The following is a speech delivered by Armenia-based journalist Harout Ekmanian in Berlin, as part of a program titled “It Snows in April,” which was launched by the Maxim Gorki Theater. The program is dedicated to the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
Two years ago, when I visited Berlin for a single day trip for the first time, my friends couldn’t understand why I was looking for Hardenbergstrasse out of all the interesting places in this beautiful city. They respected my wish, but couldn’t hide how strange it was for them.
For me—someone who had acted in a performance that told the story of Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian Genocide survivor who assassinated Talaat Pasha, one of the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide, on Hardenbergstrasse—the decision to visit the site was a natural one.
I took a photo at Hardenbergstrasse, which to me connected several dots from different times and spaces, from Western Armenia to Berlin, Aleppo, Istanbul, Kobane, Karabagh, Armenia, and back to Berlin.
After the Armenian Genocide, my grandparents from Siverek took refuge in Aleppo, then moved to Kobane, a small town near the border with Turkey, where it was easier to survive as a family of two orphans and a widow. Decades later, my father was also born in Kobane. Fifty years ago, this town had two schools, two churches, and multiple cultural, youth, and sport clubs. Who could have imagined back then that this small quiet border town would attract the world’s attention in 2014, by becoming the apple of discord between the local Kurdish resistance and the greatest evil of our times, the so-called “Islamic State?” Who could have known that this town, once mainly comprised of Armenian Genocide survivors, would witness these atrocities 100 years later?
A century has passed, but we’ve learned so little.
My father visited Kobane for the last time 10 years ago. But he has never seen his father’s birthplace and ancient homeland of Siverek, where our great-grandparents owned vineyards. Our family name is derived from the word “vineyard” (aiki) in Armenian. In 2010, on my way from Aleppo to Yerevan, I stopped at Siverek for a day. I wandered in those vineyards trying to find traces of a lost civilization. I was desperately looking for the footsteps of my forefathers. I witnessed the spoils of the Armenian Genocide with my bare eyes, and the widely propagated “shared pain” narrative in Turkey sounded even more cynical.
A few months later, I found more pieces of Armenian identity in Istanbul, as I covered the second April 24 commemorations being held in Turkey. On the Pera streets, today’s Beyoglu, near the Bosphorus and in every neighborhood, you can still feel the presence of the many writers, poets, architects, lawyers, and journalists who shaped the cultural life in the Ottoman Empire’s capital city. Armenian Genocide commemorations are often called “April 24” commemorations, because most of these intellectuals were arrested in the hundreds and driven to their violent deaths on this date in 1915.
On April 24, 2011, when I was in Istanbul, an Armenian conscript in the Turkish Army was killed by a fellow Turkish conscript while on duty. Official news outlets reported that he had been killed during rough horseplay with a friend, whose name was kept secret initially to protect his identity. The murderer is now known, but remains unpunished, just like the murderers of Istanbul-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated at his newspaper’s doorstep in daylight in central Istanbul. The atmosphere of terror and fearful whispers at the Armenian soldier’s funeral was reminiscent of the scenes described in the many memoirs of genocide survivors.
A century has passed, but things have changed so little.
A century has passed and these troubled lands haven’t yet found peace.
Aleppo, the city that welcomed thousands of Armenian Genocide survivors after World War I and gave a second life for a martyred nation, is today in the eye of the storm. Syria also welcomed refugees from Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and many other places during that war, whereas today, its people have turned into refugees. Some of them are now in Germany. One cannot imagine how hard it is for the descendants of a generous people to be in need and despair.
There have been many pages of heroism written in this Syrian nightmare. During the past 60 months, Syrians stood up for their dignity, defending their freedom; they defied extremism, yet bore all its diabolic consequences.
The roots of so many of our current problems come from the culture of impunity created after the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Think about it: What would Turkey be like today if the German government hadn’t sheltered Talaat Pasha from prosecution, if Talaat had been tried and punished in Turkey instead? Would we see his monuments and his name on schools and streets in every corner of Turkey? Would Turkish society be less intolerant? Would there still be worshipers of Talaat Pasha and other criminals? Would there be a committee in his name that tours Europe to deny the Armenian Genocide today? And would there be a government in Turkey that supports these people in human rights courts? The list is long…
A century has passed but we’re still fighting for truth, justice, and freedom. No matter how grim the situation might seem today, the forces of peace and justice are ever stronger and they have more allies. It is significant that Armenian and Turkish organizations formed a coalition to campaign the Swiss government to appeal the European Court for Human Rights decision in the Armenian Genocide denial case of Dogu Perincek, who is officially supported by the Turkish government. International law expert Pavam Akhavan says that the composition of the coalition itself is a powerful message to the Court that this is not an “Armenian” issue; it is a human rights issue.
A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Every year, in April, Armenians commemorate the genocide, putting heart-wrenching pictures on the web among other activities. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, hundreds of horrible photos of slaughtered men, of starving children and women are posted everywhere—pictures of utter misery and destitution. Today, I want to share with you a different kind of picture—a picture of a shared struggle ahead, instead of a “shared pain”—a picture that positions us on the same side in the fight against racism, and the restitution of human rights and dignity.