Canadian-Armenians protesting against the Turkish government's restrictions of human rights

TORONTO – A group of 8 Canadian-Armenians ended a 72 hour hunger strike in front of the Turkish Consulate of Toronto today, organized by the Armenian Youth Federation of Canada. In light of the upcoming general elections in Turkey, the demonstrators protested the ongoing human rights abuses carried out by the Government of Turkey, including the denial of the Armenian Genocide, the stifling of freedom of speech and press, the ongoing occupation of Cyprus, and the oppression of its minorities.

The hunger strike culminated with an official demonstration, held Monday, June 13, 2011 at 2:00pm in front of the Turkish Consulate of Toronto. The demonstrators sent a strong message to the newly elected officials in Turkey that Canadians and the international community at large will not remain silent bystanders as the Turkish government deprives its citizens of their basic human rights and continues its denial campaign against the memory of the Armenian Genocide.

Unfortunately, the peaceful protest was met with a counter-protest by a group of Turks, who aimed to disrupt the demonstration and silence its message. Disrespecting the Canadian flag by holding it upside-down, they resorted to racist slurs, calling Armenians “terrorists”, and “baby killers”. They held signs that read “proud nation, proud history” sending an ominous message that they felt no remorse for the massacres of the Ottoman government, or sympathy towards its victims. Although deeply troubled, the Armenian demonstrators avoided any confrontation, as that seemed to be the goal of the instigators.

Turkish counter-protesters disrespecting the Canadian flag

A day earlier, the participants of the hunger strike held a candlelight vigil in memory of the one and a half million martyrs of the Armenian Genocide as well as hundreds of thousands of Christian Assyrians and Pontian Greeks. It is troubling that even during their prayers, led by Very Reverend Father Meghrig Parikian of St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church of Toronto, a smaller group of men and women holding Turkish flags continued to hurl insults aimed at those collected.

Ninety six years have passed since the Armenian Genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century. The genocide has been recognized by countless historians including the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and numerous countries including Canada, yet it is constantly denied by the successive governments of Turkey.

A movement to recognize the Armenian Genocide has started in the Turkish Republic, led by outspoken scholars and authors such as Orhan Pamuk, Hall Berktak and Ragip Zarakolu. Unfortunately, Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code allows the government to lay charges against these journalists and authors, threatening them with jail terms. Nevertheless, this April, for the second year in a row, major cities in Turkey witnessed public events commemorating the Armenian Genocide.

Mark Piliguian, one of the participants of the hunger strike, expressed, “We understand that many of those trying to disrupt our message today grew up in Turkey where they could not learn about the dark chapters of Ottoman history. But we hope that now that they live in Canada, they take the initiative to pull off the blindfold that their government tries to maintain.”

The protesters sending their message to the newly re- elected Turkish government

It’s nearing the last stretch of the hunger strike, but everyone seems to be feeling better than ever. This morning, we relocated to directly infront of the Turkish Consulate, where we held the Candle light vigil last night, and have set up for the protest today at 2pm. The sky is clear, and the sun is piercing after a cloudy weekend. We are expecting the group of Turks and Azeri’s to be present today in large numbers, but if they are to continue as they have for the last 3 days, they will only humiliate themselves further. We would like to ask all those who can make it out to be here and scream and shout in unity, to be the voice to the newly elected government of Turkey, making it clear that Turkey has a long way to go in recognizing its past, and changing its policies, before it can move forward towards becoming a modern nation. We will remind Turkey that although they may work to silence their citizens through Article 301 of their penal code, nothing can silence our voices. We do not have a vote in Turkey, but the waves we create from the Diaspora have begun to hit the shores of Turkey. More and more, citizens of Turkey are becoming aware of this dark past, and seeing that the government of today remains an accomplice of the ottoman empire. Today, we send another wave, and remind the Turkish Government, that we will continue, until their wall of denial crumbles, and they are brought to justice.

We entered the 52nd hour as the candle light vigil began at 9pm. Setting up at the intersection of Lower Spadina, and Queens Quay, over 80 people were present at the vigil. Nairi Saraphanian, one of the inividuals participating in the hunger strike, was the MC of the event, and Garni Tatikian, who is also participating in the hunger strike, spoke on behalf of the hunger strikers. Ishkhan Etyemezian read a quote from Armenian Genocide Survivor Rahan Kachian. Daniel Ohanian, of the Armen Karo Student Association, recited a poem, and Daron Mardirossian and Saro Wanes played the doudoug. The candle light vigil was truely a solemn atmosphere, right by the water, but was disturbed continuously by the group of Turks and Azeri’s who chanted from accross the street. Their presence was embaressing for themselves as the people passing by, including the police there to control the situation, were disgusted by their attempt to disturb the speeches, poems, music and prayers.

