A century after an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were systematically slaughtered by the Ottoman government, members of the nation’s global diaspora are using social media to keep the victims’ stories alive.
Many members of the Armenian diaspora community have taken to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter to share photos and stories of family members who were affected by the slaughter of approximately 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks in the early years of the First World War.
April 24 is widely regarded as the anniversary of the start of the genocide.
To mark the 100th anniversary, Toronto-based educator Raffi Sarkissian has launched a multimedia project called 100 Voices, which collects stories from the genocide as told by the descendants of survivors.
“Genocide isn’t confined to a particular generation,” Sarkissian told CTVNews.ca from Armenia, where he is on a field trip with Grade 10 students from his school. Sarkissian is the vice-principal at Toronto’s ARS Armenian Private School, as well as the founder and director of the Sara Corning Centre for Genocide Education.
He says it’s important for young Armenians to “salvage” the stories of their ancestors so the record of their suffering lives on. That’s why he launched 100 Voices, as a way for them to dig into their history and see how it informs their lives today.
“This century-old crime is still affecting them,” Sarkissian said.
Sarkissian’s 100 Voices project includes many stories passed down from grandparents who witnessed the deaths of their family members, whether by exhaustion or starvation during death marches or through brutal slaughter at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
Sarkissian adds his own voice to the project in describing the trials his two grandfathers endured. He tells stories of a baby girl starving to death in the desert, of a five-year-old boy forced to watch his family murdered, and of a young army conscript forced to flee his labour camp out of fear that he will be executed by his fellow soldiers.
“These survivor stories, pieced together, ultimately tell the story of the genocide,” he said.
Genocide on social media
Another grassroots campaign calls itself “#AG” and encourages Armenians from around the world to write the two letters on their hands, then take photos to share on Facebook or Twitter. These photos are often accompanied by stories passed down from genocide survivors.
Arguably the most famous Armenian family in the world lent some of its celebrity power to the genocide awareness cause last week, when Kim Kardashian West and her sister, Khloe, paid a visit to their ethnic homeland. The Kardashians documented their visit through posts to Instagram and Twitter, where they have a combined total of more than 49 million followers.
Among the images they shared was a photo of the two women laying flowers at the Armenian genocide memorial in Yerevan, the country's capital.
An emotional day at the genocide museum. pic.twitter.com/JEQJOy3T8E— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) April 12, 2015
The Kardashians' ancestors emigrated to the United States in the late 19th century, in an era of anti-Armenian sentiment in the Ottoman Empire that built up to the genocide.
Sarkissian praised the Kardashians for using their celebrity power to promote awareness of the Armenian genocide. “They’ve brought a lot of publicity to the cause,” he said. He says much of that publicity went out to an audience that typically would not pay attention to political issues like genocide. “It was quite the strong message,” he said.
Sarkissian also praised the rock band System of a Down, whose four members are Armenian-American. The band has been vocal about the genocide and is slated to perform a concert in Armenia on the night of the 100th anniversary.
Lawyer Amal Clooney recently argued on behalf of Armenia at the European Court of Human Rights in January, where she opposed a favourable ruling for a genocide denier.
In her speech to the court, Clooney said the evidence is “overwhelming” that genocide occurred. “The massacres that killed over a million Armenians would today be labelled as genocide,” she told the court.
Her husband, actor George Clooney, has also been active in promoting genocide awareness. He recently joined two Armenian-American businessmen to launch the genocide awareness project 100 Lives.
The politics of genocide
Turkey has historically downplayed the 1.5 million death count and refused to call it genocide. Instead, Turkish officials have blamed the deaths on civil war and unrest.
But as descendants of genocide survivors take to the Internet to share stories from those days, a growing number of international leaders are officially acknowledging what happened as genocide.
The Canadian government is one of more than 20 nations to officially recognize the genocide.
And earlier this month, Pope Francis labelled the killings "the first genocide of the 20th century" at a mass in Vatican City. He also called for the international community to officially acknowledge the genocide.
This week, Germany's Parliament introduced a non-binding motion to recognize the term after a century of rejecting it.
"The government, after the talks that have taken place, stands behind this motion," government spokesperson Steffen Seibert said.
One day after Germany put forward its motion, Austria did the same in its parliament.
The turn by Germany and Austria is significant in that both countries were allied with the Ottoman Empire when the atrocities took place during the First World War.
However, many countries have refused to use the word "genocide," including the United States and several European nations.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey offered his condolences to the Armenian community this week, but maintained his opposition to the word “genocide.” Instead, he said it is "legally and morally problematic" to encourage the use of the word.
The genocide sprang from fears among the Ottoman Turks that Armenians were a security risk in the fight with Russia during the First World War. The Ottomans initially targeted Armenian leaders and intellectuals by rounding them up and imprisoning or deporting them, but the campaign soon escalated to one of systematic slaughter. Men were conscripted into forced labour camps or executed, while women and children were split from their families and forced to make gruelling death marches out of Ottoman-held territory. Other Armenians were simply killed outright in their Ottoman-ruled towns and villages.
The Ottoman Empire's minority Greek and Assyrian peoples were also exiled.