Whether in Montevideo or Marseille, Buenos Aires or Beirut, to be Armenian is often to be informed of the grave injustices of the world before your peers. Justice is defined alongside the rattle of impunity and for the many descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, to defend it is almost a birthright. For some, like activist Anahit Aharonian and lawyer Luisa Hairabedian, this means spending a lifetime advocating, researching, and fighting for justice in all circumstances, keenly aware of the consequences of staying silent.
When military coups brought a wave of violence and repression to their home cities of Montevideo and Buenos Aires, respectively, Aharonian and Hairabedian did not abandon their beliefs. These Armenian women and the work that they have inspired through their lives exemplify the spirit of seeking justice, even in the darkest of times.
For León Carlos Arslanián, a chief justice in Argentina, leveraging his power within the system also helped right the wrongs of oppression.
In the second half of the 20th century, as the US-backed Operation Condor swept through South America, destabilizing governments and installing right-wing civic-military dictatorships, Armenian communities in Uruguay and Argentina were reminded of the past. Decades after survivors of the Armenian Genocide settled into their new homes in Montevideo, in Buenos Aires or Córdoba, many were recognizing the violence they thought their families had escaped.
With Cold War tensions rising, a campaign of state terror targeted dissidence in both Uruguay and Argentina, imprisoning anyone believed to be associated with socialist organizations. Resistance to government abuse could be, and often was, a death sentence; concentration camps, death squads and the harrowing disappearances of thousands of people characterized these regimes.
In his book, Twenty Two Lives, Cristian Sirouyan details the everyday lives of the Armenians who were abducted and executed by the state. Through this work, he links two histories, two genocides by naming and profiling each victim.
“Every time we name them, we return to them the identities that the genocidaires intended to snatch from them in the clandestine detention centers of torture and extermination,” Adriana Kalaidjian expressed. She was 13 years old when her older sister Elena was abducted by military officials in 1977. Through the Kalaidjian family’s fierce activism, the remains of Elena’s body were identified and returned to them for burial in 2005, almost three decades later.
The civic-military dictatorship of Argentina lasted from 1976-1983, and in Uruguay from 1973-1985. The following decades would reveal the scope of the human rights violations in both countries, nurturing a public discourse on memory, justice and truth.
“If all those who have suffered human rights violations united,” Anahit Aharonian muses, “certainly the world would be much more just.” With her Armenian heritage at the crux of her activism, and her past and present as a proud leftist, her story is both a celebration and a question of how far definitions of justice take us as Armenians. Sentenced for her political dissidence during Uruguay’s right-wing dictatorship, Aharonian has not lost an ounce of her revolutionary spark as she marks 35 years since her release from prison, this year.
A Collective Liberation
Anahit Aharonian was born into one of the cradles of Armenian life in Montevideo. Her father Nubar Aharonian was at the birth of the first Armenian Republic in 1918, serving as part of Parliament. Her mother Victoria Kharputlian, a dedicated community educator, co-founded the Montevideo chapter of the Armenian Relief Society, and established the famed Ardzvigner Youth Group.
How can we ask others to help us in our struggle for justice when we do not involve ourselves in their struggles for justice?
Despite the vibrant Armenian cultural life in Montevideo at the time, distinct institutions and political affiliations segregated Armenians. In response to the discord, and in an effort to rally around the Armenian Cause, a group of young community leaders rejected hierarchies and established the Coordinating Board of Armenian Youth Organizations of Uruguay. Aharonian’s oldest brother Coriún was active in uniting representatives from the vast spectrum of Armenian life, mobilizing their constituents to participate in public actions.
The pioneering activism of the Board set precedents in the Armenian world, organizing marches on the streets and creating media campaigns denouncing the Turkish government. In 1965, the Board’s tireless lobbying work paid off: the world’s first official recognition of the Armenian Genocide came from the Uruguayan government. Not only was the Genocide recognized 50 years after it began, the law established April 24 as the Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Martyrs nationally.
An Era of Uprisings
Though the Board ultimately disbanded, the social justice activism around the Armenian Cause left an indelible mark on Uruguayan society and Aharonian’s life. As the 1960s ushered in an era of anti-colonial uprisings and civil rights movements throughout the world, she became increasingly inspired by what was happening in places like Algeria, Palestine, Vietnam and Cuba. People from all nations were defining their own rights on their own terms, decolonizing national histories and establishing an international definition of a liberation struggle.
By 1970, when she was studying agronomy at the state university, the young Aharonian became involved with the Tupamaros National Liberation Move-ment, a burgeoning leftist political organization in Uruguay. “In the same way that I was involved in the Armenian Cause, I became invested in the struggle against capitalism,” Aharonian explained. “I began working towards creating a society where justice and equality were at the core.” As a Tupamara, she was involved in international support missions, traveling to cities like Tripoli, Benghazi, and Beirut, meeting fellow activists and contributing her voice—as an Armenian and as an Uruguayan—to the global conversation. Soon, however, her reality would change.
In 1972, armed officers raided the Aharonian home only to find Anahit’s grandmother alone in the house. For an entire week after their intrusion, all she could say was, “The Turks have returned.” A year later, the Uruguayan government was officially overturned and on September 11, 1973, armed officers returned to the Aharonian home and arrested Anahit.
One of the arresting officers was a familiar face: an Armenian boy who grew up alongside the Aharonians, participating in the Ardzvigner Youth Group. “I asked myself: How could a child born of Armenian victims of state terrorism himself become a terrorist, committing crimes against humanity on behalf of the state?” she recalls.
“The Armenian community has never been a monolith anywhere,” Uruguayan historian Daniel Karamanoukian explains. “The shared heritage and patriotism united many different Armenians under the same roof in Montevideo, but in a time of raids, closures and seizures of land, many attempted to safeguard their individual institutions, occasionally at the expense of others.” After all, an Armenian heritage is not an implicit guarantor that one will always fight on the same side for justice and peace.
