On April 24th 2009 I was making the last preparations for my trip to Tbilisi in May of that year: the day was just like any other day – it meant nothing to me. A few weeks later as I was in the airport looking for my flight I noticed that we were making a brief stop in Yerevan; a place that I had never heard of before. I had to check the map to find out where it was.
Prior to visiting Georgia I had been to many of the old Eastern bloc countries including Bosnia, Kosovo, Romania, and also ex-Soviet countries of Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus. I always travelled alone, and on each occasion that I visited somewhere, I never returned. Having discovered that Armenia existed, I decided that my next trip, after Georgia, would be to Yerevan.
Although I was there as a tourist, I enjoyed just walking around and being mindful of a few key places; it was always the people and their history which was most important, not just the guide book “attractions”. During my first stay, it was Armenia’s Independence Day, and I joined a group of Army veterans who marched from the city centre, the long distance to the Yerablur Cemetery, to remember the many who fell in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. It was a solemn occasion. I couldn’t help but be affected by what I saw and was reminded of the many images that I had seen on the TV news from the early 1990’s. The following day I decided to walk to the Genocide Memorial and to pay my respects. The Armenian Genocide was not taught in British schools so my knowledge was very poor. Looking at the photographs, reading the transcripts, and listening to the audio was a very humbling experience. Words fail to describe my emotions; I was ashamed that I knew nothing about this tragedy. Outside I walked through the garden of plaques, many times, looking for the one from the People of the United Kingdom so I could take a photograph. After a while I stopped, as I couldn’t find it; I assumed that I was not being careful enough with my search. I later realised why there was not a plaque there.
All week I had seen many images of Mount Ararat on books, T-shirts, posters – everywhere, but I had never actually seen it myself. Perhaps it was further away than I thought, perhaps I was looking in the wrong direction, perhaps the weather wasn’t kind to me. On my last day as I was walking up the steep main road towards the statue of Mother Armenia, trying to avoid being hit by the cars, I finally reached a resting place, so I could catch my breath. I looked west, the clouds had parted, and there, rising magnificently in front of me, was Mount Ararat. I was overcome with emotion.
That first visit touched me greatly for many reasons, and I felt I had to return; there was so much unfinished business. I also wanted to go to Nagorno-Karabakh and I made my first journey there in May 2010. Since then I have visited Armenia and Artsakh twice per year and have developed a better understanding of the culture, the people, the language and the political issues (and write articles and display photographs regularly on my website http://www.Artsakh.Org.UK), and am fortunate, now, to know many Armenians who I consider great friends. The warmth that has been shown to me has drawn me much closer to the issues, and I feel that I have a personal responsibility to do whatever I can to become, and remain, engaged.
The notion of being an Armenian is a very curious concept and one that has intrigued me from those early days, and one which is completely alien to someone from a multi-cultural society. The common ancestry of all of the Armenians throughout the world provides a degree of cohesion to this disparate group of people which is only reinforced by the shared tragedy of the Armenian Genocide.
Outside of the Armenian community , and academics, my experience is that almost no one has heard of the Armenian Genocide in the UK, whereas with the Jewish Holocaust it would be very unusual for someone not to be aware of it. This is an indictment on our education system but is to be wholly expected of a country that does not recognise that a Genocide took place.
I have heard people say that the Armenians should look forward, and not backwards and to let go of the Genocide question. Apart from being disrespectful, it shows a complete lack of understanding of basic human nature; it is about closure and justice. In the same way that individuals cannot rest if they have not been able to formally bury their lost loved ones, then the same condition applies at a national level. The post-war trials of the Nazi criminals, and the global recognition of the Jewish Holocaust leaves them in a state of relative peace as they have been able to achieve closure and justice and it has been seen to be done. The Armenians are the polar opposite, and the priorities of political expedience seem to have taken precedence over the torment of millions of people. This is not a long term solution and I fear that this diplomatic indifference is also an active ingredient in the lack of progress in recognising Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country. At some point, someone needs to take a stand and bring peace to the Armenian nation and to allow them to concentrate on the future.
Whilst I didn’t realise this at the time, but the fact that Mount Ararat, the iconic symbol of Armenians, is situated in present-day Turkey, signifies one thing only – the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians. Now I understand why I shed so many tears that day!