Tens of thousands of people marched to a hilltop memorial in Yerevan on Tuesday to commemorate the 97th anniversary of the start of the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey which many countries and historians consider a genocide.
In what has been an annual ritual for the past five decades, a steady stream of people laid flowers throughout the day at the eternal fire of the Tsitsernakabert memorial to some 1.5 million Armenians massacred and starved to death from 1915-1923.
“My husband’s grandparents fled Turkey,” one woman holding red tulips told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “The Turks killed his grandfather’s brother. We’ve heard so many things from them.”
The silent procession began in the morning after an official ceremony attended by President Serzh Sarkisian, other top state officials and high-ranking clergy of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Catholicos Garegin, the church’s supreme head, led a prayer service for the dead.
“Today we, just as many, many others all over the world, bow to the memory of the innocent victims of the Armenian Genocide,” Sarkisian said in a written address to the nation issued on the occasion.
“Today, we ascend silently the Tsitsernakabert hill because the unspeakable had happened,” he said. “And we engraved nothing on the walls of the Memorial, because there are no words that can express what we are going through.”
Sarkisian said last week the Armenian government will step up its efforts to achieve greater international recognition of the massacres as genocide in advance of their 100th anniversary. The chief spokesman for his Republican Party of Armenia, Eduard Sharmazanov, reaffirmed this pledge on Tuesday.
“At the same time we believe that Turkey must recognize the Armenian genocide and lift Armenia’s blockade and normalize [Turkish-Armenian] relations without preconditions,” Sharmazanov told reporters at the genocide memorial.
The need for Turkish recognition was also stressed by ordinary Armenians visiting Tsitsernakabert. “The world will recognize the genocide sooner or later but it is important that Turkey recognizes it first because recognition by the others is not that important,” one man told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
“Turkey is ready to recognize it. It doesn’t matter if they don’t give us back anything, if we don’t have Mount Ararat back or get compensation. They just need to realize what their ancestors did,” he said.
Another man suggested that the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations is essential for genocide recognition. “Only friends can admit mistakes,” he said. “This won’t happen as long as people treat each other with hostility. Until the two states have friendly, diplomatic and other ties this issue cannot move forward.”
Ankara and Yerevan came close to normalizing bilateral ties when they signed two Western-backed protocols in Zurich in 2009. The Turkish side subsequently made their parliamentary ratification conditional on a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan. Sarkisian responded by freezing the ratification process in the Armenian parliament.
“Armenia will not take a step [towards protocol ratification] until Turkey takes a step,” Sharmazanov said on Tuesday.