Paolo Martino

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso
July 30 2012

Armenia. A gigantic red-bricked raptor stands over the highway
between the capital Yerevan and the holy city of Echmiadzin. The
bus pulls in front of a sign with the name of the village close
by. One does not need to speak Armenian to understand what it says:
the huge perching hawk is the symbol of the Musa Dagh combatants,
the Armenians who in 1915 opposed the Ottoman troops that were here
to deport them. This village and the monument that towers above it
represent the historical continuity of that human community: escaped
a first time to Egypt in 1915, returned home in 1919, transferred to
Lebanon in 1939, partially repatriated to Soviet Armenia in 1946. The
bus starts again, leaving the place to the whistling of the wind:
I open my backpack, take out the portrait I have had with me since
leaving Lebanon and enter the dirt roads lined up with low houses.

"Angel is ten years older than me; she already had a son, when our
parents decided to leave Lebanon to come here to Armenia. We split:
we were the first to leave, while Angel stayed in Anjar, waiting for
our signal. I was nine". Vartuhi's calloused hands do not let go of
Angel's picture. She has not seen her sister since 1946. All her life,
Vartuhi has never been anything other than a farmer in this village,
a citizen of the poorest state in the Caucasus. "But that signal was
never sent. Our father forbade Angel and her family to join us. Here
we found hunger, cold and the ghost of Siberia".

All thoughts are channeled on the table by the portrait of her lost
sister, recalling distant memories, like a Grail from another time.

"We left Beirut on board the Pobeda to the Black Sea, then on a train
from Batumi to Yerevan. We had big dreams, finally an actual homeland.

We were encouraged by the newspapers, by the propaganda, by hope". The
afternoon slides quickly on Vartuhi's stories, while the sun rushes
to make room for a freezing night, making the distance from Lebanon
even harsher. Before it gets completely dark, I take out my camera
while the old woman settles down for a picture. In her eyes, the same
light that a few days earlier lit up her older sister's; on her face,
the same sternness. "Do you think Angel will recognize me?"

Before leaving the village, I go into the belly of the raptor, where
a small museum gathers heirlooms, documents, memories of the Musa Dagh
refugees. The plywood shrine glorifies the sacrifice of the ancestors,
trying to turn a scar of the past into a historical challenge to pass
on through the exiled generations. A pre-printed tag tells the story
of the migration of Sarkis Penenian and family, who have remained in
history thanks to the now yellow boarding pass on the Pobeda. "Family
traveling with person in charge: five. Port of departure: Beirut. Port
of arrival: Batumi. Issued in Beirut, 19 September 1946. Signed: the
Committee for the repatriation of the Armenians of Lebanon and Syria".

Price: 50 Lebanese Liras. A one-way trip to the unknown was somewhat

>From my journal.

What does the destiny of refugees depend on? On the ship they board
or miss, on the advice they follow or ignore. The Palestinian refugee
camp where I live is in Beirut simply because in 1948 the refugees
were able to escape on a train that ran between Palestine and Lebanon
right before the tunnel on the tracks between the two Countries was
blown up. And so it is that Vartuhi and Angel, the Armenian sisters
divided only by a short trip on a ship in 1946, have gone through a
whole century without ever meeting again. The diaspora is the land
of circumstances. The only homeland of the refugees is memory, and
war is their true mother.

The fog trapping Yerevan dissolves on the first flights of stairs
leading up to Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian genocide memorial. Up here,
Armenia and diaspora blend, symbolically re-establishing the unity of
the two souls of the Armenian people. A flame on the top of the hill
is there to remind of the million and a half victims, while down below,
the capital is covered by a white carpet of silence and low clouds.

'Diaspora and genocide are two sides of the same coin. One issue leads
to the other'. Hayk Demoyan, director of the memorial, is waiting for
me in the hall's half-light, where pictures and documents reconstruct
the steps of the tragedy that hit the Armenian people a century ago.

'Acknowledging the genocide is the necessary step to show understanding
for the history of the diaspora'. Turkish State politics denies the
genocidal purposes of the massacres and deportations carried out by
the Ottoman empire against the Armenians, undermining the chances of
normalizing relations between the two Countries.

'In 2009, we were a step away from reaching an agreement but,
as of today, the signing of the protocols has led to nothing'. The
agreements referred to by Demoyan provided for the re-opening of the
Armenian-Turkish border, closed since 1993, reducing the isolation of
the small Caucasian State. Indeed, along with the issue of the Western
border, Yerevan is faced with a 20-year-long conflict on the Nagorno -
Karabakh with the Eastern neighbor, Azerbaijan. 'Times are not ripe,
yet, but time is in our favor. In just a few years we will be able
to gather the fruits of our politics of openness'.

>From the hall's picture windows, Mount Ararat, a symbol of the
Armenian saga, fills the sky as the haze makes room for a cold and
clear color. The white giant lays over the border, on Turkish soil,
entrusted by history to the sovereignty of the obtrusive neighbor.

"But Armenia does not have land claims, we have stated it over and over
in all international venues'. After a year spent with the Lebanese
diaspora, Demoyan's approach to relations with Turkey may sound
very pragmatic, far from the fierce rhetoric and dreams of revenge
spreading in the Armenian quarters of Beirut. 'The diaspora has paid
the highest price of the Ottoman genocidal madness. That is why it
has internalized an emotional approach. As citizens of this Country,
though, we also have to adopt a realistic approach'.

The brief appearance of the sun winds up behind the Ararat curtain,
leaving the alleys of Yerevan to the long autumn night. The old town
of the Armenian capital has been the stage of a desolate show since
the '90s: the overseas diaspora, strong with its economic power and
anxious to mark the land, invades every inch with reinforced concrete.

Lines of deserted apartments, deserted store windows, summer
residences, solitary private police agents in the corners of the night:
the legacy of the laissez faire politics the Armenian government
reserves to its diaspora. The ruthless stretch of concrete holds the
same punishment the Lebanese diaspora inflicts on its Beirut.

Tired, I seek refuge in the pictures gathered in the lands where,
in spite of themselves, Armenia and Turkey meet. The pen runs over
the page of my journal:

The barbed wire breaks the absolute continuity of the plateau. An ant
runs over a segment of the zinc-coated weave, until a gust of wind
blows it to the ground. Beyond the barbed wires, Mount Ararat attacks
the horizon, close as only the things that cannot be touched seem.

This is the limes from which Turks and Armenians have been screaming
at each other for a century: 'Hic sunt leones'. These are the Pillars
of Hercules that hold the last standing stretch of the Iron Curtain.

The ant, unaware, zigzags for long between the two Countries, before
disappearing in the loneliness of the prairie. What if, instead of
flying to Beirut, I went by land?

From: A. Papazian