In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne buried the Armenian question and laid the foundations for the denial of the genocide. Today, in an Armenia exhausted by its war with Azerbaijan, the government is forging closer ties with its Turkish neighbor, much to the dismay of the descendants of the survivors.
Norik Azatian rises abruptly from his chair. “No, no, I can’t, because…” His eyes cloud over. Some days he can talk about it, others it’s impossible. “And today it’s really too difficult,” murmurs the retired former school principal. Tears rolled down his cheek. Pudimentarily, he wipes them away with the back of his hand, turns around and faces west. Towards ergir, the “old country”, the one his grandparents left in a race against death. Two years ago, Norik Azatian went there for the first time. He rediscovered his grandparents’ house, “next to the little ruined church with the sheep in it”. Now, emotion tears at his stomach, and the pain of the memory condemns him to silence, like his grandparents before him.
Welcome to Armenia, welcome to Ujan, a village founded by survivors of the Armenian genocide 108 years ago and nestled on a hill at the foot of the country’s highest peak, Mount Aragats. The stories here are similar and intertwined, and the memory is a single one. Stories of fleeing for their lives, of crossing the Araxe river on foot, of the loss of loved ones, of children who would follow and be named after those who disappeared, of screams in the night. And then silence. The silence of the traumatized.
In Ujan, the survivors are dead. So their children buried them facing west, “Western Armenia”, 30 kilometers away as the crow flies, which became Turkish under the terms of the Treaties of Kars, Moscow and Lausanne. But above all, it became the place of an impossible return.
“The Lausanne slap
In Armenia, Lausanne is synonymous with “that slap in the face”, “that piece of paper” and the determination to “take justice into our own hands”. In 1923, in the capital of Vaud, the peace treaty signed between Kemalist Turkey and the allies ended with a declaration of general amnesty in the form of an appendix to the main text: the crimes committed by all parties between 1914 and 1922 would not be punished. All were condemned to forget. And in Europe, despite the demands of the diaspora, the debates surrounding a potential judgment on the genocide suddenly died down: the Armenian question was buried by forceps. “But do crimes against humanity really have an expiration date?” asks Ruben Safrastian, an Armenian historian.
Under the midday sun, the thermometer is soaring. The historian crabbed gently around Tsitsernakaberd, the memorial to the victims of the genocide nestled on a hill overlooking the capital Yerevan. In Lausanne, the unofficial Armenian delegation led by Boghos Nubar Pacha included his great-uncle, the diplomat Arshak Safrastian. The Armenian diplomats, who had come to have their cause recognized and to defend the clauses of the Treaty of Sèvres, had no say in the matter. Powerless, they could only observe the discussions between Turkish representatives and allies with their sanitized language, who, until July 17, 1923, the date of the last meeting, led them to believe in a possible return: after all, amnesty was given to the Armenians, too
The eye of Moscow
“For us, Turkey will remain a threat as long as it does not recognize and condemn the genocide”, assures the researcher. In Lausanne, the Armenian delegation consisted solely of members of the diaspora. In the Caucasus, Armenia had become Soviet, and any mention of the genocide, considered a nationalist manifestation, was strictly forbidden. It is in Armenian homes, far from the eye of Moscow, that survivors and their descendants pass on their history in secret. “I remember the people who came to our house at weekends, and the diaries kept by the survivors: my grandfather wrote in blue until 1915. After that date, everything was written in red ink.” Ruben Sasfrastian’s grandfather lived in Constantinople
One hundred years after the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, Armenia is still wrestling with its borders. To the east, there’s Azerbaijan, which it separates from its Turkish big brother, and with which it disputes the Nagorno-Karabakh region. A land won in 1994, then lost after 44 days of war two years ago. The defeat, with its aftertaste of “trauma” and “abandonment”, has left Armenian morale at an all-time low. “The country is now facing existential questions”, repeats Professor Sasfrastian. In the cultural and religious mosaic of a Caucasus that has become a powder keg, many Armenians feel betrayed by their Russian ally, accused of failing to fulfill its peacekeeping mandate in Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the presence of Putin’s troops, clashes with Baku, which notably controls the Latchine corridor, the only access route to the enclave from Armenia, threaten to derail the fragile truce.
