It’s a beautiful spring morning in Cardiff and a few dozen people have gathered outside the Temple of Peace and Health, its white Portland stone facade resplendent among the civic buildings in Cathays Park.
There is a cross section of generations, from toddlers to senior citizens, and a range of clothing styles, but all are united by a sense of direction. Soon the tranquility of the memorial garden is awash with children’s laughter and a flurry of bouquets of flowers that together underscore why everyone is here.
April 24 is the day Armenians around the world remember the genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, the systematic massacre of approximately one and a half million Armenians.
The commemorations are particularly poignant this year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an attack that sparked memories of the Holodomor, also known as the Terror-Famine, a genocidal campaign by the Soviet government of Joseph Stalin against the Ukrainian people, reported for the first time in the West. by Barry-born Welsh journalist Gareth Jones in 1933.
Along with the Ottoman massacres of Jews, Assyrians and Greeks, the Armenian Genocide was the case of “ethnic cleansing” which in many ways wrote the playbook for the series of such horrors that took place throughout of the 20th century and continue to cloud our own time.
In fact, the word “genocide” was coined – by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin – to describe what happened in central and eastern Turkey, and to seek a way in international law to translate bring the perpetrators of such atrocities to justice.
After laying flowers in front of the garden of remembrance Khachkar, an Armenian stone cross surmounting a sun disk, the small crowd listen to Canon Patrick Thomas read a special liturgy written by himself and Bishop Vahan Hovhannisian in 2013 to mark the formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the Church of the Land of Wales.
Later in the afternoon, community leader John Torosyan draws attention to the wording of the plaque at the Temple of Peace, the fact that it uses the word “genocide” – in three languages: Welsh, Armenian and English.
“You can’t do this on deck,” he notes emphatically, a reference to the British government’s continued refusal to officially recognize the events of 1915 as genocide.
READ MORE: ‘We only have sheep and water’: How Welsh Armenians cling to history
“Even here in Wales it’s difficult,” he says, sharing stories of previous commemoration events at the Senedd, sponsored by members who then find excuses not to attend in person. He and others express their gratitude for the notable presence at this year’s event of Jenny Rathbone, member of the Senedd for Cardiff Central.
The brief and relatively informal memorial service is followed by a meal, talks, musical interludes and a short film at the community center in Llandaf High Street, as well as an appropriate activity for children – works by art on the theme of “our future world”. It certainly responds to the original ambition of the Temple of Peace.
Founded in 1938, the Temple was designed by Lord David Davies of Llandinam – the industrialist and Liberal MP who founded Barry Docks – as a memorial to the victims of the First World War, in which he had fought.
The building houses the Welsh Book of Remembrance, containing 35,000 names of deceased people.
But according to the Temple’s own website: “Lord Davies did not want the building to be a ‘mausoleum’: he wanted it to be a place of inspiration, a place that actively advances the causes of peace, health and justice.
Its founder envisioned it as “a place of pilgrimage to which people from all over the world could march and engage for peace” – and it is in this spirit that the Armenian community in Wales gathered on 24 april.
The community of Wales and the United Kingdom strives to express its gratitude to Wales “for officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide and for commemorating [it] in Welsh churches.
John Torosyan said: “It was a courageous act against all the hostilities expressed by those who deny the existence of this genocide.
And in a “Declaration of Commitment” read by Ana Kanekanian, the community affirms: “Even after 107 years…our voices are growing louder: the cause of justice and recognition of suffering will not be silenced or forgotten”. The statement reminds those present that the Armenian community also uses the date to “remember and pray for” all innocent victims of genocidal violence and atrocities.
What clearly continues to plague the community, both in Wales and around the world, is the continued status of the genocide as ‘The Hidden Holocaust’ – the title of a Channel 4 documentary whose original tapes were apparently lost in a fire.
Written and narrated by Victor Price, the film – “a video of a video of a video” which is shown at the Armenian Community Center (W) – describes not only the details of what happened, but the battle in course of the Armenians everywhere to make recognize their suffering.
The documentary describes “priests crucified on their altars, starving women eating their own children, horseshoes nailed to the feet of living men” – human rights abuses that served as a chilling model for the Holomodor , the Roma and Polish genocides of the 1930s, the Holocaust, and other genocides in Cambodia (1975) and Rwanda (1994), as well as the other “forgotten” atrocities occurring today in Yemen, Ethiopia , in Myanmar and elsewhere.
Ironically, much of the photographic evidence of the genocidal death marches – long columns of Ottoman Turkey’s Armenian population of hundreds of thousands stretching from Anatolia to the Syrian desert – were recorded by Germans, allies of Turkey during World War I.
At Deir-Zor in Syria, an “underground Auschwitz” has emerged; those who had survived the death marches were exterminated by systematic starvation or burned alive.
The late Middle East journalist Robert Fisk compares Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian Genocide to neo-Nazi denial of the Jewish Holocaust.
And yet, at the time of this writing, the governments and parliaments of only 33 countries have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide. These include the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Russia and Brazil, but not the United Kingdom.
According to the British government, “the terrible events which afflicted the Ottoman Armenian population at the beginning of the last century…were an appalling tragedy”, but did not amount to genocide.
A 1999 Foreign Office briefing for ministers said recognition of the Armenian Genocide would bring no practical benefit to the UK, citing ‘the importance of our relationship (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey ” as a reason to maintain the current line.
However, the parliament of Wales (and that of Scotland) has officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, and the Temple of Peace memorial has given us all a place where we can gather to remember.
If you enjoy Nationals journalism, help grow our team of journalists by becoming a subscriber.