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How a Single Person Made the Whole World Remember the Genocide: Armenian Avenger Gourgen Yanikian

How a Single Person Made the Whole World Remember the Genocide: Armenian Avenger Gourgen Yanikian

“Everyone has the right to justice, but true justice is available only to a few.” The phrase, reflecting the world order of all times and peoples, says that the path to the reestablishment of justice is very long. Therefore, some choose the path of humility, while others, driven by a keen sense of injustice and irreconcilable nature, choose the thorny path of struggle for this right.

Years have passed, but the fact that an elderly American immigrant was able to raise excitement about Armenian Genocide after decades of persistent silence by the world community, still seems surprising. Who is Gourgen Yanikian and what made him decide on such drastic measures in the twilight of his life?

Gourgen Yanikian was born in the most bloody and critical period of history. At a time when his entire family, like most of his nation, fell victim to the massacre perpetrated by the Turkish government, Gourgen Yanikian somehow survived.

For the first time, he was about to die when he was an infant: his mother squeezed his mouth tightly so that his crying would not reveal to the Turkish soldiers the place where the family had hidden. It was the beginning of the 20th century, the years of the agony of the regime of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who, in an attempt to retain his power and integrity of the Ottoman Empire, directed the whole stream of anger towards Christian minorities. The second time he was about to die when he fell out of the sled and spent 24 hours in snowdrifts during the escape of his family from Karin (now Erzurum) to Russian-controlled Kars. But even then he managed to survive.

But the trials that fell to Yanikian’s infancy are pale compared to what he had to experience later: he had to watch, how the Turkish blade cuts the throat of his brother Hakob, from ear to ear. Gourgen almost screamed from the horror, but his mother managed to squeeze the mouth with her hand so that he would not be the next victim. One can imagine the feelings and emotions of the mother, who sees one son slaughtered, and in order to save the second, she is forced to restrain her feelings.

Gourgen Yanikian in childhood

Somehow survived family of Yanikian did everything so that nightmarish memories did not bother the boy later. Yanikian got the opportunity to study in Europe, and then in Etchmiadzin, in a theological seminary. His deeply religious mother thought that this would help his son to become more humble. But the impulsive guy was quickly bored with theology, and chose the education of engineer and scientific career, enrolling at the prestigious Moscow State University.

Life seems getting better. Yanikian actively participates in the cultural life of the capital of Tsarist Russia and step by step lives his life... until the fatal 1915. With the start of the First World War, more and more information about the arrests of the Armenian intellectuals in Turkey, and then about mass pogroms of the Armenian population, began to appear in the headlines of Russian newspapers. It would seem that the regime of Sultan Abdul Hamid II was overthrown by the “progressive” Young Turks, and now everything should have been different.

Everything really was different. The actions of murder and persecution became more widespread, and the Armenians were now slaughtered by whole villages. World media trumpeted the planned extermination of the Christian people and condemned the Turkish government.

By that time, nineteen-year-old Yanikian could not stand aside. He leaves his studies and enrolls in volunteer detachments of Armenians as an engineer in the Russian army and goes on a military expedition deep into eastern Turkey. When parting, the father said: "Son, do not forget about the revenge of your people, do not disgrace me." Gourgen replied: "Father, do you doubt me?"

In Turkey, Gоurgen Yanikian again witnesses atrocities: dismembered corpses of people, wallowing along roads, parts of bodies floating in rivers, burnt houses and churches.

In 1918, the Turks besieged Kars, killing all his closest people. Later, Gourgen, with tears in his eyes and barely keeping his emotions, confessed: “In the whole history of my life as an eyewitness to the genocide, it was here that I had to see the most cruel scene that left an indelible mark on my memory and soul. Since that day, revenge has become the main goal of my life. When we were taking the dead men out of the city on 50 military vehicles, to bury them in common pits, another terrible scene appeared before my eyes: near the wall, hugging each other, with eyes  asking for help from me I saw my son-in-law Khachik and his 7 year old son. I stood for a long time over their helpless bodies, listened attentively and experienced all their pain. These were scenes that cannot be forgotten, I haven’t forgotten them, and I will not be able to. They became the source of my revenge. ”

Gourgen's parents manage to escape and get to Tiflis. There, his father dies of a stroke, while his mother goes crazy and spends the rest of her days in the hospital.

