In an effort to pay tribute to the memory of the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide and inspire vigilance against such atrocities, both past and present, the Armenian Student Association of Columbia University hosted a distinguished panel lecture this past Thursday, April 9.
Over 200 students, faculty and local community members were in attendance for the event, which featured moderator Andrea Kannapell of the New York Times, renowned genocide scholar Taner Akcam, and famed Armenian-American attorney Mark Geragos. The official headline for the evening was “The Armenian Genocide and Its Relevance Today.”
“We were delighted to see the panel bring together the Columbia community to discuss the Armenian Genocide,” said Nora Khanarian, a student at Columbia and a member of the organizing committee for the event. “We are optimistic that constructive dialogue about the important ramifications of our history is possible in the future.”
Khanarian’s fellow organizer, William Bairamian, added, “It was imperative to have an Armenian Genocide remembrance and educational event at Columbia University, as it should be on every respected university campus in the world. Every Armenian-American student should feel that it is their duty to educate those who do not know about the Genocide.”
The evening began with the reading of a statement from the noted psychiatrist and genocide prevention scholar David Hamburg. Hamburg was scheduled to take part in the panel but was unable to make it due to last-minute health reasons. Nevertheless, he sent a condensed version of his talk which was read aloud for the audience by Ms. Kannapell.
This was followed by Professor Akcam’s presentation which focused on Armenian-Turkish relations over the past 30 years and what will be needed to move ahead in the future. He addressed such matters as developments within Turkish society, the talks between Turkey and Armenia, and the issue of the US position on the Armenian Genocide. At several points during his talk, Akcam insisted that, “Obama should use the word . . .genocide,” and that, “by using this term, %u218genocide,’ the United States can liberate Turks, Armenians, and everybody in this conflict.”
The next speaker to take the podium was Mark Geragos, who addressed the legal implications of the Genocide and focused explicitly on the need for reparations and restitution. After talking about his experiences as a lead attorney for the Genocide-era claims against insurance companies New York Life and AXA, Geragos expounded upon why he believes reparations are so important for the securing of justice. “You can never, as a victim, never be made whole until you have restitution,” stated Geragos. “There is never going to be a resolution to the so-called Armenian question until we get back our land, until we get back the monies that were taken from us, and until we get back some kind of reparations.”
After such forthright and succinct presentations, there naturally was a great deal of issues ripe for discussion during the question and answer period. Audience members included many Turkish students who were not only hostile toward the facts of the Armenian Genocide, but were also taken aback by the insistence that reparations would be needed to right this wrong committed by their government.
Some of the Turkish attendees expressed their disagreement through prolonged statements, at times refusing to sit down after being asked politely by the moderator to recite their question. Many others were more cordial and presented their questions to the panelists and received forthright answers in return. This lively back and forth continued as other audience members raised questions about how Armenians could get their family lands back, the past operations of ASALA and the Justice Commandos, and the legality of Turkey’s present blockade of Armenia.
Following the Q&A, Bairamian took to the floor to offer some closing remarks on behalf of the organizers. “We are here not only to remember those that needlessly perished in the Armenian Highlands and in the deserts of Der-Zor,” he began, “but to make clear to any perpetrator of genocide that their crimes will never be forgotten–not so long as there is a sense of humanity and justice among the men and women of this otherwise beautiful world.” Posing the question of whether we are doing enough to end the scourge of genocide, Bairamian posited, “We will know the answer to that question when our children learn of genocide not as a current event but as an aberration of the history of a time long passed.”
The event concluded with a nearby reception which continued in the spirit of the conference, as attendees congregated and discussed many of the issues raised by the thought-provoking panel. Professor Akcam, in particular, could be seen engaging with many of the Turkish students who proceeded to congregate around him.
Reflecting upon the success of the evening, Arpine Kocharian, another of the main student organizers of the event, explained how her grandfather was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide from Mush. Orphaned at the age of 7, he went on to serve as a veteran of WWII and live an accomplished life. Nevertheless, he was never able to recover from the trauma of what happened to his family and an entire village back in Mush, says Kocharian.
“I think my grandfather, would have been proud of me and my colleagues today because our panel was able to voice the relevance of the darkest page in our history.”