The terror lingers through the generations.
An Armenian boy endures a 40-day siege by Turkish troops before being evacuated by a passing French ship. A woman and two children march at gunpoint from Turkey into Syria after the men of her village are killed by Ottoman Turks. A future priest joins refugees bearing crosses of his burned church. And a boy carries his cousin into the forest, the only survivors of an extended family of 32.
An estimated 500,000 Armenian descendants across the greater Los Angeles area on Wednesday will commemorate what they believe to be the first genocide of the 20th century — up to 1.5 million Armenians killed nearly a century ago by the Ottoman Turks. Ethnic Turks across the U.S., meanwhile, deny there was genocide, or that the violence was one-sided. They allege similar atrocities — even genocide — were committed by Armenians against Muslims.
Armenians are overwhelmingly Christian.
"Ninety-eight years later, where are we now?" asked Harut Sassounian, 62, of Glendale, Calif., publisher and columnist of the California Courier, an Armenian newspaper, who wrote a history of the Armenian Genocide, who said his family was nearly destroyed in the violence. "There's only one issue on the table: there was a tremendous injustice done to a great number of people — they were wiped off the face of the Earth.
"We need justice: There's no closure to this crime. It's like a festering wound. We want an apology (by the Republic of Turkey). And making amends for the losses. "
Across the region, home of the largest diaspora of Armenians outside Armenia, residents will mark the controversial calamity that scattered their countrymen throughout the world.
They will gather for Armenian requiem services. They will flock to Armenian genocide tributes. And they may don official "recognition and reparations" T-shirts during a scheduled protest before the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles.
The violence began on April 24, 1915, when 200 intellectuals were rounded up in Istanbul, and what happened long ago echoes through each generation.
They tell of the systematic removing of Christians from their homes. Of men rounded up, then murdered. Of women and children terrorized as they were marched from their homes in present-day Turkey into the sands of the Middle East. Rape. And thousands of churches destroyed, their priests beheaded.
"I was born in Lebanon, my daughter was born here, and I ask why? I'm asking why?" said Hratch Sepetjian, 44, of Granada Hills, whose grandparents endured the siege of Musa Dagh, in which Armenian defenders held off Turkish regulars for 40 days until they were evacuated by a French ship. "Because of the genocide."
The Turkish government maintains the deaths occurred during World War I as a consequence of Armenian betrayal and revolt in what then was a tottering Ottoman Empire. The alleged genocide has since become politicized, with the U.S., the United Nations and Turkey refusing to officially call it such.
Many of the 500,000 ethnic Turks across the U.S. recognize massacres took place within a civil war within a world war surrounding a collapsing empire where Armenians joined 45 ethnic groups in vying for independence. They say they feel for those who suffered, but have their own tales of Armenian destruction.
The Ottoman Empire blamed a major World War I battle loss on Armenian volunteers serving the Russians, historians say. The Turks say what followed — the deaths of 300,000 to 600,000 Armenians, with others relocated within the empire, was not genocide,
"We characterize it as a tragedy," said Gunay Evinch, a board member of the Assembly of Turk
ish American Associations, and a Rhodes Scholar who studied wartime atrocities in Anatolia, Turkey. "We Turkish-Americans and even the Turkish government in Turkey do not deny massacres occurred.
"We are seriously interested in whether the massacres connotate genocide. This is a historical debate. The great majority say it's not genocide. "
While legislators in Sacramento and Washington have joined some 20 nations in recognizing the bloodbath as genocide, critics say the United States has refrained so it won't hurt relations with Turkey, a NATO ally.
Now supporters of both Armenians and Turks hope President Barack Obama on Wednesday will declare whether what happened was genocide.
"I urge you to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide in your statement this year, to call genocide, genocide, and to stand with the ever-dwindling number of survivors, as well as the descendants of those who were lost, and who must otherwise continue to suffer the indignity, injury and pain of denial," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, whose district encompasses thousands of ethnic Armenians.
At the same time, the ATAA posted a petition on its website urging Obama to recognize "Soykirim — the Muslim Genocide," in which they say Armenian nationalists exterminated 518,000 Turks, Azerbaijanis and Kurds between 1914-22.
Turkish native Ergun Kirlikovali said when his dad was a year old, Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenian marauders wiped out 10,000 people in his village. He survived with a note pinned to him that had his birthday and father's first name. Kirlikovali, the sole survivor, was later named after his village.
"This is ignored in the West," said Kirlikovali, 62, now president of the ATAA, as well as an aerospace scientist in Irvine. "If you ignore one side's pain and suffering, the other side looks like genocide. "
At St. Peter Armenian Apostolic Church in Van Nuys, Calif., many images of those killed on April 24, 1915 hang on a wall of its Saturday school classroom. This is where Fr. Shnork Demirjian and a half dozen parishioners recall the suffering of their parents and grandparents. Demirjian said his grandfather's village was rounded up by Turkish soldiers, then locked inside the parish church. Before it was torched, however, a local imam was able to set them free.
His grandfather, then 13 and a would-be priest, disguised himself as a girl and accompanied surviving church crosses to Syria.
"The Turkish soldiers used to check your Adam's apple," said Demirjian, who still possesses the silver crosses and a bloody prayer book. "If it was hard, like a man, they cut your throat. "
Margeret Keishian Lulejian said that his father's brothers were each conscripted into the Turkish army, then murdered one week later. Her grandmother and two parents, forced on the long march into Syria, could only whisper of the atrocities, she said.
"I'm very sad," said Lulejian, 72, of Northridge, verging on tears. "Angry about man's inhumanity to other men. "
Mary Derderian Zoryan's father and younger cousin were the only survivors within a family of 32, she said. Her father, then 11, saw his sister killed.
"To this day, I will go to the grave regretting not knowing the full details of what happened," said Zoryan, 71, of Tarzana.
"I feel a very deep resentment towards the Turks. I'll admit that to my dying day. "