By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan
Hundreds of thousands of people marched to the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan on Wednesday as Armenia marked the 87th anniversary of mass killings and deportations that wiped out the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey.
An incessant stream of visitors -- among them the country’s entire leadership and foreign diplomats and dignitaries -- left a usual enormous pile of flowers and wreaths around the eternal flame on a hilltop overlooking the city. Churches across the country meanwhile held religious services in memory of some 1.5 million Armenians killed or starved to death in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire.
The annual remembrance of the dead began in the morning with an official ceremony at the genocide museum of the Tsitsernakabert memorial attended by President Robert Kocharian and other top government officials.
The museum opened a permanent exhibition of 34 paintings by Hovannes Semerjian, or Jeansem, a French painter of Armenian descent. The surrealist pictures donated by Jeansem feature various episodes of what many historians believe was the first genocide of the 20th century.
“The people will never forget the genocide,” Lavrenti Barseghian, the museum director, said at the ceremony.
Armenians view April 24, 1915 as the start of the genocidal campaign by the regime of the Young Turks. On that day hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and political leaders in Constantinople, now Istanbul, were rounded up and eventually executed. The arrests were followed by mass killings and deportations of Armenians most of whom lived in eastern provinces of the vast empire. The area was completely cleansed of its indigenous Armenian population by 1923.
In a written address to the nation, Kocharian described the 1915-1923 genocide as “the most tragic page” in Armenian history and said his government will continue to seek its worldwide recognition. “This is not a pursuit of revenge, but rather an effort to rule out a repeat of similar crimes,” he said.
“The very future of a whole people who had built a centuries-old civilization and cultures in its cradle was put at risk,” Kocharian added.
Modern-day Turkey strongly denies that the massacres were genocide. Ankara insists that the Armenian death toll is exaggerated and that most of the deaths resulted from internal strife that gripped the crumbling Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Earlier this week, Turkish leaders again blasted several European legislatures for passing resolutions over the past two years recognizing the Armenian genocide.
The most recent such resolution was adopted by the European Parliament on February 28.
Likewise, Pope John Paul II referred to the Armenian massacres as “genocide” during a visit to Armenia last September. The Pope visited the Tsitsernakabert monument to pray for the victims of the tragedy. “We are appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people, and dismayed that the world still knows such inhumanity,” he said at the time.
Armenian officials reiterated on Wednesday that despite their pursuit of the genocide recognition they are ready to normalize relations with Turkey without any precondition. “We have always made it clear that Armenia is ready to engage in a constructive dialogue and have normal relations with Turkey,” Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told RFE/RL.
Oskanian confirmed that he met late last week in Yerevan with David Phillips, a U.S. scholar and State Department adviser who has coordinated the work of the controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC). But he declined to give details of the meeting, saying only that the United States is trying to facilitate a rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan through so-called “track two” contacts between prominent Armenians and Turks.
For many of the Armenians that walked up the Tsitsernakabert hill on Wednesday, reconciliation will be impossible without Turkish recognition of the genocide. “My grandparents miraculously survived those massacres,” said one young man. “So for me the Turks are bitter enemies that should not be trusted.”
“Sooner or later, [Turkish recognition] will happen; if we don’t see it, our children will,” said a middle-aged woman.
Oskanian also stressed that the TARC “can not be a substitute” for inter-governmental ties between the two neighbouring states.
Turkey refuses to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia until the latter provides for Nagorno-Karabakh’s return under Azerbaijani control. It has also reacted angrily to Yerevan’s support for anti-Turkish resolutions in the West.