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[E] Armenian community still living the history

 
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 PostPosted: Mon Jun 07, 2004 9:14 am    Post subject: [E] Armenian community still living the history Reply with quote Back to top

Copley News Service
June 3, 2004 Thursday

WITH PHOTO. TO DOWNLOAD ACCOMPANYING ART, GO TOWWW.COPLEYNEWS.COM)

Armenian community still living the history

by Doug Irving Copley News Service

TORRANCE


Steve Charelian grew up with the stories of his grandfather, a
survivor who had crawled into the dusty chimney of a bakery when the
killing started.

Only a few thousand people in the South Bay share Charelian's Armenian
ancestry, a small community stitched together by the memories of what
happened all those years ago. Their children still learn to speak
the language at a community center in Lomita, and that's where they
learn about the genocide.

Armenians say some 1.5 million people were killed from 1915 to 1923
in massacres organized by the old Ottoman Empire. They have urged
the United States to recognize their ordeal as a systematic genocide,
the first of the 20th century.

For those of Armenian descent living in the South Bay, there is more
to the history than grainy photographs and academic reports. There
are parents and grandparents who remembered walking past corpses or
hiding from soldiers.

Charelian's grandfather would sometimes talk about the morning he
found his family dead. "I woke up and I went to my mom and tried to
wake her up," he would say, speaking softly and in Armenian. "She
wouldn't wake up. Nobody would wake up."

"That echoes in my head," Charelian says now.

The Ottoman Empire rounded up hundreds of Armenian activists, academics
and public officials on April 24, 1915. Armenians recognize that date
as the start of the genocide.

In the years to come, Armenians were deported from what is now Turkey
toward the Syrian desert. Some starved along the way, or froze to
death. Others were executed by soldiers or armed gangs.

While Armenians believe the Ottoman government carried out the
systematic massacre of 1.5 million people, Turkish-American groups
insist that no more than 600,000 Armenians died, many from the
hardships of World War I.

"We acknowledge that there have been some bad events at that time,
there have been people that were killed," said Terken Gupur, the
director of policy and communications at the Assembly of Turkish
American Associations in Washington, D.C.

"It was not a systematic killing," she added. "It was during the time
of war."

Armenians have long sought world recognition of their suffering as
a full-fledged genocide. The United Nations defines genocide as an
effort to destroy, "in whole or in part," a national, ethnic, racial
or religious group.

In recent years, presidents Bush and Clinton have carefully avoided
the word genocide in proclamations marking the day of remembrance on
April 24. This year, Bush called it an annihilation, and one of the
"most horrible tragedies of the 20th century."

But California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called it a genocide.
And California's teaching standards require 10th-graders to learn
about what happened to the Armenians as part of their curriculum on
human rights violations and genocide.

The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles includes the Armenian Genocide
in its exhibit on crimes against humanity. "We're unambiguous about
calling that a genocide," museum director Liebe Geft said.

Recently, Rolling Hills Estates formally recognized the Armenian
Genocide. Councilman Frank Zerunyan introduced the proclamation.

His grandfather survived only by slashing his own throat so soldiers
would think he was dead. Zerunyan remembers his grandfather years
later playing the ud, an instrument similar to a guitar, and sobbing
for his lost father and uncle.

Zerunyan's grandmother also survived a march toward Syria. She talked
about passing rivers that had turned red with blood.


Genocide "can only be eradicated by constant recognition, by calling
it what it is," Zerunyan said.

"If the Rwandan rebels knew that every genocide was recognized,
every genocide was punished, they would have thought very hard,"
he said. "And they would have known there was nowhere in the world
they could go."

Little more than 2,000 people in the South Bay claimed Armenian
ancestry in the 2000 Census. They make up less than 1 percent of the
population in all of the South Bay cities.

But it's a tight-knit community, and many of its members can share
stories of what their relatives went through. "This is a big chunk
of our history," said Lori Khajadourian, a member of the South Bay
chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America.

Her grandfather was only about 7 years old when he heard the soldiers
coming. He and a brother hid in an earthen storage pot; they never
saw their parents or siblings again.

The push for formal recognition of the killings as genocide has taken
on a higher profile in recent years.

A movie released last year, "Ararat," explored the events of those
years. A heavy-metal group with Armenian roots, System of a Down,
has grown in popularity with lyrics such as: "The plan was mastered
and called Genocide/Took all the children and then we died."

Armenian-American groups are lobbying Congress to pass a resolution
that deplores the Armenian Genocide along with the Holocaust and
genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda.

"Euphemisms don't count," said Elizabeth Chouldjian, a spokeswoman
for the Armenian National Committee of America.

Nevart Barsoumian's great-grandmother froze to death as she fled
Turkey, after she gave away her shawl. Barsoumian remembers her
grandmother weeping whenever she hung the laundry to dry - a chore
she had helped her mother with before they had to flee.

Barsoumian now teaches the history of what happened to a few dozen
students at the Lomita community center.

People "should know that we had a genocide," she said. "If they don't
recognize it, it's all on the air, like nothing happened."
 
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