by Talin Baghdadlian
On Sunday, September 21, reports of an alarming nature reached my suburban American-Armenian home. The Holy Martyr’s Church and the sacred Armenian Genocide Memorial in Deir ez-Zor—“the Auschwitz of the Armenian Genocide”—has been completely destroyed by rebel forces fighting in Syria. The city and the surrounding region are controlled by rebel Islamic extremist groups who wish to eradicate all those unlike them from the lands they control. As one can imagine, shock, confusion and anger were just some of the emotions present in my home.
Nearly 100 years ago, on April 24, 1915, the Ottoman Turkish government began a systematic state policy to expunge their empire of many of its minority communities, including one of the largest, the Armenians. In the years that followed, Armenians were taken from their homes, tortured, raped and made to march. Thousands of Armenians would march until their final destination point in the Syrian Desert, Deir ez-Zor, located on the banks of the Euphrates River—the birthplace of the Mesopotamian civilization—where surviving men, women and children were executed unceremoniously. In 1991, a church was erected to commemorate the Armenians who died there. This majestic church and haunting memorial, with artifacts and remnants of the genocide, stood as the only form of recognition to what happened there—a fact denied by many governments of the world, including Turkey and the U.S.
Now that church and memorial are gone.
This church stood, not only as a reminder and as homage to what happened there, but also as a tribute to the many individuals and humanitarian organizations in the Ottoman-controlled, Syrian territory of the time. Brave and caring individuals of both Muslim and Christian origins, took in the Armenians, cared for their orphans and provided housing for the impoverished. Syria became home to the next generation of Armenians who prospered in this foreign land—cut off from their ancestors, lands, churches and history.
So much destruction has been done in the past three years of the Syrian conflict. So many schools bombed, so many innocent lives gone. So, why is this church any different? Why should the international community or you, the reader, care? In this chaotic conflict, perhaps it is correct to say that there are more pressing issues to manage before people can confront the destruction of a church and the memorial of a small, little-known community.
But, consider this: about 30 years after the Armenian Genocide, another genocide took place. The world swore never to forget what happened to the Jews and other minorities at the hands of Hitler. That is right, people should never forget.
Let me add, in a small way, to that story.
Hitler, in 1939, on the eve of his campaign to exterminate millions of Jews, wrote a message explaining his decision to invade Poland and ended with a rhetorical question: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler took a lesson from his Ottoman counterparts: “they got away with it, so why can’t I?” History, after all, is prologue. If the past is not remembered, it is doomed to be repeated. And, if I may add one more cliché to end—those who know, have the responsibility to act.