I remember the details of the stories as if I had been there. The mere thought of them gives me chills. I was born here and I’m honoured and proud to be a Canadian citizen, but I am also ethnically Armenian. Some of my ancestors died during— and others survived — the Armenian Genocide that began in 1915. This coming April 24 marks the 98th anniversary of that horrific event in history.
Modern-day Turkey is where approximately 1.8 million Armenians lived and prospered for hundreds of years before the Ottoman government committed the first genocide of the 20th century, massacring more than 1.5 million Armenians deliberately and systematically during the First World War. They were suspected of disloyalty. So some were executed. Others died from starvation or disease during their deportation.
My maternal great-great-grandfather, Nahabet, was burned alive, leaving my pregnant great-great-grandmother, Sourpig, to be deported through the Syrian dessert, Deir ez-Zor, with my three-year-old great-grandfather, Mihran. Sourpig Yaya (grandmother),left Mihran Dede (grandfather) in the care of her Turkish neighbours. She told them she’d try to come back for him and if she did, she wanted him back. They agreed and she left.
She gave birth to twin boys during the deportation and made the heart-wrenching decision to leave them on the road, later finding out that her babies had been eaten by birds.
Sourpig thought death was inevitable until one day, a wealthy Turkish woman draped her skirt over her to hide her from the authorities, saving her life.
For the next seven years, Sourpig payed her debt, working as a maid in a Turkish harem. There, she met and married an Armenian man, Hagop, who was looking for his daughter.
After being released, Sourpig immediately went to her neighbour’s door to take back her son. But Mihran didn’t recognize her. He didn’t want to go back to his mother and they didn’t let him. For days, she sat on their doorstep screaming for her son and eventually, mother and son were reunited.
Next, Sourpig, Hagop and Mihran travelled to Caesarea where Hagop’s daughter was in an orphanage. They found out that she had died — and soon after, so did he.
Sourpig and Mihran settled in Caesarea to rebuild their lives after the tragedy. Mihran married and had four sons; the second oldest is my grandfather Krikor. Sourpig Yaya took care of the family until her death in 1959 at approximately 85 years of age. Mihran Dede died in 1975 at the age of 67.
The Armenian Genocide had run its course by the end of 1918. The perpetrators are all dead. But almost a century later, much of the world is still in denial about it.
In Turkey itself, you can get thrown in jail — or worse — for even talking about this.
And while the governments of the United Kingdom, the U.S., Israel and others acknowledge the suffering, they avoid the word “genocide.”
Turkey has gone so far as to withdraw its ambassador from Washington after a congressional committee used the G-word in its final resolution.
Fortunately, this is Canada — which is one of about 20 countries that call the deaths and hardships visited upon my ancestors and their fellow Armenians by its proper name.
And where their descendant is free to tell their stories.