Monday, October 16, 2006

Caucasus: Flames and Embers

The f?rst place many travellers to Yerevan visit is the Armen?an Genoc?de Memor?al atop Ts?tsernakaberd, a large h?ll just west of central Yerevan. The layout ?s actually quite simple, with most of the grounds taken up by a gray platform beneath which lies an underground museum. At the far end of the platform from the entrance, past a hectometer-long wall with the names of massacred communities, is a tall spire, which up close is revealed to be a smaller spire hunched beneath a larger one of which it is a piece, perhaps representing the twin peaks of Mt. Ararat, the traditional symbol of Armenia which is quite visible from the memorial even though it lies a few kilometers within Turkish territory. Near th?s spire is an eternal flame enclosed by twelve basalt slabs hunched over like refugees surrounding a campfire. Their number is symbolic of what Armenians consider the 12 lost provinces of historic Armenia, now part of Turkey. The ground of the memorial also include an avenue of trees planted by visiting dignitaries which seems like it was begun around the year 2000. One wanders among them to a melancholy Armenian melody piped over loudspeakers. Further along there are statues representing aspects of the genocide.

The events memorialized by all of this are explained by the museum. Their controversial nature is revealed by the foyer, which on one wall quotes ?n large red letters the Geneva Conventions definition of genocide, and on the other a case that the Turkish government is the direct successor state of the Ottoman Empire, and hence bears responsibility for its actions. Turkey, of course, denies that the events were a genocide, and insists that they should be seen in the context of the Ottoman Empire's military concerns during World War I, as well as general ethnic and religious-based warfare at the time, such as the ethnic cleansing of Muslims beyond the collapsing Ottoman frontiers which goes largely unremarked by Western historians. Novelist Orhan Pamuk was even charged with 'insulting Turkishness' for once referring to the events, which I presume is why his being awarded the Nobel Prize made the front page of the Yerevan News.

The Armenians have a different story to tell, one which begins with all the common complaints of post-Ottoman nationalists against the Ottomans, such as the draft of young people for the Janissary corps, and proceeds to massacres of Armenians in the late 19th century. Where it reaches the stage of genocide, however, is with the coming to power of an extremist group of Young Turks roughly coinciding with the start of World War I. It preserves quotes from some of these leaders before they came to power claiming that the presence of Armenians in Turkey was a threat to the establishment of a Turkish nation or a potential fifth column for Turkeys enemies, and suggesting that the large non-Turkish Christian ethnic group be eliminated from Turkish territory. Illustrated by haunt?ng photographs and paintings, it proceeds to chronicle the manner in which these leaders, once they held the reins, began to implement their preferred solution to the 'Armenian Question,' which involved the mass deportation of Armenians accompanied by massacres.

The extent to which this was centrally coordinated is difficult to determine, though it definitely fulfilled the policy aims of the Ottoman government, and after the war became the main legal weapon used by the Republican Turks against those leaders. When it was over, an unknown number of Armenians had been killed - estimates range as high as 1.5 million - and the Armenian population of modern Turkey was reduced to almost nothing. The American ambassador, Henry Morganthau, chronicled many atrocities in letters back to the U.S. The Germans, wartime allies of the Ottomans, also knew, though except for a few people of conscience they kept it to themselves for diplomatic reasons. (The Nazi use of boxcars to deport the Jews in World War II may have been derived from the Ottoman use of them to move Armenians.) A few other world leaders also knew, including the Arabs, who took ?n many refugees from the Syrian desert. Husayn, the Sharif of Mecca who led the Arab Revolt, wrote a letter of concern to the Ottoman sultan. The global Armenian diaspora dates to this time. I suspect it saw the founding of Aleppo's Armenian Quarter; it was clearly when the Jerusalem Armenian Quarter gained significant population.

The modern Armenian state was thus born in blood, not only through genocide, but also battle. Several kilometers outside Yerevan is Sardarapat, the city where in May 1918 an Armenian army composed largely of irregulars assembled by the continuous ringing of church bells by a bishop turned back a larger Turkish army intent on incorporating the area ?nto a Greater Turkey. The anniversary of this battle is one of the country's two independence days, with the other, of course, being ?ndependence from the Soviet Union. The former, however, seems to be the one emphasized, as without it the Armenian nation might not have survived. A memorial also commemorates this battle, featuring bells continually tolling to announce the victory, as well as two bulls in front symbolizing bravery and eagles symbolizing freedom.

Not all Armenia's conflicts are in the past, however, and those who know the region will now be expecting a brief return to Azerbaijan. The two countries are divided by the issue of Karabakh. When Armenia became part of the Soviet Union, the government carved out two swathes of territory, Karabakh and Naxc?van, and made them part of Azerbaijan. In the last years of the USSR, Armenian fedayeen in the latter began fighting for unification with Armenia, and after the Soviet Union's dissolution, they together with the Armenian army defeated Azerbaijan in the Karabakh War, which resulted in nearly a million refugees in Azerbaijan and a newly created Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh recognized only by Armenia.

I had meant to travel to Karabakh to have a look around, but decided I didn't have time. The psychological impact of the war, however, was quite evident in Azerbaijan. Several Azeris angrily brought it up of their own accord as an inexcusable act of Armenian aggression, and those who curiously glanced at my Lonely Planet were offended by the fact it was given its own chapter rather than included with Azerbaijan.

Probably more significant, however, is the toll in lives taken by the conflict, and how Azeris represent it as an important part of their own formation as an independent state. Atop one of the largest hills in Baku is an area known as Shehidler Xiabani, or 'Martyrs' Lane.' While in Azerbaijan, I often communicated with people by showing them the pictures I had taken, and from young people in Baku to the friendly people of Krasnaya Sloboda and Qusar, they said the name of that place with discernable respect. An eternal flame burns at the entrance next to the Azeri flag. The monument is divided into many sections, with the oldest portions dedicated to victims of the Soviets, who throughout the Caucasus are represented as occupiers. On one side is a mosque, there are also scattered individual momuments, the significance of which I don't know. By far the largest area, however, is filled w?th flat meter-high black tombstones featuring pictures of the dead in the style common to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Almost all those buried here died in the Karabakh War, and even though some parts of the area have the aura of a picnic ground, grieving families still come here dressed up to lay fresh flowers on the graves of loved ones.

Armenians didn't mention it the entire time I was there, perhaps because they won the war and so weren't as angry about it as Azeris. Because I wanted to learn, however, I f?nally asked one woman what she thought of the ongoing dispute. The response was so emotionally volcanic that an Israeli girl with whom I took up in Yerevan insisted I never bring it up again. The woman felt that it was clearly Armenian territory even ?f the Soviets gave it to Azerbaijan, and in a broader sense that Armenia had played nice a lot in history and gotten bullied around, and now saw nothing wrong with using force to take what was rightfully theirs.

This was a nationalist perspective to be sure, though for reasons I'll go into later was probably widely shared. It was interesting to me, however, that Azeris and Armenians still expressed respect for each other as neighbors, suggesting that if the conflict ever gets resolved, the Caucasus could become one big happy family. However, the depths of emotion are pretty clear, and historical memories of the last hundred years often very intensely felt that solving those problems may be harder than it seems.

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