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ARMENIA, TURKEY: On anniversary of genocide, two peoples mourn separately

April 25, 2010 |  8:09 am

Armenia-memorial-olivia

As the rain fell Saturday, a woman lay flowers at the eternal flame in Armenia's capital city of Yerevan, in recognition of those who died in the violence nearly a century ago.

"Every year it rains on April 24," she said. "They say the sky is crying."

This weekend, Armenians around the world commemorated the 95th anniversary of a genocide that killed an estimated 1.5-million people. April 24 marks the 1915 roundup of Armenian leaders and intellectuals. Then came the able-bodied men of each village, followed by women and children who were sent on death marches into the desert.

Saturday also marked one year since Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, long enemies, took a step toward peace. In a diplomatic breakthrough promoted heavily by the United States, Turkish and Armenian governments announced they would move toward the normalization of relations and signed protocols to that effect.

"A road map has been identified," they said back then.

These days, however, neither side seems to be on the same path.

The agreement met with immediate and vehement opposition from large segments of the Armenian people and the Diaspora, who were insulted by the implication that the genocide was up for debate.

Turkey's government, under pressure from nationalists and their allies in Azerbaijan, added a steep condition: They would not ratify the protocols until Armenia resolved its conflict with the Azeris over the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabagh.

On Thursday, Armenia's government announced that its ratification of the protocols would be suspended -- it had run out of patience with the process.

The apparent stalled diplomacy casts an air of futility around Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, a sense that it has been tried and failed.

"It's not going to be easy to return to the point we were at in the beginning of the process," the former foreign minister of Armenia, Vartan Oskanian, told reporters. "We have gone backward."

In Armenia, as in the diaspora, there is a sense that the process can't move forward until history is put to rest. "Turkey and Azerbaijan will always be our enemies," Grigor Kafalian, 22, told Reuters at a rally in Yerevan, calling on Turkey to recognize the genocide.

Although the events of 1915 seem to weigh on the Turkish conscience, as expressed in a recent wave of books and articles by Turkish intellectuals, the government continues to deny that the organized mass killings took place.

"Characterizing the events of 1915 as genocide is not something that we can accept," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told CNN earlier this month. "This was a time of revolts ... and there were deaths, killings."

Yet in what appeared to be a softening stance, he left Turkey's position open to amendment: "What is important is to look into the archives, the historical documents...if, as the result of this work, it turns -- comes out that there is such a situation, we would then consider and question our history."

For people on both sides, exhausted by conflict and tragedy, there has been a movement to reconcile with the past.

On Saturday, while hundreds of thousands of Armenians climbed to the hilltop memorial in Yerevan, a Turkish human-rights group in Istanbul held its own event, mourning with them. In another part of town, a group of Kurdish mothers gathered in solidarity with Armenians, calling on Turkey to recognize the genocide. Their empathy was matched by bravery, as they could have been jailed or fined for any public mention of the genocide, banned under Turkish law.

It is the latest and boldest step by Turks choosing to break with their government's silence. It followed an online petition entitled "I Apologize," signed by nearly 30,000 people in Turkey last year. "My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Armenians were subjected to in 1915," the brief statement read. "I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them."

"It's a growing movement," said Salpi Ghazarian, a Los Angeles native now living in Yerevan. "At the end of the day, it is essential that recognition come from within Turkish society."

-- Olivia Katrandjian in Yerevan, Armenia

Photo: Mourners make their way Saturday to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. Credit: Olivia Katrandjian / For the Times
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