On Sunday night, June 13, 1915, Clara Childs Richmond, an American missionary in Talas, Turkey, could not sleep. As she lay awake in her hilltop bedroom—which had a sweeping view of the town below—she suddenly saw lanterns flashing and heard the loud voices of Ottoman provincial police.
They had come to arrest the prominent Armenian men of Talas—37 of them in that sweep.
Childs Richmond in a testimonial recalled the lanterns going house to house, the women and children screaming as their husbands and fathers were taken.
One of the men arrested that night was Boghos Haroutounian, steward of the American missionary hospital of Talas. Also arrested around that time was Haig Haroutounian, the hospital pharmacist.
Haig was my grandfather. Boghos was his brother. Their crime was being Armenian.
If I weave together the testimonies of American witnesses like Childs Richmond and the family stories I heard growing up, I can piece together what happened.
Boghos and Haig were taken to a prison in Cesarea, now called Kayseri. There, they promised each other that, if either of them got out alive, he would take care of the family. Their mother was an elderly widow. Boghos was married and had six children. Haig, the younger brother, was engaged to my future grandmother, Sima.
Within days, Boghos was taken out and shot. His clothes turned up later for sale in a nearby town. Haig was tortured but eventually released, thanks to the intervention of American and Turkish friends.
My grandfather kept his promise. He took care of the family and eventually managed to resettle them in Beirut, Lebanon.
But an estimated 1.5 million Armenians did not survive that time. They died by massacre and starvation, fire and disease. When Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide” during World War II, he recalled the destruction of Ottoman Armenians. Lemkin was a Jewish lawyer from Poland who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. He wanted a way to identify and prevent a recurring crime with no name.
Today, the organization Genocide Watch identifies Ten Stages of Genocide. The 10th stage is denial. For more than a century, Turkey has denied the Armenian genocide. The United States for years inched toward recognition through congressional resolutions. President Ronald Reagan in 1981 referred to the “Armenian genocide” in a statement about the Holocaust. But, concerned about NATO bases—and cowed by Turkish threats of non-cooperation—no American president has dared to officially apply the “G” word to the destruction of my people.
Until Joe Biden did on April 24.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden’s White House Statement reads. “We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history.”
Finally, truth acknowledged. I feel such relief.
I know a geopolitical calculus impacted the words and their timing, but I also believe Biden followed a moral imperative. The statement matters to me. It contradicts my invisibility, the world’s indifference to my family’s trauma.
But why should it matter to you?
You live in a world where genocide continues. The Rohingya of Myanmar, Yazidis in Syria, the Uyghur of China, and many others remain under assault. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus very recently have lost life and home. Perhaps you are a member of a group that has been or currently is targeted.
Consider again the 10 stages of genocide. They are not linear; they can occur simultaneously. They are not a spontaneous combustion of mass killing, but rather can develop when the human tendency to divide people as “us” and “them” turns ugly. When circumstances align in particular ways, genocide can arise.
Here’s part of Genocide Watch’s description of Stage 3: Discrimination: “A dominant group uses law, custom, and political power to deny the rights of other groups. The powerless group may not be accorded full civil rights, voting rights, or even citizenship.”
Sound familiar? What about voting rights in Georgia?
Or how about Stage 6: Polarization: “Extremists drive the groups apart. Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda.”
Stage 8: “Children are forcibly taken from their parents.”
Genocide develops along a continuum. You have to be aware of the signs a society is moving in that direction. I was frankly worried about the United States under President Donald Trump. Less so under Biden. But this remains a nation that has never officially acknowledged the genocide of Native Americans. And what does it say about us that the statement “Black Lives Matter” is controversial?
Long ago, I decided that I could not allow my power or well-being to be held hostage to whether Turkey or anyone acknowledged the Armenian genocide. I wanted instead to inherit my history by making my own promise to watch out for the family, the vulnerable people of this world.
It’s not yesterday’s genocide we can stop. It’s tomorrow’s.
E.C. Salibian is Rochester Beacon senior editor.
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