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Armenians Mark Genocide

Events including a protest and rally commemorate the 1915 start of violence against the ethnic group that took 1.5 million lives.

April 25, 2004|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Thousands of Armenian Americans throughout the Los Angeles area commemorated a grim chapter in their history -- the killing of 1.5 million of their countrymen and women by the Turks between 1915 and 1922 -- with protests, prayers, a blood drive and even a rock concert.

The events included a solemn ceremony in Montebello, a raucous protest along Wilshire Boulevard and a rally in east Hollywood that some said was more a display of national pride than a somber remembrance of the Armenian genocide.

Despite the diversity of events, Armenian American organizers across town said they were pleased that their history is being honored and taught to the younger generation.

Ashot Dermenjian held his daughter Alyssa's hand as he walked up to the plaque at a towering Montebello memorial, a cluster of pillars reaching skyward. The cream-colored structure was surrounded by flowers Saturday as hundreds paid their respects. Officials, including Mayor James K. Hahn and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, addressed the crowd.

Dermenjian said a prayer and made the sign of the cross. "This is her first time here," Dermenjian said of his 10-year-old daughter. "I'm going to bring her every year now. They have to know what their ancestors went through.

"The sad thing is, I don't know anything about my family past my grandfather. I don't know what they did, where they are from or what kind of work they were in."

The Wilshire Boulevard Turkish Consulate was fenced off and guarded by LAPD officers Saturday as a boisterous crowd of hundreds of teenagers and young adults outside expressed their passion by chanting to passersby.

Urged on by members of the local chapter of the Armenian Youth Federation, they held up placards and shouted: "1915, Never Again" to passing cars.

"This can happen to any people if the denial keeps going on," said Armen Soudjian, a 19-year-old college student carrying a video camera to make a documentary about the protest.

The Hollywood resident said he would attend a rock concert at the Greek Theatre that night held by System of a Down, a popular Armenian American rock group who chose the performance date for its historic importance.

"No matter what you're doing today," Soudjian said, "we're all still here for that one cause" -- official recognition by Turkey of what Armenians call the Armenian genocide. Turkish officials deny that the genocide occurred.

In Glendale, home to more than 40,000 Armenian Americans, the civic auditorium displayed modern artwork reflecting the atrocities of the genocide, old articles from the New York Times and a telegram from 1915 written by the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, advising the State Department of the killings.

Alongside the paintings, the Red Cross set up a blood bank at the event because "89 years ago, so much blood was shed for no good. Now we can give it to anyone who needs it," said one of the event's organizers, Stepan Partamian.

Partamian, who is host of an Armenian television show in Glendale, said many Armenians suffer from an identity crisis because the diaspora dispersed them to so many countries after they fled persecution. He said April 24, the day historians say the killings began, unites Armenians of different backgrounds, whether their families fled to Lebanon, Egypt, Iran or any other country.

How to commemorate the day is another matter. In Armenia, people make a pilgrimage to Tsitsernakaberd, a hilltop where a giant memorial stands.

"They climb up there, they leave flowers out of respect and there are no speeches," said Partamian, a 42-year-old Glendale resident.

That more solemn approach is in stark contrast to the raucous demonstrations around Los Angeles, especially in east Hollywood, where some protesters complained that the event resembled the atmosphere of a national soccer game.

"People honking? That's inappropriate," said 18-year-old Hovsep Hajibekyan, sitting at the entrance of the Hollywood and Western subway station. "It's disappointing. This is a day to go to church and be with family."

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