By Alexia Evripidou
Friday, April 24 marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman government. Up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed. Thousands of survivors found their way to Cyprus after 1915 in search of a new home that offered security from the atrocities they had experienced. One such family was the Avakians.
84-year-old Verginia Avakian and her 80-year-old sister Takouhi Avakian have led inseparable lives since they were born – unaware of the persecution their kin had just lived through – in Aleppo, Syria.
When the sisters were seven and four they moved to Cyprus with their parents Haygaz and Alice Avakian, grandmother Khatoun Agha Boghos and great aunt Bartouhi Agha Boghos. The girls both married English soldiers, gave birth to their first children within the ten days of each other, raised their children together in the same house separated into two homes, worked together in their father’s shirt shop and now keep each other company in the same home their children grew up in. Their secure existence was a far cry from the brutal realities of their older relatives, yet not surprisingly the genocide was to permeate and define their lives.
The sisters’ Armenian roots came from Ourfa, Turkey. Their mother’s father Iskender Agha Boghos and his immediate family were forced into exile in 1922 by the Turkish government, when all foreigners were finally kicked out after seven years of persecution, witnessing death and agonising loss.
And yet, the family had been the lucky ones.
“My nana was a seamstress. She was important because she made uniforms for the Turkish army. My grandfather was a valued secretary to the generals in the army,” said Verginia.
When the genocide began in 1915, the Turkish army gave strict instructions that the Agha Boghos family be left unharmed. The sole reason that their lives had been spared was due to their professions, including Khatoun’s sewing skills which were invaluable to the troops. Her skills helped feed the family throughout her long life and were passed on to her son-in-law to help feed his.
The family had their lives, but for how long they didn’t know; they lived in fear. However, Iskender’s parents, siblings and relatives, were not so fortunate. They were led on death marches across Turkey and into the Syrian desert where like so many they died or disappeared for ever.
“In those times, no one knew what was going on. People were disappearing, sometimes forced or voluntary exile, others with no explanation. Many were never found, like my grandfather’s brothers,” said Takouhi.
The sisters help jog each other’s memories as they recount the horror stories they grew up with.
Verginia recounts a story their mother Alice told them of one of her earliest memories when she was merely eight years old. “There was an Armenian church opposite their house. One day my mother could hear terrible screams and smell a putrid stench. The cries and screams were coming from the church. She popped her head to the window where she saw the church ablaze with people trapped and burning to death inside.”
By 1922, the family’s time was up. The last remaining Armenians in the country were ordered into exile. They could take absolutely nothing with them, so with foresight Iskender swallowed several gold coins and stuffed the soles of his shoes with as many more as he could, praying that if they made it, they would have a little something to begin a new life.
As a gesture of ‘goodwill’, the Turkish army gave the family a covered cart filled with hay. This is where Khatoun, Alice and her three younger brothers hid, with Iskender and his sister Bartouhi sitting in the front. The caravan was escorted by some Turkish soldiers, until other Turkish soldiers stopped them and violently assaulted Iskender. They stabbed the hay with the swords searching for living people, luckily missing the young family buried deep within it. After these soldiers left, the escorting soldiers decided to take the cart, leaving the family to make their own way to Syria by foot.
The family had no choice; risk dying on foot across the desert or get killed by staying.
“They walked for days and days and saw the most awful things. Pregnant women being killed, children raped and bodies scattered around them as they pushed through the desert. It all happened in front of their eyes,” said Verginia. She struggled to continue as the realities of the sufferings came vividly to mind. They walked through the desert, trying to avoid looking at the bodies mounting up along the way. They had no food and no water, picking up and eating grass wherever they could find it.
“God must’ve been looking out for my family; they were unharmed,” said Verginia. Many of their Armenian friends lost entire families in the treacherous desert crossing, never to be heard of again.
With so many orphans, American missionaries went to Syria and opened orphanages in Aleppo, taking in all lost children, hoping one day some one would come to claim them. Finally in Aleppo and grateful to be alive, the family spent the next seven years living in a room in a warehouse together. They also searched for missing family members via the orphanage through which Iskender found two sisters.
In the early days, the family received packages of food from their old Turkish friends and neighbours; boxes of rice, wheat and flour which, along with the kindness shown by their old friends, helped sustain them until they began to settle. Khatoun used her sewing skills again to try and to build a life for her family in this foreign land, but fear of the genocide and for their lives remained. Now a young woman, Alice met and married Haygaz Avakian and had their two little girls, Verginia and Takouhi in 1931 and 1934.
Haygaz’s family, who were originally from Karpout, had left Turkey in 1918. Only himself; a young boy of about five, and his three sisters reached the safety of Aleppo. His parents and other siblings were lost or murdered.
