Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The story of our lives or the year that was...

Tomorrow I will finally put up the Christmas tree with my 1.5 year old grandson, Shahen. 

It's hard to fathom that it's that time of year again. It feels like it was just yesterday that I packed away all the Christmas decorations.

Where did the year go?

The sheer magnitude of events that shaped the story of our lives in 2015 was intense, exhilarating, tragic, beautiful, unexpected; it was a year that will be stuck in the membranes of our memories...

It seems as if a whole lifetime was squeezed into a mere 12 months. 

Just a few days after ringing in the New Year, clashes on the border with Azerbaijan erupted resulting in uncertainty and death. Just as we were recovering from the early onslaught, a horrific tragedy in Gyumri struck a blow to the entire nation. In a gruesome multiple homicide, the Avetisyan family was murdered by a Russian soldier while they slept. The family's sole surviving infant, Seryozha struggled to live but he succumbed to his injuries a week later. And when he drew his final breath and passed, a whole country mourned, our hearts were broken. Remembering him now, almost ten months later still moves me to tears...

Life went on. The Armenian people prepared for the centennial of the 1915 Genocide. The Kardashian family came to the homeland, Kanye West performed a free concert for residents of the capital, the Pope gave a Holy Mass where he called the Armenian Genocide the first genocide of the 20th Century, the European Parliament once again called on Turkey to come to terms with its past, a number of parliaments recognized the Genocide, communities across the globe honored their dead and demanded justice and recognition...

Presidents and dignitaries came to Armenia, the world focused on the issue for about a millisecond, millions of dollars were spent. April 25th came, much didn't change, but life went on.

A few months later, Electric Yerevan electrified the country for several weeks. The world's attention, once again, focused on Armenia. We were inspired, invigorated and hopeful. Tired of a system that was failing us, we hoped that a movement led by new young voices would usher in some kind of fundamental change. While it was successful in illustrating the power of the people, the people still have a long way to go before believing that that power can be the engine for real change. The movement fizzled out, people went back to their normal lives and routines. Life went on.

A referendum on constitutional reforms was held. While it's likely that the majority of the population voted against it, the regime successfully orchestrated yet another rigged vote and thus it passed. Citizen observers did their best to protect the integrity of the vote but they were too few in numbers. We reported about it, wrote about it, griped about it. Life went on.

And in between all of these events, the borders of our country were uneasy. No, they were tense. We lost so many young men, boys really, too young to have experienced all that a blessed life could have offered them. We didn't always give them names. We just simply said, Did you hear? We lost two soldiers today on the border. But they had names. They had mothers and fathers who loved them beyond measure. They had wives and children, and friends and community. Each death struck a blow to each little civilization that gave birth to them and raised them. 

While presidents meet and mediators try to mediate, the soldiers and their families are paying a price for us, for our safety and security and we don't do nearly enough to honor them.

What about the ongoing conflicts in other parts of the world? What about the crimes of humanity that are playing out in real time on our computer screens? The tens of thousands of refugees yearning for a better life, risking everything by crossing borders and seas and dying and drowning in the process? The image of the little boy's body washed up on a Turkish shore that will forever be etched in our minds...

Tomorrow as I decorate that 30-year-old Christmas tree that has been a witness to so many precious memories, I will remember the past year and I will be grateful. 

Grateful for all that we experienced. Grateful for the moments of illumination and the depths of despair because it shaped our collective existence, gave it form and texture and depth. Grateful for the youth of this country, who still believe that change is possible. Grateful to be surrounded by incredibly motivated people, for community and grateful to have the privilege of living in my homeland with my family.

Most of all grateful for Shahen, an amazing little human being in his own right and a blessed addition to our little civilization. In a few short months, Shahen will have a baby brother. They will grow up together, play together, go to school, make friends, fall in love and when the time comes, they will both serve in the army to protect the borders of our country. And while that thought terrifies me, it also increases my resolve to work harder, be better, do that they can grow up in peace.

May 2016 be full of blessings for all of us -- may we love more, play more, read more, enjoy life more, believe in our own possibilities and above all else, may we finally find peace and serenity in our lives.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Power of Us

"In many countries, elections unite people. In your country, your authorities use elections to divide people."
- Roman Udot, 
European Platform for 
Democratic Elections

Maybe we needed to experience this too. Referendum 2015. Maybe this is what had to happen for us to claw and fight our way to that other place. Maybe they had to become more brazen in their criminal actions so that we begin to see the potential power of us, the ordinary citizen. But we aren't ordinary. We are extraordinary. We just need to see it and believe.

