by Mariana Boujikian
Man-made catastrophes such as genocides and other crimes against humanity impact people for many generations to come. Indeed, it is often the case that children of the survivors and their children, in turn, remain affected by that original sin. This intergenerational pain engages with one of the great issues that permeate the study of genocides and other atrocities: when does the process end? Can we say that after a few decades, genocides and their aftermaths are effectively over and dealt with? Above all, one can ask the question of whether this type of violence works with an expiration date, after which its effects completely dissipate?
In addition to extreme human loss, among the most immediate consequences of mass atrocities, a process of deterritorialisation and the creation of a diaspora takes place in which the survivors migrate to a new land where they can be free of persecution. This step is often accompanied by a state of silencing over the recently lived trauma. For the survivors, there is immense difficulty in verbalising and publicising the violence experienced. Marcio Seligmann-Silva, for example, argues that the survivor needs to elaborate a narrative and build “a bridge between himself and society”. Otherwise, he will be stuck between two worlds: the one in which he lived before, a place of horrors; and the one that he inhabits now, where most people around him do not know of his experience. The literature on other cases of gross violations of human rights shows that many survivors do not wish to build this narrative and prefer silence as a way of trying to spare subsequent generations of suffering. This attitude can also occur when victims feel that words are not enough to express their experience. As Fiona Ross, who studied the testimonies of women in post-Apartheid South Africa, points out: “Sometimes the voice escapes from experience.”
In this context, the promotion of spaces that provide public address on the subject are essential to provide healing for the ones who were traumatised by the violence and loss. Laura Moutinho identifies how South Africa’s experience of reconstruction after Apartheid was centred on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to “produce a clearly therapeutic effect in the elaboration of losses, traumas, and suffering”. Without this kind of reparative action and public dialogue after events of extreme violence, victims hardly feel welcomed and supported in their grief. As a result, the concealment of tragic events can become the very tonic of their family’s memory. Therefore, the lack of an official or otherwise process for transitional justice, an erasure of collective memory around the period of violence can occur. This silencing scenario can be further exacerbated when associated with denialism and state-sponsored strategies of erasure, as in the case of the Armenian Genocide.
The absence of justice and reparation measures at the end of the period of persecution against the Armenian population – who lived as an ethnic and religious minority in the Turkish-Ottoman Empire – led to a process of mourning that was forged outside legal and institutional processes. Jones summarises, after the end of the war “the stage was set for the rebirth of Turkish nationalism and resuscitation of Turkish statehood”. The perpetrators were not blamed, and Turkish society was reborn in the Kemalist rise, which prevented any formal recognition of the crimes committed by the Empire from which it inherited its structures. After this process, Jones explains that when “denied formal justice, Armenian militants settled on a vigilante version” – referring to the Operation Nemesis, which hunted down the main Turkish perpetrators and assassinated them as vengeance for what had happened during the period of 1915-1923.
The killing of the men responsible for planning the massacres and deportations was a desperate attempt to get payback and draw international attention to the tragedy. However, the mission only provided a sense of revenge, for the official recognition of the genocidal process by the Turkish state or other world powers has not occurred until this day. The case of the Armenian Genocide continued to be marked by a blatant negation of the past, and public mentions of the events are still punishable inside Turkey. The mere acknowledgment of the act has resulted in the punishment of various Turkish intellectuals, such as Orhan Pamuk, Taner Akça, and Ragip Zarakolu. Even more than a century after the events, the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians remains one of the biggest cases of denialism.
Through denial – considered by Stanton as the final stage of genocide – the topic remains an open wound. When analysing the testimonials of descendants of survivors in the diaspora it becomes clear that the topic is still very much alive among the community. One descendant defined the continued denialism as a prolonged pain: “What the Armenian people struggle today is for recognition. Because it will not change anything. Nothing goes back, nothing will change, the suffering continues. But I think people want to breathe, you understand? Take a deep sigh?”
From an anthropological perspective, the social or cultural life of the community has also marked this major event: 24 April commemorations of the genocide take place in Armenian churches, schools, clubs, and other social spaces. Those who were not alive in 1915 are aware that their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents experienced situations of tremendous violence and deprivation. Some women who descend from survivors shared complete narratives about the trajectory of their relatives and what they suffered along the way. The stories seem to pass from generation to generation through testimonies and extremely violent images, such as beheadings, the difficulties of crossing the desert, the path full of bodies, etc. As one of the respondents described: “(…) my mother said that my grandmother reported that it was like this: rivers of blood in the way they were going.”
Others, for their part, did not know the events that led their relatives to migrate, and reported having heard only fragments related to the flight of their relatives. In those cases, minutiae or details of what happened before seemed lost in time. The cities or regions of origin within their ancestral land are not even remembered, and subsequent generations seem bothered by the lack of this important information. As one Armenian woman stated: “They said they came [to Brazil] running away from the war. That’s what we all know about. That they came, the story of coming on the ship, these things. And sometimes they let out a little something like that”. She completed with a sigh: “I’d like to know more, I really would”
These discoveries are consistent with what Dr. Volhardt and Dr. Nair found on their research with group victims of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and other people who lived in refugee camps, in which “groups oscillate between silence and transmission of victim narratives”.
Another participant, a third-generation descendent from Armenia, only learned about her family’s past when she became a teenager and started living with her Armenian grandmother. She mentioned feeling in her life marks of something she had not lived:
“I think we come with a deep mark because we are torn from our lands … to be plucked from the ground and with no prospect of returning, I think this goes through generations, I usually say that I have a melancholy that is very Armenian, and that it is very much the result of genocide. It’s something I always felt in my grandmother, in my aunts, an eternal longing for a place they did not even know.”
In the subject of transgenerational trauma and the transmission of the events, research indicates that descendants who were born after the events – distanced in a temporal and geographic sense from the mass violence – can feel symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or other side effects often seen in people who lived through those episodes. This perpetuity of the past demonstrates the force with which events like genocides are disseminated throughout the decades, in a way that even those who have not been subjected to trauma feel their effects.
Through denialism, the effects of this tremendous violence are often reactivated. Such obstruction of the reconstruction of public memory can forestall the healing process. Without the acknowledgment of the events and the pain they caused, recovery is an even harder task for victims and their descendants. These persons are put in a position of having to prove their own suffering instead of being able to move forward. As such, we can conclude that although many of the known cases of genocide occurred during a specific time frame and are often studied based on what happened during that period, it is safe to say that genocide it is not over when the last death occurred, or when wars and conflicts are resolved, for its consequences can linger and travel through time and space, crossing generations.
Mariana Boujikian holds a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences from the University of Sao Paulo (USP) – Brazil. She is part of the Social Anthropology Masters Program of the same institution, specialising in studies of genocide and diaspora, with a focus on the aftermaths of the Armenian Genocide.