ROOTS OF SORROW


Stephen Kurkjian


September, 1992

Member of the Boston Globe staff. Published in Boston Globe Magazine


Practically every Armenian family lost a loved one to the massacres that shook Turkey before and after World War I. On a journey to his ancestral home in eastern Turkey, the author encounters the story of his lifetime: the Armenian struggle to survive “ethnic cleansing.”


An artist by profession, my father found himself last year (1992) trying to recapture his birthplace in the best way he knew how - by sketching it. But his initial efforts were in vain. Having spent a lifetime trying to block the memories of his boyhood, he could recall little.

His were memories of exile and death. At age 3, he was caught up in the Armenian massacres that swept through Turkey at the outbreak of World War I, and, like many survivors, he rarely spoke of those experiences.

More than I million Armenians were either murdered outright or died from deprivation and disease during their forced march out of Turkey. My father’s experiences were typical: The adult males in the family, his father, grandfather, and uncle, were taken from their homes and murdered by Turkish militiamen in the early days of the massacres. His only brother and sister died from cholera the following spring, as they approached the Syrian border toward the end of the family’s 300-mile exodus from Turkey. Last September, 77 years to the month since he had been forced to flee, my father Anoosh, and I returned to Kigi (Kghi), the mountain village in the Anatolian region of Turkey where he had been born. About a mile outside the center of town, we located the brook that had run by his home. He washed his face in its fresh waters, remembering how the women in the neighborhood had used the brook to chill boiling pots of yogurt.

That was before the Turkish government ordered the 350 Armenian families living there to vacate the village, before the Turkish militia burst into his family’s home and took his father away. The family’s two-story home was no longer standing, but less than 100 feet from where he last saw him alive, my father offered a prayer to his father’s memory.

My grandfather — I am his namesake — was almost 30 at the time of his murder. He was known in the village for his love of riding on horseback through the mountains, where he would go for days at a time to hunt game. The handgun that he used would prove to be his undoing. He had disobeyed a Turkish order for all Armenians to turn in their weapons and had instead hidden his gun under some brush on a nearby hill. The Turks found the weapon and, suspecting that he was a member of an Armenian defense force, abducted him from his home. The last the family heard of him was several months later, when his name was found inexplicably scrawled on a stone wall 60 miles away, near a field where bodies were found of other Armenian men who had been shot to death. Our stop in Kigi came midway through a two-week tour of eastern Turkey, a region about twice the size of New England, which until the massacres had been an ancestral homeland to Armenians for more than 25 centuries. What was to be a simple return to my father’s roots, however, had a haunting effect on me. It awakened a need to learn more about the massacres, how they happened, and why the world community, the Turks, and even the Armenians allowed them to go unpublicized and unaddressed for so many years.

Yet I need go no further than my own upbringing to find some of the answers. As an Armenian-American, I was raised, like most of my peers, thinking that what happened in eastern Turkey was an “old country” problem, that our sights should be fixed on the New World, I have worked as an investigative reporter throughout most of my journalism career, and I came away from my trip fearing that I had missed the story of a lifetime - the Armenian struggle to survive the horror of what we now call “ethnic cleansing.”

Whether in Watertown, Massachusetts, or Fresno, California, whether in Damascus, Syria, or Yerevan, Armenia, practically every Armenian family lost a parent, grandparent, or other loved ones to the massacres of 1915 and the spasms of anti-Armenian violence that shook Turkey during the years just before and after World War I. While the number of aging witnesses who survived the massacres diminishes steadily with time, the memories of that period remain seared on the Armenian collective consciousness.

Despite the region’s ancestral richness, the bitterness and pain of the memory are so great that few Armenians consider returning to explore their family roots. My father’s sudden decision to return followed several conversations with his 95 year-old aunt, Araxy Vosgerchian, of Watertown. She had fled Kigi with him, and it was from her that he learned the details of a childhood he had never before asked about or been told of. His father had not died defending his village from attack, as he had always imagined, nor was my father his parents’ only child. It was not until his 80th year that he learned of the loss of an older brother and sister on the family’s forced march out of Armenia.

By summer, we had located Armen Aroyan, an Armenian-American who had left his engineering career to begin a business taking small groups of Armenians to search out family roots in eastern Turkey. Ours was his fourth trip.

We were joined on our journey by Vahe and Armine Meghrouni, both retired physicians from southern California, who brought their four daughters and one son-in- law to see the region their ancestors fled in 1915.

They also brought along an unpublished memoir by Vahe Meghrouni’s mother, Virginia, who wrote of the harrowing trek that she and her own mother had to take to flee the massacres. “Death was our constant companion, and many of our friends died,” she wrote. “We fought the threat of panic, hunger, fear, and sleepless nights, but in the end, they won.

