By Kahren Eloyan, Opinion Editor
The Fortress of the Swallows and a Forgotten Atrocity
In a distant city there is a hill. On that hill sits a memorial named the Fortress of the Swallows. It overlooks the city of Yerevan. The monument is composed of an eternal flame covered by twelve stone slabs and a spire that pierces the sky. Every April 24th, on the Armenian’s black day, thousands visit the memorial in silence, cradling flowers and hanging their heads in sorrow. Since the Fortress’ opening in 1967, it’s become the focus of national grieving.
I am an Armenian. Those of you who know me have probably heard. There’s a weight every one of us carries, as if we were born with it, and one that intensifies in late April. We’ve carried it for 102 years. There’s not one of us who doesn’t know about the Armenian Genocide. It’s burned deep into our national psyche. It’s an ugly scar.
Even before I had a name to attach it to, I felt the Genocide. I was aware of some distant disaster that had deeply affected everyone I knew. Then came knowing the name, Mets Yeghern, in Armenian. With the name came the fight to give it meaning- to ascribe a worth to it. I’ve had to argue for its relevance. I’ve had to reduce the deaths of over 1.5 million people to the basest terms so as to try and illustrate to the importance of the Yeghern.
Entire lives- all the component joys and sorrows, discoveries, hardships and triumphs, reduced to a few words. Maybe a few sentences if who I’m speaking to can be bothered to listen. Lives reduced and simplified like that of my grandmother’s uncle, Tigran.
Before the genocide began, Tigran’s grandfather was a member of the fedayis, a group of Armenian freedom fighters who organized to protect their people from racial violence. When Ottoman officials heard of the grandfather, they dispatched agents to his village. Gathering Tigran’s family in their home, the agents tortured the grandfather. They ripped his chest open, filled it with explosives, and blew him up in front of his family on their dining room table. The family was then slaughtered, with only toddler Tigran spared. Then came April 24th, 1915. The genocide began that day. A few weeks later, as Tigran turned five, a wave of Armenian refugees swept through his village. The orphan, in danger in his own village, joined the refugees. Moving east in the hopes of reaching eastern Armenia and eluding the Ottoman murderers and roving groups of Kurd bandits who sought to massacre them, many refugees never made it. Along the way Tigran was separated from the evacuees and wound up in a refugee camp in Cyprus without a name, family, or future.
Time and time again stories like this are trivialized in an attempt to make people care. There are countless horrific tales out there. Most of them won’t ever be known. Which is why every April, the indignance of trying to prove the importance of my people’s suffering to an apathetic world haunts every Armenian alive.
My friends and people around me often lampoon the genocide when it comes up. They ‘correct’ me by informing me that it was an ‘alleged genocide,’ unlike the very real Holocaust. People who live and die by the code of the Social Justice Warrior have tell me the Ottoman Empire committed no atrocities in 1915 and the following years. The glib apathy continues unabated.
This article, however, is not solely a passionate appeal for recognition of the Armenian Genocide. I know you couldn’t be less bothered about what sounds like the illegitimate child of Albania and Romania. You probably couldn’t care less about a landlocked nation smaller than Maryland with an almost nonexistent international significance. As a result, you won’t get up and demand recognition of the Armenian Genocide. People won’t inconvenience themselves to think about some irrelevant people slaughtered in some more or less irrelevant corner of the globe.
And Armenian people aren’t alone in their indignance. There are many groups who are suffering or have suffered greatly in the past and now have to contend with a world that doesn’t care. The Assyrians and Greeks, also saw forgotten atrocities committed against them by the Ottomans in 1915. The outrage over the ongoing barbarities in the Darfur region of Sudan has faded from the public’s consciousness. The 1994 Rwandan genocide, the subject of an Oscar-nominated film, has likewise been forgotten. The same goes what happened in Bangladesh in 1971, in Guatemala from 1960 to 1996, and in Bosnia in 1995. And it wasn’t until it became politically convenient that the atrocities currently taking place in Syria and Iraq are suddenly cared about.
Maybe the Fortress of the Swallows will stand one day as a monument not to sorrow and a forgotten atrocity, but to endurance and the human spirit. Maybe where hundreds of thousands sought an answer to their grief, hundreds of thousands more will find their answer; and I pray that other peoples, like the Syrians and Assyrians and Greeks and Sudanese, see their symbols of hardship transformed as well.
A First World Failure
One of the reasons people don’t seem to care is how selective societal outrage is. Day in and day out people are slaughtered in the Middle East in droves, and the media doesn’t cover it. No outrage commensurate with the severity of these crimes against humanity. A handful of people die in an attack in Europe, however, and the entire first world is up in arms, condemning left and right in an emotional outpouring of humanitarianism. This is not to belittle anyone’s death- all human life is sacred. That’s a consensus that’s generally not yet been lost, but there has to be an appropriate response to everything. The outrage has to be proportional and oftentimes isn’t. For example, the response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, which killed 12, completely eclipsed the response to the 5-day Baga Massacre in Kenya, which happened the same week as the Hebdo shooting and killed over a hundred and fifty. Objectively and numerically, it’s obvious which event should have garnered more coverage.
Maybe people care so little, or find it difficult to care, because the horror of a Toyota pickup covered in machine guns barrelling down an unpaved clay road in dusty sub-Saharan Africa is too foreign. The fear of rural, third-world terrorism or barbarism is alien and abstract to us. Our first world definition of an atrocity is different- we see the horrors of urban terrorism. We see the Twin Towers collapsing and subways exploding. We see semi trucks barrelling through holiday crowds and gunmen storming airports. And our media reinforces these fears. In superhero movies, the final battle doesn’t happen in the depths of Africa haunted by extremists or child soldiers. Final battles don’t take place in the blood-soaked plains of Eastern Anatolia or Iraq or the bullet-riddled forests of Central America. Final battles happen in New York or London- in vast metropoli that reflect our first-world surroundings. We’re sold a first-world view by our leaders and news and movies, which makes it convenient and easy for us to care when Europeans become victims. As a result, beginning and continuing to care when the people of the second and third worlds face unspeakable horrors is difficult.
Our current middle-ground, care-when-it’s-convenient mentality has to end. The apathy that goes hand-in-hand with this approach is what allows groups like ISIS to form. In the moral vacuum where good people become indifferent, the poisonous seeds of evil take root and flourish. Caring selectively is why presidents can suddenly allow themselves to consider the suffering of Syrian children because they need to distract from their approval ratings. Caring selectively is why announcing your undying support for a group of French far-left provocateurs you’d hate any other day constitutes meaningful humanitarianism. Caring selectively is why the atrocities of yesterday- all the genocides of the 1900s, starting with the Armenian Genocide- repeat themselves over and over and over again. We shrink from taking a permanent and decisive stand against mass murder. We balk at recognizing the horrors lurking in our past and as a result we allow the satans of the present to perpetrate the holocausts and genocides of the future, with the hope that we won’t care and we won’t remember. So we have a battle to fight. A battle against apathy and indifference and ridicule. A battle for the importance of history and the sanctity of human life.
And whether we like it or not, we’re on the front lines.