Exactly one week ago today, the Armenian people went to the polls to vote on a package of Constitutional reforms and we witnessed yet another vote that was marred by massive violations and electoral irregularities. The subsequent disappointment was familiar. Even before polls closed at 8:00 p.m., we braced ourselves for the results as one violation after another was being reported in real time. 

In the absence of a true, honest and intelligent national dialogue about the reform, in the absence of a relevant opposition that has the ability and credibility to mobilize, and a regime that continues to leave its people unprotected and vulnerable, pushing through a referendum on Constitutional reforms simply compounded the apathy and indifference of an electorate that no longer believes in anything.

For the many beleaguered citizens of this country who did take part in the referendum, the way they voted wasn't about whether or not they live under a particular document - a Constitution - that would determine how they govern and are governed, it was a protest vote, albeit not expressed in the final results. 

But while the disappointment was familiar, it wasn't as deep. It felt different.

Thanks to digital technologies and the mobilization of citizen observers, the vulgarity and criminality of those who took part in falsifying the vote were highlighted in ways that we haven't seen before. 

Those citizen observers, who stood their ground, who knew the law and their rights, who had had enough and were ready to fight tooth and nail to protect the rights of the voters, made a difference albeit small, but a difference nonetheless. Their impact wasn't about the final results but it was about instilling a small seedling of belief in ourselves. 

While the final analysis is yet to be completed, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that in those precincts where citizen observers were able to make their presence felt, who were able to to push back despite a concerted effort by electoral commission members and proxies of the ruling party to wear them down or get them simply to leave the precincts, the true and free expression of the people was registered - that is, the NO vote won.

Certainly, this time around their efforts did not impact the results, but take a look at how social media is exploding with eyewitness accounts of the violations and you will see how the dynamic is shifting. Online public shaming of those who were part of the fraud machine has forced many of the violators to shut down their Facebook pages because of the onslaught of comments. Information, photos and videos of those electoral commission members and proxies who were responsible for multiple voting, fiddling with the voter registration lists, for ballot stuffing, intimidation, physical violence, obstructing the work of observers and journalists is available for all to see.

The stronger we become, the weaker they become. 

We have two years ahead of us until the 2017 parliamentary elections. If for one moment, we put aside all political affiliations, and say that we, the citizens, the concerned citizens, are going to work together to form our own army of observers, to wage a war against the systematic attempts at obliterating the institutions of democracy in our country, to hold the authorities to account, to force them to comply, to make rigging elections harder for them by showing up. Showing UP. Showing up to vote, to observe, to raise our voices, to register violations, to follow through...

If we, the people, can cover all 1997 electoral stations throughout the country with well informed citizen observers; if we show up to the vote, if we show up to say that my ballot is an inalienable civic right and responsibility and I am going to utilize that right, the harder we will make it for them to rig the vote.

But our engagement as ordinary citizens is not enough. We need political parties that are credible, organized, internally democratic, who have grass roots support, a clear ideology, a platform for reform and a plan for the future and most importantly are not formed around one specific leader or oligarch. Time will tell if this new parliamentary system envisioned under the new Constitution will contribute to the development of political parties. 

And what about those who boycotted the vote on principle or who didn't show up because they believed the results would be manipulated, those who didn't care one way or the other? They are equally part of the problem. 

We need to be present, we need to show up, we need to understand that the majority of the population in Armenia can dethrone a minority regime whose only vested interest is the perpetuation of their own vested interest.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Your Neutrality is Killing Us

Photo: Suren Manvelyan
Every morning as I make my way to work, sitting in traffic, I wonder if I'll read the news of yet another death...

"Today, a soldier was killed on the frontline."

I know the script by heart. I don't think about how I'm going to phrase the news item anymore. I can do it in my sleep. It's always the same. A soldier is killed by an Azerbaijani sniper. Two soldiers are killed along the southern portion of the Line of Contact. As border villages along the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border come under attack, one soldier is killed and another wounded. Armenia's Defense Ministry has launched an investigation into the Azerbaijani military raid that took the lives of four officers. The Nagorno Karabakh Defense Army extends its condolences to the families of the deceased soldiers. Armenia's armed forces retaliate, successfully quell the aggressor's gunfire.

