the great catastrophe

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By Anouch Kurkdjian*

Remembering the Armenian genocide, fighting for its recognition and reparation and avoiding its repetition involves, today, resisting and fighting against the genocidal government of Jair Bolsonaro

On April 24th, Armenians and descendants around the world annually celebrate the memory of their dead in what they call Medz Yeghern, the great crime or the great catastrophe, as they refer to the systematic extermination of the Armenian population carried out by the Turkish-Ottoman Empire, led by the republican group of Young Turks, from 1915 onwards. when the Turkish authorities captured, tortured and killed around 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders, with the aim of weakening the organization and resistance of this population. The Armenians were one of several groups that, like the Greeks and Assyrians, until then lived relatively quietly in Ottoman territory with the Turkish majority population – although since the end of the 1923th century episodes of repression of Armenians had already occurred. Until XNUMX, about one and a half million Armenians, including women and children, were murdered or died as a result of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, contagious diseases and a series of other violence to which they were subjected. In addition to summary executions, most of the deaths took place on endless walks through desert and inhospitable regions, announced by the Ottoman Empire as a purely logistical expedient for relocating populations in its territory, but which were, from their conception, true marches to the death.

The accounts of the massacre, made by international spectators or by survivors, have in common the shock and the difficulty of finding adequate words to name the inconceivable atrocity they witnessed and to which they were subjected. It was only in 1943 that the term genocide was coined by the Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin to refer to the attempt to destroy, completely or partially, a religious, ethnic, racial or national group as such, including the murder of its members, all type of physical or psychic violence, as well as the attempt to prevent new births, the forced conversion to another group or religion, the erasure of the children's past (given for adoption by rival social groups) and the elimination of the history and culture of a people. This terminological invention was due, in large part, to Lemkin's study of the Armenian genocide, which he considered the event a paradigm of modern genocides. Not by chance, the Armenian genocide served as an inspiration for the systematic extermination of Jews perpetrated by the Third Reich: when discussing in an interview his expansionist and bloodthirsty plan to invade Poland, Hitler would have stated “Who, even today, remembers the elimination of the Armenians?[I]".

To this day, the Turkish State systematically denies genocide, a word that is also avoided by other governments that do not want to risk their commercial and political relations with Turkey in the name of something as ineffable as truth and justice. This is the case of the Brazilian State itself, which, despite numerous initiatives on the part of the Armenian community that was formed here as a result of the diaspora, never accepted the request.

The memory of what happened, however, lives on in the stories that all Armenian descendants grew up hearing. They are sad stories, of unimaginable suffering and deprivation, passed down from generation to generation, in a transmission that preserves the memory of those who are gone and feeds on it to continue the fight for recognition, with the intention that violence like this never returns. repeat yourself. As would be expected, for many Brazilians of Armenian descent (but unfortunately not for all of them) the rise of Bolsonaro as a candidate for the presidency and his subsequent election cannot fail to refer to these traumatic events that occurred at the beginning of the XNUMXth century in a place very far from Brazil. Defense of torture, recurrent hate statements, such as that the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship should have “killed a lot more” or that part of the population should be shot for their political preferences, contempt for indigenous peoples and people of African descent, for sexual minorities and by women, in short, all sorts of dehumanizing statements and speeches that operate a logic of separation between the “good and true Brazilians” and the enemies, those whose lives are not only disposable, but pointed out as obstacles to the triumph of the “homeland”. , are expedients that seem to be the re-edition of a story that is very familiar to us.

