It was MEDZ YEGHERN
Vahe H. Apelian
I was brought up in Armenian schools commemorating the Metz Yeghern (Մեծ Եղեռն), The Big Crime that befell on the Armenians in 1915. The word yeghern has an inherent sadness embedded in it and it’s not meant to imply crime in the ordinary sense for which we have the word vojir. In spite of the fact that the word genocide was well coined by then, the descriptive term Metz Yeghern was more commonly used. I remember attending an exhibition of the Medz Yeghern in the American University of Beirut in 1965, at the fiftieth-anniversary commemoration.
Most of us know that Raphael Lambkin, the Polish-American lawyer of Jewish descent, coined the word genocide, as a compound word. The legal definition of Genocide is found in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide. Article 2 of this convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in parts, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Genocide is one of intent and not of body count. The latter makes the intent the more obvious but does not by itself necessarily constitute genocide.
It was Shavarsh Missakian, the eminent editor of the famed Armenian daily “Haratch” in Paris, who first introduced the word genocide to the Armenian public in his editorial dated December 9, 1945. In a burst of rage, he concluded his short editorial saying: “Where were the lawmakers and the judges of today? Had they not discovered the word? Or was it that the bloodthirsty monster was too strong to lay a hand on? Our rage mounts tenfold particularly because the day’s victors were present then, where the crime was committed. They were there for full four years and ruled like landlords, much like they do nowadays in Germany. Then also hundreds were apprehended and 70 handpicked monsters were sent to Malta to be tried and punished commensurate to the crimes they perpetrated. Then? Has the world changed for the better from Istanbul and Malta to Nuremberg and Auschwitz? Let the hyenas of genocide be tried and punished mercilessly. But where did the first example of modern-day genocide take place?”
President George W. Bush used the term Medz Yeghern for the very first time. I was aghast to read in an Armenian newspaper an article in response to his use of the term, headlined along the line, “It was Genocide Mr. President, not Medz Yeghern”. I was aghast because we seemed to negate the very term the survivors of the genocide coined.
We lost a golden opportunity during the Obama’s administration. For the eight years, he was in office, he used the term Medz Yeghern. Instead of fighting tooth and nail his use of our very own term, we should have capitalized on his use of the term, in spite of what he had promised as a candidate. If Tsunami, Karaoke, Shoah, Hanukah, Kwanza have successfully made inroads in the English language lexicon, there is no reason we could not have introduced Medz Yeghern as another term to mean what it exactly meant to convey when the survivors of the genocide of the Armenians coined the term.
What happened to Armenians in 1915 cannot possibly be conveyed merely with the generic word genocide. Raffi K. Hovannisian, the American born and raised Armenia's first minister of foreign affairs, sums it best. I quote him: "Worse than genocide, as incredible as that sounds, is the premeditated deprivation of a people of its ancestral heartland. And that's precisely what happened. In what amounted to the Great Armenian Dispossession, a nation living for more than three millennia upon its historic patrimony-- at times amid its own sovereign Kingdoms and more frequently as a subject of occupying empires-- was in a matter of months brutally, literally, and completely eradicated from its land. Unprecedented in human history, this expropriation of homes and lands, churches and monasteries, schools and colleges, libraries and hospitals, properties and infrastructures constitutes to this day a murder, not only of a people but also of a civilization, a culture, a time-earned way of life. This is where the debate about calling it genocide or not becomes absurd, trivial, and tertiary".
Indeed calling the Armenian existential experience merely with the generic word genocide is “absurd, trivial and tertiary”. It was more than that, much more, it was MEDZ YEGHERN.The survivors of that genocide knew better to simply adopt the Armenian word for genocide -tseghasbanoutiun.