If you sift through the sands of the Syrian desert today, you can still find 100-year-old bones.
The Armenian Genocide began 100 years ago today. Roughly 1.5 million Armenians were sent to their graves over the course of the following eight years, creating a trauma that transcends generations.
Perhaps what is most painful for people like myself, whose great-grandfather survived the genocide thanks to the successful resistance raised by his fellow villagers at Musa Ler, is the denial that the massacres were part of a calculated plot to eradicate Armenians from their indigenous homeland.
Turkey has categorically denied that the genocide occurred since it was founded atop the freshly slaughtered bodies of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians in 1923. The state has gotten away with not paying any reparations or restitution for the 1.5 million it systematically raped and murdered.
Even within the past 10 years the mere mention of the genocide has landed people in Turkish prison cells. In 1915, my existence in my homeland would be punishable by death. Saying this out loud in my homeland today is illegal because it qualifies as “denigration of the Turkish nation” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.
And the denial isn’t limited to governments. Even here at UCLA, the campus many Armenians call home, some students hold on to their racist ideologies.
In January, members of the Turkish Cultural Club evoked explicitly racist talking points to make their case against the Armenian Students’ Association’s resolution to divest from the Republic of Turkey. One member of the Turkish Cultural Club, Selene Sari, said the genocide “is not a fact.” The group’s president, Gülnaz Kiper, said she doesn’t “think it’s a big deal if we do or do not call it a genocide.”
The burden of proving the validity of the genocide as a historical event plagues the Armenian diaspora which is spread across six continents. Genocide denial needs to be pulled out from its roots, roots that are firmly planted in the Republic of Turkey’s political apparatus, so that it can no longer be used as a political weapon.
Adding insult to Armenian students’ injuries, the University of California itself invests more than $74 million in the Turkish state despite calls for it to end its funding of a country whose eastern region is a vast graveyard of Armenian history.
Both UCLA and UC Berkeley’s student governments passed resolutions calling for divestment from Turkey. The UC has yet to issue a response, only worsening its involvement in the dehumanization of the Armenian students that it supposedly serves. The Turkish state needs to be economically suffocated until it comes to grips with its genocidal past.
Public opinion more broadly, on the other hand, has seen a recent shift, a product of decades of advocacy.
The European Parliament, the elected parliament of the European Union, adopted a resolution last Wednesday calling on Turkey to recognize the genocide. The German government, in a shift of policy, stated its plan to pass an Armenian Genocide recognition resolution. Pope Francis also publicly called the genocide a genocide during mass in the Vatican. But the Armenian people don’t need public opinion; we need reparations, restitution and the right of return.
After these public declarations, Turkey recalled its envoy to the Vatican and its prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, branded the European Parliament’s resolution an example of “racism.” Even more concerning, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to deport 100,000 of the few remaining Armenians in Western Armenia, modern-day eastern Turkey, in what felt like déjà vu to Armenians around the globe.
The handful of survivors of the Armenian Genocide that remain likely won’t see anything close to justice, a tragedy in and of itself. This only makes the call for recognition more urgent and the case for reparations and restitution all the more pertinent as we chase the dream of one day returning to our homeland where our ancestors lived for generations.
Until the day we see justice in all its manifestations, we will continue to fight and survive just as we’ve done for thousands of years. It will take more than a genocide to change that.