Associated Students election results came out, the new Apple Watch was released, and Isla Vista Earth Day celebrations were in full swing; it was business as usual at University of California, Santa Barbara last Friday, April 24. I walked by Storke Tower on my way back from lecture where I paused amidst the usual campus bustle—it was just a few hours ago when I stood here at the candle light vigil commemorating the centennial of the 1915 genocide, the 100-year anniversary of an event no one around me seemed to have any clue about.
Sometimes referred to as the “hidden holocaust,” the genocide of 1915 was a period when Assyrians, Armenians, and Pontic Greeks fell victim to systematic annihilation by the Ottoman Turks and Kurds, who notoriously decreed, “No stone left on stone, no head attached to a body,” in reference to the extermination of Christians. Assyrians, along with any non-Muslims, were described as an “internal tumor” that needed to be cut out, and over 3 million of them were massacred as a result.
I went through my normal schedule Friday, but with the date “1915” stamped on my hands. A few friends would question me about the date offering mixed responses, some ignoring the attempt to spread awareness altogether. Replies that ranged from “that sucks” to genuine attempts to understand the catastrophe dotted my daily routine. Throughout the day I felt like I was tiring people with the word “genocide,” as if the two-minute explanation of the first genocide of the twentieth century was somehow a burden to hear or an inconvenient notion to entertain.
The majority of my peers had little to no knowledge about the catastrophe of 1915, and those who did had no idea how it directly affected students on campus. On the night before the 100-year commemoration, the Armenian Student Association organized a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the genocide. Armenian and Assyrian students took turns exchanging personal stories of both horror and resilience, creating a therapeutic environment for descendants of survivors. Any individual who attended left with a deeper understanding of how the genocide directly affects communities and individuals represented on campus.
Yet a notable aspect of the vigil that was missing was the presence of anyone not affected by the events of 1915. Despite the event being massively advertised on campus, only a handful of unrelated students came to pay their respects. What about the tragedy felt irrelevant to students? Why was there so much apathy in an academic environment that breeds open-mindedness? I felt conflicted over our student body’s lack of urgency to participate in this remembrance or even to become informed on the subject at the very least.
It is convenient to isolate events such as the genocide in the past, to conceal the tragedy to history books and ignore the humanity behind century-old accounts. Yet doing so prevents much-needed dialogue on the capacity for mankind to accomplish evil. To ignore the stories of death marches into scorching deserts, forced rape of women in front of their children, and public beheadings is to ignore the possibility of such repulsive evil occurring again. Addressing the depravity of man and the enduring will of the human spirit is vital to creating a future of acceptance and inclusivity.
More commonly, it is easy to place the burden of trauma on the descendants of survivors. 1915 commemoration events are viewed as simply an Assyrian, Greek, or Armenian issue, rather than a human one. Yet the same wicked narrative that prompted the massacres against these minorities is still alive today. Replace Assyrian with Jewish and Islamist with Nazi; substitute Armenian for Sikh and Turk for Hindu; the identical framework used in 1915 was repeated in Rwanda, Ukraine, Darfur, and continues to this day against vulnerable minorities in Iraq and Syria at the hands of ISIS. While we may see each massacre as targeting specific ethno-religious groups, we must remember that evil and hate remain colorblind, even if we are not.
The centennial of the genocide commemorated this year offers a unique opportunity to reflect on some of the darkest aspects of what it means to be human. It offers a chance to struggle between what makes humans capable of both beauty and darkness, a chance to find resolve in activism and awareness, if we allow. Wrestling through these topics isn’t easy, and it is not for those who wish to lead a blissfully comfortable existence, but doing so allows us to fully appreciate culture, diversity, and the tenacity of the human spirit to survive and flourish through overwhelming adversity. As we continue our eventful lives on campus, lets not forget to look a little closer, reflect a little deeper, and strive towards a mutual respect for one another’s past.