In Ujan, refugees from Karabakh have moved into the house next door to Armine and Lavrent, a cousin of Norik Azatian. Many people complain about their presence and it drives me crazy,” explains Armine. Because we too were refugees, we had no choice, like them. And when our ancestors arrived, they were rejected from the cities, forced to settle in villages.” Lavrent, for his part, blames the Russians “who are killing in Ukraine, who are trying to put pressure on a region that no longer belongs to them. Are they really Christians?
The borders of discord
In this country of 2.8 million inhabitants, many would like to distance themselves from the Kremlin, which has become a bit cumbersome. The Armenian economy depends on its relations with Russia, from which it imports over 90% of its energy consumption. And in exchange, Moscow has its largest military base abroad: number 102, near the town of Gyumri. “They’re all here,” Lavrent murmurs. He opens a bottle of vodka distilled from apples from the garden.
Armine looks at her husband. Her grandmother, from Sasun on the other side of the border, wanted her to marry a survivor descendant. “If you marry someone from here, the day we go back, he won’t let you go,” she repeated. In the small cemetery of Ujan, the body of Armine’s grandmother now looks down on her native land.
The descendants of the survivors have been angry for several months. Prime Minister Nikol Pachinian’s government has opened negotiations with neighboring Turkey with the aim of opening two crossing points on the 268-kilometer common border. A symbolic corridor: the one that genocide survivors crossed in haste, the one that was one of the few borders between NATO and the USSR, the one that the Turks chose to close after the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan, and which has never reopened .
Except once, a few months ago. Five trucks and then more the next day. On February 6, 2023, Armenian rescuers crossed the small Margara bridge over the Arax to help victims of the earthquake that had brought the dreaded neighbor to its knees. Standing in front of his small grocery store, some 50 metres from the checkpoint, 67-year-old Iskuhi Beniaminian watched the whole scene: it had been 30 years since anyone had crossed this bridge. Iskuhi has lived in Margara all her life. She remembers the Turkish truck drivers who used to come to Armenia to collect wheat when she was a child. They would throw candy and chewing gum at them through the window. The first Turkish village is 3 kilometers away.
I don’t want this border to reopen,” exclaims the woman bent with age. Some Armenians think it would be good for us and for business. But our history is so cruel, my daughter.” From her garden, she points to the bridge where Russian officers, responsible for guarding this sensitive demarcation zone, patrol under the sun and the eye of storks nestling atop border posts. “We know very well what happened a hundred years ago, we can’t risk it again today. The situation can’t get any better, but it can get a lot worse,” murmurs Artak, as he leaves the grocery store, lavash bread under his arm.
In Margara, renovation of the bridge began two weeks ago and is expected to last a few more days. “Astvats chani”, Iskuhi repeats near the little chapel she has set up in her garden. “May God not let this happen.” Iskuhi’s daughter-in-law, Anahit, picks up a small portrait on the wall: it’s of her son, who has finally returned to the village after his two years in the compulsory army near the Azeri border. Here, as everywhere else in Armenia, the Treaty of Lausanne is disregarded. Nagorno-Karabakh is on everyone’s mind.
The Treaty of Lausanne? Oh, one or two paragraphs in the history books, at most.” In the living room of his family’s three-generation home in Tavshut, a high-altitude village in the far north of the country, history teacher Edgar Sargsian sits beneath paintings of Byzantine-architecture churches. “When I teach, I teach the children where Lausanne is, what happened, how long the negotiations lasted. But above all, I warn children that they can only rely on themselves and the Armenian people. No one else.
The cry of silence
His parents, Samvil and Genya, are the grandchildren of genocide survivors from the Mus region. Samvil makes no secret of his bitterness towards the current government. The man, who belongs to the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a far-left nationalist party, has circulated a petition in the village of 300 inhabitants to ban the prime minister from setting foot in the village. “We cannot be friends with those who wanted to see us disappear.” With a weary wave of his hand, Edgar points to the mountains: “That’s Turkey”. “You know, the worst thing is that we can’t even forgive. We can’t forgive, because no one has asked us for forgiveness.” In her daughter Nane’s bedroom, among the stuffed animals and children’s drawings, a card is plastered on the wall. It’s the map of the 1994 victory. When Nagorno-Karabakh, or “Artsakh” as it’s known here, was Armenian.