Friday

12th Apr 2024

Interview

The Armenian genocide: Yepraksi's story

  • 'They have to admit this land is ours' (Photo: Marie-Cecile Royen)

Storks fly overhead and apricot trees line the road from Yerevan to Amberd, the home town of Yepraksi Gevorgyan, one of 33 living witnesses of the Armenian genocide.

The 107-year old has blue eyes, unlike most Armenians, and speaks in local dialect, seldom heard in the capital city.

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She shows her age when she talks about Aram I and Karekin II, the prelates of the Armenian church, whom she saw on TV last Thursday (23 April) during the genocide centennial.

"They're good boys", she says.

She remembers events most people know through books.

"We beat the Germans. We danced in the streets of Berlin", she says, laughing, of the Red Army's victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.

Her testimony's important because Turkey, the EU, and the US refuse to recognise the Ottoman Empire's killing of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as genocide.

Turkish refusal is linked to concern on reparation claims, but also to the neo-Ottoman nationalism of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

International refusals are due to Turkey's strategic value.

It's an issue which still shapes Armenia's economy and foreign policy.

It's locked away from Europe behind its closed border with Turkey and its preoccupation with national security makes it cling to its old alliance with Russia.

Meanwhile, Turkey's reparation concerns are not unfounded.

Gevorgyan was born near Van, in what is now eastern Turkey. She was seven when she fled, but she remembers what she left behind.

"We had five cows, 40 sheep, and a big house. My mother had lots of jewellery. The land was so rich we had too much food. We used to store some of it underground and then we ate it in winter. Now it's Turkey. But they have to admit that this land is ours", she told EUobserver in an interview.

When she speaks of the violence, she cries. Then she composes herself. Then cries again.

She saw her parents being murdered and other atrocities.

"I saw them take babies from their cots and cut off their feet with knives. They cut their throats. Then they threw them in the air and the babies fell onto their knives".

"When I saw them do this, I knew I couldn't help anybody, that I could only try to save myself".

She fled at night with two brothers.

They crossed a river which "had turned red, because of the blood in it".

She also remembers being hungry: "We were lucky because we had wild herbs and grass. We ate them to survive. We were walking, and walking, and walking. There was no one around".

Asked if any Turkish people helped them, she says: "No".

"There is no kindness in Turkish people. That's why there was a genocide. We saw only killing and torture, by soldiers and by ordinary people".

"I don't know why they did it. Nobody knows. Maybe they were jealous of the Armenians, of our culture and of our bright minds".

Gevorgyan was found by US charity workers and spent WWI in an orphanage in Gyumri, western Armenia.

She speaks fondly of "the Americans", saying they served tasty food and had an excellent school.

She also speaks well of Russians, saying they'd have stopped the genocide if they'd known what was going on.

She left the orphanage in 1926, aged 18, when her aunt found her. "At first, I didn't want to go, because I was so comfortable and because I didn't recognise her after all this time. But she recognised my eyes", she says.

She studied Armenian, English, and Russian literature and later worked as the director of Amberd's library.

She now lives with her daughter, 85-year old Lena, and Lena's son, Sasha, a veteran of Armenia's 1990s war with Azerbaijan. She has 61 living descendants, many of whom reside in France.

Despite Gevorgyan's experience, some Turkish people did help Armenians in 1915.

Thousands of Turks, last Thursday and Friday in Istanbul, also joined unofficial memorials to Armenian victims.

But her story shows why it's still hard for Turks and Armenians to overcome the past.

"It's impossible to have peace. It'll never be possible. I watch the news and when I see Turkish and Armenian people sitting around the same table I say to myself: 'This is crazy'," she says.

Asked if she feels safe in 2015, she says: "This is my home, where I live with my daughter and my grandson. This is my family and here I feel safe".

"Most of my grandchildren are in France. They are safe", she adds.

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