On Dec. 16, a woman named Zaruhi Ghazaryan died in the village of Vanashen near the western border of Armenia. She was bedridden in her final months, and her daughter-in-law took care of her at home. Zaruhi Ghazaryan was not a famous person. Yet to Armenians around the world, her death had a sad significance.
They mourned because, at 103 years of age, she was one of the last Armenians to remember a life in the Ottoman Empire before the genocide of her people. That genocide began in the spring of 1915 and stole the lives of as many as 1.5 million Armenians.
Born in 1911, Zaruhi spent her early years in southeastern Turkey, where her father kept a large herd of sheep. He was an early victim of the killing fields. The little girl and her mother managed to escape, walking for weeks or months to reach relatives in Syria. There was no food on the journey, and even in extreme old age, Zaruhi remembered eating grass to remain alive, something that most Genocide Survivors tell.
She would remain in Syria until 1947 when she moved to what was then Soviet Armenia. Shortly before her death, she and her family were photographed for the 100 Lives project, a venture launched recently in Armenia that is making a last-ditch record of the country’s genocide survivors. Part of its goal is “to pay tribute to and express our gratitude to the individuals and institutions whose actions saved so many Armenian lives.”
Armenians in Montreal and around the world continue to struggle for official recognition of a genocide that, in spite of overwhelming evidence, Turkey continues to deny. What does the disappearance of Zaruhi’s generation mean to them?
“There are still very few survivors, but soon they won’t be here anymore.“ It complicates the issue of loss,” says Hourig Attarian, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University. “It quadruples the loss. It makes the loss even more poignant — there are still very few survivors, but soon they won’t be here anymore.”
Attarian is an expert in oral history. She describes the first-hand testimony of survivors as crucial: “They put in the human element that is missing from the archival documents.” For decades, Armenians tended to focus on the reports written by foreign officials in 1915 and later years, and the evidence is hidden away in archives; they wanted documentary proof of genocidal actions and intent, and they found it.
“But the immediacy of survivors’ testimonies touches people in a very different way,” Attarian says. “You don’t need to be a descendant of a survivor to be touched by the experience of pain, of loss, of displacement. That story becomes my story, becomes everyone’s story.”
Her own maternal grandfather is one of the Genocide Survivors, as a boy of 12. Attarian has been able to verify some of the stories he told his family in later life, including the “miracle” when snow fell in the Syrian Desert and the melted snow gave life to his desperately ill and thirsty mother. As a child growing up in Lebanon, Attarian thought her grandfather was inventing this story. “But much later, after he’d passed away, I found a source that said Arab tribesmen called that year ‘the year of the snow’.”
Attarian has located other documents that support the painful family narratives she was told as a girl. Such documents validate oral history — the written evidence and the oral testimony buttress each other. But today, for Armenians, those first-hand oral accounts are vanishing.