There were two reasons why I returned to Armenia in the second half of April. And both were strictly connected to each other. You see, I had these silly dreams: to see my all time favorite band – System of a Down – live in Armenia and to be in this small Caucasus country for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. While the second part was pretty easy to do, I just had to be in Armenia around 24th April 2015 the concert was more tricky. Even if all the members of SOAD are of Armenian origins they have never played in their homeland. Not until 2015. As soon as I figured out they’ve announced a new tour, commemorating the Armenian Genocide, with a final (free) show in Yerevan on 23rd April I started looking for flights to Caucasus and eventually booked one.
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It keeps surprising me why I’m that interested in Armenian Genocide. I don’t have any Armenian origins, I don’t know many Armenians… But these heavy, difficult issues interest me big time and some (like that or Sarajevo siege) are more fascinating than other. I must admit few years ago I didn’t know much about the Armenian Genocide, it was System of a Down songs and my first visit to Yerevan in 2012 that made me more and more curious about the issue. For some reason we don’t learn all that much about it at schools and we really should. It was the first genocide of the 20th century and maybe if the world had reacted more strongly to it the history would have been different and less tragic events would have occurred over the past hundred years…
The Armenian Genocide has started on 24th April 1915 when some 250 men of Armenian intelligence were arrested in Constantinople and shortly after killed. Soon the mass deportations and the destruction of the cultural heritage have started. The main reason behind that was the fear the Young Turks felt from the Armenian minority that was growing stronger and stronger in the Ottoman Empire. The whole process lasted till 1917 and took lives of some 1.5 million Armenians. There were the whole families or even towns where no one survived. Those events are the reason why there is such a huge Armenian Diaspora all over the world and actually many more Armenians live outside of their country. Even if most of the historians claim it was the genocide (there’re so many documents proving it) only 23 countries recognized it – I’m really proud that Poland is one of them.
As soon as I arrived to Yerevan I could feel the atmosphere is different than during my previous visits. It was more solemn, you could easily feel something big is about to happen. The whole city was full of posters reminding about the events of 1915. Too bad a lot of them were only in Armenian but others had a really strong, universal meaning. When I posted pictures of them on Facebook and Instagram I got pretty many nasty comments that they are too much and just exaggerating history. Well, the Armenian genocide still brings a lot of emotions, not only among Armenian and Turkish people, but the posters did their trick – they were made to provoke the discussion, to make people think about what happened a century ago. Actually I haven’t seen such a good campaign for a really long time, those images left no one indifferent, everyone was talking about them.
The whole celebrations had its own symbol too – a violet forget-me-not. It was everywhere: on shops’ windows, on the cars, on the billboards, on people’s clothes. On average more than every second person I’ve seen had one. I also bought brooch with the flower for myself, to show I also remember and commemorate what happened a hundred years ago.
Finally the big day for me came – System of a Down concert. But a day before that a very weird and absurd thing happened. Together with Zof (a friend and fellow blogger who lives in Yerevan) we were sitting in one of the cafes, trying to do some freelance work, when Shavo Odadjian – the bassist of SOAD – came. What’s more he and his friends sat directly in front of us and for over one hour every time I looked from my computer I could see him. I don’t know how I stayed sane there and didn’t giggle (ok, I did, a little bit). I really think something like that could have happened only in Yerevan! I’ve never even thought of meeting one of my fave musicians live yet there he was, 3 meters away from me. When they were about to leave I used the moment and got to talk to him a little bit and took a picture (I don’t think anyone would believe me otherwise;)). He turned out to be a really nice guy and that random meeting made my whole idea to come to Armenia for these two events much more unforgettable.
So, the concert. It was as awesome as I was expecting. While waiting for it the big screens showed the mass from Etchmiadzin (the holiest place for Armenian religion) where all the people who lost their life during the genocide became blessed. Quite unusual thing for the metal concert. But since the show was for free it brought all kind of people, not only System of a Down fans. There were families with children, older people – just about everyone. But all of them had one thing in common – a small forget-me-not pinned into their clothes. At the entrance volunteers gave everyone those small flowers made by Yerevan’s schools pupils.
As soon as SOAD began playing the heaven opened and an enormous rain started. Still people were there, enjoying the amazing show. It was divided into three parts, each starting with a short story about the genocide and recognition of it. While people in Armenia are extremely well educated in that matter it’s pretty amazing that they did that in the whole tour, telling the story to people all over the world. The whole concert can be found on youtube (just search for “System of a Down Yerevan 2015), take a look especially around 18:51 when during the heavy part of “Aerials” there’s a lightning crossing the sky, perfectly playing with the music!
