The Armenians call it Metz Yeghern, “the Great Evil”. The genocide of the Armenians forms part of the past of every citizen of this Caucasian country. It is something that has changed the very way people speak of themselves and their land.
It is a dark, indelible stain that makes it hard to speak of Armenia without feelings almost of collective, ancestral guilt.
A hundred years have passed since that genocide, the first great killing of the twentieth century. On 24 April, celebrations were held in the capital Yerevan to remember the victims of the Ottoman persecution. On that date, more exactly on the night between 23 and 24 April, 1915, the minister of home affairs of the Ottoman Empire, Mehemet Talaat Pasha, ordered the arrest and deportation of all the Armenian intellectuals of Constantinople. On what is remembered as “Red Sunday”, teachers, writers, politicians, doctors, poets and priests were torn from their homes and deported to concentration camps near Ankara, the present capital of Turkey.
When the wave of arrests which continued during the following days, was ended, more than 2,000 Armenians belonging to the more educated classes were deported and killed. The order given by Talaat Pasha had a very clear purpose, to decapitate the numerous Armenian community and deprive it of points of cultural and political reference points that would have been able to organise a revolt. In actual fact, as only became clear later on, this was the first step of a planned ethnic cleansing.
The day of Remembrance of the genocide of the Armenians has actually been observed annually since 1988 as a public holiday. On that day, hundreds of thousands of people make their way to the memorial erected on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd overlooking Yerevan. They place flowers at the eternal flame and pray. They come from all parts of Armenia and also from the many countries where the diaspora spread throughout the decades. This year’s celebrations have been marked by more imposing ceremonies, events that would last beyond the single day and was characterised by the presence of heads of state and international personalities.
The first planned genocide
The genocide lasted until the following year. When the violence ceased, around a million and a half people had been killed, but this is only an estimate and the exact number will never be known. People were tortured and killed, left to die of hunger and hardship, worn out by the interminable death marches with thousands of men, women and children falling beneath the blows of the Turkish military.
Historians now unanimously agree that this was the first planned genocide of the modern era. According to experts, the ethnic cleansing was mainly the desire of the Young Turks, the reforming and revolutionary movement that wanted to replace the old Ottoman Empire with a constitutional monarchy. The ultimate aim was to create a unitarian state on the model of the European states that was culturally, linguistically and religiously homogeneous, uniting all the Turkophone populations and reaching as far as Asia.
The Catholic Armenian community was in their way. The extermination of an entire generation of Armenians was perpetrated using methods which, unfortunately, the nineteenth century had made commonplace. People were burned alive in their thousands in entire villages in flames, thrown into the sea off the coast of the Black Sea, killed with poison gas or typhus inoculations, left to die in concentration camps, hanged or beheaded. The area of the massacre included all of present-day Turkey, most of Syria and of Iraqi Kurdistan. Comparisons with the Shoah abound. (D.E.)