By Astghik Bedevian and Hovannes Shoghikian
Hundreds of thousands of people silently marched to the hilltop genocide memorial in Yerevan on Thursday to pay their respects to more than one million Armenians massacred in Ottoman Turkey from 1915-1918.
An incessant stream of people of different ages walked up to the Tsitsernakabert hill overlooking the city and laid flowers around its eternal fire throughout the day. It marked the 93rd anniversary of the arrests of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople that were followed by the mass killings and deportations of Armenians from eastern regions of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
Many historians consider the massacres the first genocide of the 20th century. Modern-day Turkey insists, however, that they did not constitute genocide, saying that Armenians died in smaller number and not as a result of a premeditated government policy.
As always, the annual remembrance of genocide victims began at Tsitsernakabert with a prayer service led by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II. The ceremony was broadcast live by national television and attended by President Serzh Sarkisian and other top state officials.
In a written statement, Sarkisian called the mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenians a “crime against humanity” that must be recognized and condemned by the entire world. He said Armenia’s government will campaign for that alongside the worldwide Armenian Diaspora.
“There is hardly a family [in Armenia] that was not affected by those tragic events,” Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian told reporters after laying a wreathe at the memorial. “That tragedy directly or indirectly knocked on the doors of every Armenian family. We must learn lessons from history.”
“May God give us the wisdom to learn those lessons and prevent a repeat of such tragedies in the future,” he said.
Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian also spoke of the need to draw such lessons. “Everything must be done to ensure that our country and our people are protected,” he said. “That requires planned steps and hard work.”
“We are duly remembering genocide victims,” said Eduard Sedrakian, rector of the National Academy of Fine Arts. “I hope we will work, build and create things with the same diligence. As they say, the only way to fight against death is to live.”
The April 24 commemoration was also used by opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian and his allies for rallying more than 10,000 supporters in downtown Yerevan despite heavy police presence in and around Liberty Square, the scene of massive opposition demonstrations staged in the wake of the recent presidential election. Ignoring police orders to keep to the sidewalks and chanting anti-government slogans, crowd marched to the Tsitsernakabert hill where it was joined by Ter-Petrosian. Although the latter headed to his nearby house after laying flowers at the genocide memorial, most of the opposition supporters did not disperse and walked back to the city center.