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Varoujan: “Blood Never Forgets” – Part I

Varoujan turned 90 years old in 1990, and had a small celebration in the outskirts of Nicosia with friends and relatives. The particular afternoon of his celebration, I happened to be in the neighborhood, spotted the Armenian flag, the Armenian dishes, apricots, pomegranate wine and tea. There was no way I was going to let this opportunity pass me by. I was well aware of the hospitality of Armenian people, whether it’d be here in Cyprus, in France, in the USA or in their small homeland the Republic of Armenia, so I knew that sitting down to talk to them would not be considered being risky business at all. His friends, Greeks, Armenians and a couple of Americans were all open-hearted and offered me enough food and alcohol to last me at least a couple of weeks. Varoujan was a nice old man, actually looking more seventyish than anything else, and with a very clear mind, he started telling us all about his exciting, but also tragic life.   His mind, as he put it himself, was trained to remember. Trained never to forget all the things he had been through. “If the brain fails, the blood would still remember”, he said.  He remembered everything in minute detail. To make sure he wouldn’t forget he had carefully written down every incident from the first day of his fifteenth birthday until this very day. There were stacks of diaries, beautifully hand-written, proudly presented to us – in the Armenian alphabet. To me it might as well have been Mandarin Chinese, but looking at it more closely I could see that they were actual letters. This scripture actually only exists in Armenian. In between the written stories there were photos from his beloved village, his friends, his family members. There were horrible images of death and destruction, of long queues of humans walking in desert areas, there were photos of hanged men, masses of dead children and of what seemed like death camps. There was one photo  in particular, a photo of a woman’s head stuck between two branches of a tree with no body attached to it. I could hardly stomach it, put the old well-kept photo carefully away, feeling the strongest urge to get myself acquainted to Varoujan and his life. There was nothing to discuss, I wasn’t going anywhere before I had reached the necessary level of satsfaction, and knowing myself  it would take time.  I really needed Varoujan to tell me more about his life, his childhood and how he came to spend most of his life in Cyprus.

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Varoujan loved telling stories from his childhood. He also loved telling stories of the tragic events in his life, actually in the lives of all Armenians, even the descendants of the dead. He said that somebody has to tell these stories. “The day that I leave this earth, somebody will have heard about our hardships, the sufferings, the atrocities, the death camps, the unbelievable death march where a million  people were slaughtered.  My diaries are here to prove it , other survivors will tell you equal stories. There are more Armenians outside of The Republic than there are inside. The stories have to be told over and over again so that they finally come with every Armenian’s blood. Remember young man:  Blood never forgets. We Armenians are responsible for telling the truth. Never forget that Hitler learned his lessons from the Ottoman Turks. If we don’t remember and make people learn about this, someone else will go through the same.” He spoke intensely, energetically and eager to make us understand.

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I fully realized that this was the chance of a lifetime. A witness – a person who had been there during the “Medz Yeghernor” the Great Crime, the Genocide of the Armenian Population from 1915 -1922. I was about to hear a true story from an Armenian who saw  his fellow people being  brutally slaughtered by the Turks. I just could not wait for him to tell us more. We had a couple of glasses of brandy, then some pomegranate wine, then some apricot brandy and then he started talking. And he was unstoppable. And I have never been so concentrated in my entire life – I took notes, I asked him to repeat, to translate, to find other words. We were all excited. He knew all the necessary words in English, and he added some in French, Greek and Armenian. I could just feel what he wanted to express. The other guests eagerly translated everything he said. How did he survive? How did he get to Cyprus? We actually spend all day and all night just listening to this fascinating person. There were tears in between, more apricot brandy, more wine and some tea – and Greek Coffee.

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The first part, the happiest years of his life – he kept repeating this over and over again is a place he will never see again. A place he cannot visit, and a place he knows has been torn down and rebuilt to match the new Turkish Republic’s architecture. The church is gone, the old Armenian houses, the monastery and the Market Place. He has seen photos. Nothing remains. The small village, in which he lived, consisted of approximately  500 hundred Armenian houses and 100 Turkish houses situated by the Euphrates River. He went to school twice a week. The remainder of the week he worked with his father in the orchards where they grew apricots, lots of trees that thrived in this special climate in the Euphrates Valley. Did you know, he said: “Apricot trees always stay close to their mother tree. He can tell endless stories of apricots, all the fifty kinds of apricot present in today’s Armenia, the healing and soothing powers of this magnificent fruit.  Varoujan was bi-lingual, he had learned Turkish from his friends when he grew up, but his mother tongue Armenian was the language they spoke at home and with other Armenians. His childhood was trouble free. There were no conflicts between Armenian and Turks. There were a couple of inter-marriages, and nobody had anything against that. Kids of both people played with each other,  and they even went to the same school.

A liitle bit furher south of the village Varoujan and his Turkish friends had built a secret hiding place, a small hut in which they would meet an hide for a couple of hours when the work in the orchards became too tough and the intense Anatolian sun would take its toll on the young kids’ energy level. There by the riverbank, hidden in the high grass, the boys had built a hut, that was impossible for anyone to spot from the path that was used to transport apricots from the orchard to the fields where they were lain out to dry.  They even had their own storage of food in a large box. Apples, pomegranates, dried apricots, some dried meat, grapes and whatever they could manage to put away during meals at home. Every day they would meat in their hut, have a common meal, maybe take a bath in the Euphrates and sleep for an hour before they went back to work.

” I think our parents knew of our little secret, but there was no way they knew where our hideout was situated. Lutfu and Esmet, my two Turkish friends and myself, were brothers by blood – we cut ourselves with small knife an exchanged some blood between the three of us. We were brothers forever. Nobody ever questioned ethnicity, I don’t think  I ever thought of them as different from myself. True, I never saw them in church, but then again I found church so boring, so I was happy for them that they didn’t have to go.”

“I had a great childhood, a great life between water, apricots and the best friends ever. When I turned 15, in 1915, everything changed. Everything except my two blood brothers. They are the reason why I am sitting here today.”

To be continued……………..