Dr. Rubina Peroomian Addresses 11th IAGS Conference in Winnipeg

From l to r: Suren Manukyan, Dr. Rubina Peroomian and Vahram Ayvazyan

Dr. Rubina Peroomian was in Winnipeg, Canada last week where she made a presentation at the International Association of Genocide Scholars Conference regarding Turkey-Armenia relations. IAGS has decided to hold its next conference in Yerevan, to mark the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Below is the text of Dr. Peroomians presentation.

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The Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Turkey addressing the world and the descendants of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide with the words, “We apologize for Turkeys legacy of genocidal destruction. We apologize for forcing Armenian children into Turkish orphanages, changing their names, forcing them to forget their origin, their faith, their language. We apologize for suppressing the historical truth and not teaching it in our schools.”

This was the picture I saw with my minds eye, as Commissioner Marie Wilson together with Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild (a representative of the First Nations of Canada) presented the final report of a five-year-long fact finding hearings and research by Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada. Probing into the history and impacts of more than a century of forced residential schooling for aboriginal children, the Committee had drawn its final conclusion and was now apologizing for the settlers genocidal actions against the aboriginals, forcing their children out of their families into the “residential schools” (from the earliest in the 19th century to the last one closed in 1996) in accordance with the Canadian policy of “aggressive assimilation” by educating them, Christianizing them, robbing them of their language and traditions, teaching them the history of Canada without mentioning the bloody encounters between the natives and the newcomers. The poignant statement by Commissioner Marie Wilson, “It was education that got us into this mess, and it should be education to get us out of it,” promised a new all-inclusive K-12 curriculum with undiscriminatory approach to Canadas history.

As Chief Littlechild was describing with tearing eyes his miserable childhood in these schools, I was thinking of Turkish “orphanages” and Armenian orphans being tortured every night in these centers of brutal Islamization and Turkification for their sins, for speaking Armenian instead of Turkish, for refusing to pray to the God of Islam, for crying loud and calling their dead mothers. How the world is cruel, how people are persecuted for being different for not fitting in the pattern that the perpetrators force upon them. As he spoke of the decades-long struggle of the indigenous community for their history and culture to be included in Canadian museums, I was thinking of the edifices of Armenian culture being destroyed in Turkey and those in the museums exhibited as the vestiges of Turkish culture.

I was hallucinating. It happens to the generations of survivors of Genocide.

Diana Der-Hovanessian experienced this strange feeling of being transported in the past while driving in the dark, looking for street signs. A bizarre psychological turnabout had generated a state of mind to see the sign “Channing” as Chankeri. Then on the next turn it was Ayash instead of “Ayer.” And she was with Siamanto, Ruben Sevak, and Zohrab, and other Armenian poets and writers and intellectuals arrested in Constantinople on the eve of April 24, 1915 and murdered in the Ayash prison and on the road to Chankeri. With that same association, Hakop Karapents was transported to Urfa when attending the opening session of the Urban Renewal Federation of Americas (URFA) annual conference in Hartford. Everyone was wearing a badge with URFA inscribed on it, letters making a totally different sense to him. And instead of hearing the presidents report, Karapents heard the story of the valorous defense of Urfa in 1915 against the Turkish army, those Armenian men and women who fought to the last breath before surrendering to the Turkish sword.

It is the shadow of our ancestors following us, demanding justice, safeguarding our perpetuation as an anchor of existence.

I was attending the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) Conference which convened this year at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, because of the great significance of the opening of an exceptional Museum for Human Rights and the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canadas final report, the latter, a crowning achievement of the struggle of Canadas aboriginals making the Canadian government to eventually admit their wrongdoing and apologize.
Would I see the Turkish government do that noble deed one day?

There was a strong emphasis, understandably, on the issues of colonialization, the appropriation of indigenous territories, and indigenous peoples becoming victims of genocidal destruction. A large number of panels and plenary sessions were dedicated to these issues fitting well into the general them of the Conference, “Time, Movement, and Space: Genocide Studies and Indigenous Peoples.” Particularly interesting were the opening keynote addresses by Felix Cardenas Aguilar, Vice-Minister of Decolonization of Bolivia, and Ned Blackhawk, Professor of History and American studies, Yale University, with a title “The Question of Genocide and the Praxis of Native American Studies.” In the morning that day all the participants of the conference were bused to the Turtle Lodge, the center of the Sagkeeng Anishinaabe First Nation, 90 minutes away from Winnipeg. An interesting program of music, dance, and speeches imbued with indigenous warmth and hospitality, presented the history, culture, and tradition of these people and the ongoing struggle for equality and justice as well as the preservation of their ethnic identity.

This year also marked the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, and the IAGS commemorated it with an impressive program featuring a slide presentation and narration prepared by Rafiki Ubaldo, a Tootsie survivor, and read by Theodore Fontaine, a residential school survivor. This emotionally charged presentation was followed by a fiery speech by Regine Uwibereyeho King, another Tootsie survivor, now at the University of Manitoba. I was surprised to learn that the Rwandans also have the 3Rs slogan encapsulating their goals, and unlike our Recognition, Restoration, Restitution, theirs is a call to Remember, Reunite, Renew. I couldnt help thinking of the difficult path we Armenians have ahead of us.

