Armenian genocide: Quite a hill to climb

Scaling Yerevan’s imposing Tsitsernakaberd hill to reach the Armenian Genocide Memorial proved almost as taxing as getting to the bottom of the Armenian genocide itself. Unlike the successive Turkish governments since the beginning of modern-day Turkey, I wasn’t in the business of genocide denial; my primary interest lay in finding out why exactly anyone would go into so much trouble denying a genocide for which there was clearly enough evidence to build a giant memorial.

Much like the sombre Kigali Genocide Memorial which commemorates the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Armenian Genocide Memorial presents the mounting evidence in a way that will allow all those wishing to understand the events of 1915 to 1922 in the war-time and then fast-disintegrating Ottoman empire to make up their own mind. I hesitate to describe this museum’s exhibits as engaging because they range from haunting to gruesome, but that’s what they are.

The scene is set with general accounts of Armenian presence in the Ottoman empire throughout centuries after the demise of the independent Armenian homeland. During this time, many Armenians rose to prominence as doctors, architects and the like through integration into the empire’s majority Turkic and Muslim population. The museum’s grainy photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings then introduce the Young Turks and a polarised country trying to save itself during WWI.

Then exhibits get personal with individual accounts of Armenian intellectuals arrested and later eliminated or families exiled from Anatolia to the desserts of Syria and massacred on the way there. Much of the violence appears premeditated enough to meet the definition of genocide as the organised extermination of a nation with the aim of putting an end to its collective existence. And then there are the sheer numbers: up to 1.5 out of the roughly 2 million Armenians in the Ottoman empire.

This where most other genocide museums would leave it at. But while the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem works with the Holocaust as an undisputed historical fact, the Armenian Genocide Memorial is working against a state machinery in Turkey which seeks to trivialise the tragedy as a by-product of war, logistical challenges during mass resettlement of Armenians and, yes, even bad weather. Hence the lists of countries that have recognised this genocide and those that haven’t.

Museums that challenge their audience tend to get my undivided attention and the Armenian Genocide Memorial does this with particular urgency. One is forced to look for reasons why the descendants of the perpetrators would so actively seek to deny a tragedy that could simply be acknowledged as the basis for improved relations with the descendants of the victims going forward. Whether it’s fear of reparations or just plain shame, this genocide must be processed, lest it be repeated.