Saturday, March 26, 2016

New article on Armenia in this month's National Geographic.

My guide, Murat Yazar, and I inch northward. We trek across yellowing steppes where wolves run before us, pausing to gaze back over their shoulders in silence, then trot on. We pass Mount Ararat. The 16,854-foot peak shines to the east, smeared white with snow. The Bible links the mountain to Noah’s high-altitude anchorage. The beautiful volcano is sacred to the Armenians. (A popular misconception has it that Armenian Apostolic priests even wear caps shaped like Ararat’s cone.) In August 1834 the Russian meteorologist Kozma Spassky-Avtonomov climbed to the mountain’s icy summit. Ararat towers so high that he thought he might see stars twinkling during the daytime. His expedition was the perfect Anatolian quest: He was trying to discern what is always there yet invisible. This is a landscape haunted by absences.
“Chosen trauma” is how the political psychologist Vamık Volkan describes an ideology—a worldview—by which grief becomes a core of identity. It applies to entire nations as well as individuals. Chosen trauma unifies societies brutalized by mass violence. But it also can stoke an inward-looking nationalism.
I slog across the Lesser Caucasus Mountains from Turkey into the republic of Georgia. I throw stones to knock frozen apples from bare trees. Pausing in Tbilisi, I ride a night train to Yerevan. It is April 24, the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Billboards festoon the Armenian capital. One shows weapons—a scimitar, a rifle, a hatchet, a noose—arrayed to spell out “1915.” Another bluntly pairs an Ottoman fez and “Turkish” handlebar mustache with Adolf Hitler’s brush mustache and comb-over. The least combative symbol of mourning is the most poignant: forget-me-not flowers. Millions of violet petals brighten Yerevan’s parks and medians. The corollas are reproduced on banners, on stickers, on lapel pins: a blossom of genocide. “I remember and demand”—this is the slogan of the commemoration.
But demand what?
This is the key question that Armenians are asking themselves. Is the past a guide? Or is it a trap?
Apostolic Bishop Mikael Ajapahian, of the Armenian city of Gyumri: “In Armenia there is no enmity toward Turkey. We hold nothing against ordinary Turks. But Turkey must do everything—everything—to heal the wounds.”
Elvira Meliksetyan, women’s rights activist: “We don’t know what we want. If everything reminds us of our past burdens, then we lose the future, no? We have no strategy. All this victimization makes us beggars.”
Ruben Vardanyan, billionaire philanthropist: “A hundred years later we are the winners. We survived. We are strong. So saying thank you, giving back something to the people who saved us, including Turks, is the next step. A hundred years ago some of their grandparents saved our grandparents. We need to connect those stories.” (Vardanyan has funded an award, the Aurora Prize, to honor unsung heroes who rescue others from genocide.)
Picture of a chasm in Turkey that people say was a mass grave for Armenians during World War I
Picture of the ruins of an Armenian church in far eastern Turkey
Local people say the chasm in eastern Turkey known as Duden (previous) was a mass grave for Armenians pushed to their deaths during the ethnic cleansing in World War I. Here, the ruins of a hilltop Armenian church mark the site of an old Armenian village in far eastern Turkey, now home to ethnic Kurds. Though their ancestors participated in the mass killings and deportation of Armenians a century ago, many Kurds today long for reconciliation. 
There is a torchlight march. There are photo exhibits. There is a concert by an Armenian-diaspora rock band from Los Angeles. (“This is not a rock-and-roll concert! To our murderers, this is revenge!”) The Tsitsernakaberd with its eternal flame—the hilltop monument to the dead—is crowded with diplomats, academics, activists, ordinary people. At a genocide-prevention conference, an American historian dryly lays out the case for Turkish reparations. It is “not an absurd or immaterial proposition,” he suggests, for Turkey to cede the six traditionally Armenian provinces of the Ottomans to Armenia. (Germany has paid more than $70 billion in compensation to the victims of Nazi atrocities.)
The most wrenching story I hear on my Armenia side trip comes from a young man with eyes like open manholes.
