Yerablur, loss and the continuing cycle of genocide

Special Issue: Genocide Education for the 21st Century
The Armenian Weekly, April 2023

As my last major endeavor as education director with The Genocide Education Project (GenEd), I had the honor of working with fifteen US educators from Alaska to Massachusetts in Yerevan in July 2022. They comprised the first group of international secondary level educators to attend seminars at the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Institute (AGMI). All expenses for the inaugural group of GenEd Teacher Fellows were graciously funded through individual and organizational donations. The teachers were chosen based on a competitive application process in which they proved an understanding of the history of the Armenian Genocide, had taught the subject for at least three years and demonstrated their leadership in education at the local, state and national levels. As an educator of twenty-six years myself, and involved in teaching about the Armenian Genocide for almost as long, working with this masterful group with GenEd in Yerevan was a dream come true. 

One challenge I faced while creating the curriculum for the program was how to show the ongoing and growing threat of genocide facing Armenia and Artsakh today. How was I going to translate the hurt experienced by Armenia, specifically since the 2020 war? After my first visit to Yerevan since the 2020 war in April 2022, I grappled with this question as I saw young soldiers lined up at Tsitsernakaberd on April 24. They were in wheelchairs, on crutches or with the scars of the war in their eyes. They were the ones who returned home.

As a diasporan, I read over and over again about the tragedies of the 2020 war. It was not until I was in Haiastan that I began to truly feel the loss levied on our homeland. I decided to add a field trip to Yerablur (Military Pantheon). At Yerablur, the Fellows would be able to see the images of our fallen heroes etched into their gravestones. The faces of the young soldiers lined across the cemetery would surely illustrate the loss that Armenia has been dealt. 

We went early in the week. As the Fellows began to explore Yerevan and cultural sites near the city, they needed to understand the impact of the war. While they were well-versed on 1915, they did not know as much about the 2020 war due to the disinterest of the Western media in accurately covering it. 

Tour guide Rima Darbinyan with the GenEd Teacher Fellows at Yerablur

On Monday afternoon, just a few days after the Fellows arrived, we boarded the bus with our tour guide, Rima Darbinyan, and two videographers, Karotik Galstyan and Hayk Frangulyan. We had just spent the morning exploring the history of Sardarabad and denial of the Armenian Genocide with GenEd board member Dr. Dikran Kaligian. We exited the cool, dimly lit space of AGMI and drove to Yerablur with the relentless sun of Yerevan on our backs. 

Darbinyan, an absolutely brilliant woman, began to explain the history of Yerablur to the Fellows.  She generally had an uplifting energy about her. Today was different. She recited the information about the cemetery and the impact of the war with a slow pace and distant tone. Almost 4,000 Armenian soldiers and hundreds of civilians were killed, she stated. I interrupted Darbinyan, fearful that the impact of this loss on such a small country would be lost on the group. I was wrong. Our Fellow from Oregon, Sigrid Olsen, quickly stepped in and kindly corrected me—they realized the enormity of the impact. She was taken aback by the numbers and reminded us that the number of deaths was comparable to that of all the allied soldiers who died on D-Day. “How do we not know this?” was echoed through the bus. We went on to explain that since November 9, 2020, hundreds more had been killed as Azerbaijan continues to encroach upon sovereign Armenian land.

With a glance downward, Darbinyan said in almost a whisper that she had lost close family friends and that her father had served in the war. The videographers in the back of the bus were silent. One of them had lost their brother in the war and was a veteran of the 2016 war. His family was in the process of constructing the gravesite at Yerablur. As he was leaving the bus, he told a few of the Fellows. His pain was palpable. 

We walked through the older sections of the cemetery and paid homage to the celebrated war heroes of our past as we moved closer to the graves of the soldiers who died at the hands of Azeris between 1991 and today. Their faces, fixed into marble, stared at the American group approaching. I could hear “they were so young” murmured by one of the Fellows. Immediately, the Fellows understood that our very existence is in peril. They now had a mission to not just ensure 1915 is remembered, but that Armenia is not forgotten.

In an era where we learn on screens more and more often, we forget the value of being physically present. Standing together under the piercing sun, we watched in silence as mothers laid flowers on the fresh graves of their sons. 

The GenEd Teacher Fellowship program was designed to facilitate a series of outcomes including providing advanced training about the Armenian Genocide, the ongoing violence against Armenians and the history and complex sociological issues surrounding the study of human rights and genocide. After this deep dive into the study of the Armenian Case and upon arrival back in the US, the Fellows then would launch workshops and seminars about the Armenian Case within their educational networks on behalf of GenEd. Within a month of returning from Yerevan, the Fellows immediately began running professional development workshops and speaking at state and national conferences. Just months after the inaugural year, it was clear that a fully-funded and immersive training program with leaders in education means exponentially more US educators will receive vital training on the Armenian Genocide which will strengthen educators’ grasp of genocide and human rights history.

Confronted by the uncertain future of Armenia’s survival, the GenEd Teacher Fellows no longer simply learned about our country, but they began to feel the agony of the ongoing attacks by Azerbaijan with Turkish support. They left Armenia ready to share what was now interned in them with their colleagues across the US. 

Sara Cohan

Sara Cohan

Sara Cohan is a human rights and genocide education consultant. She worked for The Genocide Education Project for seventeen years as their education director. Her background combines research, study, curriculum development and teaching. She is a museum teacher fellow for the US Holocaust Museum and Memorial and worked extensively with the USC Shoah Foundation. In 2001, Cohan was named the research fellow for Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center and later she served on their advisory board in 2012. She also studied in Mexico as a recipient of a Fulbright-Hays scholarship and studied Islamic influences in Europe as a fellow for the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was an expert lecturer at the Council of Europe's European Youth Centre in Budapest in 2009 and has worked with the Armenian Genocide Museum and Institute in Yerevan. Cohan has written articles and designed educational materials for a variety of organizations and publications. She is the granddaughter of an Armenian Genocide survivor.

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