Heart of Treasure Valley

Boisean vows to tell the story of her mother, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide

Each year on April 24, as she has for 13 years, Jo-Ann Kachigian will stand on the Ann Morrison Park footbridge over the Boise River, a bouquet of flowers in her arms. It will be an emotional time; her heart will overflow yet again.

She will not be alone. She will be joined by about 100 people who gather, every year, on that day — Armenian Martyrs Day.

It’s a day to remember an estimated 1.5 million Armenians who died at the hands of Ottoman Turks in brutal, systematic violence, horrific torture and starvation starting 101 years ago.

Jo-Ann will think of her mother and father, who witnessed it all — and survived. She will think of her grandparents, her aunts and uncles and cousins, 46 of them in all — who didn’t.

She says: “I give thanks to God for all those unknown martyrs, and then I always whisper my vow to be their voice for as long as I have breath.”

One by one, people will add their flowers to the river’s current, and Jo-Ann will quietly speak again her promise:

“We remember.”

• • • 

Jo-Ann was 41 years old before she knew her mother’s story.

“I didn’t know what she had experienced. … She never talked about it. … I didn’t know anything about the genocide, I guess; had I known, would I have asked her to remember such horrible, painful things?”

Jo-Ann was going through a divorce at that time, though, and something prompted her to want to record her family history.

“She said, ‘It’s better to forget.

Jo-Ann persisted. She set up a tape player between them and peppered her mother with questions.

“She didn’t narrate anything. I pulled out things and I was so inept. I had been away from home for so long, and in my halting Armenian, I didn’t do a very good job of communicating with her. And with her broken English, she wasn’t getting through to me, either.”

But it was enough.

“I couldn’t believe the things she said. I was in shock. In fact, I suspended belief — but immediately when I got back to Idaho, I went to the Boise State library and read everything I could find on the genocide. Sure enough, there were all these eyewitness reports and things that supported things that she saw — so many things that were similar. …

“Your heart is just pounding as you’re reading — how could people do those things?”

• • • 

Jo-Ann’s mother, Joohar Kopoian, was a 12-year-old girl living with her extended family in Harput, Turkey. Hers was a Christian family, and the Armenian Christians had co-existed, albeit as second-class citizens, with the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire for centuries.

Armenian Martyrs Day marks the day, April 24, 1915, when the Turkish government rounded up and executed 300 Armenian intellectuals, accusing the Armenians of siding with Russia against Turkey. (The Armenians were, indeed, agitating — but for more fair treatment.) The day marked the beginning of a wave of massacres that would end with two-thirds of the Armenian population dead — tortured, executed, starved — by 1923.

That day, Joohar and her aunt were the sole survivors of their family.

“(My ma) described how (soldiers) came and took her father and brothers and other males of the town; they told them they were going to go to a new land. … Soon after, she heard the hail of gunshots that executed them.”

The girls had been baking bread when they heard the soldiers returning. Joohar jumped into a grain bin in the ground and hid, trembling through the night, until a gendarme found her the next morning and forced her at bayonet point to join the others on the death march. Joohar and her aunt were separated and never saw each other again.

For nearly a year, for hundreds of miles, Joohar was part of a human caravan of bedraggled women and children and elderly who were marched over the mountains and across the Syrian desert.

Joohar told Jo-Ann that the gendarmes, riding on horseback, sometimes tossed them bread as they pushed them along with whips. Other eyewitness accounts describe naked skin blackened and charred from the sun, emaciated bodies, people resorting to eating grass, even their clothing, or picking grain from horse droppings.

“At times, she felt it would be better to die than keep wandering.”

The elderly and sick who collapsed were left by the roadside to die. Killings were random. Mothers, unable to walk further, handed their babies to strangers. Other mothers, in desperation or madness, threw their babies into the river and themselves in after them.

“My mother drank water from the Euphrates River. There she saw the severed arms, hands, legs and feet of butchered Armenian girls floating by or washed up on the shore. When I expressed horror at the thought of drinking that water, she replied, ‘You (had) to drink it.’”

