Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Armenia 100+1

Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian in Yerevan joins calls to stop genocide and make its prevention a universal struggle

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Last year, the centennial of the Armenian Genocide bore the slogan “I remember and demand”, a message of struggle, enduring principles and reconciliation. This year, the calls and messages that came out of Armenia’s 5,000-year old civilisation were different. It is no longer about Armenians, but about humanity and solidarity with world victims.

The two main events that took place in Armenia’s capital Yerevan last weekend, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity and the Second Global Forum Against the Crime of Genocide, discussed urgent humanitarian issues. Hollywood star, filmmaker and human rights advocate George Clooney joined the two events, marking the 101st anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. He has been a prominent voice encouraging countries to recognise the killings 101 years ago as genocide, something the US has not yet done.

GLOBAL FORUM ON GENOCIDE: The Second Global Forum Against the Crime of Genocide paid special tribute and expressed gratitude to all those who stand up in the name of humanity, acting with courage and sacrifice and saving multiple innocent lives in times of humanitarian crises and genocide.

The Garen Demirchyan Sports and Concert Complex brought together representatives of governments, parliamentarians, major international human rights and international law experts who expressed their deep concern over the spread of terrorism and “genocidal killings” in the Middle East and other parts of the world, including those carried out by the Islamic State (IS). Forum participants condemned such atrocities that directly threaten ethnic and religious minorities and produce deep humanitarian crises, including the highest number of refugees and internal displacement since World War II.

President of the Republic of Armenia Serge Sarkissian is determined that his country should be one of the pioneering voices leading a struggle against the crime of genocide, witnessed in mass killings committed by Ottoman Turks in 1915. “Our vision is crystal clear. It is necessary to instil consciousness of the absolute inadmissibility of genocide in order to prevent such catastrophes from spreading,” he said in his inaugural speech. Sarkissian went on: “Today, it is difficult to imagine a security challenge that threatens only one nation. Therefore, none of us can consider ourselves assured against the horrors that our ancestors went through in the 20th century, and that our contemporaries are surviving in the 21st century, unless we decide that we should state ‘Never again,’ regardless of the price that every one of us should pay. That same logic also reminds us that genocide committed in any corner of the world should be viewed as a failure for the international community as a whole, and the prevention of it is the duty of every single one of us. Hence, it is natural that those who underwent and survived genocide, and their generations, should be continuously looking to the international community and pressing for justice.”

Clooney’s appearance on stage, together with President Sarkissian, the co-founder of 100Lives and president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Vartan Gregorian, associate editor and columnist of The Washington Post, David Ignatius, Judge Joe Verhoeven and President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars Andrew Woolford made a huge impact. During the discussions, the prominent actor and humanitarian made a statement that several panellists mentioned later in their own speeches. “Understanding genocide is seeing one person and their suffering, not looking at a number.”

This year’s forum bore the headline, “Living Witnesses of Genocide”, and covered issues related to the consequences of genocide and its prevention. Demirchyan Complex also hosted several survivors as living witnesses of genocide, among which was Yezidi woman Nadia Murad Taha, a victim of IS from northern Iraq. In August 2014, Nadia was taken from Kocho, the village where she lived, to Mosul. She witnessed the murder of 312 men, including six of her brothers and stepbrothers. Nadia and her female family members were distributed among IS fighters to be enslaved. She was raped and tortured. She tried to escape but was captured. Eventually she made it out and to Germany, through a refugee programme. She currently lives in the United States and works to raise awareness on the plight of Yezidi girls still in captivity.

It wasn’t easy for Nadia to tell her story to the forum — something she has been doing for two years now. “A year and a half has passed on IS’s sexual enslavement and trade of 6,000 women. I was one of them. We found ourselves faced with true genocide, as they consider us ‘infidels’. ‘Death or Islam’ is their slogan. They attacked our region. More than 80 per cent of Yezidis were deported. IS destroyed our culture and took our freedom away from us. They took us, women and children, as merchandise to be exchanged as gifts. It was an organised and planned policy to eliminate our identity.”

