By Nane Atshemian and Shakeh Avoyan
Hundreds of thousands of people made their annual pilgrimage to a wooded hill in Yerevan on Sunday as Armenia commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey recognized by a growing number of countries.
An incessant stream of people carrying flowers walked to the hill-top Tsitsernakabert memorial to some 1.5 million victims of the 1915-1918 massacres throughout the day.
Its eternal fire was already surrounded by a customary sea of flowers by the time President Robert Kocharian, Catholicos Garegin II and other senior government officials and clergymen joined in the procession at noon. A nationwide minute of silence was observed at 7 p.m. local time.
“The year 1915 became a watershed in the fate of all sections of our people,” Kocharian said in a written address to the nation. “It disrupted and drastically changed the course of the the natural development of the Armenian people.
“International recognition and condemnation of the Armenian genocide is important not only for Armenia. “It must now be considered within the context of regional and international politics.”
Kocharian also criticized Turkey for continuing to assert that the government of the Ottoman Empire did not intend to exterminate its Armenian subjects and that the Armenian death toll is inflated. Other senior officials attending the ceremony said they believe Turkish recognition of the genocide is only a matter of time.
“I am confident that Turkey will eventually recognize the genocide,” Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian told reporters. “For us, an apology is not an end in itself. The Turks must admit their ancestors’ mistake so that we Armenians can be certain about our future.”
The authorities expected as many as 1.5 million people across Armenia and its Diaspora to attend the commemorations to symbolize the approximate number of genocide victims.
The commemorations in Yerevan began on Saturday night when thousands of mostly young people holding torches marched to the genocide memorial. Other city residents placed candles on window sills in memory of the victims.
“It’s not just today that we must remember the genocide victims,” one young woman said as she climbed the Tsitsernakabert hill. “We must remember them every day. We are their descendants.”
Other marchers expressed support for their government’s pursuit of international recognition of the genocide. “Recognition won’t happen at once,” said one man. “It will come little by little.”
“We must not treat all Turks like enemies,” said another. “We just need their confession. We would understand and forgive.”
Gurgen Dagesian, a genocide survivor who is now in his 90s, agreed. “The Turks did that because they were not in a healthy state of mind at that moment,” he said. “People lose their human essence in times of war.”
Also in the crowd were memebrs of the left-wing Atik organization that comprises Turkish citizens living across Europe. “The Turkish state must apologize to the Armenian people for the 1915 genocide,” the group’s German-based leader, Ozgul Cem, told RFE/RL. “We condemn the genocide.”
An interview with Russian state television broadcast on Saturday, Kocharian reiterated that Yerevan is not seeking any material compensation from the Turks as part of genocide acceptance. "There is no talk about material consequences," he said. "We understand that we must look towards the future, and not the past, although that should not be forgotten ... We feel no hatred today, only sorrow remains."