YEREVAN, USSR — THE people started climbing the hill in a cool rain from early in the morning of April 24, flowers clutched in their hands. Groups of schoolchildren in blue uniforms marched along the concrete path. An Army unit and its commanders carried a wreath. A delegation from a factory, men with tulips in their rough hands, followed. As the steady stream neared the top of the hill, loudspeakers carried the solemn tones of an ancient Armenian Church hymn. A troop of boy and girl scouts stood as an honor guard along the final walkway leading to the memorial.
Since 1965, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians poured spontaneously into the streets and marched here, this day has become a powerful expression of the Armenian sense of nationhood. For Armenians here and across the globe, this day commemorates what they call "the Armenian genocide," which began on the night of April 24, 1915, when Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were rounded up.
The massacre is sometimes called "the forgotten genocide." According to contemporary accounts and generally accepted history, about a million and a half Armenians out of the 2 million living in Ottoman Turkey perished from 1915 through 1922, following sporadic terrorist acts against Turks by Armenians bent on gaining independence. Most of the Arme- nians died as the result of a policy of deportation and violence, with the remaining half million becoming refugees.
To this day, the Turkish government contends that the Armenian population was engaged in violent revolution during the time of World War I. Those who died perished as the result of a relocation policy, not from a preconceived massacre, the Turkish authorities insist.
Armenian-American historian Richard Hovannisian at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) calls this part of a "pattern of denial." This has not only been the response of the Turks, he argues, but also of the West, which went back on a World War I pledge to rehabilitate the survivors and restore an Armenian state.
The Armenian Republic was established in 1918 by a peace treaty dictated by the victorious Allies, but never ratified because of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The republic was crushed by the Bolsheviks two years later. In 1923, "the Armenian question" was officially abandoned by the Allies in the Treaty of Lausanne.
"The Armenians became an embarrassment to the West, because so many promises were unfulfilled," the UCLA professor says.
Armenians seemed to forget their past as well. In Soviet Armenia, until 1965, the massacre was not acknowledged, on the grounds it would harm Soviet-Turkish ties. Then the Armenian Communists, in an attempt to channel and use nationalist feelings, built the stark monument of 12 slanting stone slabs, symbolizing the 12 traditional regions of Armenia, formed in a circle around an eternal flame. The Armenian Communist leader lost his job when the demonstrations got out of hand.
Since the nationalist government came to power last summer, ousting the Communists, new markers have been added. Khachkars (traditional stone crosses), have been erected as monuments to hundreds of Armenians killed by Azerbaijani rioters in Sumgait in 1988 and in Baku in 1989. Another set of stone slabs along the pathway are in memory of those killed in border clashes with Azerbaijan, clashes that continue to this day.
From morning till midnight, Armenians in the hundreds of thousands come here and lay flowers carefully around the eternal flame. By the end of the day, a wall of flowers has been formed. Greta Tatevosian has come here every year, even several times a year, since 1965.
"This is our holy place," she says. "We've lost close to 2 million of our people, and it is very close to our hearts and souls."
Armine Haroutunian is a 15-year-old girl who has traveled here every year with her mother from the southern Armenian town of Harazdan.
"We must always come to this place to remember our martyrs," she says. "If a nation forgets its past, we don't have the right to live on this soil."
In midmorning, the catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Vazken I, walks slowly to the memorial, his gold-and-purple cloak draped over a long black robe. He walks down to the flame, where he is joined by Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan and his entire Cabinet. Priests slowly read the requiem service for martyrs, their chants echoing among the stones.