Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-long Struggle for Justice

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9781416557265: Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-long Struggle for Justice
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From 1915 to 1923, the Ottoman Empire drove the Armenians from their ancestral homeland and slaughtered 1.5 million of them in the process. While there was an initial global outcry and a movement led by Woodrow Wilson to aid the starving Armenians" the promises to hold the perpetrators accountable were never fulfilled. In this groundbreaking work, Michael Bobelian profiles the leading players-Armenian activists and assassins, Turkish diplomats, U.S. officials-each of whom played a significant role in furthering or opposing the century-long Armenian quest for justice in the face of Turkish denial of its crimes, and reveals the events that have conspired to eradicate the "forgotten Genocide" from the world's memory.

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PROLOGUEMemories


The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

—MILAN KUNDERA, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Gourgen Mkrtich Yanikian was too focused on his mission to be concerned with his depleted finances on the morning of January 27, 1973. He owed $2,400 to creditors and was living off welfare checks and loans from friends which amounted to handouts he could never hope to repay with the $12 in his bank account. Yet he decided to forego a regular room and rent a cottage at $37.10 a night to impress his guests, diplomats from the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles.1

Though rage filled his heart, he coolly followed the plan he had mapped out months earlier. After instructing a hotel maid to clean his room and ordering a buffet lunch to be served at noon, he groomed his woolly mustache and put on a white beret and brown tweed overcoat. Yanikian’s vitality belied his age. At seventy-seven, he could still intimidate men half his age when standing with his barrel chest out. His hair hung back in an unkempt style, mimicking the students and hippies at the local university he had spent much of his time with since his wife of forty-eight years had slid into unconsciousness. Deeply creased cheeks sagged at the sides of his face. His pitch-black eyebrows rose steadily upward as they approached his temples, sharply contrasting with his silver mane and endowing him with a menacing countenance. His voice, thick, raspy, and muddled by accents from various tongues, could bellow belligerently when his anger rose.2

Satisfied with his appearance, Yanikian filled two guns with twelve bullets apiece. His hands barely trembled. Bullets loaded, he placed the blue .25-caliber Browning he had purchased from Ott’s hardware store in Santa Barbara inside a dresser drawer. He fit the other semi-automatic, a 9mm Luger pistol, into a hollowed Who’s Who of the West that he had carved out especially for this occasion—Yanikian appeared on page 880 of the work. His inexperience with the gun, which he had fired twice since purchasing it from an Army veteran twenty-six years earlier, did not concern him.3

Five days earlier, knowing that he was unlikely to return home, Yanikian had packed his bags with his life’s work—a collection of self-published pamphlets, correspondence, and books—and checked into Cottage No. 3, Room 34 of the Biltmore Hotel. Built in 1927, the Biltmore copied the signature red-tile roofs, wrought-iron grillwork, and cream-colored stucco walls of the Spanish Colonial architecture applied throughout Santa Barbara by civic leaders after an earthquake destroyed most of the city. Carpets of well-groomed grass broken up by copses of palm trees and gardens like the one facing Yanikian’s cottage covered its twenty-acre grounds. Two storms during Yanikian’s stay had left the resort unseasonably cool. On this day, the temperature reverted to a tepid 64 degrees as the coastal fog that stretched down from Northern California dissipated. Oil deposits from a rig accident that had invaded nearby Butterfly Beach a year earlier were in remission, allowing observers of what locals called the “American Riviera” an unspoiled view of the Santa Ynez mountain range jutting just north of Santa Barbara.

Yanikian had little interest in the scenery, however. He had checked into the hotel for a different purpose. He wanted to avenge his family’s loss—his people’s loss—for a decades-old crime left unpunished and forgotten by the world.

While Yanikian finalized lunch arrangements with the hotel staff and ensured the guns were hidden in their places, the forty-nine-year-old Turkish consul, Mehmet Baydar, and his assistant, thirty-year-old vice consul Bahadir Demir, drove up to Santa Barbara. That Baydar and Demir were married with children or that neither man was alive at the time of the Genocide mattered little to Yanikian. To him, they were symbols of the enduring injustice committed against the Armenians. When the diplomats approached Room 34 of the Biltmore at 11:30 a.m., Yanikian greeted them with a bow.4

Yanikian’s birth on March 24, 1895, came at a perilous time for his family. With pogroms taking place throughout the Ottoman Empire, Yanikian’s parents took special care to placate the colicky infant in order to avoid the attention of Ottoman soldiers marauding their neighborhood. His family, based in Erzurum, a city on the eastern edge of the Ottoman Empire, managed to escape death when a friend invited them to hide in the Persian Consulate. Yanikian’s maternal uncle, who remained behind, died from a gunshot wound.5

Eventually, his family moved east to a safer location. Snowstorms made the mountainous journey dangerous, often stranding travelers until the late spring thaw. On the way, the family lost Yanikian in a sledding accident over a mountain pass. His thirteen-year-old brother Hagop, the eldest of four children, found him a few hours later still bundled in a blanket, half frozen. Hagop cuddled his younger brother on his chest to warm him. The rescue formed a special bond between the two boys.6