And so it goes. We've become desensitized to the news from the front lines. They've become a normal part of our day. 

But I lie. They haven't. They never will, because once you see the birthdate next to the name of the dead soldier - 1995, 1996, 1997 - something inside you snaps. It doesn't break you, not yet. You can still hang on a little more because you are made of the strong earth from which you sprang. You can hang on because you are as rugged as the mountains that stretch across the landscape of your conscience.


In less than 48 hours, three peaceful civilians, all women, are killed by Azerbaijani gunfire and four young soldiers die on the Line of Contact. If this isn't a declaration of war, what is?

Sometimes the news of tensions and fighting on the border makes international headlines and we're buoyed by the fact that the world hasn't forgotten this isolated corner of humanity. 

Often, those charged with negotiating for a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict issue a statement. They call on both sides to refrain from actions that will escalate the situation further. Their carefully crafted statements ooze of neutrality. They blame both sides, call for a de-escalation of aggression. By not calling out the aggressor they render their words useless and become impotent to ensure the de-escalation they seem to want so desperately.

The 18 year-old boys standing on the frontiers pay the price.

Your neutrality, gentlemen, is killing us.

Monday, September 21, 2015

My Independence

Photo credit: Suren Manvelyan

July, 2001

It is a brilliantly sunny day. There are several cars making their way to the airport. My family is divided up among those cars. When we arrive at the terminal, we unload the suitcases, make our way to the check-in counter and thus begin a journey that has been traumatic yet exceptional, uncertain, but life-changing.

At the airport, about 40 members of our immediate and extended family and friends have formed a semicircle. We each take our turn saying our goodbyes. The hardest moment is having to leave my parents behind. My mother seems to be crumbling beneath the pain of knowing that she will be separated from her daughter, her grandchildren...her eyes full of tears she hangs on to me like she never wants to let me go.

And then it's my father's turn. A few weeks earlier, I had asked my mom why dad was so distraught….was this not his dream for me? Was he not happy that I was fulfilling my dream? She says, ‘You are the low-lying branch in a raging river that he has needed for so long…’

Afterward, the four of us walk toward the boarding area. We take one last look at our lives and make our way toward the boarding area.

We didn’t come to Armenia to change anything. We didn’t come to save anyone. We didn’t come with a noble mission. And we certainly didn’t come to prove anything to anyone nor do we think we are ‘better’ Armenians than anyone else.

We came because we could. That has been the gift of independence. 

My independence...

Monday, April 27, 2015

Our Century

The earth shifted ever so slightly this month. An irreversible tide that was a hundred years coming crashed on the shores of seas we no longer have ownership of. But it doesn't matter because right now we are the world.

After a century of demanding justice, recognition and restitution, after a century of pain, desolation and despair, after a century of tortured memories passing from one generation to the next, on the one hundredth anniversary of that catastrophic event, we are indeed the world.

Torchlight March, Yerevan
The epic events of the past several weeks - a papal mass that should shame the perpetrator and all those who bend to its will, a massive rock concert on the eve of the Armenian Genocide that rocked Yerevan's Republic Square and our hearts, an unprecedented sea of descendants marching for justice in Los Angeles - have changed the course of our future.

We were able to release ourselves from being perpetual victims. We were able to stand together, united, unbreakable and unshakeable. We told the world that we are here, we may be a few, we may be dispersed, we may have different ideologies but we are steadfast, for you cannot discount millions of people who refuse to surrender, who refuse to be silenced, who refuse injustice. We reached a tipping point.

What we do with this capital, depends on us. 

March to Justice, LA
The continued strength and resilience of our communities, their lobbying efforts in power centers around the world, not only for Armenian Genocide recognition but for the security and empowerment of the Republic of Armenia and the recognition of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic and a deepening engagement with Armenia's civil society initiatives must become part of the equation in the Diaspora's activities.

Simultaneously, assisting and, if need be, pressuring the current government of the Republic of Armenia to institutionalize democratic values, the protection of human rights, social justice, to conduct free and fair elections, implement sound economic policies, ensure political plurality and eradicate impunity must become a priority for the citizens of Armenia. 