Later, Jo-Ann would listen to a genocide scholar at a Boise State symposium who said it’s a commonly accepted fact that every Armenian girl over the age of 10 was raped. Her mother was 12.

“I tried to ask her if she was ever assaulted herself, but I didn’t know those words in Armenian. So I said something like, ‘Did those gendarmes ever want to be like a boyfriend with the girls?’ She said no, you just walked.

“So either she was refusing to say something or maybe nothing happened to her. …

“We’ll never know.”

The destitute caravan was headed to a vast open-air concentration camp in the desert called Der el-Zor. No provisions were made for either the prisoners’ forced march or their exile, and arriving was no better than the journey itself — no food, no water; death by starvation, torture, execution.

Joohar was lucky. A Turkish man pointed to her in the midst of the caravan at Aleppo, Syria, before the camp.

“He saved her from certain death in the desert.”

She was bought; she was a slave, but she was alive. She was stripped of her Armenian identity, forbidden to speak Armenian and was given a Turkish name; she took care of the family’s children and ate table scraps. She didn’t complain.

“She said, ‘He was my savior.’”

When the man died five or six years later, Joohar asked if she could go to the American orphanage run by the Near East Relief Society, and the family released her. The orphanage posted names of surviving orphans in American newspapers and on church doors, in case the children had relatives in America. Two of Joohar’s elder brothers had fled to America before the genocide to escape being conscripted in the Turkish army — and they saw her name.

“When I was growing up, I often found her just sitting, like in a melancholy state. She would whisper, ‘Yah, yah, Jesus take care.’ But I never questioned her or asked her what she was thinking about.”

It took a year for Joohar’s brother to send her money, and she was to come as kind of a mail-order bride for her brother’s friend, Sarkis Kachigian, about 15 years her senior. Because of tightened immigration quotas, Joohar arrived in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

“So she came and this man jumps out of the doorway and shouts, ‘I’m Sarkis.’ And she says, ‘I run away,’ because she was so scared. She’s this teenager who has gone through all this stuff … a young girl (with) her name pinned on her dress, coming over all by herself.

“She ran and hid. The family story is he complained she was too thin but he would fatten her up with American ice cream.”

• • • 

Jo-Ann grew up, with her six brothers and sisters, in an immigrant neighborhood in South Milwaukee, Wis. Sarkis, her father, was the foreman at a factory that processed hides and skins; he spoke five languages and his greatest pride was his children.

“We were always encouraged to be smart, good citizens, bring honor to the family, never get in trouble, always do the right thing.”

But when Jo-Ann was 5 years old, her father killed himself. Family interpretations vary, but Jo-Ann knows he witnessed the Turks beheading his brother in Turkey before he came to America. And he began to drink.

“Today we would say it was PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

Her mother was illiterate, although she could sign her name to her children’s report cards. When her husband died, Joohar refused public assistance, and with single-minded determination — plus the aid of Jo-Ann’s elder siblings — raised her family.

“I was embarrassed about my mother, when I was a teenager, before I knew who she was. I was bothered about my mother’s “old country” ways and her lack of English language skills. …

“To me, she was a complicated person I did not know. There were never any signs of affection, but you knew that she loved you — she didn’t have time to show you. We were never hugged, never given a kiss, never tucked in bed — but she would wait up for you to come home to make sure you were safe inside. …

“I didn’t appreciate her and foolishly compared her with the mothers of my friends. They all led comfortable lives, had husbands to take care of them, and lived in nice houses. This was in stark contrast to my mother’s life full of horrific, unspoken memories and economic insecurity.

“She lived for her children — and I didn’t recognize it….

“She was stoic, quiet, undemanding, just took in whatever came her way. She would be grateful to be sitting on the porch, enjoying the sunshine, trees and green grass … which she thought was paradise.”

• • • 

Even before Jo-Ann learned her mother’s story, social action found her. When Jo-Ann was in college studying elementary education, a recruiter from the newly formed Peace Corps came to speak and she immediately signed up. She kept it a secret so she wouldn’t be humiliated if she wasn’t accepted.

