Every Genocide Matters
I have always claimed that people are my passion and telling their stories is at the heart of everything I do. I also know that I tell others’ stories because my own family story has been silenced for two generations.
While we never once described ourselves as descendants of genocide survivors, that’s who we are on my dad’s side of the family. My father, an Armenian from Cyprus, married a Dane in India. Our family immigrated to the US in the late 1960s, forced out of Lebanon during the 6-day war. As part of a mixed family, there was almost total silence when it came to my Armenian history. We were proud, never victims. As successful, hard working, food-centric and loving people there was no discussion of genocide.
When I became an anchor and reporter at KCBS Radio in San Francisco, genocide was underway in different parts of the world. Hutus and Tutsis were killing each other in Rwanda. The former Yugoslavia was torn apart and those who lived side by side for decades were now identified by their nationalities: Bosnian Muslim, Croatian Catholic and Serbian Orthodox, and they turned on each other. At the end of three years of fighting and the massacre of 8-thousand Bosnian men and boys by Serbians in 1995, 100,000 people were dead, 80% of them Bosnians. I went to Sarajevo where people lived like rats for three years, to report on the future of those who survived. And I wondered, could such an atrocity occur in the Bay Area where we were so blended as well?
My questioning created a change inside me. I wanted to hear more from my aunts and uncles and father. And now I know why the empathy I had for victims of genocide was deeper than the stories I reported on.
My grandfather, Diran Melkonian, escaped as a boy from his home in Adana, Turkey in 1909, the pre-cursor to the genocide, after his father was ‘taken away.’ His neighbors dressed him as a Turkish boy and he hid his sister in a basket on which he sat while traveling by train to Syria. From there he worked for a dentist until he could make his way to Cyprus, where his mother and another sister had fled.
My grandmother, Vehanoush Saradjian, from Mersin, Turkey was a child when her father and two brothers were killed in the genocide. One of her older sisters was taken on the death march carrying her two small daughters, one of whom had dysentery. The soldiers made her drop her sick daughter and leave her to die and forced her to continue walking with her healthy daughter. She survived by washing and eating the grains from horse manure. They dug graves. Buried the weak and the dead. Adopted silence as a virtue. They all ended up in Cyprus.
Turkey officially denies the genocide even with many verifiable reports about what happened from 1915-1917. I’ve chosen to examine the photographs taken by Armin T. Wegner, a member of the German Sanitary Corps, who was sent to the Middle East in 1915 and wound up taking hundreds of photographs in the Armenian deportation camps, “visible proof of the first systematic genocide of the 20th century,” according to the Armin T. Wagner Society. These images haunt me today.
For the past 100 years, 100 million people have been victims of genocide all around the world. What happened in 1915 has been repeated over and over and is happening again today.
When I learned about a cross-country riding and relay event that begins on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide with the mandate: stop future genocides by recognizing past genocides, I knew I had to participate. LA2DC has put together a run/ride across the nation, with every leg of this nearly 3-thousand mile event marking an atrocity location in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere: Auschwitz, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, etc.
On April 24th, I will get on my bike and take off on the first leg of this ride, fittingly marking Adana and Auschwitz. 5 cyclists, including one from Armenia, plan to ride the entire event; others will ride or run in various legs over ten days ending in Washington DC on May 7th. Along the way, riders will stop and thank those who have saved genocide victims and are doing the difficult work of genocide detection and prevention.
One day I hope to witness the official recognition of the Armenian genocide by Turkey, and also the United States. Until then, I believe there is a place for us to examine how to detect and prevent genocide; a place to pay tribute to those who suffered before us; a place for hope.
“Keep riding for all of us, Lois,” a friend emailed me today. I will Amy, and I will carry those stories of genocide with me. From Armenia, to Darfur, to Rwanda, to the Holocaust, to Bosnia, everywhere the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation, has taken place.
The day I left Sarajevo I was given a ray of hope by a survivor, in the midst of a dark bombed out room, “what other way is there to look, but up?”
I’m looking up, Jasna, and riding because every genocide matters.
Return to Sarajevo
The first time I set foot in Sarajevo, it was bleak. January 1996 was cold. Bitterly cold.