These two strands do not have to be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, accomplishing one without the other will not propel us forward.

Armenians in the Diaspora, who have been struggling for Genocide recognition are now seeing the result of their decades-long work. The activists and lobbyists who courted politicians in the corridors of power, the community leaders, who tried to mobilize their members despite divisions, the scholars, whose invaluable academic work laid the foundation and proved without a reasonable doubt, that the atrocities committed against the Armenian nation by Ottoman Turkey had all the elements of genocide, have all played an important role. This is power.

System of a Down concert, Yerevan
Certain segments in Armenia have been making strides in new technologies, education, social entrepreneurship and in elevating social consciousness despite the inadequacy and incompetence of the authorities. While it has a long way to go, citizens are slowly recoiling from the traditional model of servitude which successive governments have banked on to maintain power. And this past month, Armenians in Armenia finally realized that they are not an isolated island, closed off from the world both figuratively and literally, but they were indeed part of the human family, part of the world. This too, is power.

Events, circumstances and experiences such as we witnessed this past month instilled hope, both in the Diaspora and in Armenia. The next century is ours to define and navigate. Now, let's not lose the momentum. 

Armenia is Rising. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Crossroads, Connections and Unexpected Reunions

April 21

My alarm clock goes off at 7:15. I drag myself out of bed to start my day. It is April 21, and the countdown to the 24th is in full swing. I know that a busy day is ahead, but by the time I drag myself home at 11:30 pm, the word "busy" no longer applies.

I have an early morning meeting scheduled with a journalist from the Irish Times, who is in town to report on the commemoration ceremonies planned for the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. About 45 minutes into the interview, I look up and see two of my dear friends from Australia, Varant and Houry, walking toward my office. They have decided to pay me an unexpected visit. They have come to Yerevan because they couldn't not be here. It is a joyful reunion. We say goodbye to our now Irish friend, sit down for a quick chat until I get called away to a meeting.

Hrayr Jebejian, the General Secretary of the Bible Society of the Arabian Gulf comes in later in the day for a scheduled interview. Just as we are going to walk to the studio, a couple from Montreal comes to CivilNet. Dr. Rita Soulahian Kuyumjian, a psychiatrist and her husband Dr. Jirair Kuyumjian are loyal viewers of CivilNet and have decided to stop by our office. There are handshakes and many kind words exchanged. In the middle of the conversation, I find out that Rita is here because a book she had written was translated in Armenian and she is here for the launch that is going to take place at the Genocide Museum-Institute the following day. I had read her book, "Archeology of Madness, Komitas, Portrait of an Armenian Icon" years ago and I am thrilled that I am getting the chance to meet the author. We agree for her to come in the next day for an interview.

Then I interview Tatevik Revazian from Copenhagen, a young woman who was instrumental in having the city agree to erect a sculpture for the Armenian Genocide, which is being protested by the Turks of Denmark. Afterward, Pierre Akkelian, the President of Canadian Gem and founder of the Armenian Jewelers Association is scheduled to come in for an interview about an exhibition that will take place in St. Petersburg called the Treasures of Western Armenia. But before he arrives, Kourken Sarkissian, the founder and president of Zoryan Institute arrives with Professor Roger Smith and a few of the students who have taken part in the Institute's Genocide studies course. 

As we sit around the conference table, Pierre arrives. The discussion is about Genocide recognition and where we go from here. I interview Pierre, and then I have another interview with an Argentinian-Armenian human rights lawyer. Just as they leave, my former colleague Paul Chaderjian, who now works for Al Jazeera stops by. After he leaves, I go to Derian Kebab to meet up with my Australian friends for a late dinner. It's 8:30, and I'm really really tired.

I walk into Derian Kebab and there I see a large Norwegian delegation. Tim Straight, the honorary consul of Norway, Jussi Flemming Bioern, the grandson of Bodil Biorn, a Norwegian missionary who saved thousands of Armenian lives during the Genocide are there. Hugs, introductions follow. The mayor of Kragero, Norway is there, historian Bard Larsen is there. Toasts are made, food is ordered and after a couple of glasses of wine, all is good.

