The Armenian Genocide means that Aleksan Giragosian cannot visit churches that were hundreds of years old or visit a mountain that is a symbol of Armenian nationalism.
The law and public policy graduate student said he cannot visit the historical sites that he wants to because the buildings have been vandalized and started to decay in the years following the genocide. Mount Ararat, the mountain where Noah’s ark landed by Judeo-Christian tradition, is visible from Armenia’s capital but is located in Turkey, which makes it inaccessible.
He said he thinks the loss of cultural sites has seriously damaged his connection to Armenian culture.
“Imagine if Leonardo Da Vinci had been killed and someone burned down the Basilica,” Giragosian said. “What would that have done to Italian culture?”
One way Giragosian commemorated the 100th anniversary of the genocide this year, which is officially honored on April 24, was by attending a conference at UCLA.
The conference took place at the UCLA Faculty Center Friday and Saturday. Sebouh D. Aslanian, a history professor, said he organized the conference to embed the Armenian Genocide in the context of global history.
Each day of the conference had three panels where professors presented their papers on topics including Armenian-Turkish relations after the genocide and the reaction of the U.S. to the genocide as it happened. Speakers came from UCLA and other colleges including USC, Stanford and Harvard.
The Armenian Genocide took place in parts of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. The Young Turks, the ruling party that overthrew the old Sultan, targeted the minority Armenian population during World War I because the party claimed the Armenian community was cooperating with the Russians.
Some Armenians who died in the genocide were executed by the government, while others died from exposure, starvation and disease while being deported to the Syrian desert. Some historians estimate that 1.5 million of the two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire died during the massacre.
Although the genocide is approaching its 100th anniversary, some students and professors at the event said the genocide continues to strongly affect the Armenian community.
Peter Cowe, a professor of Armenian studies, said he thinks some Armenian youth feel that the genocide robs them of parts of their cultural heritage.
“There was a rich culture that flourished in those eastern provinces of the empire but the genocide caused a major cleft in its development,” Cowe said. “In place of continuity, there is a powerful sense of loss.”
Hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested and deported on April 24, 1915, which Giragosian said contributed to the community’s loss of culture. After Armenia gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, it lost much of its traditional territory and cultural sites.
“We had to recreate parts of our culture from ashes,” Giragosian said. “There is a sense of trying to figure out who we were before and who we are now.”
Further adding to the sense of loss for some students, Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, does not recognize the genocide took place. The U.S. does not officially recognize the genocide either.
Some UCLA students said they have heard denials of the genocide at their schools.
Mane Khachatryan, a fourth-year English student, said she had a high school history teacher who did not think the murder of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was a genocide, but rather a war measure for security purposes.
When Khachatryan complained, she said the teacher told her to take it up with the principal if she did not like how he was teaching the class.
“Kids are going to school having to prove their history and being bombarded with questions about legitimacy,” Khachatryan said. “Fighting back has been this constant struggle because you’re always told that your people, your history and you, are not important.”
Khachatryan said she thinks a common misconception people have when they hear others speaking out about the genocide is that Armenians believe current Turkish people are responsible for the genocide.
“We are talking about the regime that was in Turkey 100 years ago,” Khachatryan said. “No one is saying Turkish people or the people living in Turkey today are responsible.”
Ani Shahinian, a graduate student in Near Eastern languages and cultures, said she often thinks about the teaching of forgiveness in Christianity when thinking about the genocide her grandfather survived.
Shahinian’s great-grandfather was killed in the genocide and her grandfather was 7 years old when he fled with an older brother to Syria. His older brother died on the road to Syria, which left her grandfather as the only one of seven children to survive, Shahinian said.
“How can you forgive genocide?” Shahinian said. “But on the cross, Jesus forgave his enemies and he forgave the ones who crucified him.”
The L.A. Armenian community is planning a march to the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles on April 24 calling for the country to recognize the genocide.