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Witness to Fire

These Men and Women Survived the Armenian Genocide. Eight Decades Later, Two Photographers Are Documenting Their Stories Before It's Too Late.

May 23, 1999|Janet Kinosian

The witnesses emerge from darkness.

"We wanted the backgrounds of the photographs to be all black to represent the abyss, says Ara Oshagan, who, with Levon Parian, photographed "The Genocide Project," which chronicles 65 survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915-17. About 1.5 million Armenians were murdered on the orders of the Young Turk government, which ruled the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.

"The light that surrounds them is the light that survived," Oshagan says of his subjects. "And the focus is always on the eyes, which sucked in the horrors they witnessed."

The killings were a systematic attempt by the government to exterminate--or, in today's lexicon, "ethnically cleanse"-- the Armenian population from the empire, stripping them of their homeland of more than 3,000 years. Between 45% and 60% of the Armenian population was lost. Those who remained lived out much of the century in a global diaspora.

Now time is running out for the few survivors who bore witness to these catastrophic events; most of them are at least 90 years old, and their voices and firsthand accounts will soon be silenced. Hence the Glendale-based "The Genocide Project," launched in 1996 by Oshagan and Garen Yegparian, who conducted the interviews.

Parian and Oshagan also photographed each subject's hands, creating a dramatic split-image of a face and fingers. Says Oshagan: "We wanted the discontinuity of the killings, how their first life was stripped from them and a second forced upon them, to show up in their sliced body images."

"This holocaust is like a long, dark arm that continues to stretch out over the Armenian people," says Parian, whose wife's grandmother is one of the images on the following pages. Like child-abuse survivors, many of the victims never spoke about the horrors growing up--they had no words or images with which to reassemble their unimaginable stories. "They got on with living their lives, raising children and making good in their new countries," Parian explains. "But the guilt of it, the unfinished sorrows, are a huge wound opened in the Armenian psyche, and it's far from healed. We're the generation that has to, if not heal it, at least put a scab on the wound."


Edward Racoubian

born in 1906 in Sivas

We walked for many days, occasionally running across small lakes and rivers. After a while we saw corpses on the shores of the these lakes. Then we began seeing them along the path: twisted corpses, blackened by the sun and bloated. Their stench was horrible. Meanwhile, vultures circled the skies above us, waiting for their evening meal.

At this point, we came upon a small hole in the ground. A little deeper than average height, the hole was large, and 25 to 30 people could easily fit in it. The women lowered each other down into it. There was no water in it but the bottom was muddy. We were about 20 people and we began sucking on the mud. Some of the women made teats with their shirts filled with mud and suckled on them like children. We rested there for about a half hour. If we hadn't been forced out a little later, that would have been our best grave.

Many days later we reached the Euphrates River, and despite the hundreds of bodies floating in it, we drank from it like there was no tomorrow. We quenched our thirst for the first time since our departure from Sivas. Then they put us on small boasts and we crossed to the other side. From there we walked all the way all the way to Rasul-Ain.

Of a caravan of nearly 10,000 people, they were now only some 300 of the us left. My aunt, my sisters, my brothers had all died or disappeared. Only my mother and I were left. We decided to hide and escape and finally took refuge with some Arab nomads. My mother died there under their tents. With tattoos on my hands and body, they branded me as their own.

The nomads did not treat me well--they kept me hungry and beat me often. I spent most of my days in the desert, shepherding. When I became 18 years old, I met some Christian Arabs who told me to go to Aleppo, where I could find some Armenians. In January 1933, I arrived in Aleppo.

Kristine Hagopian

Born in 1906 in Izmir


We had already been deported once, in 1915-16, sent toward Dier-ez-Zor. But my uncle's friend had connections in the government and he had us ordered back to Izmir.

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