Just as the evening is winding down, a young man walks in, he looks familiar, but hey, everyone looks familiar at this point. He walks up to Jussi and says, "Don't you remember me? I went to Der Zor with you in 2004." Jussi, at this point, is absolutely stunned, he can't believe it. He holds the young man's face with his hands and I think he's crying. I look at the young man and realize it's Kevork Hagopjian, whom I had met in London a few years ago. Kevork is from Aleppo and he was doing his masters in London. I stand up and say, "Kevork?" As I do, my chair tips over, I bend down to pick it up, hug Kevork, turn around and see two other friends, Annette and Armine from London. More hugs, more hugs, more hugs....Armenia is the most bizarre, yet most beautiful place on earth at this moment.

As Tim says, "This Is Armenia."

Saturday, April 4, 2015

April 25

The Tatev Canyon. Photo by Suren Manvelyan.
April 25 will come. I promise. 

It will come a day after April 24, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. It will be the day after hundreds of thousands have made the pilgrimage to Tsitsernakaberd, the Genocide memorial that sits atop a lonely hill in Yerevan.

Official delegations that had flown in for a few hours, will have left. The millions of flowers surrounding the eternal flame at the memorial will remain there for a few days more and then they too will be taken away and recycled. Armenians from the Diaspora, who had come to be part of the centenary in the homeland, will stay on for a few more days and then they too will leave.

News organizations who had sent crews to cover the commemoration ceremonies will write their articles, file their reports, pack up their gear and go back to cover more pressing events around the world. Hotel rooms will be empty.

The billboards calling for justice and recognition of the Armenian Genocide in cities around the world will be taken down. Exhibitions that had been held at some of the most prestigious museums and institutions will be dismantled and packed away. Conferences that had been organized, televised, and live streamed will conclude, their proceedings published and uploaded.

The academics, panelists, experts who had delivered their speeches will leave the podiums, the audience will go back to their lives and the conference halls will be empty.

The demonstrations, candlelight vigils and marches will come to an end. The articles that were written will be read and then deleted from computer screens. The purple forget-me-not, the symbol designed to mark the centenary that had been made into pins, posters, t-shirts, bumper stickers, mugs, bracelets, necklaces, phone covers, umbrellas, and hats will be discarded.

Books about the Genocide by descendants of survivors will be published, poems will be written, feature films will be screened, plays will be performed, as will rock concerts and symphonies in the heart of Yerevan.

The millions, if not billions of dollars earmarked and raised for the commemoration on every continent of the globe will be spent.

April 25 will come. I promise.

And 100 is just a number. It is not an end, it must be a beginning to something… You see, the 1.5 million will still be dead, towns and villages in historic Armenia will still be missing their native children, wealth and prosperity will still be lost, justice will continue to be elusive, Turkey will still continue to deny and we will still need to fight the good fight.

And after the marches end, after the conferences are over, after the signs are taken down, after the world who had come to Yerevan has packed up and gone, we will be here. The land and its people. Armenia and Artsakh, the two fragile Armenian states will still be here. And the Diaspora, born from that crime 100 years ago, today, with its limitless possibilities and potential will still be here.

As a century of pain, sorrow and loss comes to an end, a new century will begin. Let us make it our century. A century of purpose. Let us start that new century, finally on April 25.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Armenia's Murky Media Landscape

The title of the article on read, "The Avetisyan's son fought with the murderer prior to being killed." The piece was subsequently picked up by other news outlets (, and made its way on to social media platforms. In this new media age, the propensity to 'click' before you think has become a global craze. There are ample examples of this affliction in the Armenian virtual space as well.

This particular example highlights the irresponsibility of media outlets, whose proclivity for acquiring as many 'likes' as possible, primarily on Facebook - the preferred 'drug' of Armenians on the Internet - is creating a worrisome trend and eroding the last vestiges of journalistic integrity in an already murky media landscape.

The horrific murder of the seven members of the Avetisyan family in Gyumri on January 12 sent shockwaves around the country. The alleged murderer, Russian soldier Valery Permyakov, who was stationed at the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri is currently being held in custody by the Russian side.

The high profile nature of the case has lent itself to a litany of conspiracy theories and in the absence of clarity regarding the details of the murder and the subsequent investigation, people are making assumptions, accusations and developing their own hypothesis as to what exactly transpired and why. 

