Making Sense of Senselessness: The Lessons of Lisbon

“We know what we are doing. We know also what we shall do in the future.”

It is with these words that five young Armenian men, Sarkis, Setrak, Vatche, Ara, and Simon, stormed the Turkish Embassy in Portugal’s capital Lisbon, and effectively changed the course of the Armenian Cause forever.

'We know what we are doing. We know also what we shall do in the future.' (Graphic by Rupen Janbazian)
‘We know what we are doing. We know also what we shall do in the future.’ (Graphic by Rupen Janbazian)

With their act, the world’s attention quickly turned to the Armenian people’s quest for justice of an unpunished Crime and made that quest relevant once again.

The Lisbon Five pushed the envelope in the truest sense of the phrase, at a time when mainstream advocacy and peaceful protest had run its course and was being met largely with indifference.

And while some will consider the act as barbaric, cruel, and senseless, today—33 years later—it is important for us to look at the lessons that can be learned from their dedication to the cause.

If their act taught us anything, it is that we must be dedicated to the cause—not just genocide recognition, but the all-encompassing Armenian Cause, with all its facets, features, and complexities—fully and wholeheartedly.

It taught us that we cannot remain indifferent at a time when our culture, language, traditions, and customs are on the verge of loss and disappearance, especially in the diaspora, where the threat of the “White Genocide” (“Jermak Jard”) is real and in progress.

If their act taught us anything, it is that we must do our utmost not to forget our customs—that we must sing our songs, read our literature, dance our dances, and create art—because that is what these five boys would have wanted.

It taught us that we must know well our people’s history, so that we can continue their struggle against all of those who wish to remain indifferent and apathetic towards our rights to justice.

The five boys that were martyred 33 years ago never saw an independent Armenia and Artsakh (Karabagh), but were so dedicated to an ideal that they were ready to give their lives to the struggle for a free homeland.

Today, gone are the days of Armenia being merely an ideal in our minds and hearts, represented by a picture of Mount Ararat on the walls of our homes. Armenia and Artsakh are both independent, and we cannot lose sight of that or ever take it for granted.

'With their act, the world’s attention quickly turned to the Armenian people’s quest for justice of an unpunished Crime and made that quest relevant once again.' (Graphic by Razmig Titizian/AYF Canada)
‘With their act, the world’s attention quickly turned to the Armenian people’s quest for justice of an unpunished Crime and made that quest relevant once again.’ (Graphic by Razmig Titizian/AYF Canada)

The dedication of the Lisbon boys reminds us, once again, that their fighting spirit must live on as long as our rights as Armenians continue to be trampled on—as long as what is rightfully ours continues to be in the hands of others.

Many years have passed since that fateful day in July 1983, but today, more than ever, we as a people—but especially the Armenian youth—must personify the lessons of Sarkis, Setrak, Vatche, Ara, and Simon’s legacy, as the future leaders of the Armenian nation, a generation of leaders that must keep the dream of a united Armenia alive, and work tirelessly to make that dream a reality.

Only then can the Lisbon boys find their peace and can we make sense of their selfless, “senseless” act.


Rupen Janbazian

Rupen Janbazian is the former editor of The Armenian Weekly. His writings primarily focus on politics, human rights, community, literature, and Armenian culture. He has reported from Armenia, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh), Turkey, Canada, the United States, and Western Armenia. He has served on the local and national executives of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) of Canada and Hamazkayin Toronto, and served as the administrator of the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of Toronto. Janbazian also taught Armenian History and Creative Writing at the ARS Armenian Private School of Toronto, and has worked on several translations.

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  1. Thank you, Rupen, for reminding us all, and particularly our youth, of the essence of the Armenian Cause and the Lisbon Five young men’s dedication to it. Unfortunately, today, such acts are far less unusual and shocking to us. Fortunately, our youth now have much more effective means by which to further our cause. But, they’ll need the same depth of commitment and courage to devote their lives to our struggle and reap the rewards.

  2. From Wikipedia, “When anti-terrorist police stormed the building, they met no resistance and found six burned corpses. The dead included 4 militants, the Turkish diplomat’s wife, and a Portuguese policeman, identified as Manuel Pacheco.” When I read the words, ‘burned corpses’ my mind goes to the multitude of Armenians who were burned alive during the Genocide. So to speak of the Lisbon 5, however well meaning they may have been, as heroes, is to me a very tragic kind of hypocrisy that is in fact very dangerous for the Armenian nation today. How can we Armenians speak of the brutality of the Genocide or of the Azeri Safarov killing an Armenian army officer in his sleep, when we honor the brutal killing of the wife of a Turkish diplomat and a Portuguese police officer? Speaking as an ardent believer in Hye Tad, the Armenian Cause, I would say that the Lisbon 5 attack, like most terrorism, reflects a desperate and ill fated effort. Do we Armenians want to be considered desperate? I say No! Instead we should to be focused on what needs to be done in the present in a clear and effective way so that we succeed in ever strengthening Armenia, Artsakh, and in liberating the occupied Western Armenia provinces. Let us not forget that the Armenian nation has real problems breathing down it’s neck that threaten its very existence, e.g. Azeri aggression that seeks to steal away our beloved Artsakh. We must be ready to hammer the Azeri into the ground should they make war on us, i.e. to punish them by destroying their economic infrastructure and taking so much of their land that other nations loose interest in their viability as a nation. This may very well be achievable if we properly prepare. Certainly it’s no time to act desperately or to honor desperate acts like the Lisbon 5 terrorist attack.

  3. Hello, these 4 Young Armenians gave theire young lives to cause of crimes committed to Armenian Nation in all. For them entire world knew Armenian Cause , after effect still we see , they sow the justice seeds in Lisbon so many years ago. I am sure they are all together in heaven watching for Armenian Nation for full hearth . GOD BLESS THEIRE SOUL , RESTING IN PEACE.

  4. I’m sorry for the loss but whatever they say said and did were acts of terror , today if they were continuing there acts the Lisbon 5 would be classed as terrorists that targeted the innocent victims, of course they’d motivated by an ulterior motive and in the name of nationalism ! In the end there lives were a waste the world only recognises them as the introducers of terror in an unsuspecting nation , nothing was gained and no one should or nation should secumb to terrorist demands , thankyou

  5. They were terrorists. Nothing admirable about their actions.They murdered a Turkish wife and a Portuguese Law Enforcement Officer. The hero is the Portuguese Policeman who died trying to stop the killing.

  6. These fine five young men stand unblemished in history. I would not say the same to those who trained them, armed them, equipped them, moved them and recorded their messages before sending them on a sure suicide mission but they stood behind safe and took cover in anonymity. They are despicable cowards who continue to take cover in anonymity.

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