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Fall 2004
In Their Own Words
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Documenting Denial

Professor Richard Hovannisian

Photograph courtesy of Richard Hovannisian

Professor Richard Hovannisian with tapes of Armenian-survivor testimony being prepared for transcription

THOUGH TURKEY for more than 85 years has rejected the claims of Armenians that 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire during World War I — the first example of genocide in the 20th century — Richard Hovannisian Ph.D. ’66 parries such denials with the voices of the victims.

Over the past 40 years, UCLA’s holder of the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History and his students have collected close to 800 oral histories. Other Armenian groups have undertaken their own oral-history projects, but Hovannisian asserts that his is the largest. “We sort of started about the same time,” he says. “We all had a sense that the last generation of Armenians to be born in the Ottoman Empire was fast disappearing.”

As that generation died off, they were taking with them not only eyewitness accounts of wartime atrocities, but also the collective memory of the customs and ideals of a civilization 3,000 years old. “What was being lost was enormous,” says Hovannisian.

The focus of his collection, however, remains the murder, forced deportation and death by starvation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and 1916. Hovannisian has amassed what he considers incontrovertible proof of the event, including evidence of premeditation in the similar accounts of Turkish actions by survivors from different regions. Hovannisian says the survivors describe a similar sequence of events: first, a government order to disarm and turn in any weapons; arrests of priests and community leaders; a relocation order, to be carried out within two or three days; before relocation, adult males are killed outright; women and children march for weeks, during which time more than half die; the survivors find they have been relocated to the open desert; a majority die there, though some are taken in by Bedouin tribes or find some other way to survive.

Despite widespread media coverage and an international outcry, the genocide was quickly forgotten — so quickly, that Hitler used it to convince his ministers that no one would remember the Nazis’ extermination campaign against European Jews. Hovannisian and his students are now focusing on the children of survivors. Almost all the interviews have been converted to digital form and stored on a hard drive. About a quarter to date have been transcribed into Armenian. Hovannisian hopes to obtain funding to finish the transcriptions and translate them into English.



2005 The Regents of the University of California