Twenty-two-year-old Nadia expressed her reasons for being in Armenia. “I am here today, surrounded by you, as you will better understand our pain for having suffered a genocide 100 years ago. Genocides are still being committed in different parts of the world, and this means the failure of humanity towards humanity. This means genocide could occur anywhere, anytime, and failure to acknowledge past genocides is a failure of humanity.”

With her sad tone, borne of much suffering, and dressed in black, Nadia’s moving words in Arabic were testament to her resilience and dignity and shook the audience. She concluded her speech: “I will be the voice of every woman and child speaking the truth. I will be the voice of each victim of genocide.”

Among the most powerful statements made by parliamentarians was that of Frank Engel, member of the European Parliament from Luxemburg. “To avoid repletion of genocide, the world community must support Artsakh, Nagorno Karabakh,” he said. “I am calling for the recognition of Artsakh’s independence, as I can clearly see the difference between Stepanakert and Baku,” explaining that in Artsakh someone who criticises the government may appear in parliament while in Azerbaijan this is not possible.

The forum recommended teaching the history of genocides as well as the consequences of genocide, focusing on the role of education in the struggle to eliminate hatred, intolerance and xenophobia, and hence help eradicate the scourge of genocide.

“It is absolutely necessary. Education starts with teaching the teachers, and teachers have to be told how to teach, because a lot of people want to teach about the Holocaust or the genocide, but they don’t know how. So we have to train the teachers first. You have to have courses at the university level. You have to have it in the high school level,” Paul Levine told Al-Ahram Weekly. Levine, a historian, who was a panellist at the forum, teaches Holocaust and history courses at Touro College in Berlin and genocide studies at Charles University.

“I am a historian. You can never talk enough about history as far as I am concerned, because it does raise consciousness, and I’ve been teaching the Holocaust and genocide for 30 years now. I’ve never had a student leave my class saying I know enough; they always want to know more and that’s of course the greatest reward you can have as a teacher, because the subject of genocide raises so many emotions and so many questions about human nature. Ninety-nine per cent of the students I’ve met in my life become interested if it’s done properly. But often it’s not done well,” asserted Levine. “For example, they say read Anne Frank’s diary or here’s Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda. That’s not teaching the Holocaust. You have to have a prepared teacher who knows how to contextualise and connect different things.”

US President Barack Obama, despite his electoral promises, failed again in his message addressed to the Armenian people on 23 April to call the 1915 annihilation by its true name, “genocide”.

“That’s all politics. He is a very morally aware human being. He knows he should be saying it. But that’s the politics of the moment. It has nothing to do with historical truth or education. That’s pure power politics, and in power politics people make compromises. I bet you after he leaves office he’ll say it often,” Levine commented to the Weekly on Obama’s address.

William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University, was also among the panellists at the forum. He said that many countries around the world continue denying the Armenian Genocide and others know well what happened but still avoid recognition. According to Schabas, that avoidance is based on the “cynical political considerations” of those countries. Schabas expressed regret that the United Kingdom, which condemned the massacres when they were happening, doesn’t maintain the same position today.

Speaking to the Weekly, Schabas said: “The problem is that a lot of people are denying genocide. What we’re doing here is having a proper intellectual, academic discussion of the issues. You don’t make progress with people who aren’t properly engaged with that.”

Schabas thinks that events like this are important simply because “we have to continue the discussion and keep thinking, particularly about the relationship of the Armenian Genocide with the refugees situation. Discussion brings forward new dimensions for understanding the legal aspects and the historical facts.”

Concerning Syrian refugees of Armenian origin who were considered among those that suffered the most Schabas says: “It’s terrible that the people who already went through one genocide find themselves threatened again, and this is absolutely an unacceptable situation.”

AURORA PRIZE: 100Lives is a global initiative rooted in the events of the Armenian Genocide. 100Lives seeks to express gratitude to and share remarkable stories of survivors and their rescuers, and to celebrate the strength of the human spirit. The humanity, generosity, strength and sacrifice of saviours and survivors alike demand recognition. 100Lives launched a global appeal to the descendants of both saviours and survivors to share their stories.

