For 400 miles Flora Munushian Mouradian and her family marched, the dead and dying underfoot as nearly an entire nation inched closer to oblivion.
This forced exodus from Turkey was filled with horrors, and by its end the 14-year-old Mouradian would see her share of them — Turkish soldiers trying to abduct her and her sister, the disappearance of her brother at the hands of the same soldiers, the death of her grandmother during the march to Syria, and camps filled with tens of thousands of Armenians on the brink of starvation.
So slim was the chance of survival that Mouradian’s parents chose to abandon her and her sister along the way in an unfamiliar Syrian city, where she would be sold into a harem before stealing away to the United States, while her mother and father were forced to continue on for at least 100 more miles, never knowing what would become of their teenage daughters.
Mouradian lived to tell her story, and it is now one of many being entered into the Congressional Record to propel US leaders over increasingly complicated political obstacles keeping the United States from officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide, in which 1.5 million people perished at the hands of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. That recognition could carry enough weight to force reparations from the government in modern-day Turkey — a strategically positioned US ally in a volatile region — and bring some solace to a culture that has long been denied peace, say descendents of Armenian Genocide survivors.
“What other country will be the most powerful country to stand up and say this happened and it should be corrected, it should be recognized?” asked Katia Kusherian, a Glendale resident who submitted three stories of her family’s struggle to Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who is heading up the project. “Otherwise, the souls of the dead cannot be in peace, and our souls are not in peace.”
‘Pain that never sleeps’
Memories of the death march, which began in 1915 after the reformist and nationalistic Young Turks came to power in the Ottoman Empire, haunted Mouradian from the time she set foot in Boston, a member of the growing Armenian diaspora fleeing persecution that would continue through 1923 under the Young Turks’ equally ethnically exclusive predecessors, the Turkish Nationalists. Bottled for decades, the torment would escape in bursts when Mouradian tried to relate her ordeal to her young daughter, Kay Mouradian.
“Hunger is a pain that never sleeps,” Kay Mouradian, now a South Pasadena resident, recalled her mother saying.
But it wasn’t until 1984, at the onset of series of cathartic brushes with death, that Flora Mouradian would finally overcome profound feelings of self-pity and grief over losing what could have been some of the most enjoyable years in life. It was then, too, that her daughter saw the value in recording her mother’s horrific experience.
At 83 and diagnosed with a terminal heart condition following a heart attack, Flora came to South Pasadena to stay with her daughter to live out what a doctor expected would be her last days. Kay figured those days would be very few; dementia had already made strangers of friends and family in Flora’s mind, and tremors kept her from feeding herself as her health declined in the years prior.
But, gradually and inexplicably, Flora became more alert, more active and, as her daughter tells it, the “dark shadow” so much death and suffering created suddenly lifted. The tremors stopped, she rekindled friendships with people she was unable to recognize months earlier and the hardness tragedy had forged in her heart began to soften. “I just can’t explain it. It was as if all the trauma that had fallen upon her was completely released,” Kay said.
But health problems landed Flora in the hospital again soon after. One night as she seemed to be leaving the living world, she returned again, this time with a sibylline prophecy. “Do you know why I’m still here?” she asked her daughter. “Because if I died, nobody would know.” Then she told her daughter she would write a book about her life, and Kay set out soon after to trace the desert path her ancestors walked during their forced deportation.
One of the stories Flora relayed to her daughter began in Aleppo, Syria, where her mother and father left her and her sister before walking to their likely demise. That’s where the then-14-year-old Flora was sold to a wealthy Turkish man who made her the newest member of his harem. But as she was being carted off, Flora pleaded with a young Armenian boy in the street to tell her sister what had happened to her. The same night, her sister donned Muslim garb and snuck her away from the harem, her daughter said, and a Syrian family then gave her refuge until she left for the United States.
Researching for a book about her mother’s struggle, Flora in 1988 was in Aleppo searching for relatives of the family that took in her mother after she escaped the rich man’s harem. Then she learned her mother was back in the hospital for the fourth time.
When Kay arrived at the hospital, her mother was on her side in bed in the cardiac care unit. “I don’t know why I didn’t die,” her mother whispered.
Days later Kay was bewildered to find her mother sitting straight up in the hospital bed bellowing in Turkish, a language she hadn’t used in 50 years, before reverting back to English.
“They took my education! They took my family! Do you know what it was like? I went crazy!” Flora shouted. “The bastards!”
With that, the Turks seemed to gain atonement and Flora a peace that lasted until her death in South Pasadena in 1989, her daughter said.
Doomed to repeat
Glendale and Pasadena are home to one of the largest Armenian populations in the country, and for years Congressman Schiff, who represents the area, has tried to convince Congress of the need to formally characterize the 1.5 million Armenian deaths as a genocide, as France, Belgium, Russia, Italy, Canada and more than 20 other countries have already done. But legislation that would accomplish that goal has fallen prey to the political process each time it’s been introduced, due in large part to this country’s strong political relationship with Turkey, a key ally in the Middle East that to this day denies the massacres and death marches ever happened.
But Schiff is hoping the Turkish government’s recent actions in support of Iran, which he said complicated US diplomatic efforts to curtail Tehran’s nuclear capability, its complicity in the recent fatal Gaza aid flotilla raid and its changing sentiment toward Israel may finally break the hold diplomacy has had on recognizing what most historians consider a crime against humanity.
"If we are to assert our moral leadership in the fight for human rights, we cannot pick and choose which genocides to recognize,” Schiff said. “Every year, the Turkish lobby fights recognition with a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort. But Turkey’s recent decision to embrace Iran, its attempt to block sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program and its defense of the clerical regime’s crackdown on its own people should cause members of Congress to question their willingness to back its campaign of genocide denial.”
Now, in what he calls an effort to educate his colleagues on the importance of recognizing the genocide, Schiff is making the stories of Flora Mouradian and other survivors part of the national record.
But while Ankara’s actions may not be winning any new friends in Congress, Turkey’s position as a US trading partner, ally and NATO member give it a strong enough position to continue denying the genocide despite the recent developments, according to Levon Marashlian, a Glendale Community College history professor who’s written opinion pieces about Armenian-Turkish relations for newspapers here and abroad.
“I’m not sure that the real tension that exists now is enough to overcome those other factors,” Marashlian said. “Turkey is still viewed in Washington as a valuable ally, so its image has declined a bit, but it’s nowhere near being an out-and-out break.”
Call for revival Glendale’s Katia Kusherian, who submitted stories on her family’s ouster from the ancient Armenian capital Tigranakert, said the near-perennial defeat of legislation recognizing the genocide has been a constant disappointment to Armenians here who want their adopted country to recognize the atrocities that brought many of them here. “My expectation is justice with a capital J,” Kusherian said. “Armenian people all hope that this time is the time. We have been disappointed year after year. For political reasons we can’t just ignore the justice, ignore the truth. This is a moral thing, and without morals any country will go down.”
What exactly would happen if the United States were to recognize the genocide is uncertain, but some hope it would bring about the return of property and territory taken by the Turks. “The dream for a lot of Armenians is that we gain all that territory back and once again call it Armenia, but I doubt that will ever happen,” Kay Mouradian said.
But, as a retired educator, Mouradian said she would rather see Turkey sponsor a college fund for Armenian students. “We lost our best and brightest, and it’s taken 96 years for the Armenian intelligentsia to revive,” she said.
Mouradian said it could also heal the rift that exists between Turks and Armenians in the Middle East and clear up misconceptions that hinder greater cultural unity. “The ordinary citizen in Turkey has no knowledge of what happened
at that time. They have an opinion of Armenians as bad people,” she said.