The next day was April 24th, the centennial of the Armenian genocide. Many important people and heads of countries from all over the world came to Yerevan to take part in the official celebrations. The weather was the worst possible on that day. It was raining cats and dogs, perfectly fitting to the atmosphere of this gloomy day. The centre of Yerevan was empty, only very few shops and cafes were opened but there were no customers anyway. It seemed like every person in the city went to Tsitsernakaberd – the Genocide Memorial. In the heavy rain the march of people, all generations of Armenian, headed to the eternal flame in the center of the memorial, to put flowers and commemorate those that lost their lives 100 years ago. I was standing there, soaking wet and speechlessly staring at the scene, it was so obvious that something really big is happening in front of my eyes. Even if the day was very sombre I was really glad I could be part of it, in that very place at that very time and that I could pay my respect to all the victims.
I was really lucky that I could also visit the Genocide Museum, newly reopened after restoration. I was there already in 2012 and I remember I was going through it with tears in my eyes and a heavy lump in my throat, learning the difficult history of the Armenian Genocide. Right now the museum looks completely different and even if I think the previous version was much heavier it is still a really good place to visit, to get to know all about the tragic events, what lead to them and how the world reacted. It’s definitely a must for every person visiting Armenia, without learning about this part of the history it’s impossible to understand this Caucasian nation.
In the evening together with Zof and Tigran we went for the march, all the way from the Republic Square to the Genocide Memorial (over 6kms). It started at 10pm and we got to Tsitsernakaberd after 1am. I’ve never took part in something like that – there were around 100.000 people, with flags, torchlight or candles, walking together to commemorate the victims. Again I was so proud to see the Polish flag in the first row – as one of the countries that recognize the genocide. For most of the time groups of people chanting some slogans – apparently they were political or anti-Turkey so I was really glad I didn’t understand them and could just enjoy the walk in this elevated atmosphere. As soon as we got to the Memorial everyone got quiet and we were peacefully standing in a huge line to get to the eternal flame. No one was pushing the way, no one was trying to sneak in. People were really paying their respect in the best possible way. For some reason I always feel like crying when there’s something huge going on and that was one of these moments. I was standing there, in the middle of the night, surrounded by thousands of Armenians that all had genocide stories to share and I just felt like crying. It was such a touching moment and I’m sure I will never forget it…
Two days later, when my friend Hanna came to Yerevan with a group of women travelers we all went to the Memorial. And to my great surprise there were still hundreds of people, walking to the monument, putting flowers there and commemorating those 1.5 million that died. When one older man heard us speaking Polish he started thanking us for visiting the place on such an important moment and for paying our respect that way. I was again really touched… When we got to the eternal flame I was really standing in shock there – I’ve never seen that many flowers in my life! Really! What was there on 24th of April was just less than a half of the amount that was there 2 days later! You can hardly see people from behind them! The whole monument was also surrounded by wreaths put there by official delegations and organizations, also some from Turkey. It was such a wonderful sights to watch and it’s amazing how many people have visited the Memorial in these few days, how strong the memory of the events from the beginning of the 20th century is still among Armenians.
I went to Tsitsernakaberd again on Monday as together with Zof we wanted to take part in the flowers recycling event. A local NGO is organizing it every year, few days after 24th April, so all the flowers are not wasted, the petals of roses and carnations are saved and reused for paper then. I remember seeing Zof’s post about it from last year and I knew I want to do it as well! When we got to the Memorial we were welcomed with the incredible view: huge white fabric was spread on the ground on both sides of the path leading to the monument and it was covered in white and red petals. Nearby there were tables were groups of people quickly segregating flowers and choosing the right ones. We happily joined one table and soon we were doing the same. The sun was shining, we were surrounded by flowers, doing something for the good cause. Being there and working made me really happy, I enjoyed it much more than I expected and I didn’t really felt the time passing by, I was just focused on flowers. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending of my genocide-oriented stay in Armenia!
I remember couple of month ago, during a Warsaw travel bloggers meeting, I revealed my travel plans for April and some of the fellow travelers asked me surprised why I want to be in Armenia for the centennial of the genocide. I couldn’t really answer them then and I can’t answer now. I just knew I want to be there, to be part of these events and to commemorate this huge tragedy that way. Spending these days in Yerevan has overgrown my expectation (and I’m not even talking about meeting with Shavo). It was the best decision to go there and all that I’ve experienced in Armenia, all the emotions I felt will stay with me forever. So what that Yerevan sucked me in again, that I didn’t go to Nagorno-Karabakh again – the centennial of the genocide will not happen one more time and I can proudly say I was there, witnessing all the events and just living them!
And again, I know I wouldn’t have had such an amazing, unforgettable time if it wasn’t for Zof so thank you, one more time! If any of you is heading to Armenia or just interested in Caucasus be sure to follow her blog, it’s the best!
Have you ever traveled to another country for some events? Did you know about the Armenian Genocide before? Would you like to visit Armenia?
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