Armenia is a nation deeply imbued by history, and this Friday’s 100th Genocide Remembrance Day marks the culmination of its collective identity.
Yerevan (dpa) – Each year on April 24 this small country in the South Caucasus comes to a standstill, when it commemorates the up to 1.5 million victims of the forced deportations and killings that began in 1915 in what was then the Ottoman Empire.
“The genocide’s commemoration is the most powerful factor for the formation of national identity in Armenia,” says Aharon Adibekyan, a prominent sociologist based in the capital Yerevan.
This year’s centennial will be marked by the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Francois Hollande, and by new controversy with Turkey, whose government is campaigning against the label genocide, calling it a distortion of history.
President Recep Tayyip Edrogan has criticized Pope Francis after he called the atrocities “the first genocide of the 20th century,” telling the head of the Catholic Church not to speak “rubbish.”
But for most of the 3 million inhabitants of Armenia, the commemorations are a vital sign of national unity, especially with the up to 10 million of their ethnic kin who live abroad.
Many diaspora Armenians will be among the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected at the Tsitsernakaberd memorial complex on a hill in Yerevan on Friday.
Close by lies the Genocide Museum, which displays a moving collection of photos that remind visitors of the Holocaust of the Jews in Nazi Germany, which began some 25 years later.
Towering behind the memorial complex is Mount Ararat, the biblical mountain where Noah’s Ark came to rest and Armenia’s national symbol.
The fact that the snow-covered dormant volcano stands on the other side of the closed border with Turkey serves to Armenians as a reminder of their suffering.
“Whenever we see Ararat, we remember the injustice,” says Alexander Ovsepyan, a painter who sells his work at a souvenir market in the capital.
Armenia’s borders were shaped in the early days of the Soviet Union, which ceded land to Turkey, including Mount Ararat. Many young Armenians today see their homeland surrounded by opponents – Turkey to the west and Azerbaijan to the east.
Relations with Azerbaijan are even more tense because of the standoff over the region of Nagorny Karabakh, where fatal shootings between soldiers from both sides have been on the rise.
“The fact that Turkish politicians won’t accept what their grandfathers did is simply unfair,” says Ruben, a 28 year-old passer-by on a Yerevan square.
Others fear that the chances that Turkey will recognize the genocide are fading. “If it doesn’t happen 100 years later, it will probably never happen,” says Azmik, a 23 year-old woman.
However, memorial events are planned this week in Istanbul, where the Ottoman authorities started the deportation programme by targeting Armenian intellectuals in what was then the empire’s capital.
Armenians from around the world are expected to follow a trail, beginning at the Islamic Museum, which served as the police headquarters on the European side and was where the leaders were first held, and will then continue to a train station on the Asian side, from where they were expelled.