The pieces of human bones have come to rest under glass and light inside a San Fernando Valley chapel, far from the sun-drenched Syrian desert where they were once found unburied and scattered.
Little is known about them except that they belonged to Armenians, forced from their homes in villages in the Ottoman Empire and marched out to the Der Zor desert where they died, according to The Los Angeles Daily News.
The remains carry a century-old story, not only of death, but also of survival, as well as the pain of denial and the yearning to be remembered.
“Wherever you go in the Der Zor desert, you will find the bones of our people,” said Maggie Mangassarian-Goschin, curator of the Ararat Eskijian Museum in Mission Hills. “It is still a wound for us that has never quite healed.”
The bones are often displayed inside the museum, which was opened in 1996 near the Ararat Home of Los Angeles, a senior care facility where a special memorial service was held Thursday to observe the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Armenians say 1.5 million of their people died from 1915 to 1923 as the Turks worked to establish their own country. Historians, scholars and human-rights activists call it the first genocide of the 20th century.
Thursday’s ceremony included a brief Mass held by archbishops and clergy from several local Armenian churches. They stood together and blessed the bones, which have been placed carefully inside the senior facility’s chapel. Later, the clergy unveiled a tall, granite memorial dedicated to those who perished and those who survived the genocide. A mulberry tree also was planted nearby, to symbolize that the fruit of the Armenian nation will continue to grow.
Many of those who attended the service were residents of the Ararat senior care facility such as 101-year-old Yevnige Salibian. Salibian was born just before the formal start of the genocide, but as a young child she remembers growing up under fear and threats. There are certain sounds and voices she can still hear.
“My father had a friend named Mohammed who helped us stay in Turkey,” she said. “But when I used to look out of our door, I would hear people crying. I would hear mothers, fathers, children saying, ‘I’m hungry, I’m thirsty.’”
And she remembers whips.
“The Turkish general would crack his whip, and he would say, ‘You! You! You! Get out of here!’”
Salibian said her family left Turkey in 1921. They used two wagons led by horses to go to Syria. While on the road she and an older woman traded seats. The wagons overturned in an accident and the older woman died, while Salibian’s right leg was caught by an iron bar in the wagon and she suffered a deep gash. The scar is still present.
“My aunt said, that old woman gave her life for the little girl,” Salibian said.
Armenians mark the date April 24, 1915, as the start of the genocide because it is when their nation’s intellectuals were rounded up, arrested and later executed by the Turkish soldiers as part of a movement to “Turkify” the region.
Today, the Turkish government maintains the deaths were a consequence of betrayal and civil unrest in what was then a collapsing Ottoman Empire. Armenians, however, say the killings involved the systematic cleansing of their collective existence from the region, where Assyrians and Pontic Greeks also were affected. Priests and intellectuals were beheaded. Women and children were terrorized as they were marched out of their homeland and into the Middle East.
The issue remains politicized, with both the United States and Turkish governments refusing to call it a genocide. Armenian-American activists have said the U.S. government won’t officially recognize the killings as genocide because it would hurt relations with Turkey, a NATO ally.
Thursday’s ceremony was one of several Armenian Genocide-related events to be held across Los Angeles in the next few weeks. The goal behind such memorials is to both remember those who died and celebrate the living, said Joseph Kanimian, chairman of the Ararat Home of Los Angeles Board of Trustees
“If you forget the past then you tend to repeat history, and we don’t want this to happen again, to any nation,” Kanimian said. “But we also want to honor our people, to celebrate the living and the survivors. It’s a day of resurrection for us.”
Most of those who attended the ceremony wore purple scarves or sweaters and a pin that features a forget-me-not flower, its petals symbolizing the past, present and future.
But some continue to worry about the Armenian nation, particularly for those survivors of the genocide who stayed in Syria and whose families remained there. The Islamic State last year forced Armenians out of the area of Kessab. Churches were desecrated and homes were burned by IS. The extremists also recently destroyed 35 Assyrian villages and kidnapped more than 200 people. The group’s intent to cleanse the area ofChristians and other minorities parallels with the events that began in 1915, said Nancy Eskijian, whose father built the museum that houses historical maps, coins, crafts, medals, sketches, musical instruments and a library.
If the Turkish government had been held accountable, if they had recognized what they did as a genocide, then future atrocities such as the Holocaust and massacres in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and Darfur and those occurring now in Syria and Iraq could have been avoided, she and her brother, Martin Eskijian, said.
“What’s happening now (in Syria and Iraq) is about the same as 100 years ago,” Martin Eskijian added. “That’s the tragedy of it.”