BY DR. RUBINA PEROOMIAN
Genocide has long been a topic, or rather, one of the topics at academic conferences. The Association of Genocide Scholars (AGS), as founding member Roger Smith put it, was created to “have its own conferences with the possibility of an in-depth consideration of all facets of genocide.” The first conference was held in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1995, with 45 scholars participating. From then on the AGS, known today as the IAGS (International Association of Genocide Scholars), has held biennial conferences in various locations in the United States, but also in Galway, Ireland, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and this year, July 19–22, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This conference, the Ninth Biennial, boasted more than 200 participants, and unlike the initial conferences limited to discussion of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and some other well-known genocides, participants brought their knowledge on all the genocidal acts and massive violations of human rights in the world, past or ongoing, to share, to discuss, to take a position. This is certainly indicative of the expansion of the field of genocide studies. Indeed, the scope of the subjects, with multifaceted approaches, has become much wider than before, revealing a somber landscape of the deplorable state of human rights in the world.
I have been a member of the IAGS since 1999 and have participated in each and every conference by presenting a theme or a subject of my ongoing research on the Armenian Genocide. This year, I was presenting in a panel titled “Memory, Representation, and Working Through,” and of course my focus was on the Truth of the Armenian Genocide violated by falsehood and outraged by Silence in Turkey. My fellow panelist Annie Pohlman was presenting a paper, co-authored by Deborah Mayersen (both of the University of Queensland, Australia), on “Truth and Recovery in the Aftermath of Genocide,” comparing Armenia and Indonesia. The panel was moderated by our own Dr. Khatchik Der Ghougassian, university professor and a leader of the Argentinean Armenian community.
Besides our own fields of expertise, we the participants in these conferences have come to know about lesser-known mass destructions and human rights violations around the world and, most emphatically, about the IRA and the Irish struggle for justice when in Galway and about the Bosnian war and the Srebrenica massacres when in Sarajevo. This year’s venue brought us face to face with another forgotten crime in the heart of the city hosting the conference, and the driving force behind this was Professor Daniel Feierstein, director of the Genocide Studies Center at the Univercidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero in Buenos Aires and the co-chair (together with Alex Hinton) of the Academic Committee of the IAGS, 2011.
Before the conference I had only a sketchy idea about the terrors of the 1976–1983 military dictatorship in Argentina. The presentations discussing the missing men and women and the appropriation of children during that period were eye-openers for me. I also had the opportunity to present a paper on the problem of identity or the sense of Armenianness of the Armenian minority in Turkey in a special panel, “Silenced or Truncated Identities,” organized by the Armenian National Committee of South America. My fellow panelists were two Argentinean women, Alicia Lo Giudice, psychologist, and Antonella Di Vruno, human rights activist, both members of the organization, “Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo,” speaking about the search for the identity of the dispersed persons in Argentina. What I learned was shocking. And I felt an obligation to share it with my readers.
Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (meaning Organization of the Grandmothers of Mayo Square) was formed in 1977 by the parents of intellectuals, young men and women, who had disappeared in the “Dirty War” as part of the effort to eradicate the opposition to the military dictatorship. The organization took its name from the main square in downtown Buenos Aires where these women held demonstrations. Estela Barnes de Carlotto, president of the organization and the mother of a disappeared daughter and a missing grandson, described the brutalities. Thousands of men and women simply disappeared without a trace. Young women were raped, and those who became pregnant were kept alive until their baby was born. The mothers were then killed and the babies were distributed among families trusted by the junta. The young children of these “subversive guerillas” were also kidnapped and given away to be raised under false identities.
Grandparents began searching for these children in order to return them to their biological families. After the return of democracy in Argentina, these women intensified their activities. Their efforts inspired the creation of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and the National Genetic Data Bank which collected genetic samples from relatives of the missing children in order to prove the true identity of these children when they were found. And they have not stopped their struggle in 34 years. Of an estimated 500 children, 104 have so far been found and returned to their families. Estela Carlotto concluded her emotionally laden presentation by saying that, “What the perpetrators did during the dictatorship was not only against us but against all of Argentina! Nunca más, Never again!” She has not found her grandson yet, but she has not given up hope. Her daughter was pregnant when she was arrested. She was tortured, but allowed to live until her baby was born. The junta promised to give the baby boy to the Carlottos, but two months later they murdered the daughter and returned her body to her parents. The newborn boy was never seen again.
Touching was the case of Victoria Montenegro, a missing granddaughter discovered by the efforts of the organization. She was a newborn baby when her parents were persecuted in 1976. She was renamed Maria Sol and adopted by Herman Tetzlaff, a military man who was put on trial in 1992 for his war crimes. Maria Sol was raised to hate the opposition and to crave revenge against those who had accused her (adopted) father and convicted him for his wrongdoings. She was devastated by her discovery in 2000 by Estela Carlotto and her organization. She could not imagine being the daughter of subversive guerillas. More than a decade after her discovery, she is still working on her recovery and reconciliation with her true identity. “It was a terrorist state, and we were distributed like candies among the appropriator families. We were raised to hate our origin and our roots,” Victoria maintained. It had been most painful for her to accept the truth that the father she loved so much was her appropriator and the killer of her true parents; to accept that she had been deceived and taught to hate her parents as “subversive elements” and to feel ashamed of any relation with them. And now, although she is not sure if her lifetime will be long enough for her full recovery, she is a consultant who helps others like herself to find their place in this world.
The Argentinean government supports the movement and has helped establish a center for the psychological treatment of struggling grandmothers and discovered grandchildren. Especially painful is when the saved granddaughters become mothers. A psychological click occurs and they begin to feel overly anxious: what if their babies are kidnapped? If they have been kidnapped themselves and if they are startled by a sound in the dark, the psychiatrists may presume that their parents were kidnapped and they were stolen during the nighttime, and that then and there they lost the warmth of their parents for good.
Although I attended very interesting panels in other sessions throughout the three days of the conference, it was the narratives of the victimization of disappeared children and the sufferings of their grandparents, especially with the emphasis they were given in this conference, that attracted me the most. Listening to these well-articulated case studies, I kept thinking about the thousands of children kidnapped and Turkified during the Armenian Genocide, about the young girls who were raped over and over as sex-slaves in Muslim households, about the children these girls bore, half-Armenian, half-murderers of the race. All were lost without a trace. The postwar search to locate and retrieve them was cut short with the demise of the independent Armenian state. Surviving remnants did not have the luxury or the strength and stamina to launch a systematic search, and the Soviet rulers of Armenia did not care, did not dare to care. The modern Turkish state that replaced the Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, did not have the will or the courage to judge its past.
I bow my head to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and their tireless efforts to discover the rest of the 500 missing children and restore their true identity, and to press for the total victory of democracy in all of Argentina. But I cannot help think of the loss of tens of thousands of Armenians and the distorted or falsified identities they had to live with. I cannot help think of this falsification extending from generation to generation to work as the explosive shattering the “monolithic” Turkish society and the idea of “Turkishness.”