Initiated by 100Lives, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity is a new global humanitarian award to be given to those who put themselves at risk to enable others to survive and live. The prize name Aurora was chosen to honour the memory of Aurora Mardiganian, born Arshaluys Mardigian in 1901 in Dersim. She died 92 years old in a California residential care facility after a life marred by the early loss and cruelty she went through, but also marked by resilience and desire to help others. Aurora was sold for the equivalent of 85 cents into the harem of a tribal leader. She escaped, was recaptured, and escaped again to arrive to Erzerum barefoot, half-naked and starving. She received care from American missionaries. Later this experience encouraged her to care for hundreds of orphans.

Any individual or group of people that perform extraordinary acts of humanity can be nominated to receive the prize. Nominations are carefully vetted and reviewed through a vigorous process. The laureate is determined by the selection committee based on courage, impact and commitment. Four humanitarians reached the final.

At a special ceremony in the capital Yerevan, the first Aurora Prize of $1 million was presented to Marguerite Barankitse from Maison Shalom and REMA Hospital in Burundi. Barankitse was recognised for the extraordinary impact she had in saving thousands of lives and caring for orphans and refugees during the civil war in Burundi. As the first Aurora Prize laureate, she also received a $100,000 grant and will continue the cycle of giving by donating the $1 million to three organisations that have inspired her work to end child poverty. Barankitse accepted the prize announced by Clooney.

The famous star, when he appeared on stage, made the following statement: “The simple truth is that all of us here tonight are the result of someone’s act of kindness. We all stand on the shoulders of good people who didn’t look away when we were in need.”

The Clooney family, themselves, fled a famine in Ireland to go to the United States. “And if you stand right in front of them and take a look deep into their eyes, you might just see an Irish farmer fleeing a famine. If we are to survive as a people, we simply can’t look away. Not from the people of South Sudan or Syria or Congo.”

The Burundi humanitarian, known as Maggy, sheltered around 30,000 children from conflict between the nation’s minority Tutsis and majority Hutus. At the time, in 1993, Maggy risked her life to shelter Hutus, despite being a Tutsi.

A great and loving woman, optimistic and always smiling, Maggy almost screamed out loud when she was introduced to this writer as being from Egypt. With a tight embrace, she said: “Yes, Egypt, yes we’re brothers and sisters in the same continent, we should support each other. I love Egypt.” Yet, Barankitse had other words to say to an Egyptian. “But please, I have a very important message to convey to your government. The Egyptian government should stop supporting our criminal President Pierre Nkurunziza,” she told the Weekly.

The four Aurora Prize finalists also included the American physician Dr Tom Catena, the sole doctor at Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. He is responsible for serving over 500,000 people in the region. He has survived several bombings by the Sudanese government. He lives in the hospital so that he may be on call at all times. For that reason he couldn’t make it to Armenia but conveyed his greetings to the audience by video.

Pakistani woman Syeda Ghulam Fatima has worked tirelessly to eradicate bonded labour, one of the last remaining forms of modern slavery. She helped liberate thousands of Pakistani workers, including 21,000 children who were forced to work for brick kiln owners in order to repay debts. Fatima has survived many attempts on her life as well as beatings.

Father Bernard Kinvi was also among the four nominees. He became a priest at the age of 19 after losing his father and four sisters to prolonged violence and illness. Father Kinvi left his country Togo to live in a small town inside the borders of Central Africa where he heads a Catholic mission that consists of a school, church and hospital. When civil war broke out in 2012, Father Kinvi’s mission provided refuge and health services to both sides, Muslims and Christians, saving hundreds of people from persecution and death.

“I’ve seen it first hand, in the broken limbs, broken families and broken hearts of the people of Darfur. So I’ve seen what mankind is capable of at its worst. But I’ve also seen something else, something much stronger than hate. I’ve seen bravery and kindness and incredible acts of love. Tonight, we celebrate the best example of that,” Clooney said, concluding the first inaugural Aurora Prize ceremony.

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