With their mouths covered by red tape, the students lowered themselves to the ground and formed a circle of bodies in the middle of Quarry Plaza. Some passers-by slowed as they approached, directing curious glances at the protesters, while others stopped to read their handmade posters. “First Genocide of the 20th Century” read one poster. “Remember, Recognize, Reconcile,” read another.
On April 24, around 20 members of the Armenian Student Association (ASA) commemorated the 99th year since the Armenian Genocide, in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed. Committed by the neighboring Turks through death marches and executions, the genocide is denied to this day by the Turkish government, ASA members said.
By protesting and tabling in Quarry Plaza, ASA members hoped to spread awareness of the genocide and heal the wound that ails Armenia and divides it from its neighbor, Turkey.
“The genocide is a huge scar. Every Armenian feels this pain,” said ASA member Sergey Kojoian. “The whole point is for the Armenians to move on and have economic or political relations with Turkey, so this issue needs to be settled. It needs to be recognized.”
Despite wide acknowledgement and condemnation among Western countries, the Turkish government still publicly denies the event was a genocide, said ASA member Ovanes Abramyan.
“Armenia is saying, ‘Okay, the first step needs to be them recognizing their past,’ and they’re like, ‘There’s no past to recognize,’” Abramyan said. “How can you move forward from that? If you can’t recognize your past, how can you move forward?”
When the tragedy took place in 1915, modern-day Turkey and Armenia did not yet exist. Instead, both peoples were part of the larger Ottoman Empire. Within the empire, Muslims — including Turks — composed the ruling class and Christians — including Armenians — were relegated to second class citizenship.
Battered by World War I and losing its land, the Ottoman government resolved to suppress possible separatist ambitions among its Armenian population in 1915. The empire, which would later consolidate into Turkey, carried out relocation marches of ethnic Armenians, in which thousands died of thirst and exposure to the elements. In addition, Armenian men were subjected to labor camps and executions, according to the Armenian National Institute’s website.
Over the span of eight years, 1.5 million Armenians died and large portions of Armenian land were integrated into the newly forming Republic of Turkey.
“Right now, compared to 150 years ago, Armenia is a third of its size,” said ASA member Anthony Kokoian. “In trying to exterminate us, they also took over our land.”
The denial is primarily perpetuated through a sympathetic portrayal of Turkish history, Kokoian said.
“Let’s say your grandpa was a warrior. You want to believe that he was an honorable warrior who fought for his country, not someone who was just killing,” Kokoian said. “The Turkish government tells its youth that everything happens out of context of war, meaning, ‘It was a war, people died, lands get taken. It just happens, you know.’”
Yet not all Turks are to blame for the denial, Kojoian added.
“It’s sometimes difficult to realize that for some of them, it’s not their fault,” Kojoian said. “They’re not intentionally denying it. This is the way the education system in Turkey teaches them.”
In addition, the topic remains taboo through oppressive state censorship, Abramyan said.
“[The Turkish government] has treason laws for insulting Turkishness, including accepting the Armenian genocide and on top of that, publicizing it,” Abramyan said. “Any Turkish official or any Turkish teacher who accepts it gets persecuted for it. There are Turkish historians and scholars who say, ‘Yeah, our people did this,’ [but] they get persecuted for it.”
Just a day before ASA protests in Quarry Plaza, the Turkish prime minister continued the legacy of denial, Kokoian said. Although the prime minister acknowledged the Armenians killed, he regarded casualties as a burden shared by the whole Ottoman Empire during World War I.
“It is a duty of humanity to acknowledge that Armenians remember the suffering experienced in that period, just like every other citizen of the Ottoman Empire,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to the Hurriyet Daily News. “Nevertheless, using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey and turning this issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible. The incidents of World War I are our shared pain.”
However, Kokoian expressed discontent with the prime minister’s statement, which he thought sidestepped responsibility for the genocide.
“He said, ‘I offer my condolences to all the ancestors of the Armenians who suffered any tragedy as a context of war,’ but he never used the word ‘genocide,’” Kokoian said. “We know it’s just a calming method and it pisses us off even more. Basically, you’re throwing us the end of a bone — we want the whole steak.”
Through their protest and tabling, the ASA members hoped to spark discussion on the topic, Kokoian said, adding that any conversation helps spread awareness.
“People have their tests, they have their quizzes, they have their own priorities in life,” Kokoian said. “I don’t expect everyone to absorb everything I was saying but I want the few people who did absorb it to go on to others and have a discussion.”