Due to complexities involved in the structure of the Museum for Human Rights, its opening had been postponed until September this year, but some of us were invited to take a tour of the exceptionally beautiful building each architectural feature of which had a special purpose and meaning, and had a special message to convey. A plenary session was also dedicated to a virtual tour of the museum that has cost $350 million, is about 23 stories tall, and takes up a 47,000 sq. ft. space. The Museum will house ten galleries of permanent and temporary exhibitions. A hall for 360° films, a climate-controlled hall for very valuable objects, etc. Five genocides, the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, the Ukrainian Famine, the Rwandan genocide, and the Srebrenitza massacres, all officially recognized by the Canadian Parliament, will have permanent showcases. The passion behind this huge enterprise is human rights education for young people, and the goal is to stimulate reflection and become a learning resource. The Museum will mainly concentrate on the Canadian journey, certainly including the indigenous perspective, but it will also speak of a variety of voices breaking the silence of genocidaires and violators of human rights anywhere in the world. It will offer interactive learning programs and pedagogically sound K-12 curricula and teachers training. I was proud and happy to hear that there is cooperation between the Museum with the Canadian-Armenian community, as well as the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, and Dr. Hayk Demoyan, the director will be present at the grand opening in September.

Among the papers presented on a rich variety of topics concerning different aspects of genocide, severe violations of human rights, and evils of colonialism around the worldfrom the Jewish Holocaust to the Bosnian, the Rwandan, the native American, the Kurdish, and othersin many of which the Armenian Genocide was treated as a model, a precursor or just in terms of comparison, there were only three papers dealing with the Armenian Genocide, presented by three Armenian members of the IAGS. Participating in the conference was also Armen Marsoobian, professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University.

Too few, too little a representation, too marginal.

Suren Manukyan, the deputy-director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, talked about “Newcomers and Indigenous: Homogenization of Armenian Homeland as Nation and State Building Project in the Late Ottoman Empire.” He presented the genocide as “the culmination of the process of cleaning up Anatolia from its indigenous people.” Especially after the Ottoman defeat in the Balkans and the Tripolitania war, Western Armenia was for the CUP leaders the very locale where the new Turkish State and the new Turkish Nation could emerge. Manukyan suggested that “bitterness over experiences with Christians in the Balkans or Caucasus may have colored the attitudes of Muslim refugees toward the Armenians. They eagerly participated in the killing process.” The Armenian Genocide and the cleansing of Western Armenia thus worked toward “the realization of the project of the purification from the indigenous population and its colonization by the newcomers,” Manukian concluded.

I met Vahram Ayvazyan, a young scholar from Spitak, Armenia, for the first time in the AIGS conferences, and was impressed by his drive, his determination to push ahead despite all odds. He was in Winnipeg to present a paper and hoped to find sponsorship to do research or internship for a year or so somewhere in Canada. He was a graduate of Yerevan State University in International Relations, had been a student of the Zoryan Institute s Summer Courses in Genocide Studies, and here he was presenting on “Globalization and Humane Culture.” Enumerating the problem areas, challenges, and crisis, he exposed a gloomy picture of the world in the 21st century and the ongoing international suffering. He advocated a “dramatic change, a new culture” which he called as “Humane” to ameliorate the situation. His key-words were friendship, mutual trust, cooperation, and the rule of non-violence. In a world structured around these principles, there should be a collective action against the intruder which he called the Wendtian outsider, the hunger and disease, the climate change, the terrorism, war, the genocides and genocide denial. The Armenian component obviously worked as references in these situations.

In harmony with the theme of this years Conference, I presented a paper on the global issue of uprooted people with a case study on Armenians. 99 years ago, the first major uprooting of the indigenous people in modern history, I argued, occurred in the Ottoman Empire. The remnant, the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, consisting of those few who endured the unparalleled hardship of the road and managed to escape the liquidation stations were driven out. The predicament of these “refugees,” “displaced persons,” or whatever the legal construct, I contended, shaped the collective psyche of Diasporan Armenians, regardless of time and distance, and has its parallels in all the psychological elements at work in the communities of uprooted people in the world. I identified these psychological elements as literary themes, such as a lasting predicament, confused identity, sense of belonging to the Old World transmitted to the next generation, hope for justice and return to ones homeland, in the grip of harrowing memories and memories of the homeland lost, turning against God, etc.

In my presentation, “The Plight of Armenian Genocide Survivors Within the Context of the Global Issue of Uprooted People,” I chose to go beyond the usual discourse of statistics and public statements and rely on artistic literature, the literary responses to this particular dilemma, as for many artists suffering these conditions, like Sudharshana Coomarasamy, a refugee from Sri Lanka, “Writing has in one sense been a journey of discovery of self and of transforming pain into poetry.” Or, as Levon Zaven Surmelian wrote, “Poetry might well heal the inner split and bring my two desperate selves together and make me whole again.” Through the comparative study of literary responses of Armenian, Sri Lankan, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Kiribatian, and other uprooted peoples, I demonstrated the horrors of oppression, the horridness of the violence that has “produced” the uprooted, their fears, hopes and dreams. The path for justice, healing, and reconciliation that these uprooted people need the most, I concluded, requires the recognition of the crime as a sine qua non condition, and then the world community working together to offer alternatives to restrictionist and discriminatory policies, racial and religious, even social and economic violence, prejudices and stereotyping that lead to marginalization even criminalization of the uprooted in “host” countries; to raise awareness of the cultural assets and resources refugees bring.

Armenian presence in the IAGS conferences keeps dwindling. Especially this year, it was too little, too marginal. And yet, next year, on the occasion of the Armenian Genocide centennial, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute has invited the IAGS conference to take place in Yerevan. Would we have a huge impact with a strong message to the world academia, seasoned genocide scholars and emerging young ones? Would we be able to impress 200-300 participants with our sound and profound presentations, with the seriousness of our organizational skills, with the beauty of our country, the hospitable and friendly nature of our nation, and more importantly with the justness of our cause? I hope we will.


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