Reflections on the Weekly and the Armenian Armed Struggle Movement

From the December 2019 Special Anniversary Magazine Dedicated to the 120th Anniversary of the Hairenik and the 85th Anniversary of the Armenian Weekly

A photo of General Garegin Njdeh hangs at the newspaper office at the old Hairenik building at 212 Stuart Street (Boston, Mass.). Njdeh was an Armenian statesman and military strategist who, as a member of the ARF, was instrumental in national liberation struggle and revolutionary activities during the First Balkan War and WWI. Njdeh is considered was one of the key political and military leaders of the First Republic of Armenia (1918–1921), and is widely admired as a charismatic national hero by Armenians. This photograph was likely taken sometime between 1933 and 1934, during Njdeh’s time in the U.S., during which he helped establish the Tseghagron movement, which later became the AYF-YOARF. (Photo: Ken Martin)

The Armenian Weekly’s 85th anniversary commemoration is an opportunity to celebrate the perseverance of this essential English-language Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) publication and its ability to survive and thrive in a world that has too often wrongly predicted her demise. The paper’s milestone also gives me a chance to reflect on my short, but intense tenure as the Weekly’s editor from September 1982 to May 1984.

I walked into the position as an Armenian Youth Federation (AYF-YOARF) and ARF member with a year-old journalism degree and clipbook in hand. I had a lot to learn, but I thought I understood the gravity of the assignment and the importance of getting it as right as possible for the good of the community, the party and the publication’s reputation. What I did not fully appreciate was the import of that moment at a time when our eastern region communities were grappling with news and reaction to the worldwide Armenian armed struggle movement that started in 1973 and ended around 1986, and whose actions were occurring increasingly in the United States.

Remembering the names today of those engaged in that struggle yesterday—whether they lived or died—recalls what was at stake journalistically at the time: to convey the unfolding deep and delicate stories of sacrifice and violence in a manner that gave our readers full context for the actions, coupled with an understanding that our community’s identity and understanding of itself were also jolted by each assassination and bombing.

The month I started working at the Weekly, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG) took responsibility for the Sept. 9, 1982 assassination of a Turkish administrative attaché in Bulgaria. This was followed by the Oct. 22, 1982 arrest of Steven Dadaian, 20, at Boston’s Logan Airport and Karnig Sarkissian, 29; Viken Yacoubian, 19; Viken Hovsepian, 22; and Dikran Berberian, 29 in Los Angeles for bombings of various Turkish targets in southern California.

An Oct. 24, 1982 New York Times story characterized the Justice Commandos as a “foreign-based terrorist organization in Beirut, Lebanon.” Here’s how the paper contextualized the reason for the actions that led to the arrests:

Armenian radicals say the Turks slaughtered 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 and drove hundreds of thousands into exile. They want the Turkish government to acknowledge the actions and to make reparations.

In those pre-internet days, I remember trying to gather as much information as possible from various print and electronic media sources and going to the Boston federal district courthouse where a hearing for Dadaian was scheduled shortly after he was arrested to add to the story.

On March 9, 1983, Harutyun Levonian, 23, and Raffi Elbekyan, 21, assassinated the Turkish ambassador to Yugoslavia in Belgrade. On July 14, 1983, a Turkish administrative attaché was assassinated in Brussels in an action claimed by various Armenian militant groups. Less than two weeks later, Setrak Adjemian, 19; Sarkis Aprahamian, 21; Vatche Daghlian, 19; Ara Kerdjelian, 20; and Simon Yahneian, 21 embarked on an operation to take over the Turkish Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal. One was shot and killed before entering the embassy and the other four died when their explosives were detonated. The wife of a Turkish embassy official and a Portuguese police officer died along with them.

In the aftermath of these events, the atmosphere of the community would be tense, righteous, conflicted and vigilant. The ARF Eastern U.S. Central Committee’s policy regarding reaction to casualties resulting from armed strikes was not to condone the actions, but to understand the reasons that they were taking place.