The Dayton Peace Accord had just been signed and the war was over in Bosnia. For three years, from 1992-1995, the people of Sarajevo had lived like rats…scurrying to and from work and school to avoid sniper fire and hiding out in their basements at night as the daily bombing devastated their city…a city that had been known for its blend of Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian families, neighbors and workplaces. You could smell the smoke in the smoldering buildings and countryside and see the reticence in the eyes of everyone you’d meet. I was there to document the end of the war for KCBS radio in San Francisco, joined by a representative from the humanitarian organization World Vision and a bay area television crew. As an anchor at KCBS, I had listened and watched as the world stood by…and was moved to go to the former Yugoslavia to tell the story of those who survived and wanted a future, because I wondered whether such a tragedy could occur in the SF Bay Area, also a melting pot of nationalities.
For 10 days, I reported live twice a day on KCBS, some days being cut off by who knows who during my conversations, other days not being able to get through my report as I was overcome by emotion. It was in Sarajevo, in the fourth floor apartment of a mother and daughter who opened their home to us, that I met Sanja, who was 16 years old at the time.
Four months later she would contact me and in the fall of 1996, she came to live with our family in San Francisco. After graduating from high school, she was accepted into UCLA. She graduated with a degree in Ethnomusicology, and returned to live in Sarajevo in the summer of 2000. That was the last time I’d been to Sarajevo.
This time, in September 2013, the weather was stunning. We only had 48 hours to catch up…and we wasted no time.
We came immediately to the apartment where I met Sanja and her mother, Jasna, 17 years ago. Only now, the apartment has been completely remodeled. Sanja, who works for the European Union, has spent years fixing up one room at a time. This balcony was just completed, and it’s where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch prepared by her mother. We ate soup with fresh bread. Jasna made dolmas…zucchini and peppers stuffed with meat and rice…and served it with sour cream, then we finished off our meal with fruit filled pastries, baklava and Bosnian coffee. This is the strong, thick coffee many middle easterners love, and it tasted absolutely perfect.
As it was such an incredible day, Sanja wanted to show me the Sarajevo I never got to see all those years ago. We went to every high spot in Sarajevo to look down and around on the beauty, and strangely enough, it looked a lot like the Bay Area, with its rolling hills and steep walks. Simply stunning!
These were the vantage points for snipers during the war, so it had never been safe to see all those years before.
As we made our way back into town, it was becoming more obvious how different life is now for those who live in Sarajevo. The library, destroyed during the war, is projected to open in May, 2014.
And along the old town walking street the fruit and vegetable markets were loaded with beautiful varieties.
The remnants of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War are hard to find. These are the only two memorials in Sarajevo, and they commemorate the lives of the children who were killed.
It wasn’t only the physical structure of the city that is showing improvement. That evening, Sanja and I headed out to spend time with some good friends. Tijana is an amazing musician, singer and conductor and she was performing this evening. Soon, she’ll be on her way to Vienna to study conducting from a master.
And then we had dinner and walked for a nightcap with Amila a very successful attorney in Sarajevo. Of course, these two young women know so many people and were generous enough to share their evening with everyone we met. So much to learn, from the history of Bosnia to the inner workings of life today, to laughter about how they had to live so many years ago. And they share a passion to move forward, to make their lives better, and to leave a legacy for future generations in Sarajevo.
The last morning…I awoke to music and horns in the street…turns out hundreds of people taking part in a half marathon were running down below our fourth floor window.
That’s when you know that a sense of normalcy is approaching. It’s hard to predict what the future holds for Sarajevo…it certainly isn’t easy with a 3-party system in place and decisions that can’t always be agreed upon. But this is a country that’s defied the odds and is still around.
Sanja and I shared one more coffee before I had to leave…we talked about our separate journeys that brought us together…our journeys that continued apart from each other…and how woven our journeys are now that we’ve reconnected. Sanja introduces me as her “American Mom,” and I describe her as my “Bosnian Daughter.” The resemblance is uncanny.
As I left, I reflected on our time in the Old City as scores of people shopped and ate and laughed and mingled and walked freely. Sanja never wanted to live anyplace else. She came to the US to study so that she could pursue life to the fullest. She’s doing just that. Living in a beautiful flat with her mother, working at a great job with the EU, staying in contact with friends all around the world, vacationing in Croatia and beyond when she comes up for air, Sanja is an Angel with Shoes. Sarajevo is no longer bleak.