A ceremony Friday at Fresno City Hall commemorated the 101st anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire over several years.
For the oldest members of the Armenian diaspora in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley, the wounds and memories of the genocide are particularly acute, as it was their parents and grandparents who lived through the systematic deportations and killings in their historic homeland.
But Friday’s ceremony also held special meaning for younger Armenians carrying on efforts to maintain their ethnic identity and strive for recognition of what their ancestors endured.
Young Armenian Homenetmen scouts raised the U.S., California and Armenian Republic flags on the City Hall flagpoles as about 250 members of the Valley’s Armenian community gathered on the lawn. The ceremony included speeches by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno; Danny Tarkanian, son of former UNLV and Fresno State basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian; and Raffi Hamparian, national chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America.
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Hagop Minasyan, a 16-year-old student at Fresno’s Central East High School, was one of several boys holding signs declaring “Turkey guilty of genocide” in front of City Hall. His great-grandparents were genocide survivors, and his parents were the first generation of his family to come to the U.S.
“My great-grandfather’s parents and siblings were taken, and either killed or put with different families with different last names,” Hagop said. “It feels bad that (Turkey) denies it all this time” and that President Barack Obama and most of his predecessors have never used the word “genocide” in connection with the Armenian people, he added.
Michael Rettig, 24, of Fresno held a sign with a picture of his maternal great-great-grandfather, Mgrdich Dinjian. “He was hacked to death early in the killings,” Rettig said. “He worked in one of the churches, and the story is that he had a lot of books, that he was an intellectual.”
He added that the activism of younger Armenians is sparked “especially when we find a personal connection, like this photo of my great-great-grandfather, who was killed along with two-thirds of the Armenians” in Turkey.
He and others are upset not only with Turkey’s longstanding denial of the genocide but also with the “erasure” of Armenian culture in Turkey. “Armenians lived there for thousands of years, and now there’s no trace of us,” Rettig said. “That is why we have to protest.”
I personally met my great-grandmother who was a genocide survivor, so it touches me even more because I actually met her and heard her stories about what she went through.
Tanya Toramanian, 20, who recently moved to Fresno from Chicago
The popularity of social media also is making the genocide more relevant and meaningful to younger Armenians, said Tanya Toramanian, a 20-year-old college student who recently moved with her family from Chicago to Fresno. She watched the ceremony and listened to speakers with a red, blue and orange Armenian flag draped over her shoulders.
“I personally met my great-grandmother who was a genocide survivor, so it touches me even more because I actually met her and heard her stories about what she went through,” Toramanian said. “Our voice is the loudest thing, and with social media, everyone is learning now about the Armenian genocide. … We’re the youth, and we need to make sure everyone knows about it. That’s why there are so many of us here today.”
That was the sort of enthusiasm that Hamparian – who lives near Pasadena and works in government affairs for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority – sought to inspire with his remarks.
Hamparian recited the names of seven Armenian soldiers who died in fighting earlier this month between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh in the region of Artsakh, historically one of the last Armenian kingdoms and now part of Nagorno-Karbakh.
After each name, Hamparian declared that “he died three weeks ago in defense of Artsakh. He died to prevent another Armenian genocide. He died for me and for you.”
“It is fair and reasonable for us today here in the diaspora, here in California, in the abundant Central Valley, to ask ourselves: Can we have heroes here?” he said. “Yes, we do have heroes here, who make our community work (and) who remind a new generation to rise and raise others.”
He invoked the title of the hit movie “The Revenant” and explored the French origins of the word meaning “to come back.” “This word is especially relevant to us. … We are, after all, a people who have come back from annihilation.”
Costa spoke of his empathy for the memory of genocide from growing up among Armenian families in the Rolinda area west of Fresno. “While I may be an ‘odar’ (an Armenian word for non-Armenians), today we are all Armenians,” he said.
“Through the recognition of the Armenian genocide, we pay tribute to the perseverance and the determination of those who were able to survive, as well as the Americans of Armenian descent who have helped strengthen this country,” Costa added. “As we reflect this day, it is fitting that we honor the thousands of Armenian men and women who began lives in the U.S. after witnessing unspeakable tragedies.”
One of those was Tarkanian’s paternal grandmother, Rose, who was a child when Ottoman Turkish soldiers raided her village. Her mother put her in a dress with coins sewn into it, put Rose and her brother on a horse and sent them out of town before the soldiers arrived. Rose’s father and older brother were both beheaded by soldiers, he said, “and the rest of the villagers were herded into the church where the soldiers burned them alive.”
It’s time to do something. It’s time to speak out, it’s time for this nation to have the courage to at least call what was done 100 years ago a ‘genocide.’
Danny Tarkanian, son of late Fresno State and UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian
“That’s a story that can be told by tens of thousands of people,” Tarkanian added. “It’s time to do something. It’s time to speak out, it’s time for this nation to have the courage to at least call what was done 100 years ago a ‘genocide.’ I don’t need scholars or other people to tell me that this was a genocide. We’ve heard these stories from our families.”
And Hamparian exhorted the crowd to fight “in a very American way” to push for presidential recognition of the genocide and changes in U.S. policy toward the conflict over Artsakh by strengthening Armenian churches and community organizations “to fight for your diaspora to be in the arena.”
“To change U.S. policy on Artsakh will not be easy. To change U.S. policy on the Armenian genocide will not be easy,” he said. “But nothing in life that is worthwhile, that has value, is ever easy.”
ARMENIAN GENOCIDE COMMEMORATION EVENTS
Saturday, April 23
- 10 a.m.-6 p.m.: Every 30 minutes music will be played by St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church Bell Choir of Washington, D.C. Those in attendance can place flowers by the Memorial of the Unknown Armenian Martyr and Soghomon Tehlirian Monument. Ararat and Masis cemeteries, Fresno.
- 6:30 p.m.: Religious and civic service at the First Armenian Presbyterian Church, 430 S. First St., Fresno. With speaker Vahram Shemmassian, the Homenetmen Scouts will begin the program with a processional down the aisle of the sanctuary and will place the Armenian and American flags. The Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School students will sing the Armenian and American national anthems and few other Armenian songs. A reception will take place in the social hall following the program.
Sunday, April 24
- 10 a.m.-6 p.m.: Every 30 minutes music will be played by St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church Bell Choir of Washington, D.C. Ararat and Masis cemeteries, Fresno.
- 2 p.m.: Honoring the saints and celebrations of lives, Armenian Genocide Monument at Fresno State. Attendees are encouraged to bring and lay flowers at the monument in remembrance of lives that were lost. There will be models dressed in traditional Armenian costumes from different regions of Armenia, children will perform traditional Armenians dances, musical performances, and crafts for children.
Monday, April 25
- 7:30 p.m.: John M. Evans, former U.S. ambassador to Armenia, will discuss his new book, “Truth Held Hostage: America and the Armenian Genocide – What Then? What Now?” at Fresno State. The free event, presented by the Armenian Studies Program, will be at the Leon S. and Pete P. Peters Educational Center in the Student Recreation Center, next to the Save Mart Center at 5010 N. Woodrow Ave. at Shaw Avenue.