It is difficult to imagine how a man can continue living with such a burden of trials that had happened to him. For a long time, Yanikian has been trying to struggle against negative emotions - anger, rage, fear - in order to be able to live like other people.

In 1929, Yanikian got a chance to move to then still developing Iran. He manages to build a good engineering career there. Finally, there is an opportunity to do what he adored so much - traveling. Having seen the entire Middle East, he stops in the desert of Der Zor, which in 1915 became the grave of thousands of people deported there to die.

For Yanikian this place becomes symbolic. There, he pledges himself to do everything so that the bones lying in the sand will never be forgotten. We can say that from that point it becomes the meaning of his life.

In order to globally, publicly raise the Armenian issue, Yanikian wanted to get to America - to a country where, compared with Iran, there are much more chances to expose the full picture of what happened and achieve justice.

For outstanding services as an engineer during World War II (construction of military facilities, the Persian corridor in a short period of time), Gourgen Yanikian gets an excellent opportunity to get across the ocean - he receives military reward and American citizenship personally by  the Persian Shah Reza Pahlavi.

Gourgen Yanikian with his wife Shushanik

In 1946 Gourgen Yanikian and his wife arrived in the USA. Years of life in America help him to realize  that the best way to inform the whole world about the Armenian Genocide is to make a good documentary film that will contain all the details of the atrocities and the people responsible for it. The film should be freely distributed and displayed free of charge in the largest cities and countries of the world.

Driven by the idea, in a couple of years he wrote a huge 600 page script of the film and found support among many people, including Turks who hated their criminal government. He gets more enthusiastic after the meeting with Franz Werfel, the author of the novel on self-defense of the Armenians during the Genocide called “40 Days of Musa Dagh” and decides that he should include excerpts from the novel in his film.

It was 1960. The cold war between the USA and the USSR formed a bipolar world and new political realities, in which Turkey was now perceived by the Western countries as a stronghold that held Soviet hegemony. Consequently, any questions and problems that could shake relations with Turkey were immediately eliminated. For the world community, the Armenian question no longer existed. An impenetrable wall of silence was created around it. Attempts to make a film were stopped at different levels and, ultimately, failed.

The world, which at the beginning of the 20th century trumpeted the inhuman massacre of "Christian brothers", sent humanitarian aid to the Ottoman Empire to save the Armenians and called the Turks “murderers and bloodsuckers”,completely changed its attitude to suit political and business interests.

These realities deeply insulted Yanikian's feelings. He could not accept that a crime against humanity would not just stay unpunished, but would be completely forgotten with an easy hand of political players.

Meanwhile, the new Turkey was reaping the benefits of the crime. Having got rid of the “unfaithful” Armenian population and having taken over all their property, it pursued an intensive policy of denying the Genocide and creating a new history for future generations, a history where there is no place for Armenians.

On January 22, 1973, Yanikian was busy packing his bags. He took with him only the most necessary things: a joint portrait with his wife, made when living in Iran, favorite books and his works written over the years. He knew that he would not come back.

Sitting in a perfectly tidy hotel room, he awaits very important guests from Los Angeles. Yanikian has been preparing for this meeting for months. Thinking engineer allowed him to plan everything with special care.

Posing as Iranian Gourgi Yani Khan, allegedly full of sympathy for Turkey, he was going to personally present valuable relics to the Turkish consul Mehmed Beidar: a picture hanging in the bedroom of Abdul Hamid and an old notebook with celebrity autographs. His intelligent appearance and, in particular, his old age (Yanikian at the time was 78 years old) could not arouse any suspicion.