“It seemed there was no pity or humanity in the hearts of our captors. When we were marching, we saw a pair of amputated feet and we were absorbed in horror, sure that this time is the end of our march, that we were close to massacre. . . . I remember seeing our friends, corpses, over and over, every time more dead than the previous day.”

Our two-week tour of the region brought the realization that the Armenians lost even more than the lives of one-third of their people to the massacres. Their way of life as an enterprising people maintaining a simple existence supported by the twin pillars of family and church also perished in the mountains and on the plains of Anatolia.

Today, there is a nation of Armenia, an independent republic now free of the Soviet empire that includes some of the area that is considered the ancestral home of Armenia. But the larger portion of that homeland, now barren of practically all Armenians, is governed by Turkey, which has allowed the roots of the ancient Armenian civilization to wither and die. Gone are the churches, monuments, fortresses, and neighborhoods that were once filled with Armenian homes and shops. Everything in this region that had marked the Armenian dentity has been turned into Turkish facilities or allowed to crumble.

“This is one of the truest losses to world civilization,” says Vazken Parsegian, a retired dean of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, who has long sought to preserve Armenian antiquities in eastern Turkey. “It is not only the priceless quality of the work that is being lost, but our link to our past as Armenians and our contribution as a people to world history.”

Parsegian says that only 35 of more than 2,000 structures that defined Armenian life in eastern Turkey at the turn of the century remain standing, and most are in urgent need of repair. Although Turkish scholars have encouraged restoration, the government has turned a deaf ear to overtures by Armenian and international groups to save the structures.

Despite the passage of time, the two peoples remain as suspicious of each other as they were at the turn of the century. Nearly eight decades after the massacres, most Armenian-Americans will state matter of factly and with a measure of pride that they have never spoken to a Turk and don’t intend to. Before my trip, my only conversation with a Turk came through a chance encounter He was driving a cab I had hailed in the District of Columbia. I sat in silence, uncertain whether I should berate him for his ancestors’ savagery or talk him into acknowledging their crimes. After a few blocks, I abruptly asked him to stop and left the cab without paying.

Similarly, Armenians have waited over the years for the Turkish government to show some regret for its brutalities, to apologize for the massacres. “Beyond the loved ones that we lost, and the possessions, there was so much suffering. It has to be recognized and some atonement made,” says Rev. Vartan Hartunian, pastor of the First Armenian Church in Belmont.

The Turks have refused to apologize, contending that whatever excesses took place were in response to acts of violence by Armenians. The Turks further contend that if they issued an official apology the Armenians would use it as grounds to sue for reparations for the lives and property lost. And, finally, the Turks say they should not be held responsible for the sins of a cabal of World War I leaders unconnected to the modern Turkish government.

Where appeals to conscience and historical reality have failed, however, a political rapprochement is now being tried. Last September, foreseeing that the coming winter might cause severe hardships for the fledgling Armenian democracy, President Levon Ter-Petrossian informed the United Nations that the Republic of Armenia would seek to establish relations with Turkey “without precondition.” The demand for an immediate apology for the massacres would be set aside in order to gain help and the desperately needed grain that Armenia needed from its neighbor.

“It was one of the most difficult decisions we had to make as a government,” Alexander Arzoumanian, Armenia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, said later. “But our first priority must be to consider the needs of future generations of Armenians, not the past ones.”

The decision has succeeded in securing a contract with the Turkish government for 100,000 metric tons of grain, but it has split the Armenian government. Many still feel strongly that an apology is necessary. In fact, Raffi Hovannisian, the country’s American-born foreign minister and perhaps the most popular leader in the republic, resigned his post in protest over Ter-Petrossian’s actions. Armenians may have been the first ethnic minority to be brutalized in the 20th century, but they were not the only ones. Many others, from Jews in Nazi Germany to Moslem Turks in Bosnia-Herzegovina today, have found themselves targeted for repression and massacre — ethnic cleansing by governments under siege.

Looking for underlying causes, historians have found that during times of economic stress or outside attack, the fragile social contract that exists inside country among people of different national origins, religions, or races wears thin. Such crises have turned bloody when besieged regimes, desperate to maintain their hold on power, manipulate the situation and blame the ethnic minorities for the problems within their borders, When the rest of the world does not respond, these crises inevitably turn into massacres. “If we are to call ourselves a civilized society, the world community must find a way of dealing with these problems before they become tragedies,” says Richard G.. Hovannisian, a noted Armenian historian and professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. The parallels between the Armenian and Jewish massacres are particularly striking. Both took place during the chaos of world wars; both were perpetrated by reactionary regimes able to play on public fears that a minority group was becoming too powerful and attacked a people only too willing to believe that they were being deported, not killed.

