Thousands of Armenians staged a procession to a hilltop memorial above the capital on Tuesday to mark the 97th anniversary of the genocide of their kin by Ottoman Turks during World War I.
From early morning, crowds of people joined the annual procession, carrying candles and flowers to lay at the eternal flame at the center of the monument commemorating the mass killings.
“Today we, just as many, many others all over the world, bow to the memory of the innocent victims of the Armenian genocide,” President Serzh Sarkisian, who led top officials laying wreaths at the monument, said in a statement.
“This day is one of those moments when the entire nation rallies around the unification of our homeland,” he said.
Among the mourners was 75-year-old Tsovinar Tumasian, who said that her father had fought to save women and children from Turkish attacks.
She urged other countries to pressure Turkey to accept that the killings were genocide.
“If they are not forced to do so, they will not recognize the genocide as fact. They think that with time, everyone will forget about it,” Tumasian told AFP as her relatives helped her make her way up the hill towards the monument.
The procession was broadcast throughout the day on all Armenia’s national television channels, accompanied by sombre music, documentary footage about the massacres and eyewitness accounts from survivors.
The night before the commemoration, more than 8,000 people led by the youth wing of the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party held a torch-lit march through central Yerevan, where a group of activists staged their now-traditional burning of a Turkish flag.
“Our action is a protest, a cry of indignation,” one of the marchers, student Hamayak Serobian, told AFP, demanding that Turks accept “the brutality of their ancestors”.
Turkey strongly denies the genocide allegations and the annual commemoration comes after the dispute between the neighbors was reignited by an attempt by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to bring in a law criminalizing denial of the mass killings as genocide.
After a diplomatic row with Turkey erupted, France’s top court struck down the law in February on the grounds that it infringed freedom of expression.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million people were killed during World War I as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart, a claim supported by several other countries.
Turkey argues 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians rose up against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian troops.