The title of the article in question asserts that one of the victims had struggled with the murderer before being killed. The investigation has not concluded, the accused Permyakov has not stood trial and the Investigative Committee of Russia, who is leading the actual investigation has made no such statement.

The sisters of Hasmik Avetisyan, one of the victims of the multiple homicide, spoke with regarding the case and confirmed that the family had retained two new lawyers to represent them. One of the sisters Rita Petrosyan said, "We want to know: Is Permyakov guilty or someone else? Were the bullets fired from that gun? Why was my Armen (the son of Hasmik Avetisyan) discovered on the floor? Did he fight? Certainly there must have been a struggle that Armen was found on the floor."

A distraught relative's assumptions, 'inspired' the reporter in question to write with certainty that Armen Avetisyan had struggled with the murderer prior to being killed. Perhaps he did, but in the absence of any clear evidence, the inevitable question arises --  why would a media outlet, whose objective should be to report the news accurately and secure the trust of its readers, disrespect those very same readers by misleading them?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Time to Get Mad

Photo credit: Seda Grigoryan

"Tommy, don't you go fighten' em alone. They'll hunt you down like a coyote. Tommy, I got to thinkin' an' dreamin' an' wonderin'. They say there's a hun'red thousand of us shoved out. If we was all mad the same way, Tommy - they wouldn't hunt nobody down..."
The Grapes of Wrath

The matriarch of the Joad family in John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, "The Grapes of Wrath" said these words to her eldest son Tom after the family had been forced off their land. I read Steinbeck's novel when I was in high school at a time and place in my life where these words did not resonate or make an impression on my consciousness, or so I thought. I made my daughter read it one summer long ago and while looking for something to read recently, I picked it out of my library once again. The timing was auspicious in light of recent events in Armenia. 

The intimidation, the attacks, the impunity and the ensuing simmering anger we all are feeling, the lack of unity against what most perceive as an oppressive ruling regime, the inclination to write statuses on Facebook that are suspended virtually and never transform into action to eradicate the unending abuse have left most of us feeling helpless against a regime that is becoming emboldened by the deafening silence.

Indeed, certain 'leaders' in Armenia have most of the characteristics of an abuser - they keeps tabs on what we do, seek to control our thoughts, beliefs and conduct, restrict our rights and freedoms, constantly accuse us of being unfaithful, punish us for breaking their rules or challenging their authority, control all our money, humiliate us in front of others, destroy our property and those things we care about, threaten to hurt us or our loved ones and then actually resort to physical violence.

The inherent mutual distrust is slowly eating away at the core of our country.

What we need to do is stop being victimized. It's time to get mad, really "mad the same way" so that we are not "hunted down like a coyote."

Thursday, February 5, 2015

This Tired and Ancient Soil

Photo credit: Seda Grigoryan

I carried the soil in my suitcase. It came from beneath the ruins, it held the decaying bones of past lives, it came from fields where mulberries grow, where countless stories are buried and where memories tumble along cascading rivers, submerging, reappearing and then finally drowning in the rushing current. The soil held the melodic chords of hymns sung for centuries in ancient churches with soaring domes, it was rich with the toil and sweat of the farmer, the despair of orphans and the blood of martyrs.

I carried the ancient crumbling soil in my suitcase to mix it with the soil of a new country.

The women who loved him held that ancient soil in their hands and then released it onto his freshly covered grave...

* * *

Sometimes it's easier to talk about the horrors and atrocities of the past than it is to talk about the uncertain present. The tumultuous events of the past few weeks in Armenia have provided ample opportunity for many of us to be outraged, to weep in horror and cringe with shame.

Sometimes, certain events that occur in the present are so difficult to confront that you turn inward and refuse to comprehend their raw brutality. You bury your head in that ancient soil, hoping for comfort and solace, because you know that soil has seen and experienced so much.

Today, several of my colleagues and I were discussing the special programs we are preparing for the centenary of the Armenian Genocide. I was glad for the reprieve it presented from our modern-day woes. The Genocide is a familiar space. We know how to deal with it. We know how it feels, we know its smell and its aura. We've grown accustomed to its constant presence in our lives. It's a safe place, safer than the here and now. Or so I thought.

