Prof. Richard Hovannisian of UCLA speaks quietly, calmly, a professor instructing yet another student:
"One wonders why people have different means of killing off another people. The men . . . were killed outright. They were linked in chains, taken to a precipice, or a river, and hacked to death. They didn't waste bullets on them. But the women and children had a crueler fate. They were marched for three to six months, through horrible heat. As part of their dehumanization, they were forced to strip naked. Their throats parched, their bodies blistered . . . "
Hovannisian's father was one of those Armenians who survived the terrible years 1915 to 1923, and after years of indifference, Hovannisian took on "the burden," as he calls it. The legacy of an Armenian, he said, is not just a culture of art, music, literature and language, but the trauma of an unacknowledged genocide.
This week in Washington, Armenians are meeting for the first time on a national basis to honor the survivors of what they call the first genocide of the 20th century.
The meeting, the National Gathering of Survivors, comes at a time of intense frustration for Armenians.
Many, including the Turkish government and the U.S. State Department, do not agree that the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians came as a result of a systematic policy of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, the Armenian community has been criticized over the last 10 years for acts of terrorism in which more than 50 Turks have been killed. Armenian radicals have claimed responsibility for these deaths.
A spokesman for the Turkish Embassy here, who did not wish to be identified, said that the Armenians "collaborated with Czarist Russia, at that time the enemy of the Ottoman Empire, and there was in 1915 a civil war within a global war. It was great tragedy, but it was not genocide." The State Department view, a spokesman said, is that, "The Department of State deeply regrets the tragic events which occurred early in this century, in the declining days of the Ottoman Empire, which inflicted incalculable devastation on Armenians and many others in eastern Turkey. We are not, however, in a position to characterize those events further."
But to the elderly men and women who came to Washington this week, the intricacies of global politics had little meaning. They told stories of escape, of living in European orphanages while American relief organizations raised money to buy food for the "starving Armenians." In adulthood they emigrated, began to retrieve their families, to make lives for themselves.
The survivors wore medallions on ribbons around their necks. Many spoke only Armenian. Sometimes their stories wandered through the distant corridors of memory, until they were gently brought back by younger colleagues. They trembled, with nerves or with age, as they stood up to speak before sons, daughters and grandchildren, and sometimes they cried.
"The soldiers came. They gathered all the men over the age of 15 and took them away," said Aharon Meguerditchian, 77, who came from Australia to tell his story. "The second day they took the beautiful girls. I saw with my own eyes our 15-year-old neighbor, forced under her bed -- her mother was pulling from one side, the soldiers from the other. They took the girl away . . . I was going with my mother to take food to my father. He had his hands tied behind his back and they made him eat the food without using his hands. It took only a few days to empty the village . . . "
Women and children from his village were joined with those from others in a march, he said. "We saw ghastly scenes. Bodies lined up like fingers. Who can tell the story? I can't continue." The Armenian diaspora is global. There are large communities here, and in Canada, South America, Australia, France and England. What do they want?
"No one really denied the Holocaust," said Hovannisian. "The United States occupied Germany after the war, and the Germans were a defeated power. They admitted their guilt and paid billions in reparations. The Nuremberg trials took place 40 years ago and had enormous symbolic value.
"We want Turkey to admit its guilt. We want acknowledgement. Our homelands, our property was all taken . . .The major grievance today is the indifference of the world community. That this slaughter remained unpunished, and so did not serve as a preventative."
Writer Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, said at the Days of Remembrance Commemoration in 1981, "Before the planning of the final solution, Hitler asked, 'Who remembers the Armenians?' He was right. No one remembered them, as no one remembered the Jews. Rejected by everyone, they felt expelled from history."
Said the Turkish embassy spokesman, "A lot of Turks could also tell you tragic stories. This effort to align themselves with American Jewry is sheer opportunism by the Armenians . . . Which nation on earth would accept charges it did not commit?" Nevarte Parseghian Hagopian is 76, and lives in Granite City, Ill. She was born in Moush, Turkey, and before her birth her father left for America with the idea of returning to get his family. But World War I intervened, and Hagopian and her mother barely escaped with their lives. Accompanied by her U.S.-born sisters, Isabelle Parseghian Vartan, 60, and Helen Parseghian Abbott, 58, she came to the National Gathering of Survivors.
"They bring all the young men of the village, all chained, to a barn," she recalled, in tentative English, prompted by her sisters. "Five hundred, 600. I was 6 years old. We went to take water to them. They wanted cigarettes, so we got them cigarettes. And matches. Then a Turk threw me out of the barn. And they start the barn on fire. The noise of that is still in my ear . . ."
They escaped to Russia, where they lived five years. Each day her father in Granite City would scan the lists of survivors published in Armenian newspapers, and one day he found his wife's name. They were reunited and lived out their days in Granite City. "There is no point in bitterness for something that happened 70 years ago," said Nan Canter, executive director of the Assembly of Turkish-American Organizations. The group was on duty yesterday, refuting Armenian claims. "We object to the uncritical acceptance of these allegations. It does nothing but encourage the vilification and harassment of Turkish-Americans . . . "
About 2.7 million Armenians live in Soviet Armenia, one of the 15 republics within the USSR, a state that was carved out for them after World War I. About 30,000 Armenians are still in Turkey.
On the subject of a proposed congressional resolution to honor the survivors, the State Department spokesman said," . . . We strongly oppose adoption of those resolutions, because we are concerned that, however inadvertently, they may encourage or reward terrorist attacks on Turkish citizens and those of other countries, including our own, by Armenian terrorist groups. And we are also concerned over the effects of such resolutions on our relations with the present-day republic of Turkey, which is a key ally."
Armenians, Hovannisian said, do not condone the violent tactics chosen by groups like the Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia. Turkish diplomats and their family members, as well as innocent bystanders, have been killed by bombings and gunshots in Greece, Canada, France and the United States. But Armenians, Hovannisian added, also say that the violence is a predictable byproduct of years of inattention: "They feel the established community has not been able to make its voice heard," he said. "Their acts get more attention than our gathering. Will we make the evening news? I doubt it." The litany continued. "I've interviewed over 500 survivors for an oral history project," Hovannisian said. "The worst pain was suffered by those women forced on marches, who from sheer exhaustion could no longer carry their babies, or drag along the 3-year-old holding her hand.
"The last thing they can remember is the cry of that child that was abandoned. They've mourned the loss of those children for 60 years. They still wake with screams in the night . . . "