The similarities, however, do not extend to how the Turkish and German governments have responded to the sad histories that have darkened their past.

That difference was underscored in mid-September when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel arrived in Germany for a state visit. Rabin toured a former Nazi concentration camp and in a speech warned the German people and political leaders to be on guard against the wave of right-wing extremism currently rippling through the country.

The day that Rabin called on Germans to be mindful of their historical precedents, we were in Erzurum, the largest city in eastern Turkey, visiting the city’s museum. Like museums in most large cities in Turkey, the Erzurum museum has a glass—encased display devoted to representing what took place in Anatolia during World War I. In a grim misrepresentation of the facts, the display contends that the Turks were justified in their actions because Armenians were plotting at the time with Russia to establish an independent Armenian nation.

While there were Armenian radicals fomenting for independence during the early l900s, most Armenians were living as peaceful, albeit increasingly nervous, citizens inside Turkey- They continued to allow their sons to be drafted into the Turkish military and to pay their taxes to the Turkish government. That government, then in the hands of the three tyrannical leaders of the Young Turks’ Party, saw an opportunity to take advantage of the chaos of World War I to rid the country of its strongest minority people. Beginning on April 24, 1915, secret orders were issued to provincial heads that Armenians were to be deported and those that resisted were to be shot. During the first night, about 200 of the most prominent Armenians living in Turkey were rounded up and either killed or jailed, thus depriving other Armenians of their leadership. Drawing from eyewitness accounts of German, American, and even Turkish diplomats and writers, the 1922 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica described the ensuing events: “The people were butchered in groups, drowned in the Black Sea and rivers, burnt in buildings — killed by whatever processes were found most ready and convenient. . . - The policy of transferring an Armenian population to Mesopotamia and Syria became in execution a wholesale means of destroying those who were dispatched.”

Despite their error-laden presentations, the museums’ displays remain the only places where the Turkish public is provided any information about the massacres. Nothing is taught about the events in the Turkish school system, and Turkish history books make only passing reference to them.

The Turkish government’s official silence about the past has left today’s Turks unaware of resentment that Armenians feel toward their country. Yet once we arrived in Istanbul, our stony attitudes disappeared quickly as the Turks proved only too friendly and willing to assist us in our search for Armenian roots.

The reception we received among 100 or so townspeople in Munjusun, a small village outside Kayseri, was typical. Before the deportation order of 1915, the village was home to about 200 Armenian families, The villagers’ curiosity turned to warmth when they were told that Dr. Vahe Meghrouni’s father was born in the village and he had come to pay respects to his father’s memory.

As Dr. Meghrouni began to give a short speech in Armenian about what had brought him back to the village, a group of mothers, children, and even a few workmen surrounded him, listening as his words were translated into Turkish:

“Your child and the children of your child have come here to love your land, to breathe the sweet air that gave you life, to bond with the rocks and land that surround us, to feel your presence.”

He reached out, placing his hands on the shoulders of two of the children in front of him, and offered words that struck at the irony facing all Armenians now living in the United States. “Had it not been for fate,” he said, “then I, too, would likely have led the lives of these boys.”

His words have meaning to every Armenian family. Had it not been for the orders that drove Armenians from their homeland, killing off much of a generation of men, widowing tens of thousands of women, and leaving orphaned hundreds of thousands of children, they would have spent their lives eking out the bare minimum of life in this hostile, mountainous terrain.

There were, in fact, many acts of kindness and courage shown by individual Turks that saved other Armenians from death. My maternal grandmother’s family, who lived in the town of Kharpert, was spared after a Turkish neighbor convinced them not to believe the government edict that said the Armenians in the town, now called Harput, were going to be relocated and not killed.

The neighbor placed many of the 10 Kasparian brothers and sisters in the homes of other Turkish families in nearby villages, and they were able to avoid the harrowing march out of Turkey. Because of the neighbor’s act, the Kasparian family was able to immigrate to the United States on its own a few years later. Today, 100 descendants of the family survive, as well as one of the original brothers, Dr. Karl Kasparian, a retired surgeon now living in Lincoln.

Like the Kasparians, thousands of others who were spared benefited from America’s open immigration policy and settled in the United States. Of the 6 million Armenians living throughout the world today, 1 million live in the United States. Here they have been able to take full advantage of the county’s economic opportunity and religious freedom, which has allowed them to flourish as Americans while holding on to their ethnic identity as Armenians.

Searching for a meaning to this twist of blessing flowing from curse, Rev. Hartunian, the Belmont pastor, says he believes that it is testament to Armenians’ strong religious beliefs. The Almighty, he says, would not have allowed the Armenians, who in the fourth century became the first people to adopt Christianity as their national religion, to be extinguished by the massacres.