As the discussion about a particular program transformed into a debate, and as voices were jumping over one another,  expostulating, struggling to underscore a point, one of our editors broke down and began to weep as she spoke about a past experience...

"What is going on with you?" I asked.

"I don't know. I'm not doing well this year," she replied.

This year. This 100th year. One hundred years and it doesn't end. There is no closure. There is no safe place to exist, not yet, perhaps never.

* * *

As my father lay in the cold ground in the new country, as we are powerless against death and dying, as his dream for the lost homeland died with him, as his yearning for his ancestral village in historic Armenia never left him, the only thing I could do was to bring a little bit of that ancient soil with me and scatter it on his grave so that his bones could rest and his soul could find some solace.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Nation and Seryozha

Requiem service in St. Nshan Church, Gyumri. Photo credit: Eric Grigoryan

"Seryozha didn't make it."

This is the message that appeared on my computer screen as the sun was slowly setting in Yerevan on Monday. It had been a horrific week. We had been working excruciatingly long hours and were worn down by the immensity of the emotions we had been confronting. A shocking multiple murder had rocked the country. Six members, three generations of the Avetisyan family had been murdered in their home in Gyumri. But Seryozha, the beautiful baby boy who had miraculously survived the massacre even after being stabbed by a bayonet of a Russian soldier was still breathing, he was fighting to stay alive. He was our blessing. He was our hope.

It took a few seconds for the news to sink in. I buried my face in my hands to contain the sorrow and rage that seemed to be exploding from my heart. His soft, round face, his white skin, his dark hair, his angelic face...I sat at my desk, in front of my computer screen, paralyzed. Seryozha died and took our hope along with him. Our prayers, our pleas to the heavens to let this one child, this innocent victim of an incomprehensible crime survive. Survive to carry his family name, to grow up, thrive, love and be loved. He was and would be loved and protected by the nation.

Some may say we love to grieve and mourn, that melancholy is a national affliction. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is a result of a century of sorrow. But this tragedy, the death of Seryozha touched a raw nerve from which it will be difficult to recover.

His death left us with a gaping hole in our hearts. Tomorrow he will be laid to rest next to his family. Maybe this world wasn't worthy of the purity he has come to symbolize. Maybe he needed to be with his family...

May Seryozha be the guardian angel for all of our children, for the children of the nation. May we all work harder, become better human beings, strive for love and peace in our lives, our country and our world. May your soul repose in peace Seryozha. Here is a lullaby to guide your journey.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Turbulent Beginning 

Photo by Daron Titizian.

"You sound tired," my sister said.

I was. It was only my second day back at the office after a much-needed Christmas break from work and the world, but I felt drained.

"I am," I said.

"Working too much again?" she asked.

How could I begin to explain all the events that had taken place in the past few days? How could so much pain and tragedy be compressed into a fleeting moment of time in the grand narrative of life?

"You remember our Turkish colleague, Gaye, who was in hospital fighting for her life after a hit-and-run? Well, she died," I said flatly. "Oh..." she said and thought that was it.

But it wasn't. I went on...

"You know, we're still in a state of war really. Tensions on the border have been high, we've already lost several young soldiers. And today, well, today six members of one family were shot dead while they were sleeping in their beds by a Russian soldier," I said. "Everything is so damn personal in Armenia."

It is.

Today, I kept seeing the image of the sole surviving infant of the tragedy in Gyumri, who miraculously survived the gruesome killing of his entire family. I wish people would stop sharing his picture, it's tearing the last shreds of my humanity apart. That innocent child will now grow up without the devotion and caress of his mother's hands, or the love of his father. What kind of life can he expect or will he have?

I walk out of the office to get some fresh air. I see people going about their daily routine, rushing to an appointment, parents picking up their children from school, young couples holding hands, an elderly man walking with a cane, his back bent from a hard life, teenagers laughing.

One emotion tumbles onto the next - anger, pain, resentment, outrage. It's hard, living here, I think to myself. I'm not lost in a crowd of millions like I was when I was living in Canada, it's not an obscure existence. Everyone I see is somehow connected to each other, connected to someone who is connected to me.