“I was such an idealist: I’m going to save the world and I’m going to learn and I’m going to help people. I had never been out of my home town at all; I was (so) naive.”

One of Jo-Ann’s sisters was already a missionary nurse in Swaziland, South Africa, so when Jo-Ann’s Peace Corps invitation telegram arrived, her mother was vehemently against the idea.

“Now I see that it was her way of showing she loved me. She didn’t want me to suffer hardship as she had. …

“She said, in her broken English: ‘One daughter in Africa is enough.’ …

“She said, ‘You stay America. America best country in the world. … You stay America, you get office job, you marry nice boy.’ …

“This was my mother’s last admonishment: She wagged her finger in my face and she said, ‘You gonna come home (on) first airplane because you no can pick up your underwear.’

“So no matter how rough things got or how homesick I got overseas, I was remembering her challenge. I wasn’t going to come home early. I was going to finish my two years (in Liberia, West Africa).

“I taught in the bush country and lived in a mud house with no electricity or no running water — but it was the most wonderful experience.”

When Jo-Ann returned to America, she remained active in social issues over the decades — Vietnam and Iraq war protests, the Nestle Infant Formula boycott, civil rights. Later, she became active with Voices for Education, the Interfaith Alliance, the Idaho Peace Coalition, Women in Black, the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, Add the Words, the Idaho Interfaith Equality Coalition; she has tutored refugee children and sewed hundreds of quilts for Lutheran World Relief.

“You have a responsibility. When someone does something wrong, you have to speak up. … When you see an injustice, you have to take action.”

Even today, using the word “genocide” in conjunction with the events of 101 years ago is a tangle of international proportions. Turkey, a NATO ally, denies the events of the past were genocide, which puts the United States in an awkward political position — Turkey has threatened to deny access to its military bases over the use of the word.

The genocide is not in Turkish history books, nor is it in many history books at all. Jo-Ann recently spoke to 200 eighth-graders at Hillside Junior High School as they studied the Jewish Holocaust. She told her mother’s story and she quotes Hitler: “I have given orders to my Death Units to exterminate without mercy or pity men, women and children belonging to the Polish-speaking race. … Who, after all, remembers today the annihilation of the Armenians?

Jo-Ann shows students the five-petaled lavender forget-me-not that she wears on her collar, a symbol from the 100th anniversary of the genocide. “Never again” sounds so hollow, she says. But she challenges the students:

“Now that you have heard the awful truth, who can keep silent? When you see innocent people suffer from oppression and discrimination, what can you do?

“What will you do when you see intolerance and hatred and bullying? Will you speak up? Or will you turn away and be grateful that you are not the victim? Will you stand up and work for justice and peace?”

When Jo-Ann set the tape recorder beside her mother, she set into motion the work that she is doing now — the vow that she is keeping.

“I needed to hear her story; my children needed to hear her story, the world (needs) to hear her story. …

“I want to be a voice for those whose voice has been silenced.”

Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, kjones@idahostatesman.com, @IDS_Photography Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives by what, how and why they do things. Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman. com.

If you go: Armenian genocide remembered

4 p.m. Sunday, April 24, Ann Morrison Park. The Treasure Valley Armenian-American community will gather at the stone genocide marker under a tree near the children’s playground and drop flowers into the Boise River. In 2004, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne proclaimed April 24 at “Idaho Day of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923,” making Idaho the 33rd state to officially recognize the Armenian genocide. To date, 43 states have acknowledged it.

Learn more: From Jo-Ann Kachigian’s bookshelf

Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide” by Donald Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” by Samantha Power

The Sandcastle Girls” by Chris Bohjalian (a novel)

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" by Austrian-Bohemian writer Franz Werfel

The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response” by Peter Balakian

Ararat,” a movie by Atom Egoyan

The Armenian artist Arshile Gorky

Oral history of Sara Kopoian, Jo-Ann’s aunt by marriage: http://umdearborn.edu/casl/uploads/media/Kopoian_Sara.pdf