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Aram Chorebanian

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Denogean: Tucsonan won't rest until Congress recognizes slaughter of Armenians

ANNE T. DENOGEAN Tucson Citizen

The stories Aram Chorebanian's mother told of her Armenian childhood during the final years of the Ottoman Empire were filled with blood and brutality.

Zevart Chirinian was 10 years old in May 1915 when she watched a Turkish soldier slice open the stomach of her pregnant 17-year-old cousin, chop off the head of the fetus and finish by decapitating the mother as well.

So, please, don't try to tell Chorebanian that now is not the right time for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a declaration recognizing as genocide the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 in the Ottoman Empire, today's Republic of Turkey.

"It's a simple acknowledgement," said Chorebanian, a Tucson real estate broker and member of the Armenian Cultural Society of Tucson.

It would seem so, even though it appears that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has backed out of her promise to bring the controversial measure to a vote.

With the exception of the Turkish government, the world largely agrees that what happened in Ottoman Turkey starting in 1915 to the minority Armenians was genocide. More than 20 countries have officially recognized it as such.

The historical record, including survivor testimony, photographs, film and other documentation, shows the Young Turks government first disarmed the 40,000 Armenian men serving in the Turkish Army and assigned them to slave labor battalions. Those who survived the back-breaking labor were shot. Then the government rounded up and killed Armenian political and intellectual leaders.

Mass arrests of Armenian men throughout the country and murder by death squads followed. Finally, the government began "relocations" of the women, children and elderly, marching Armenians off to desert concentration camps and allowing them to die of thirst, hunger, exhaustion and brutal treatment by their guards.

Corpses littered the landscape.

The Chirinian family was to be deported to the Syrian desert, but Zevart's father was able to bribe the Turkish soldiers with gold he had hidden in his cummerbund into letting the family go free. They hid out with a friendly Turkish family for a few years and later returned home to the village of Bardezag, inland of the Sea of Marmara

"Their home had been confiscated by Turkish families. They had to start all over again," Chorebanian said.

About 16 family members were killed during the period, he said.

Chorebanian said his grandfather on his father's side baked bread for the army and got wind of what was to come. He sent his sons and their cousins to America in 1914.

Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, described what was going on in a 1915 telegram as "a campaign of race extermination." The International Association of Genocide Scholarship calls the evidence "unambiguous." The Turkish government denies there was a genocide, insists the death toll was far lower than 1.5 million and attributes those casualties to the turmoil surrounding the collapse of the empire.

The Bush administration asked Pelosi to back off on seeking a vote of the full House - and she capitulated, as she lost support among Democrats for the nonbinding resolution - because of Turkey's importance to us in the war against terror.

Turkey, which is apoplectic over the proposed resolution, is an essential ally. About 70 percent of U.S. air cargo to Iraq passes through Turkey.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, voted for the resolution when it came up Oct. 10 in the House foreign affairs committee, despite concerns about the timing.

"I had to vote my conscience, quite frankly. I felt that someone like myself, who is Jewish, that I have a moral and a personal obligation to condemn acts of genocide no matter where they happen or when they occurred," she said.

Giffords said she doubts Turkey would follow up on threats of "punishing" the U.S. were the resolution to pass.

They get a lot from us, she said. In 2004, Turkey received the third highest amount of U.S. military aid of any country worldwide, Giffords said, adding that Congress is considering legislation to give three naval vessels to Turkey.

The U.S. has been helpful in working with Turkey to gain its acceptance into the European Union. And, she said, as a neighbor to Iraq, Turkey shares an interest with the U.S. in a safe and stable Iraq.

Chorebanian called the Turkish's government's unwillingness to acknowledge the genocide "an open wound that's lasted more than 93 years."

There are few survivors of the atrocities still alive. Chorebanian's mom died in 2001. Perhaps Turkey believes this demand for acknowledgment, which has persevered over several American presidential administrations, will die with them.

Not likely.

"I owe it to my mother's memory to push this," Chorebanian said.