Lebanese Armenians commemorate genocide

In Lebanon there are at least 150,000 people of Armenian origin

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Shops on the route between the social club of Tashnag and the office of the same political party, in the Beirut neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud, will be closed on Friday. They display signs inviting people to attend the big march to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide.

In Lebanon there are at least 150,000 people of Armenian origin, around 3 percent of the population, according to Minority Rights International. Bourj Hammoud, an Armenian neighborhood in the capital, is where the first Armenians came to settle in Lebanon after escaping death in 1915. Back then, it was a refugee camp with aluminum roofs and wooden walls.

“These areas were empty and the authorities allowed Armenians to settle down here,” said Boghos on his way to the office of Tashnag, one of three Armenian political parties in Lebanon. “This neighborhood is a linked community and we help each other. As the day of the commemoration approaches, we have to organize it well and ensure everything will be ready.”

Huge billboards cover buildings, and young people have changed their Facebook profile pictures to remind others about the commemoration. Amid growing international debate, U.S. President Barack Obama recently said his government would not describe what happened a century ago as genocide. Analysts interpreted this as strategic decision to not upset Turkey. The French parliament formally recognized the Armenian genocide in 2006.

On April 24, 1915, more than 200 Armenian intellectuals were executed. Most were under government custody in Istanbul, during the last days of the Ottoman empire. A systematic massacre of Armenians followed, and many fled. More than a million people were killed by the authorities, disease, hunger or cold.

The genocide is entrenched in communities and the collective mentality, both in Armenia and abroad. Families talk about it more now, and schools and new generations keep the tradition of remembrance.

“It’s a duty for all Armenians to commemorate our ancestors every year, even every day,” said Dikran Mihranian, a 20-year-old student of Armenian studies at the University of Aghazyan in Beirut. “The primary thing for us is to solve the question of the Armenian genocide. Recognition, but also reparation.”

The deep links within Lebanon’s Armenian community are representative of a strong sense of identity. “Armenia is not 29,000 square kilometers, Armenia is 300,000,” said Mihranian, recalling the territory where Armenians use to live before they were massacred or expelled.

Last year he visited his ancestors’ land in Adana, present-day Turkey. He met people of both Turkish and Armenian descent, even coming across someone who turned out to be a relative. Many Armenian youths do not speak badly of Turks. “I don’t have any problem with the Turkish people, and when I was there I could talk to them without any problems,” said Mihranian.

Besides studying, he works in a famous Armenian restaurant in Beirut. One of the employees is Turkish. They have discussed the genocide and bilateral relations. “There has to be dialogue between governments, but first recognition,” said Mihranian, “and the Turkish government, as they’re our neighbours, has to help us develop our economy and progress.”

Turkish authorities are accused of denial. “We’ve travelled to Turkey and have friends from there,” said Kev Georges, in his twenties, who has dated a Turkish girl. “The problem is with the government.”

Marie Korian, 95, fled by boat with her family to Lebanon when she was a baby. She has never returned to her birthplace. “I’ve never seen genocide, I’ve never been tortured, but I don’t want to go back to Adana because I don’t want to see their faces,” she said, referring to Turkish people. “When we got to Lebanon, we had to take care of ourselves, rebuild our lives. We didn’t have time to commemorate or remember as we were in shock.”

However, “we now have to remember. It’s very important for us and our identity.” Korian says remembrance day will grow bigger year after year. Georges agrees: “The young generation is very involved, and we’ll be more so in the future.”

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