Many Armenians, however, signed the blank check in Bolsonaro's election. Still others, in a campaign for the recognition of the Armenian genocide by the Brazilian State, allied themselves with people like Senator Major Olímpio, in a shocking and revolting contradiction.[ii]. A request for recognition headed by someone who signs a publication defending that bandits are less humane people, who made a point of saying that he just didn't participate in the Carandiru bloodbath because he was off the work schedule at the time and that he built his political capital by encouraging the genocide of black youth by the military police on the outskirts of the country only serves to defile the memory of the Armenians killed in the genocide. For, as Walter Benjamin noted, there is a “tradition of the oppressed” that allows us to conceive of a chain linking those killed in the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, Stalinist executions, imperialist wars, genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, in Afghanistan, in Syria, but also the natives who were decimated in the colonization of Brazil and the rest of America, the Africans who were sold as merchandise and enslaved until death in the colonies, their descendants who populate the Brazilian favelas and prisons and are the main victims of police violence in the Brazil, in short, all those oppressed by the wheels of “progress” around the world.

It has already been said that in order to see and discuss a problem, you must first know how to name it. Well then, “Holocausto Urbano”, the name of an album by the group Racionais MC's from 1990, already pointed to the necropolitical vocation that pervades the Brazilian State and capitalism. This vocation, intensified in recent years, has been amplified by the pandemic and is now visible to everyone who is not taken aback by Bolsonaro's fascist rhetoric. Overcrowding in public hospitals, closed coffins and mass graves in public cemeteries throughout Brazil bring to mind stories about the terrors of other genocides, when families were torn apart forever, without parents, children and siblings being able to say goodbye or even to know if their relatives were alive or if they had perished. In the face of a tragedy of this magnitude, Bolsonaro's delirious denialism, his disjointed action in the fight against the pandemic, the absence of a plan that offers minimum economic conditions for social isolation - the only way out to mitigate the spread of the disease at the moment - all this amounts to , finally, to a genocidal contempt for the lives that will be lost so that the “economy continues to function”. We know that if capitalism works, it only works for a few at the expense of the lives of the majority, but the current crisis exposes this fact as it hasn't happened for a long time: those who will face crowded public transport, work without adequate protection, return to a overcrowded and often unhealthy housing are not the same ones who honk from inside their closed cars with air conditioning turned on for the return to “normality”. Not to mention those who, totally expendable even for the exploitation of their work, have no jobs or a home to return to after a day of trying to survive.

For all this, this year the memory of the Armenian Genocide seems to have gained greater consistency amid the anguish and sadness caused by the consequences of the pandemic. It's as if, in addition to understanding what happened to my ancestors, I could feel a little of what they must have felt when facing unspeakable horrors, seeing lives taken and the fabric of their community being torn apart. In his theses on the concept of history[iii], Benjamin had already noted that the moment when we are faced with danger is crucial for critical reflection on[iv]about history, as it interrupts its “natural course”, allowing it to be seen in a more meaningful way. One of the effects of this is that it opens up the possibility for an image of the past to flash in the present and for current confrontations to be perceived as a continuation of the battles of the past. Thus, it is possible to think, following Benjamin, that the struggle for human emancipation is not carried out so much on behalf of future generations, as is often said, but on behalf of past generations. All those who have suffered throughout history – and history, seen from the perspective of the oppressed, far from moving towards progress, is rather a succession of victories of the oppressors – remain waiting for their redemption: the remembrance of their stories, the acknowledgment of their sufferings and reparation for the injustices suffered, through the fulfillment of their hopes. Therefore, each struggle of the oppressed in the present is an opportunity for triumph not only over their current enemies, but also over past oppressors, and a victory in the present allows re-signifying the defeats of the past, transforming them into preparatory moments for the realization of the emancipation.

Thus, if the stories of the Armenian Genocide are permeated by suffering and loss, their generational transmission proves that they are also stories of resistance and survival. And remembering the Armenian genocide, fighting for its recognition and reparation and avoiding its repetition involves, today, resisting and fighting the genocidal government of Jair Bolsonaro.

*Anouch Neves de Oliveira Kurkdjian is a doctoral candidate in sociology at USP.


[I] https://www.armenian-genocide.org/hitler.html

[ii] In 2019, the senator participated in events in memory of the Armenian Genocide and is the author of a bill for the Brazilian State to recognize the date.

[iii] Walter Benjamin. "About the concept of history". In: Selected works vi: Magic and technique, art and politics. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1994.

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