A young Syrian girl, holding a baby, poses for a photo at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek
A young Syrian girl, holding a baby, poses for a photo at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek © - AFP/File
A young Syrian girl, holding a baby, poses for a photo at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek
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Sara Hussein
Last updated: April 21, 2015

In exile, Syrian Armenians feel echoes of genocide

Banner Icon For thousands of Syrian Armenian refugees in Lebanon, the slaughter and expulsion of their ancestors a century ago is less a historical event than an ongoing trauma.

For thousands of Syrian Armenian refugees in Lebanon, the slaughter and expulsion of their ancestors a century ago is less a historical event than an ongoing trauma.

Though their community is just one of many caught up in Syria's brutal conflict, Syrian Armenians say their fate has been particularly painful because it echoes the tragedy often termed the Armenian genocide.

Maggie Melkonian fights back tears as she describes fleeing to Lebanon from her home in the Sulamaniyeh district of Syria's Aleppo city more than two years ago.

"Just as our ancestors had to leave without anything, we had to do the same," she says.

"We're living a second genocide now, our houses are all gone... Our people are dying again," she adds, her voice breaking.

Melkonian is safe now, living in the Armenian district of Burj Hammoud with her daughter and son-in-law, and her grandchildren.

But her husband remains in Aleppo, reluctant to leave everything behind, like so many Armenians who fled their homes in 1915.

The facts of the tragedy that began 100 years ago this month remain bitterly disputed.

Armenia and Armenians in the diaspora say 1.5 million of their forefathers were killed by Ottoman forces in a targeted campaign.

They say the campaign was ordered by the military leadership of the Ottoman empire to eradicate the Armenian people from Anatolia in what is now eastern Turkey.

But Turkey takes a sharply different view, saying that hundreds of thousands of Turks and Armenians lost their lives as Ottoman forces battled the Russian Empire for control of eastern Anatolia during World War I.

- 'Guilty of genocide' -

In Burj Hammoud, Lebanese and Syrian Armenians have no qualms about labelling the tragedy a genocide and holding Turkey responsible for it.

The streets are spray-painted with profanities directed at Ankara and stencilled graffiti reading "Turkey, guilty of genocide".

In the run-up to the centenary, placards and banners have been hung reading "We remember and demand", a reference to a long-standing call for Turkey to acknowledge the murders as "genocide".

As the Lebanese Armenian community plans events to mark the tragedy, many Armenians who fled Syria say they feel as though they are still living it.

They draw parallels between the experiences of their forefathers and incidents like the targeting of the Syrian Armenian town of Kasab and the destruction of an Armenian church in Deir Ezzor province that contained the remains of victims of the 1915 massacre.

"I feel that we're seeing history repeating itself," says 30-year-old Maral Giloyan.

"We are exhausted. For all these years, we have not been able to feel comfortable, to relax."

Giloyan is a refugee twice over.

Her family left Iraq's capital Baghdad in 2005, fleeing the violence that followed the US-led invasion.

They settled in Aleppo, where Giloyan married a Syrian Armenian man and had three children, but fled last year after her husband was wounded by mortar fire.

"I want to live in peace, but all I've known is war," she says.

- 'A double wound' -

Alexan Keuchkerian, a member of Lebanon's Armenian Hunchak party, is at pains to note that all Syrians, not just Armenians, are suffering.

More than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and nearly half the population has been displaced, with more than a million refugees settling in Lebanon.

"But for Syrian Armenians, this is a second forced migration, it's a double wound," he says.

"The pain is being repeated."

Members of his own family are among the recent arrivals from Aleppo.

His ancestors were expelled during 1915 from the Cilicia region of what is now Turkey, and settled in Lebanon.

But during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, they took refuge in Aleppo, only to flee back to Lebanon when the Syrian conflict started.

"Some of our people feel they are living a never-ending migration," he says.

Many of the estimated 10,000 Syrian Armenian refugees in Lebanon have passed through the Howard Karagheusian Association in Burj Hammoud, which offers medical services and classes to all those in need.

The centre's Lebanese Armenian staff say working with Syrian arrivals has only strengthened the significance of the massacre for them.

The stories refugees tell them remind them of similar memories their grandparents shared about their experiences decades earlier.

"It's not on the same scale, but it's difficult not to feel that history is repeating itself," said Christine Sarkissian, a social worker at the centre.

"It reinforces the idea that all of us have in our minds that we must be ready at any time to flee."

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