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You can kill us, but you will never destroy us

24 April 2015

Armen Sarkissian recalls the mass murder of Armenians a century ago, and the resilience of his compatriots

Everett Collection/REX

Forced march: an Armenian mother kneels beside her dead child in the desert near Aleppo, c.1915-20

Forced march: an Armenian mother kneels beside her dead child in the desert near Aleppo, c.1915-20

ARMENIANS worldwide are feeling overwhelming amounts of sadness and unrest as we mark the centenary this year of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century, and one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of modern times.

On 24 April 1915, the Ottoman Turkish government imprisoned and then killed hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, setting in train the terrible slaughter of 1.5 million men, women, and children. This mass slaughter, carried out between 1915 and 1918, was planned and perpetrated by the Turkish government against the entire Armenian population of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, under cover of the chaos of the First World War.

The Armenian population was subjected to massacre, deportation, abduction, torture, and starvation. Many were forcibly marched into the Syrian desert with the intention that they would die of thirst, hunger, and disease. The property and personal possessions of the Armenian people were stolen from them as they were expelled from their ancestral homeland.

The Armenian genocide was, above all, a human and a national tragedy. Armenians were killed not because of what they did, but because of who they were. People were massacred because of their ethnic origin and their Christian faith. They were forcibly removed from where they had lived for millennia, and deprived of their cultural heritage: monasteries and churches, schools, and other community and individual property. It was an attempt to erase us from history.

ARMENIANS were the first people to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in AD 301. In roughly AD 405-406, St Mesrob Mashtots created the Armenian alphabet, and translated the Bible into the Armenian language, enabling Armenians throughout the country to read, learn, and practise the lessons taught in the Bible. Over the centuries, many foreign invaders tried to force Armenians to renounce their faith.

These attempts at forced conversions had the opposite effect, encouraging Armenians to remain resilient, and underlining to them both the importance of their faith and the distinctive nature of their Church. Perhaps these earlier persecutions helped to prepare the Armenians for the "Medz Yeghern" or the Armenian genocide 100 years ago.

THE existence of Armenia's global diaspora testifies both to the crime that took place and to the determination of Armenians not only to endure but to thrive. As the American-Armenian author William Saroyan wrote: "I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of un-important people. . .

"See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia."

When a party of Western Capuchin missionaries arrived in Lhasa in 1707 believing themselves to be the very first Christians to reach the forbidden city of Tibet, they found five prosperous Armenian merchants already in residence.


A CENTURY has passed, and Armenians still carry within them the pain of that horrible tragedy, a hurt made worse by modern Turkey's continued denial that it took place. The President of Armenia initiated a process aimed at normalising relations between our two countries. It could have resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia - the last closed border in Europe; but the Turkish government proved unable to ratify the protocols - signed by Armenia and Turkey in Zurich in 2009.

It is only right to note here that there are many principled people in Turkey who acknowledge the reality of the genocide, and question their government's position.

We, the descendants of the survivors, wait with expectation for other states to place themselves on the right side of history and recognise the murders of our ancestors. And we require Turkey's government, successor to the Ottoman Empire that carried out the genocide, to find the courage and the wisdom needed finally to face up to its past.

In the mean time, Armenia contributes strongly to international efforts aimed at the prevention of genocide. On 27 March, for example, a Genocide Prevention Resolution initiated by Armenia was adopted by consensus at the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution affirms that impunity for those who carry out genocide is a fundamental obstacle to the promotion of international peace and security.

THE centenary commemorations in Armenia will be attended by heads of state and government representatives from all over the world. Yesterday, the victims were canonised at the Holy See of Etchmiadzin - the oldest cathedral in existence and the spiritual focus of Armenians around the world. Today, a solemn ceremony is being held at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in the capital, Yerevan.

A series of events has also been planned by the Armenian community of the UK. We are organising a Music for Armenia concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 May; and the Armenian commemoration service in Westminster Abbey on 28 October, will be attended by the Catholicos of All Armenians, and members of the royal family and the British Government.

As we remember the events of 100 years ago, we look forward to a time when we can live in harmony with all of our neighbours, including Turkey.

Dr Armen Sarkissian is Armenian Ambassador to the UK, and was Prime Minister of Armenia from 1996 to 1997.

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