And now, when the guests are about to arrive, he realizes that there is no going back. Although he did not feel any remorse for what he was going to do, he sincerely regretted that he was left with no other choice. He regretted that his legitimate efforts had been wasted for so many years, and he had to break this very law...

Finally, steps were heard in the corridor. They were the employees of the consulate, 49-year-old Mehmet Beydar and 30-year-old Baadur Demir. Yanikian realized that these two were born long after the Genocide and have no direct relation to it, but the fact that they represented a criminal state, contributed to further concealment of the crime and stopped all attempts of Armenians to organize peaceful protests at the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles was crucial.

Having kindly saluted the guests, Yanikian - Yani Khan - shows the relics he has prepared for his “friends”. Warm speeches of gratitude sounded and the "friends" relaxed. Realizing that the time has come, Yanikian declares that he is not an Iranian, but an Armenian from Erzurum. Guests abruptly shut up. Realizing that it was a trap, they try to talk to Yanikian, arguing that he should forget the past and live in peace. Yanikian was just smiling.

Yanikian takes out the hidden Luger gun and says: "And now I will destroy you, I will kill you." One of them throws a chair at Yanikian, but misses. At the moment, Yanikian makes nine shots, hitting them in the chin and shoulders and, while the bodies were lying on the floor, he takes a Browning firearm and makes two control shots to the heads.

When coming up to the phone, he sees a slipped shadow of a brother near the wall, which confirms the act of retribution in his eyes. The operation was successful. Then Yanikian takes the phone, calls the hotel staff and asks to call the police immediately.

Detailed press releases written by Yanikian explaining the reasons for his actions were sent to several major publishers, such as The New York Times, Los Angeles magazine, Time magazine, and even President Nixon and thus spread throughout the United States. He also wrote a manifesto to the prominent Armenians of the United States and abroad, where he spoke about his personal struggle against the “atrocious Turkish leadership”, and expressed the hope that his example would awaken Armenians and they would be more persistent in their fight for justice.

Yanikian was sure that the time for the written demands fixed on paper came to an end, and the only thing that could bring the reestablishment of justice was a demonstration of one’s own strength. He also said that he would do everything possible to make his actions publicized.

Yanikian did his best to have the opportunity to tell in detail what had really happened to the Armenians in 1915. Yanikian’s actions caused a flurry of emotions and discussions at different levels, became an inspiration for Armenians in different parts of the world and an incentive to start an active struggle for a just solution to the Armenian question and recognition of the Genocide. The struggle not on paper, but in practice.

In  several years, such militarized groups as ASALA (which originally was called the “group of prisoner Gourgen Yanikian”),  the group “Soldiers for justice regarding the Armenian Genocide” and many others were formed. They were attacking Turkish government officials around the world and were keeping the Turkish public in fear for a long time.

Armed attacks of Armenians on high-ranking Turkish officials shook the world media, the theme of the Armenian Genocide and retaliation did not leave the front pages of newspapers for a long time. While being jailed, Yanikian was carefully following that and wrote: “This is a natural process, sooner or later it had to happen.”

It should be noted that Yanikian called on armed groups not to target Turkish citizens, that the struggle should be only against Turkish authorities, not the common people in order  “not demoralize the image of the Armenian”.

Thus, several shots in the hotel room of Santa Barbara made by Gourgen Yanikian , an elderly Armenian, triggered a chain of events that made the issue of recognizing the Armenian Genocide relevant  and stimulated all generations of fighters for justice.

Gourgen Yanikian spent 10 years in prison and, near death was released under house arrest. A few weeks later, on March 27, 1984, he passed away. He was 88 years old.

Sourse: Tigran Kalaydjian, SENTINEL OF TRUTH. Gourgen Yanikian and the srtruggle against the Armenian Genocide.

Translated by Manan Ajamyan.


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