And then it dawns on me...we are a big family, a clan, a tribe, we are connected and yes, it is damn personal but it's also the reason why we have to keep on living, to try and find the beauty that I believe exists somewhere. Maybe that is what this journey is about, the desire to find beauty and peace. One day I hope to find it.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

1915 - 2015: The Gallipoli Campaign, the Armenian Genocide and Turkey

The Landing at Anzac, April 25, 1915 by Charles Dixon.

As we enter the much anticipated centenary year of our collective suffering, many of us continue to hope that we will manage to overcome divisive tendencies and take full advantage of the anniversary to place our demands on all national and international platforms.

Surely, this will be the first of many pieces I will write about this important year, and surely many more of us and 'them' will also be writing, analyzing, computing, arguing, defending, postulating...

The need to move beyond words to actions has never had as much urgency as it does now. So, instead of writing meandering thoughts as many of us have already done, I want to talk about one of the many initiatives being undertaken by Turkey to thwart, veil, and swerve the discussion from the Armenian Genocide to other issues and historical events.

The Gallipoli Campaign, also known as the Dardanelles Campaign or the Battle of Canakkale (Canakkale Savasi - Turkish) was spearheaded by the Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill during World War I. The disastrous campaign, led by the British was intended to secure a sea route from the Gallipoli peninsula, the northern bank of the Dardanelles (the Ottoman Empire at the time) to the Russian Empire. This campaign by the Allies on April 25, 1915 involved British, French, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) and aimed to secure Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Poor planning, lack of sufficient intelligence and knowledge of the terrain coupled with fierce Turkish resistance led to heavy casualties on both sides and the eventual withdrawal of Allied forces to Egypt. 

Canakkale Savasi has a very significant place in Turkish history, it has become a symbol of how the Ottoman army was able to hold back a multinational force and "prevent them from invading the Turkish homeland." It is equally significant for Australia and New Zealand; for these two countries, the campaign remains a sense of national pride and identity.

On April 25, each year, Australia and New Zealand conduct three Anzac Day services at Gallipoli in Turkey. The Dawn Service at the Anzac Commemorative Site is conducted jointly by both countries and is followed by an Australian Memorial Service at Lone Pine, and a New Zealand Memorial Service at Chunuk Bair.

Up until 2013, Turkey commemorated the fallen soldiers of Gallipoli on March 18, which is known as Canakkale Victory and Martyrs Day. However, in anticipation of the world's attention centering on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Turkey has decided that this year, the Battle of Gallipoli will be marked on April 24.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear that official Ankara will actively challenge Armenian attempts at forcing a change in the 100 year narrative of Turkish denial in this most crucial commemorative year. 

This move leaves little doubt that Turkey is placing greater emphasis and attention on the commemoration of Canakkale on April 24 as opposed to April 25, 2015 to divert attention from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.

Dozens of heads of states are expected to attend the ceremonies being organized by Turkey at the highest levels. The Prime Ministers of Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Crown Prince Charles and Prince William of Great Britain, including Australian actor Russell Crowe are also expected to attend.

What can we do? Armenian communities in those countries that participated in the Gallipoli Campaign (Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and who are expected to take part in the commemoration ceremonies on April 24 should begin a campaign asking their countries' leadership to refrain from participating. The Armenian government, along with the countless activities it is planning for the centenary of the Genocide, could put its diplomats into action (a novel idea) to counter this Turkish move, although there is no Armenian Embassy in Australia (I guess having one in the Vatican was more expedient).

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Promise

Handmade angel by Geghanush Tovmasyan

The holiday season is still in full swing in Armenia. Most in the country return to work only on January 12...after all, we need time to celebrate the New Year, Armenian Christmas and the Old New Year.

While this may appear to be extravagant for most in the West, and perhaps underscores the inefficiency of a country that doesn't have time to spare, it does give those of us living here the opportunity to take a real break, re-energize, reflect and more importantly, get together with friends and family around festive dinner tables.

Last night, I had the chance to get together with some of my 'younger' colleagues and as we ate and drank, the conversation as always, turned to the condition of the country, our hopes and dreams, our successes and failures and the many missed opportunities. And as always, a question that I grapple with often managed to find it's way into the fluid conversation - did my generation do enough?

A glass of wine was raised and a response to my question came in the form of a toast:  "Your generation achieved something, it gave us independence, and now it's our generation's responsibility to make sure we keep it."

Merry Christmas.