Ninety-nine-year-old Azniv Guiragossian has a grief that has lasted 95 years.
“Life has been very hard. I think and I cry,” Guiragossian said. “Sometimes I go to bed, I’m thinking about my life. I open my eyes, it’s daylight.”
Guiragossian remembers and cries about her experiences at age four, walking through the Syrian desert with her mother and other women and children when the Ottoman Turks killed or deported Armenians between 1915 and 1923.
She witnessed her mother giving birth in the desert to a baby who died, the death of her mother months later, the near-execution of her father due to false criminal accusations and his death, soon after, from what his family believes was a stress-related illness caused by his ordeal.
It is believed that as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or 75 percent of the Armenian population at the time, were killed before, during and after World War I under the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, from 1915 to 1923. The events will be commemorated at a Times Square ceremony on Sunday, April 27 from 2 to 4 p.m.
The population was reduced to one-quarter of its original size through mass killings of its male population, and, for the women and children who were not immediately murdered, being driven to walk through mountains and into the Syrian desert, starved, deprived of water, raped and beaten.
Turkey now outlaws mention of what happened to the Armenians, saying, when it must, that the loss of life happened in the context of war and was not a deliberate attempt to eliminate a people.
Accounts from the time state otherwise. One well-known primary source is, “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story: A Personal Account of the Armenian Genocide,” by then-American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau.
Guiragossian and another survivor, Perouze Kalousdian, spoke with reporters last Saturday at their residence at the New York Armenian Home in Flushing, a private retirement facility founded in 1948.
Reminded by her daughter, Arpi Nardone, of something good, the four children she raised, Guiragossian said, “What do my children have to do with anything? I love my children.”
But for her, the hardship of the march and loss of her childhood home and family have never been overcome.
“I have had a very hard life because of these events,” she said. “I think and I cry,” Guiragossian repeated.
For Kalousdian, age 104, some details have blurred over the decades but the emotions remain sharp.
“They came to my house. My mother took me by the hand and led me. I don’t know where,” Kalousdian said.
She was four or five years old at the time, she said. “I know that I was crying and asking for food, that’s all I know.” Her mother told her, “We don’t have food.”
As for the men, Kalousdian said, “They took them from us and they never came back.” A few years ago, before some of her memories faded, she had told a story of Turks taking males over the age of 15, including her two uncles. They were tied up two-by-two and thrown over the bridge into the River Euphrates, she had said.
Kalousdian’s father escaped harm, she still remembers. “Before the war, my grandfather sent my father to America because he knew that something was going to happen.”
The family was reunited later.
The stories of these women are accounts of anger and lives colored, if not defined, by the horrors they witnessed and suffered just as their long lives on Earth were beginning.
“The Turks have done us a lot of harm. They took all of our homes and our belongings. We were living like animals. I hate them,” Kalousdian said.
Some Turks from the younger generation are said to be starting to question their government’s official position, especially those who obtain a higher education in other countries.
Historians consider the Armenian massacres to be the first modern systematic campaigns to eliminate an entire racial group and a model used by Adolf Hitler when he planned the Holocaust.
The generation that lived through the massacres is dying off, but the direct effects are being passed on to a new generation. Guiragossian’s children say that their mother’s experience had a strong effect on their lives.
“They call my mother a survivor and this is a double-edged sword because, what did you survive?” Shahen Guiragossian, Azniv’s son, said. “We had to live knowing those stories and knowing them from her. It left a scar.”
“She never had the mother’s love,” Arpi Nardone, Guiragossian’s daughter, said.
Nardone grew up hearing stories about how lonely, cold and hungry her mother had been on the march and its effect on her life, as well as her mother’s story of having been kidnapped and raised from age one to four by a Turkish family, found and returned to her primary family, only to be driven into the Syrian desert with other women and children without food or water.
She finished her youth at an orphanage after her mother died.
“At home every day, she would talk about it too much,” Nardone said. “It bothers me very much, it affected me very much.”
Nardone longs for recognition of the events that affected her entire family. “I’m almost jealous, envious of the Jews because they have been recognized,” Nardone said.
The Armenian massacre was smaller than the Holocaust, she noted,“but with the same pain.”