This piece is now also available on Substack: https://chycho.substack.com/p/sharing-a-story-from-my-father-in
Growing up I was always reminded of the Armenian genocide, of my ancestral history. It was so normal to hear the elders talk about it that it didn’t really faze me, not until I wrote a research paper on it in university. That’s when it hit me, and it was devastating.
It became real when I read documented accounts of what had happened and saw photos of the atrocities. It became real when I came across a historical novel detailing parts of what had transpired. The deportations, the concentration camps, the death marches, the massacres; it all became real when I realized that it wasn’t just stories my elders were sharing; it was what they lived through. It was their life story.
I was confused at first. I couldn’t grasp it. I was wounded. Grief, anger, and frustration took over. I couldn’t focus on anything else for quite some time. The sense of bonding that I felt with other Armenians was perplexing. I had never been one to connect with a certain group. I liked diversity, but delving deep into my community comforted me. It healed me. It brought me back to life and allowed me to appreciate the opportunities I was given. Opportunities I tended to take for granted. It healed me from procrastination.
Slowly I began to let go of the hate. I began to understand that the people of an entire nation could not be held accountable for what those in power orchestrated - that would be foolish and irresponsible of me. I owed more than that to my forefathers, to myself. It took me a while, but I forced myself to learn the details; that the reasons for the genocide and the denials, not just of the perpetrators of these crimes but also of their allies, were just politics and economics; business as usual in the world of the corrupt, a topic that I do not wish to discuss in this post.
Today, April 24th, is Genocide Remembrance Day, the day that we commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1923. Today I’ll share with you a short story that my father shared with me. Today I’ll tell you about what his grandmother shared with him. Today we’ll take a glimpse into her life. Today I’ll reflect on the circumstances that made me who I am and set into motion the events that have brought me to this place at this time.
The story begins in 1915-1916 during one of the death marches from that period. Inhabitants of certain regions, totaling over a million Armenians, were ordered to pack up their belongings and head south towards the Syrian Desert. The pretext was that they were being relocated for their own safety. The reality was genocide.
These death marches, like all others before and after them, started off small. Villages were emptied; some would be re-inhabited by a different ethnicity, some would be razed. Occupants from neighboring villages were merged into large convoys. The procession would grow. Days, weeks, and at times months would go by. Countless would drop dead. Families would be shattered. Children would be lost. Many would be slaughtered.
My great grandmother’s group was fortunate. At first they were under the supervision of English and French soldiers. They were safe for a while. She was 25 years old, had 5 children; 2 boys and 3 girls, and her husband was still alive.
One night she awoke and saw people running and screaming. Within minutes she found out that the English and the French were gone, and that the Turks were coming. Everyone knew what that meant.
She woke-up her husband and gathered the children. They began to march again, this time without protection. There was no time for rest anymore. Food and water were in short supply. Stragglers and those left behind would die.
She was lucky. They were alive and her family was still together. A few days into the journey though, her luck would change. Her husband got sick. He carried on for as long as he could but he was slowing them down, which meant death for him and the children, and rape and servitude for his beloved.
The story goes that he sat down at a foot of a tree and told her to leave. There was no other choice. His time had come to an end but theirs mustn’t. They had to live. They left him some food and water and continued with their march.
That was the last time that he saw them. It was the last time that the children saw their father. It was the last time she saw her husband.
Before the death marches began they lived in Nakhchivan Tepe, a village 12 miles north of Urmia, Iran. We don’t know how far towards Syria they were driven, but after things settled down they went back home, less one person. They were lucky.
My great grandmother never remarried. She worked and raised the five children by herself, an amazing achievement for the time. She also raised many of her grandchildren, my father being one. He called her mother and remembers her with great fondness, love, and admiration. He refers to her as the peacekeeper, and from the way I have heard other family members and family friends describe her, she deserves the title. Her name was Tarlan, and she was an amazing woman. I feel sad for not knowing her. I feel sorrow for her pain. I feel pain for my father’s loss. I feel powerful for being a part of this family.
And that is just one story from the Armenian Genocide.