A tragic past and uncertain future

Armenians remember mass killings as normalisation terms with Turkey appear to collapse.

    Armenians have been commemorating what they call 'Genocide Remembrance Day', in the wake of the apparent collapse of a deal to normalise relations with their old enemy, Turkey.

    From early morning onwards, tens of thousands of people made their way slowly and solemnly up the long, steep hill to the imposing stone monument which commemorates the Armenians who died during mass killings in Ottoman Turkey almost a century ago.

    They queued to lay red tulips and white carnations around the eternal flame at the centre of the monument, high above the city.

    As the head of the Armenian Orthodox Church led a commemoration service, Serzh Sarkisian, the country's president, bowed his head in silent respect, while a choir of hooded priests intoned a sombre chant.

    "This is a liturgy for the souls of innocent victims," one onlooker whispered.


    Armenians say that as many as 1.5 million people died during the massacres which took place around the time of World War One, although Turkey strongly denies that genocide was committed.

    "Why is it even today that the Turks don't want to take responsibility for this terrible thing they have done?" demanded pensioner Avetik Hayrapetian, who had brought his grandson to the memorial.

    Armenians marked the 95th anniversary of the mass killing of Armenians in Yerevan [AFP]

    The dispute continues to cause hostility, and a historic agreement to normalise relations between the two countries and open their mutual border now seems to be on the brink of collapse.

    Mari Vardanian is 103 years old, and she is one of the last remaining survivors of the massacres.

    Her eyesight is failing, but she still has vivid images of the slaughter which she witnessed as a young girl, some 95 years ago.

    "The Turks were telling the Armenians to dig holes, and then killing them and throwing them in," she said.

    "So many terrible things happened; if I tell you, it will take days."

    Mari said that her father and grandfather were murdered by Turks.

    Despite admitting that Turkish friends sheltered the rest of her family during the massacres, she was also vehemently opposed to the proposed reconciliation deal.

    "Government people can decide what they decide, but if you ask me, I could live on dry bread alone, but I don't want to see the face of a Turk ever again," she said.

    Historic deal exhausted

    Two days before the annual commemoration, Sarkisian announced that Armenia was suspending the process of ratifying the agreement with Turkey.

    "We consider unacceptable the pointless efforts of making the dialogue between Armenia and Turkey an end in itself," he said in a televised address to his nation.

    "From this moment on, we consider the current phase of normalisation exhausted."

    He claimed that Turkey had been delaying the process to ensure it would fail, and accused the Turkish leadership of imposing unacceptable preconditions.

    Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, had infuriated Armenians by linking the ratification of the deal to progress towards resolving the bitter dispute between Armenia and Turkey's ally, Azerbaijan, over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

    But despite the economic prospects offered by an open border with Turkey, many Armenians were opposed to the deal.

    The night before the annual commemoration, nationalists burned a Turkish flag and held their own noisy parade to the hill-top monument.

    Hard-line opponents still want the agreement to be put aside completely, not just suspended.

    "I think this so-called victory is not a victory like some people are trying to say," said Aram Karapetian, the leader of the New Times party.

    "I don't want to be rude, but a victory over stupidity isn't a victory."

    Tragic past

    At a remembrance service attended by students at the St Grigor Lusavorich cathedral in Yerevan, there were also feelings of resentment against Turkey.

    "I'm a Christian girl, and for a Christian, it's written in the Bible that you should forgive - but I can't forgive,” said language student Anahit Hakobian.

    Another young man, however, was disappointed that attempts to overcome decades of hostility had stalled.

    "It's very bad - we thought that peace was going to happen," said Tro Garapetian.

    "I love Turkish people, I have Turkish friends and I wanted to invite them here to Yerevan."

    It is not clear whether the reconciliation process can be revived.

    "We are ready to go forward if there is a partner on the Turkish side ready to go forward without preconditions," suggested Edward Nalbandian, the Armenian foreign minister.

    In his televised speech this week, Sarkisian insisted that Armenia would continue its efforts to persuade countries around the world to recognise the massacres as genocide - a campaign which has caused anger in Turkey.

    While Armenians commemorate their tragic past, their future relations with their old enemy appear, yet again, to be uncertain.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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