Each event unfolded in the Weekly. We published articles reporting the establishment of letter-writing campaigns and legal defense funds to morally and financially support those arrested. We honored the dead as martyrs; each single-column-wide front-page photo resembled a tombstone for the very young man pictured.

Accompanying those photos was factual reporting framed by the unadulterated reasons the core action had occurred in the first place. Because for the Weekly (and its Armenian-language counterpart, the Hairenik), it wasn’t only about the who, what, when and where. It was also—and most critically for these stories—about “the why.”

That’s because the whole point for the armed actions was to amplify “the why” domestically and globally. The Weekly had the obligation and authority to fully articulate—in our press, in our voice—the reasons why Steve, Karnig, Viken, Dikran, Harutyun, Raffi, Setrak, Sarkis, Vatche, Ara, Simon and others had taken such extreme risks: to elevate the demand for Armenian Genocide recognition and reparations by the Ottoman government successor Turkish government and place that demand firmly on national and international political and human rights platforms for overdue resolution.

The Weekly’s readers weren’t the only ones being informed by its content. Those who had always surveilled the paper were also influenced.

A classified Sept. 1984 paper by the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, approved for release on April 22, 2009, focused on the armed operations of the JCAG and other groups and individuals and analyzed the dynamics to explain the bombings and assassinations against Turkish government agents and other targets.

Writing of the Armenian-American community’s reaction to the “terrorism” it was investigating, the CIA relied on “various open sources” to conclude that “while most Armenians recognize that terrorism alone can never solve the Armenian questions and gain justice for the Armenian cause, many Armenians have become convinced that if it had not been for the use of violence, no one would be aware of the Armenian grievances.”

We know that one of the “open sources” used to reach that conclusion was the Weekly because selected reprints from the paper are included in the report to support its assessments. 

Each militant action pushed the Weekly and the community it was writing for to imagine a bolder narrative and image that theretofore had been informed by the glorious past of our shared heritage, the shattering planned extermination of the 1.5 million, and the rise and fall of the first Republic of Armenia, even as we were lifted by the political and moral ambition to restore a  free, united and independent homeland.

While our political efforts for justice in the pre-armed struggle era were maturing, the advent of that movement put our collective political self-reliance on steroids. In 1984, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Washington, D.C. office was established to better coordinate a national Hai Tahd agenda that would have the capacity to leverage untapped political influence. In 1988, we witnessed the eruption of Artsakh’s armed and unarmed struggle for self-determination and Armenia’s march toward regained independence.

How long would our diasporan fires have burned without the armed actions that transfixed and transformed our community in all its discomfort and hushed (and not-so-hushed) pride? That struggle challenged the Weekly and its readers to question who we needed to be in that moment so that we could better understand how to become who we deserved to be. And our efforts to pose and answer those and other questions to that end reverberated through the Weekly’s pages then, as they do now.

The stories that appeared in the Weekly when I was editor are today’s history. What went before me and came after me in the work done and overseen by a long chain of editors forms the foundation for a community publication that now reaches tens of thousands of readers through its online platforms.

May the Weekly continue to be a source and resource that strives to meet its own and our community’s challenges as the times dictate. May it continue to document and assess tomorrow’s history from our corner of the Armenian Diaspora. And may her obituary never be written.

ARF founder Simon Zavarian looks over the newspaper office at the old Hairenik building at 212 Stuart Street (Boston, Mass.). The portrait is the work of famed Armenian painter and designer Arshak Fetvadjian, who is perhaps best known for his watercolor paintings of the architectural monuments of the medieval Armenian city of Ani and for designing the currency and postage stamps of the first Republic of Armenia (1918–1920). With the fall of the first republic, Fetvadjian moved to the U.S. in 1922 and lived there for the remainder of his years. He continued to paint and was inducted to the art societies of the universities of Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago. He died in Medford, Mass. in 1947. (Photo: Ken Martin)
Georgi Bargamian

Georgi Bargamian

Georgi Bargamian is a freelance writer of news, opinion and poetry, focusing on themes of loss, longing, identity and heritage. She is also a community volunteer trying to do her part for the realization of a free, united and independent Armenia.

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