Every April 24th, Armenians from all over travel to Yerevan to walk to the Genocide Memorial. During my second year of Peace Corps service, I lived across the street from the sports complex. Right next to the complex, there was a path that led to the Tsitsernakaberd Park where the Genocide Memorial is. Back when I lived in Armenia, there were fuel shortages, so the eternal flame in the memorial was only lit every April 24th. Things have improved since then, so now it’s constantly lit.
I will never forget watching the teeming crowds of people who made the pilgrimage up that hill. You would have thought they were standing in line for a headline act, like Michael Jackson (who was extremely popular there in the 90s). Men, women, and children of all ages carried flowers up that hill to lay in a ring around the eternal flame, which is surrounded by huge slab pillars that represent the lost Armenian provinces. I remember seeing people crying as they walked up the hill. A couple of people were overcome by the crowds and the emotional impact of the day and actually fainted. Since the memorial is on a hill, it does take some effort to get there if you’re not in somewhat decent shape.
The Armenian Genocide began on April 24, 1915, when hundreds of Armenian leaders and intellectuals were forcibly ejected from the Ottoman empire. Most of these people were executed. After that, many thousands more Armenians were marched into the Syrian desert where many of them died of starvation, exhaustion, and dehydration. It’s estimated that between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians died in the Genocide.
When I lived in that apartment across the street from the memorial, I used to take walks and even jog up there. There were a lot of nice trails and on a clear day, you could see Mount Ararat somewhat easily. Unfortunately, in Armenia, clear days were pretty rare. The air quality was abysmal when I was there. Granted, as it was pointed out to me today, I’ve been away a long time. Perhaps the air quality has improved since then.
I can see that other things have improved somewhat… In fact, when I lived in Armenia, things improved at quite a quick pace. We went from having no electricity most of the time to having it 24/7. The first year I lived there was more of a struggle for many reasons. But getting electricity that first year was probably the single biggest boost to my quality of life, even though it meant we had to carry iodine pills in case there was a nuclear accident. The reason we had no light was because the nuclear power plant was closed down after the 1988 earthquake that killed and injured thousands of people. Then, in the early 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which ultimately led to an energy blockade. So when Metzamor (the Armenian nuclear power plant) went back in power in 1996, it made a big difference.
Armenians are very strong people. They can be passionate, loving, and fierce. I had a difficult time in Armenia, but I learned and grew a lot from my experiences there. Time has softened some of the bitterness I had as I left there in 1997. I won’t lie. I was glad to be going at the time. But I look back on my two years in Armenia as one of the great growth experiences of my life. I’m glad I went there and learned about Armenia. And I wish them peace today as they remember all those who died in the Genocide.