Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Longest March

The Longest March
Vahe H. Apelian

For all those who came of age in Lebanon in 1965, the year we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Genocide, likely remember also the  commemorative march on April 24, 1971. That march, in my estimation, remains the longest Armenian Genocide commemorative march where the participants walked from the Armenian Genocide monument situated on the premises of the Catholicosate’s monastery in the mountainous town of Lebanon, called Bikfaya, all the way to the Catholicosate of Cilicia in coastal city Antelias. Wikipedia tells me that the distance is 16 Km or 9.9 miles of steep walk. I do not believe that such a long Armenian Genocide commemorating March has taken place before and since.

I was reminded of this march when Laura Vartan Agnerian from Canada, after having read my article titled “The First Protest”, posted on my Face book page a copy of the tickets issued by the organizers of that march, the A.R.F. Zavarian Student Association. I doubt that any other exists. It is fair, I thought, that I pen my remembrance of the event aided by the reporting that appeared on the pages of “Aztag” Daily on Tuesday April 27. 1971

The ticket Laura posted is telling of the era. The clenched fist had become the standard poster displayed by the youth then. I can state with some confidence that it was designed by the member/s of Zavarian Student Association at the 50th Anniversary commemoration of the Genocide and was often depicted on Genocide commemorative posters. The ticket also notes of one (1) Lebanese Pound due (dourk), not a donation, but a due for Hai Tahd, the Armenian Cause. The conversion rate at the time was approximately 3.5 Lebanese pounds for a dollar. This ticket is No.8445. Such tickets were usually issued in even numbers. One can easily surmise that at least 10.000 tickets if not more were issued. April 24, 1971 was a Saturday.  

The 1971 Genocide commemorative march was called “From Monument to Monument” (houshartsane houshartsan) because, as noted, it started from the Armenian Genocide commemorative monument on the premises of the Catholicosate of Cilicia monastery in Bikfaya. The monument was designed by Zaven Khedeshian. It depicts an abstract figure of a woman standing with her hands extending towards the sky. The following is inscribed at the foot of the monument in Armenian and Arabic as well: “This monument, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Armenian genocide was erected with the cooperation of the whole Armenian Community in Lebanon to celebrate the rebirth of the Armenian nation and to express gratitude to our country, Lebanon, April 24, 1969”. 

“Aztag” daily noted that the April 24, 1971 March was a community wide undertaking but the event was conceived, planned and organized by the A.R.F. Zavarian Student Association. The event was a cornerstone. An upcoming generation had started asserting itself and assuming the mantle pursuing the peaceful but determined resolution of the Armenian Genocide.  

The Friday evening to the Saturday morning became a period of uneasiness both for those who planned to march and for the organizers as well due to a capricious weather. In spite of all indications that a downpour awaited them, the marchers started coming to the assigned sites from where they were bused to Bikfaya. By 9 a.m., when the march started, some 25,000 people had gathered around the Genocide Monument. Fortunately it did not rain. The marchers on their way to Bikfaya had encountered a moving sight. They saw a young man shouldering a huge wooden cross with a two-pan scale mounted on the cross symbolizing quest for justice, braving the steep uphill walk towards the monument all by himself.

The bearer of the wooden cross was my late cousin, George Azad Apelian, who was a student at the Haigazian University, a College then. He had embarked on his lone march towards Bikfaya very early that day to meet the marchers at the monument on the scheduled time. He had his relative Stepan Panossian fabricate a large wooden cross to accentuate the event and draw attention. The late Stepan is the father of Dr. Razmig Panossian, the director of the Armenian Department of the Gulbenkian Foundation. The cross was big enough when George carried it on his shoulder its vertical arm touched the ground at its far end. The attached picture depicts George mounting the cross near the Bikfaya Genocide monument. Henceforth George, in close circles, was endearingly called, “The Cross Bearer” (khachager). George’s maternal grandfather, Rev. Georji Shammas was an Armenian Evangelical pastor who was killed in 1909 during the Adana Massacre. His paternal great-grandfather was also killed during genocide in the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour.

The march from Bikfaya started at 9 a.m. The marchers were lead by the scouting organization, student associations, community dignitaries lead by the long standing 76 years old Lebanese Armenian Parliamentarian, Movses DerKalousitan. The marchers walked in an orderly fashion along both sides of the road not to disturb the ongoing traffic. The marchers themselves made a 2.2 miles long procession. At times the progression of the march slowed down because of fatigue and then resumed its pace. It lasted more than 3.5 hours. Reporters from various local and international organizations were also there to report on the event. As the marchers approached Antelias city center, their rank swelled with those waiting for their arrival and both then headed towards the catholicosate where Archbishop Dajad Ourfalian, the prelate in Lebanon, addressed the marchers from the steps of the Armenian Genocide Chapel that houses bones of victims collected from the killing field, the desert of Deir-ez-Zor.

The aftermath of the 50th anniversary commemoration was marked by a youthful activism. The 1971 Armenian Genocide commemorative march in Lebanon came to symbolize the young’s peaceful quest for a just resolution of the Armenian Genocide.

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