BEIRUT: Thousands marched through Beirut Wednesday to call on Turkey to recognize the genocide that involved the systematic slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians nearly a century ago.
Draped in the colors of the Armenian flag – red, blue and orange – over 10,000 people marched across east Beirut to Martyrs’ Square in Downtown. Families sang the Armenian national anthem and carried banners condemning the Turkish government, occasionally pausing to stomp on Turkish flags spread along the route.
“Turkey should recognize the genocide and take action for restitution,” goldsmith Paul Halebian said at the rally. “It’s our right, our land, our dignity.”
Armenian groups claim they are owed large swaths of land in Turkey after their ancestors were forcibly displaced during the partition of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and 1916 at the end of World War I.
Many Armenian families took refuge in what is now Lebanon as a result of Ottoman attacks on their community. There are currently some 100,000 Lebanese of Armenian origins who are represented in Parliament by five MPs.
“Erdogan Don’t Forget: Eastern Turkey is Western Armenia,” read one banner directed at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The day was both solemn and festive as both young and old rallied to commemorate their ancestors who died while reaffirming their identity and nationhood.
Armenian political parties Henchag Tashnag and Ramgavar are divided between Lebanon’s two major coalitions – March 14 and March 8 – but they come together for the yearly genocide commemoration. Party scout troops marched and played music together while banners paid for by the parties were draped along the walking route.
“All the associations are here; there is no dispute over the Armenian Genocide,” said Sossy Manoukian, a teacher and school coordinator. “There isn’t a person here who is not directly connected to the genocide.”
A number of non-Armenian Lebanese also joined parts of the rally. After several hours of marching, people rallied in Downtown Beirut, where political and religious speakers delivered speeches about the importance of recognizing the genocide and what is owed to the Armenians.
Leaders decried what they saw as a “conspiracy” aimed against the Armenians to displace them from their lands, and called for the Turkish government to fully compensate them.
“We will not forget our martyrs and our civilization and the cultural heritage in Armenia and … our possessions that were looted by killers,” said the Tashnag Party’s Secretary-General Hovig Mekhitarian.
At a Mass earlier in the day at the Catholicosate in Antelias, Catholicos Aram I Keshishian of Cilicia called for Armenian churches, endowments and heritage in Turkey to be restored as the “first stage of our national struggle.”
Representatives from the families of the nine abducted pilgrims in Syria also marched with the rally alongside several other political figures. But despite the occasional promotion of signs of the conflict in Syria and other political agendas, the rally remained largely focused on Armenia and its history.
Generations have passed since the genocide, but the event and its official recognition by foreign governments still colors politics around the world.
Some 21 countries and most states in the U.S. have officially recognized the genocide, while many other countries have not, partially due to their relationship with Turkey. Ankara maintains the death of some 500,000 people at the time did not constitute genocide.
The rally that began in Armenian areas of greater Beirut attracted many young people who see the yearly commemoration as an important part of their identity, marking an event largely ignored by the rest of the world.
“After two years it will be a century and the world will forget,” said 15-year-old Bedig Alexanian. “We do this to keep the world from being silent.”
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 25, 2013, on page 3.