With their present and future still uncertain, the young father Haygaz was informed by Armenian friends that the Cyprus government was welcoming Armenians into the country. This opportunity shone like a safe haven. Iskender had passed away and Haygaz stepped up to head of the family. He went to Cyprus alone in 1935 to find work and put down roots. In 1937, he brought over his wife, two daughters, mother-in-law and great aunt.
The Armenian diaspora was growing globally. With years of persecution behind them, they’d learnt to survive by leaning on each other. The Cypriots were accepting and of course a significant minority spoke Turkish so communication was easier. And even more importantly, there was an existing Cypriot Armenian community. With their assistance, Haygaz built up his famous business, Avakian Shirts, which made shirts for all Cypriot presidents until the Clerides presidency (when Haygaz closed down shop).,
The girls readily made friends with Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and were delighted to be accepted as one of them. “We were very happy to be in Cyprus. We were very young when we actually arrived in a place which we could call home, our own place; together with other Cypriots. We are Cypriot Armenians,” says Takouhi.
But it wasn’t long before troubles threatened Armenians again, even in Cyprus. When intercommunal strife broke out in 1963 and having already suffered at the hands of Turkey, some Armenians began to leave Cyprus. This happened again in 1974.
“There are only about 3000 left of us now,” says Takouhi.
However, the growing Avakian family remained committed to their new home, building up the business, learning Greek, getting to know the Cypriot culture and working hard to keep their own culture alive and strong.
So how did the sisters and so many other Diaspora Armenians manage to begin healing these historical wounds and maintain a solid sense of Armenian identity? “We have a very strong culture. Our church, school and arts keep us alive,” says Verginia. The sisters believe that the close knit community is due to Armenians spending time together and celebrating their culture: singing, reading poetry, watching theatre, recounting stories, laughing, reminiscing and very importantly attending Armenian Church, and passing all this down to their children.
“All Armenians that came to Cyprus only spoke Armenian at home with their families. They also learnt Greek which helped them integrate into society but at home, they worked at keeping their traditions, culture and language alive. They created clubs were they could meet and learn sport, singing,” explained Verginia.
Being Armenian Orthodox, the religion also sat well with the Greek Orthodox Cypriots. Another governing factor was the Melkonian Institute. Built in 1926 and run by two wealthy brothers it took in boarders from nearly 40 countries.
“This helped not only Armenians in Cyprus, but Armenian children from all around the world. There were so many orphans that came and received education in the Melkonian,” said Verginia. “All those young children grew up with Armenian culture and language solidly in them.”
The genocide had forced Armenians to stick together, holding on to their roots, language and culture even stronger than before in fear of losing it. And they did this whilst still assimilating into the host country’s culture.
“We’re very proud to be in Cyprus, to be Armenian and are grateful to the government and the people here for the respect they’ve shown us,” said Verginia.
“It’s all about respect, respect for all people and cultures,” adds Takouhi.
Although the sisters did not live through the genocide, the collective memory lives on. They’ve been handed down the wounds.
“In every Armenian, there is a scar and it never dies. We will take that with us to our grave. We pray that it will never happen again to anyone anywhere again,” said Verginia.
The Armenian Genocide
The Armenian Genocide was the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of its minority Armenian subjects inside their historic homeland which lies within the territory constituting the present-day Republic of Turkey. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million.
The starting date is conventionally held to be 24 April 1915, the day Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Istanbul. The genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labour, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre. The majority of Armenian diaspora communities around the world came into being as a direct result of the genocide.
The Armenian genocide is acknowledged to have been one of the first modern genocides, because scholars point to the organised manner in which the killings were carried out in order to eliminate the Armenians, and it is the second most-studied case of genocide after the Jewish one.
Turkey denies the word genocide is an accurate term for the mass killings of Armenians that began under Ottoman rule in 1915. It has in recent years been faced with repeated calls to recognise them as genocide. To date, twenty-two countries have officially recognised the mass killings as genocide, a view which is shared by most genocide scholars and historians.
Armenian community in Cyprus
Armenians have had a continuous documented presence in Cyprus since 578 AD.
When Turkic tribes, led by Tamerlane, conquered Cilicia in the early 1400s, 30,000 Armenians left and settled in Cyprus, which continued to be ruled by the Lusignan dynasty until 1489. During the very early years of the Ottoman rule, which began in 1571, around 20,000 Armenians lived in Cyprus. By 1630, however, it is estimated that only 2,000 Armenians remained.
By the time the British arrived in 1878, the Armenian-Cypriot community had dwindled to an estimated 150–250 persons, the majority of whom lived in Nicosia, with smaller numbers living in Famagusta and Larnaca.
In the years following the genocide, Cyprus became either the temporary or permanent home for over 10,000 refugees.
In 1935 the Armenian Prelature recorded 3,819 Armenians in Cyprus: 102 were “native Cypriots” (mainly residing in Nicosia), 399 resided at the Melkonian Educational Institute, while 3,318 were “refugees”, namely genocide survivors and their descendants.
Currently, about 3,500 Armenians live in Cyprus.