“I was just a baby, maybe one year old. I was dying in the hospital. I had pneumonia—I think it was pneumonia. The doctors could do nothing. A Turkish woman in the maternity ward noticed my mother crying. She asked my mother if she could hold me. She unbuttoned her dress. She took me by my ankles and lowered me down the front of her body. It was like she was giving birth to me all over again. She did this seven times. She said prayers. She shouted, ‘Let this child live!’ ”
“I got better.” He shrugs. “The Turk saved my life.”
Ara Kemalyan, an ethnic Armenian soldier, tells me that story inside a frontline trench about 150 miles southeast of Yerevan. There are pocks of distant gunfire. A dusty white sun. Rusty cans hang on barbed wire—a primitive alarm system against infiltrators. For more than 20 of his 38 years Kemalyan, a fighter from the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been squared off against soldiers—his former friends and neighbors—from the central government of Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim state. Up to 30,000 people, mostly civilians on both sides, have died in the violence over Nagorno-Karabakh since the late 1980s, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. This poisonous little war, paralyzing the Caucasus, has virtually nothing to do with the older violence under the Ottomans. Yet Kemalyan still dubs the woman in the hospital, the Azerbaijani midwife who saved him with magic, an enemy “Turk.” The specters of 1915 have occupied his heart.
Picture of pastoralists in southeastern Turkey
Pastoralists in southeastern Turkey push sheep into pastures that have known the calls of Kurdish, Armenian, Arab, and Turkish shepherds. The Ottoman Empire, a patchwork of ethnicities and once a great cultural entrepôt, combusted during World War I in the flames of ultranationalism. Today tens of thousands of Armenians live openly in Turkey—a tiny number compared with the three million in Armenia and the estimated eight to ten million in the global diaspora.
Before walking out of these ghost lands, I revisit Ani. The medieval ruin in Turkey. The monument to denial. This time I see it from the Armenian side of the frontier.
The closed Armenia-Turkey border is one of the strangest boundaries in the world. Turkey shut its land crossings in 1993 out of sympathy with Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The Armenian side also remains sealed, owing in part to pressure from the diaspora against normalizing relations with Turkey. The result: Roads traversing a storied intersection of the globe—a fulcrum point between Asia and Europe—go nowhere. A train station on the Armenian side has not seen a locomotive pass in 22 years. A sleepy clerk sweeps the station office once a day while the rails silently rot. (A ghost airline does fly direct between Armenia and Turkey; it operates from a nondescript office in Yerevan.) As a result, the economies of both countries suffer. People on both sides of the line are cut off, isolated, poorer.
The Russian Army guards the Armenian side of the border with Turkey as part of a mutual-defense pact. This is how Moscow maintains influence in the strategic region. The sight is surreal: Strands of Armenian barbed wire, Russian watchtowers, and checkpoints face open fields in Turkey, which demilitarized its side of the border many years ago. Russian and Armenian troops face off against Turkish shepherds. The shepherds wave.
“I always keep my kitchen fire lit,” says Vahandukht Vardanyan, a rosy-cheeked Armenian woman whose farmhouse sits across the barbed wire from Ani. “I want to show the Turks that we’re still here.”
I climb an overlook by her home where Armenian pilgrims disembark from buses. These tourists come to gaze longingly across a fence at their ancient capital in Anatolia. I look too. I see exactly where I stood months earlier in Turkey. A ghost of my earlier self roams those ruins. Nothing separates any of us except an immense gulf of loneliness.
Follow National Geographic Fellow  Paul Salopek on his seven-year walk around the world at, where he posts personal dispatches and photographs from his journey. And you can sign up to receive highlight from his walk here.
Picture of villagers picnicking at the border town of Bagaran, Armenia
Picnicking at night beneath apricot trees—and a giant cross shining defiantly into Turkey—villagers in the border town of Bagaran, Armenia, belt out songs of memory, cultural endurance, and survival. The bitter dispute between Armenia and Turkey dating back four generations has paralyzed economic, diplomatic, and political progress in the region. The ancient crossroads between Turkey’s eastern highlands and the Caucasus remains in the thrall of ghosts.

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