On July 27, 1983, five young Armenians—Sarkis Abrahamian, Setrak Ajemian, Vatche Daghlian, Ara Kuhrjlian, and Simon Yahniyan—stormed the Turkish Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal, seeking to occupy it in an effort to publicize Turkey’s ongoing denial of the Armenian Genocide. While the attempt ultimately failed—the five became trapped inside the Embassy and eventually committed suicide—it is worth looking at the Lisbon incident, and more broadly, the years of armed struggle in the 1970s and ‘80s, to evaluate the impact of those years and where we’ve come since that time.
Armed struggle was carried out largely by two groups—the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG)—and their offshoots. While the groups varied considerably in tactics and allegiances, they came out of the same period of ferment, marked by civil rights activism, anti-colonial movements, the rise of national liberation struggles in the Third World, and a broad tendency toward radicalism among the youth. Far from being a band of hotheads or quixotic adventurers, many of the young avengers were part of this broader, worldwide tendency, and thus reflected the spirit of their times: Conventional political means had yielded little results, and the Great Powers—both US and USSR—despite their professed idealism and concern for human rights, were seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution; in the US’s case especially, viewed no longer as the bastion of the free world but rather as an imperialist power that backed dictatorships and other criminal states, including modern Turkey.
Bearing these trends in mind, we must view the rise of armed struggle for what it was: A movement that, frustrated by the seeming impotence of mainstream advocacy, began to call for more extreme actions (such as targeted assassinations of high-ranking Turkish diplomats) that could shake the system’s foundations. The effort was designed essentially as a wake-up call, and on two fronts:
- Aiming to send shock waves through Turkey, as well as international public opinion.
- Seeking to repoliticize Armenian communities worldwide, replacing conventional notions of democracy and human rights with bolder, ideologically sharper notions of self-sacrifice, liberation, and revolutionary zeal in pursuit of our cause.
On the first front, the wave of political assassinations did indeed wake up Turkey. In fact, in the early years Turkish opinionmakers were frankly startled, having grown accustomed to seeing Armenians as modest and unthreatening, hardly a bold or formidable adversary. It took a few years, but by the late 1970s Turkey’s elite had regained its balance: At first, Ankara sought quick remedies to defuse its “Armenian problem”: Recall then-Foreign Minister Çaglayangil, who invited the leaders of the Armenian political parties—ARF, Hunchak and ADL—to meet secretly in Switzerland. The Foreign Minister expressed his country’s dismay over the rise in political violence, and sought the Armenian groups’ assistance, but was kindly rebuffed. He was told that while the parties did not condone such violence per se, a) the cessation of hostilities was beyond their means; and b) nothing short of justice would cause the assassins to lay down their arms. Soon thereafter, Turkey evaluated these results and decided to drop the possibility of subsequent meetings.
Soon thereafter, Turkey became more pro-active. Both directly and indirectly, it began to pressure Armenian leaders and community institutions inside Turkey. More ominously, it began to pour millions of dollars into organized denial efforts, creating a political machine that has continued to grow till this day.
We may look upon this today as cause for concern, but at the time Armenians believed that armed struggle had made headway in a limited sense: It had forced Turkey to blink, and it had drawn widespread reaction—both positive and negative—from international public opinion, as mainstream media voraciously devoured news of every assassination. For a period, it seemed that the Armenian Cause had gone from being yesterday’s news to emerging as a serious matter of contemporary relevance.
However, the armed struggle did not have staying power. Some believe that by the 1980s it had gone too far, particularly in the wanton destruction of Paris’s Orly Airport and other cases where innocent bystanders were recklessly killed. This likely caused a decline in support from many Armenians, especially in Europe where the avengers had won widespread sympathy. And yet, others say the decline in political violence came because it perhaps did not go far enough: As long as politicized Armenians did not have presence on the ground inside Turkey, the assassination attempts were increasingly cast as isolated incidents staged by the diaspora, which had no foothold on its historic lands, and was not part of any organic struggle inside Turkey. (It would have been interesting to see such organic struggle, but of course the tentative openings inside Turkish society were still over 20 years away.) Still others rightly point to another factor: ASALA and JCAG also didn’t have staying power because another organic struggle on the ground—Karabagh—soon emerged to occupy Armenians’ attention.
On the second front, the movement did often repoliticize Armenian communities. But it also generated controversies, especially in the US, where Armenian-Americans had grown up for decades seeking to integrate with their host societies, not by challenging the mainstream but by accepting it. The image of the ‘peaceful Armenian’ had been tarnished, if not shattered, by the armed struggle, and people reacted in different ways to this. For those who viewed their Armenian identity in simple or conservative terms, the wave of political violence was often too much too handle: “Good Armenians” sought to distance themselves not just from so-called “terrorism,” but from activism of any kind, often avoiding the faintest mention or involvement with the Armenian Cause.
But for others who were more reflective, the years of armed struggle gave important meaning to being Armenian. Now, all of a sudden, being Armenian involved making choices, often difficult choices, tied to one’s belief system. I can recall the numerous examples when newspaper reporters and federal investigators began questioning our community leadership, who by and large stood together, saying that while we do not condone such violence, we understand the causes behind it, and that fundamental solutions require justice for the crime of Genocide. For many of us, there was a maturation process involved, as such pressures caused us to think more deeply and clearly about what we did and didn’t believe in.
Meanwhile for those—fewer in number—who were even more politicized, the years of armed struggle offered existential shifts. The old narratives, alliances, even worldviews were all challenged by the new order that was seemingly upon us: Armenians as the US’s “little ally” was replaced for me by a horizontal view where our most natural, nourishing alliances came not from the Great Powers but from other struggling, dispossessed peoples such as the Kurds, Basques, and Palestinians. I recall being moved by an influential article in the New York Times by a Columbia University professor (I believe it was Steele Commager) who pointed to the hypocrisy of condemning such acts of “terrorism” when the greatest, most lethal violence against innocent people comes from the large, ostensibly democratic states we reside in (and the military-industrial complexes that sustain them). “What do you expect?” was his question, reminding that “terrorism” is the obvious weapon-of-the-weak, used by those who do not have a state apparatus to legitimize their use of violence. Either condemn violence across the board, he seemed to say, or don’t condemn it at all. In such a milieu, being Armenian was no longer something you simply wore on your skin; it was a choice, an attitude, a stance on life-writ-large. And for some of us, being Armenian became a choice increasingly not to conform to dominant values, but to stand by our principles even if those principles aren’t always fashionable.
In this spirit, I would affirm that the incident in Lisbon—and the five martyrs who gave their lives there—was not reckless, merely destructive or without purpose. If anything, it reminds me that we must avoid lapsing back into conformism. Lisbon reminds us to be creative, demanding, and to push the envelope—remaining aware of ‘inside strategies’ as well as ‘outside strategies’ in pursuit of our goals. More plainly, we must remain ready to work, when necessary, through established institutions in pursuit of our cause; but we must also stand ready to question the foundations, and the legitimacy, of such institutions, rather than simply accepting them as the natural order of things.
This article is adapted from an address delivered at a July 28, 2013 commemoration organized by the ARF “Soghomon Tehlirian” gomideh in Fresno, Calif. The author is a member of the ARF Central Committee, Eastern United States.