“Armenia is dying, but it will survive. The little blood that is left is precious blood that will give birth to a heroic generation. A nation that does not want to die, does not die.”
— Anatole France, 1916
Never before had the long winding path leading to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan been closed to descendants of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Certainly not on April 24. But these are not normal times.
Never before had the prospect of cancelling Genocide commemorations—from the homeland to the furthest corners of the Diaspora—been a consideration, ever.
In fact, it was deeply unsettling when it became evident that paying tribute to our martyrs would be impossible because of the pandemic. While we all carry the hidden trauma of the effects of the Genocide daily, the opportunity to come together with our compatriots to remember, mourn and demand once a year, is an important one. It’s part of a hundred-year-old healing process.
However, while the path to the Tsitsernakaberd, meaning Swallow’s Fortress, was barred, and ceremonies around the globe cancelled, Armenians conceived alternative ways to honor the memory of the 1.5 million who perished over a century ago.
Communities organized virtual commemoration ceremonies that included online prayer services and food drives. The Armenian community in Los Angeles launched a fundraiser to provide 1.5 million meals to Americans in need to honor and pay their respects to the Near East Relief, an American organization founded in 1915 that provided humanitarian assistance to the survivors of the Genocide. To date, 4.2 million meals have been donated. Armenian community members in Canada donated to an initiative by La Tablée des Chefs called “Les Cuisines Solidaires,” to provide meals to food banks across Canada to families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. A virtual platform for an online march was set-up and has over 3.3 million participants. Communities, churches and youth organizations across the diaspora refused to let the near-global lockdown prevent them from taking part in one of the most, if not the most, important memorials for the Armenian nation.
In Armenia, the government organized a number of virtual ceremonies to compensate for the restrictions. In place of the traditional torchlight march on the eve of the 24th, church bells across the country began tolling at 9 p.m. for three minutes straight as streetlights in Yerevan were turned off. People were asked to light candles or shine lights from their windows toward the eternal flame of the memorial in a show of unity. As residents of Yerevan looked out toward the memorial that evening, a divine and earthly communion was established as a blue light could be seen soaring up toward the sky. It was a moving and meaningful moment.
The following day, in place of the hundreds and thousands of descendants who make the annual trek to Swallow’s Fortress, only high-ranking officials were allowed on the grounds of the memorial to pay their respects. However, that same day, starting at 8 a.m. Armenians from the homeland and the diaspora were given the chance to send a text message with their names, which would then be projected onto the columns of the memorial later that evening. It was a way for them to say “I was here.”
On the evening of April 24, as the memorial was gloriously lit, singers and musicians performed a repertoire of Armenian and classical music as name after name appeared on the 12 columns of the memorial. Regardless of geography, we were virtually united that evening in ways never before possible. It was not only tastefully elegant, it was mesmerizing.
It’s difficult to express the emotions I felt as I sent the names of my mother, late father and my husband’s late parents. I wanted them to “be here” although they never will be again. I wanted to see their names cast onto the concrete slabs of the memorial as a way to honor them, honoring their sacrifices and hardship, honoring the memory of their parents who miraculously survived. It was my virtual love letter to them and for them. The precious blood that survived has given birth to a heroic generation.