For others, like Vahe Meghrouni’s mother, there could be no deeper, hidden meaning to emerge from the massacres’ suffering, no ultimate blessing. She gave up religion upon coming to America, convinced that no God would have allowed such suffering to befall a people.

Except for the brook and a small mill nearby, there was little in Kigi that sparked my father’s memory, even though the village had changed little since he left it. In fact, we were told on our arrival that we were the first outsiders to visit in more than a year. Little wonder, since the village is located deep in the mountains of eastern Turkey, more than 100 miles from any commercial activity.

The village is also very close to the regional headquarters of the Kurdish rebels, and the American consulate warned that we should think hard before traveling there because of the current conflict that grips the territory. The Kurds, who have lived in the swatch of land near the Iraq border for centuries, are seeking to establish their independence. But both governments, enemies during the Persian Gulf War, have joined forces to oppose the Kurdish initiative.

As it has done in the past when dealing with the Armenian question, the United States has tolerated the Turkish excesses in clamping down on the Kurdish drive for independence. Turkey is, after all, a pro-Western democracy and our only NATO partner on the former Soviet Union’s southern border.

In the United States, many Armenian-Americans who were raised in families that blotted out the past because of a bitter pain have remained distant from the problems of the region. As a result, the political clout of the diaspora has been diminished, whether in trying to gain an apology for the massacres or in putting pressure on the Turks to aid the new Republic of Armenia. But as the situation in the region deteriorates, some voices are being heard.

There has been increasing pressure in the United States for Congress to recognize April24 as a day of observance of the Armenian massacres. At the same time, an international symposium has sought to persuade the Turkish government to allow restoration teams, including Armenian archeologists, to begin to inspect and restore the antiquities.

Their work is desperately needed in such places as the ancient walled city of Ani, once ruled by the Armenians, where the handful of structures that are left standing are vulnerable to earthquakes that routinely shake the area. There is also the Church of the Holy Cross, erected on an island outside the city of Van in the 10th century, which stands unprotected from graffiti writers and unrecognized for its groundbreaking architectural motif of carving biblical figures in bas-relief on the church’s edifice.

Efforts are also under way to preserve something even more vulnerable — the memories of those who survived the massacres. A living library established 15 years ago at UCLA by Richard Hovannisian, the historian, has recorded the oral histories of more than 700 survivors, and similar projects are in progress at other colleges and universities.

“These people are our links with our past,” Hovannisian says. “They are our witnesses to the horror of what happened, but just as important, they tell ‘us how we lived as a people. We cannot regain what we lost, but it is important that we remember who we were.”

At the end of our journey, while waiting in Germany at the Frankfurt Airport for our return flight to Boston, I asked my father to try to sort out his feelings about the trip. On the personal level, it was easy, he said. He had never gotten to know his father or imagine what his life had been like. Now, at least, he had something visual to hold on to, to give form to some of his dreams of what life must have been like far him. “It will help me in my drawings,” he said.v As an Armenian, it was more complicated. Seeing the remnants of Armenian civilization reflected in the region’s majesty, in its monuments, churches, neighborhoods, and vine-yards, his overwhelming emotion was a rage that so much could be lost without condemnation, apology, and redress.

But with little hope for immediate change, my father longed for some consensus among the Armenians, among both the worldwide diaspora and those living in the independent republic. He longed for a vote to be taken among Armenians everywhere to decide whether to insist on an apology for the massacres as a precondition for normalizing relations.

He wouldn’t tell me how he would cast his ballot, were such a vote taken, but he knew how he wanted it to come out: “Our civilization is over there in those mountains. We have to do everything possible to preserve it, particularly now that we’re spread all over the world.” Anyway, he reminded me, Armenians over the ages were known for their religious faith, not military or political power. “If we had such a choice, it should be love that brings us together, not hatred,” he said.

I did not notice until several minutes later that a well-dressed, middle-aged woman had sat down beside us and had listened to the tail end of our conversation. She, too, was an Armenian, a professor whose family fled to Damascus. She was on her way home from visiting her son in Paris. We roared at the coincidence of three Armenians meeting in so unlikely a setting as the Frankfurt Airport, and immediately we began to talk about whether out families might have been neighbors, or even distant relatives, in some now-forsaken village in eastern Turkey.

The chance encounter brought to mind a popular rendering of the final paragraphs of “The Armenian and the Armenian,” a short story by William Saroyan: I should like to see any power in this world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wan have been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard and whose prayers are no more answered.

Go ahead, destroy this race, destroy Armenia, see if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert, let than have neither bread nor water. Burn their homes and churches. Then, see if they will not laugh again, see if they will not sing and pray again. For, when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.


(April 18 1993)