It was definitely a frustrating situation. Being protested against during a candle light vigil really hit the nerves of all participants. However, the Armenians kept their calm and carried out a very successful event.

We are now into the 48th hour of the Hunger Strike. Although there are no counter-protesters across the street today, we have had a few situations. A car drove by holding a tissue box out of the window, asking if we wanted one in a condescending tone. A few others have walked by asking if we wanted a hot dog. These actions just make our resolve stronger. A young Turkish woman came by and had a long conversation. She talked about her dislike of Erdogan and that things need to change in Turkey. She knew little about the Genocide, however. The warm, sunny day has sent a lot of foot traffic our way along Toronto’s waterfront. It only increased as people stopped to ask about a collision between a car and a light-rail streetcar down the street. It is great to see people stop their busy day to learn more by asking questions and reading the posters. In a few hours, the candlelight vigil in front of the consulate will begin.

Fatigue and hunger are starting to set in. Waking up in the morning was harder than usual, but our motivation is strong. The lack of energy is much more obvious today, as many of us are lying down, too tired to walk around. Visitors continue to drop by, lending their support and distributing flyers. In a multicultural city like Toronto, many passers by shared their own experience with crimes against humanity.  A Ukrainian woman and a Croatian man spoke about the genocides in their own countries.  At 9:00 pm today, the Candlelight Vigil will take place in front of the Turkish Consulate of Toronto at 10 Lower Spadina St, on Queens Quay. Thank you to all those who came to support the initiative on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. See you again tonight!

It is now 10:00pm on Saturday night, as we enter the 28th hour of the hunger strike. The group of Turks across the street have long left, but a small group walking by the protest has been the highlight of the last 20 minutes. The group of young men included a Turkish youth who was curious to hear about the Armenian Genocide, as he insisted that the Turks had never committed such an act. A very interesting conversation ensued…He stood amazed as we educated him about the history of the Ottoman Empire. Our group seemed to know more about his people’s history than he did. The young man, who had recently moved to Canada from Turkey left with a completely different view of history, than the one he had come to know growing up in Turkey. Unger Harout Manougian, chair of the Armenian Youth Federation of Canada even graciously gave him his personal copy of “A Shameful Act” by Turkish scholar Taner Akcam, so that the young man could hear a Turkish scholar’s perspective of the Armenian Genocide.

We are certain that as more and more Turks come to know and understand the true history of the Armenian Genocide, the walls of injustice will come down from within Turkey.

The death march of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire took place against the backdrop of the hostilities of World War I. In the spring of 1915 Ottoman rulers ordered that all Armenians be expelled from their homes in areas outside of war zones. The Armenians—men, women, and children—were then lined up and made to walk in convoys of tens of thousands toward the Syrian desert. Although the expulsions resembled deportations, the treatment of the people making the march by Turkish “guards” made it clear that a more sinister agenda was driving the march: a planned elimination of the Armenian population through a process of starvation and exhaustion. The death march was a culmination of decades of Turkish discrimination against Armenians, which had long consisted of the barring of Armenians from serving in the Turkish army, executions of small groups of Armenians, and mass killings by special forces.

During the march many Armenians were killed indiscriminately by Ottoman forces, which left a trail of corpses along the route of the march. To break the will of the marchers, the killings were performed with swords, resulting in great bloodshed. Marchers who survived these attacks faced starvation, as no provisions for food were made; many elderly and infirm marchers died in this way during the march. The significantly reduced numbers of marchers who finally made it to the Syrian desert were put into concentration camps located between the towns of Jerablus and Der-Zor, and then released into the scorching desert with no food or water, to certain death.

Our hunger strike is in memory of all those who perished in the Armenian Genocide. It is to honour and pay tribute to our forefathers who were forced to starve to their deaths. It is our symbolic way of showing the world that the Armenian youth will continue their struggle for justice, until justice is finally served.

96 years ago, the Ottoman Empire tried to erase the Armenian people from the face of the earth. Did they ever imagine that three generations down the road, we would still be fighting for our rights – stronger than ever? We have not forgotten what our grandfathers and great-grandfathers went through, and never will.

The first 24 hours of the hunger strike are complete. It has been difficult at times, however, our spirits are high and our determination is strong…

WE WILL CONTINUE OUR STRUGGLE UNTIL JUSTICE IS SERVED!