonant peals of the Sister Churches in all corners of the world, may it dispel the hundred-year-long darkness of denial, and put an end to the suffering of people experiencing the horrors of genocide even in the modern day, in the 21st century. This is the testament that reached us, and it is our duty to convey it to the generations to come.
The goal of our policy, anchored in memory and responsibility, is to form effective mechanisms for preventing future crimes against humanity. As Pope Francis justly said, “concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.” The wound is bleeding, because there is too much neutrality, silence, and denial around the world, and there is still too little humanity.
We shall not forget that for centuries humanism and benevolence have been the engine that led the formation of international human rights mechanisms. Moral aspirations and universal values were what inspired Henry Dunant to lay the ground for creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Moral values and the horrifying reality of the Armenian Genocide were what urged Raphael Lemkin to coin the term “genocide,” which would unfortunately have to be used over and over again. As a matter of fact, when Lemkin was asked what genocide was, he answered that it was what happened to the Armenians.
As we speak, there are still too many instances of denying universal values and contorting history, which pave the way to the recurrence of these crimes: we can all see the situation in the Middle East.
We must find solutions before humankind once more breaks its “never again” vow. It seems that the Armenian Genocide Centenary has become a new milestone in the international fight against these crimes: in the last period, countries around the world and international organizations recognized the first Genocide of the 20th Century, some reaffirmed their recognition, and others criminalized attempts of its denial, all sharing the belief that it is the only way to shed light on the dark pages of the world history and to prevent such pages from being written ever again.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished in the Deir-ez-Zor desert after suffering displacement and exile. A monument and a church were built in Deir-ez-Zor, and the remains of our martyrs were laid to rest there. A few years ago, I stood near that Church and said these words: “We plan to live and multiply. It is no longer possible to intimidate or to blackmail us, because we have experienced the most horrible. We shall live and create twice as vigorously—for us, and for our innocent victims. We look to the future, because we still have much to say and to share with one another, we have much to say and to give to the world.” When I stood near the Deir-ez-Zor church and said these words, I was, like today, looking to the future. Last year, the church and the monument were simply blown up. To this very day, there are some who are yet at unease with the remains and bones of our victims.
This is the reality today. This is why the issue is pressing.
Human memory is a unique sieve of history. Global history shall always remember and cherish all the individuals, countries, and international organizations that came to help at the hardest times and saved not only the physical existence of millions of people, but also the ruined faith in humanity.
Around the world, conscience and probity are withstanding the cruel, but retreating machine of the Armenian Genocide denial. Conscience and probity are the antipodes of denial. Recognition of the Genocide is not the world’s tribute to the Armenian people and our martyrs. Recognition of the Genocide is the triumph of human conscience and justice over intolerance and hatred.
Hence, on behalf of all Armenians, I am grateful to you, President Anastasiades, President Nikolić, President Hollande, President Putin. I am grateful to the whole international community, represented here by many of your states and international organizations. I am grateful to all those that stand by our side, to all those that wish to be by our side. We are grateful to the global civil society and international press representatives that have been voicing the importance of the Armenian Genocide recognition. We are grateful to all people of good will — all those who stood by the side of the Armenian people in the course of commemoration events around the world this year. We are grateful to those who gathered at Taksim Square in Istanbul today: they are strong people who are standing for the right cause for their fatherland.
The Armenian people will always remain standing by the side of those who suffered from crimes against humanity. The unyielding international struggle against crimes of genocide will remain an integral part of our foreign policy.
I am grateful to all of you for being here to reiterate your commitment to universal values, to say that nothing has been forgotten, and to say that, a hundred years past, we remember and we demand.