Yanikian’s family escaped the slaughter, but other Armenians were not as fortunate. The mass murders initially sparked in 1894 spread to cities inhabited by Armenians throughout the Ottoman Empire. In Urfa (the ancient city of Edessa, once occupied by European crusaders), 3,000 Armenians seeking refuge from the violence were burned alive inside a cathedral. The latest round of persecution was another episode in a long line of repression of the Armenian minority by Ottoman rulers. From the time Yanikian was conceived to his first birthday, 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians perished in a bloodbath described by the New York Times as ANOTHER ARMENIAN HOLOCAUST.7

Eight years later, Yanikian, his brother Hagop, and his mother Epraksia returned to Erzurum to retrieve gold coins and property documents that they had buried in their barn. This erstwhile wealthy family had spent much of the money that it had taken on its harried escape, and they were now desperate to retrieve their hidden possessions. While Hagop dug for their box, two Turkish men wearing fezzes entered the barn. Yanikian and his mother remained hidden in an unlit portion of the building about fifteen feet away helplessly watching the men grab hold of Hagop. Hagop looked over to Yanikian, signaling to him with his eyes not to make a sound. Epraksia placed her hand tightly around Yanikian’s mouth to suffocate his cries. As one man held Hagop still, the other raised his blade into the air. Before Epraksia could move her hand to cover Yanikian’s eyes, the man slashed Hagop’s throat with one swing. When his brother’s body flopped to the floor, Yanikian bit into the web of his mother’s hand between the thumb and forefinger, leaving his face covered in blood and deforming two of her fingers. After the men left, Epraksia, still holding Yanikian in her arms, walked over to Hagop’s corpse and kissed him.8

As a civil engineering student at the University of Moscow after the outbreak of World War I, Yanikian heard news of atrocities taking place against the Armenians throughout 1915. Hundreds of articles printed in European and American newspapers described a crime for which mankind had no vocabulary. Almost daily, he read descriptions of events that made the 1890s massacres of his birth seem tame by comparison: wholesale massacres of armenians by turks, screamed one New York Times headline in 1915.9

Eager to find his family, whom he had not heard from since the outbreak of the war, Yanikian traveled to the Caucasus during the spring of 1915 to sign up with an Armenian volunteer regiment fighting alongside the Russian army, encamped on the eastern edge of the Ottoman Empire. Yanikian received little training before going out to the front. The regiment provided him with a light khaki uniform bearing red, blue, and orange stripes—the historic colors of Armenia—and a collection of maps. With his educational background in mind, it assigned him to an engineering unit of nine men responsible for scouting the mountainous topography ahead of the regular troops. The lightly armed unit carried small Browning pistols and dynamite instead of the bayonet-tipped rifles used by standard soldiers, and moved at night to avoid detection.10

In May, his regiment pierced the Ottoman border. On the first day in Ottoman territory, with his unit bivouacked by a small river, Yanikian witnessed firsthand the horrors of which he had only heard. Throughout the day, a continuous stream of heads, arms, legs, torsos floated in the water like tree limbs. Famished after a day’s march, and with no alternative source of fresh water, his unit had no choice but to drink from the same river. Yanikian was shaken to the core.11

Over the next few weeks, the men of Yanikian’s unit often traveled on foot, and when they were lucky, on horseback. Everywhere they went, Yanikian saw mutilated bodies, abandoned homes, and destroyed churches. In his hometown, he found his father’s business and childhood home—like the rest of the Armenian quarter—burned down. Water fountains flowed red with blood. Decapitated bodies littered the churchyard where he had spent his Sunday afternoons as a child. Searching through the remains, Yanikian recognized a large mole on the face of a boy whose head had been hacked in two with a hatchet like a watermelon. It was his twelve-year-old nephew, who must have looked old enough to the killing squads to be grouped with the adult men for a quick death.

Next to his nephew lay his brother-in-law’s severed head, the large mustache still in place but his body nowhere to be found. Yanikian searched in vain through the mangled corpses for the body so that he could bury the two...

From The Washington Post:

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Justin Moyer moyerj@washpost.com Like Native Americans, European Jews and Rwandan Tutsis, Turkish Armenians seem to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Children of Armenia," Michael Bobelian's first book, describes the Ottoman Empire's 1915 mass extermination of this Christian minority without getting bogged down in "G-word" histrionics. "The purpose of this book is neither to prove the existence nor affirm the veracity of the Genocide," Bobelian writes: The Armenian holocaust is a historical fact. "Children of Armenia" focuses on the Turkish nationalism, world war weariness, survivor psychology and Cold War squabbling that let the world forget the unforgettable. Some will flinch at Bobelian's lionization of Gourgen Yanikian, an Armenian who shot two Turks in a revenge plot hatched in the 1970s, but the author stumbles only when he strays into Armenian exceptionalism, the idea that "no other people have suffered such a warped fate -- a trivialization of their suffering and a prolonged assault on the authenticity of their experience." Bobelian should know that if every culture insists on the supremacy of its own suffering, the world will only grow more jaded about stopping current horrors. Instead, any book about Armenia -- no, any exploration of any genocide -- should pose questions relevant to today's ethnic cleansings. Otherwise, who will remember the Sudanese?
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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