“You know what day it is today?” I ask.
“Hm? No,” mumbles Hrach, his mind adrift in the Internet.
“Yeah, you do. Come on, look at the date.”
“Thursday?” volunteers our flatmate Ed.
“The date! The date!”
Hrach sighs and hovers his mouse over the bottom-right corner of the screen. “Yeah yeah, I know. I knew that. I knew what date it is today.”
This time last year, Hrach, two other friends and I were walking to the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in a park overlooking Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. There were approximately two million other people walking with us. Many of them were crying. Almost everyone carried flowers, clutched upside-down at the stems.
The sun was bright in the blue sky.
Inside the memorial, a flame flickered in a concrete hole at the centre, surrounded by a gazillion flowers and twice as many cameras. It was quite a spectacle. There was a hush within the memorial space.
The 24th of April marks the date when, in 1915, Armenian intellectuals were rounded up in Istanbul. It was the start of a spate of mass deportations and killings by Turkish officials in the Ottoman Empire, which led to, among other things, one of the most widely spread diasporas in the world; mass graves of Armenian bones in the Syrian desert; and, I suppose, my wedding.
My husband’s grandmother survived the genocide. She, like many others, ended up in Syria, where she met his grandfather and gave birth to his mother.
Awareness of the genocide is inescapable in Yerevan, where every newspaper story (at least the ones in English) are related, often somewhat tenuously, to either genocide recognition or the evils of Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Many Armenians are terrified of Turkish people to this day. There is a deep animosity and distrust on both sides. The Turkish state doesn’t recognise the genocide. Turkish people are brought up with, and will recite with startling regularity, the same word-for-word slogan: “There were killings on both sides. Nothing is proven.”
Armenians were one of the largest minorities in Ottoman Anatolia, spread across the eastern regions called “Western Armenia”, “East Turkey”, or “Kurdistan”, depending on who you’re speaking to. Now, there are a mere 40,000 Armenians in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul.
Are we to believe the killings were equal on both sides? Show me the mass grave of Turkish bones. Show me the pictures of Armenian soldiers marching Turkish women and children, starving, into the desert.
Today is the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Next year will be the centenary. Surely something needs to change? This is what Hrach tells me as he pulls himself away from the screen and flicks the switch on the kettle. We sit and ponder the future with our cups of tea.
One of the things that struck me most about modern-day Armenia was the lack of hope. There is high unemployment, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. There is a government of election-rigging oligarchs in power and a palpable sadness on the streets. Despite recent demonstrations about sham elections, transport prices, and environmental destruction, it strikes me that the majority of people in the country just don’t believe change is possible.
I can’t help but wonder what will happen after the centenary has been marked. Will the Armenian consciousness ever be able to move on from the atrocities of 1915, to stop defining itself purely as a victim of tragedy, and build a prosperous and democratic future?
It’s nine months since Hrach and I left Armenia. I’ve thought about it a lot these past weeks. Something about a sudden warmth in the air here in Brighton reminds me of when the frost finally thawed in Yerevan and the city came back to life. I remember Genocide Day, the throngs of people, the flowers and the cameras. I remember three white birds atop the memorial, surveying the scene below.
The past is important; the future more so.