Aharonian spent the entirety of the dictatorship imprisoned as a dissident in Punta de Rieles Prison. For almost 12 years, she, along with hundreds of other women, endured torture, humiliation and forced labor. Despite attempts at dehumanization, the women invented ways to support each other. “Every woman would share her life story, her wisdom, with us,” Aharonian recalls. “From me, everyone learned how to sing the Armenian songs of my childhood, like ‘Himí el Lrrenk’, and play vatsunvéts and tavli, on our makeshift board.” Even clandestine theater performances were organized.
In 1980, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Aharonian, with the help of her friends María and Lucía Topolansky, embroidered a tapestry with the Armenian word for freedom—azadutiún surreptitiously stitched in. The work was smuggled out of the prison, a sign that hope had not been lost among the women. Lucía would later become a prominent politician in Uruguay—first as a senator, before eventually becoming First Lady as the wife of former President José Mujica, and ultimately Vice President of the country.
Aharonian’s Armenian culture, the same heritage that motivated her revolutionary spirit, inspired her in a place that was designed to deaden. Though she was prohibited from speaking Armenian, even when her parents would come to visit, she found ways to practice the language. In solitary confinement, in the windowless cells of perpetual light or perpetual dark—depending on how the guards decided that day—Armenian words would dance out of her mouth, refusing to be forgotten.
Back to Life
On March 10, 1985, days after the dictatorship lost its grip on Uruguayan society, Aharonian was released from prison. The very next day she was back to her studies, enrolling herself in the Department of Agronomy in Montevideo’s University of the Republic. Today, she is an agricultural engineer working on public access to clean water with the country’s National Commission in Defense of Water and Life (CNDAV) and the Multisector-ial Commission, both of which she co-founded.
“Living and participating in the struggle in Uruguay has made me more committed as an activist,” Aharonian asserts. From Buenos Aires to Istanbul, Aharonian has championed equity and criticized impunity. Since 1985, she has traveled extensively as an advocate, activist and ally, speaking at global forums in defense of human rights and environmental justice. In 2003, she returned to Punta Rieles with the collective Memories for Peace, which she co-founded to reclaim the identity of the neighborhood that became synonymous with the dictatorship’s crimes. Organizing the community around arts workshops and events, the collective’s efforts culminated in the transformation of the old bus stop family members of detained women would use to visit them into the Museum and Memory Plaza in 2011. In 2007, Aharonian co-founded the country’s first Museum of Memory to commemorate the victims of state terror and honor those who mounted resistance to the dictatorship.
Almost 35 years to the day of her release, Aharonian reflects on the many mementos that surround her in her family home in Montevideo. Each is its own monument to a part of the liberation struggle. She begins to whistle “Himí el Lrrenk” softly. Soon, she is singing: “But we, brave hearts, let us march forth/ To battle, without fear;/ And, if the worst befalls us,/ Facing the foe like [wo]men,/ Win back in death our glory,/ And sleep in silence then!”
Luisa Hairabedian was just 14 years old when the military junta in Argentina was instituted in 1976. She came of age during the dictatorship, acutely aware of the state repression that characterized her home city of Buenos Aires. Committed to speaking out against injustice at an early age, she would often get in trouble at her Armenian schools for speaking her mind. She was 21 when the dictatorship ended in Argentina and, unlike the older generation of activists before her, avoided government persecution.
Coupled with the political reality Argentina was facing, Hairabedian’s proud Armenian heritage fueled her early introduction into activism. Her father Gregorio “Coco” Hairabedian spoke often of his parents’ journey to Argentina: how his own father fought valiantly in the trenches of the French front of Adana in 1918; how his mother was the sole survivor in her entire family; and how they met on the ship to Buenos Aires. Her family’s history equipped Hairabedian with an international perspective and an understanding of how universal struggles for justice are.
Hairabedian pursued law at the University of Buenos Aires and soon became active on campus, becoming a member of the Communist Youth Federation, among other leftist organizations focusing on equality and human rights. Along with her peers, she would work in Buenos Aires’ most marginalized communities, its infamous villas miserias. Organizing and attending lectures on feminism, Hairabedian was also at the nucleus of Argentina’s nascent feminist movement in the 1980s. The close friends she made then, like Vilma Ibarra and Claudia Piñeiro, are champions of women’s rights in Argentina today.
By the time Hairabedian finished her law degree, the 1985 Trial of the Juntas had characterized the way justice would be sought in Argentina. For the first time since Nuremberg, 40 years prior, war crimes were being tried on a national scale by the new democratic government. “Memory, justice and truth” became a call to action throughout Argentine society, as families who had lost loved ones became empowered.
In the transition of power, some higher level officials implicated in crimes during the dictatorship were granted immunity. Without the possibility of prosecution or punishment, thousands of cases of disappeared people hung in the balance. In response, “truth trials” were introduced into Argentine courts for the first time. Unlike ordinary criminal trials, these trials were limited to investigation and documentation: the impossibility of pursuing the people accused of crimes in criminal proceedings did not mean no other action could be taken. Truth trials prioritized the right of relatives to know what happened to their loved ones, and the right of the broader society to know the details of the dictatorship’s deeds.
The legal precedent set by these truth trials meant that in the Argentine court system, crimes against humanity would not have borders, nor time limits. With this precedent in mind, Hairabedian, now a lawyer, was the first to bring the case of the Armenian Genocide to Argentine courts in 2000. She argued that the Turkish government ought to be compelled to reveal the fate of 50 documented ancestors because her family also had the right to truth, to know what became of their forebears.
The Hairabedians, father and daughter, began a meticulous process of petitioning international governments—the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and even the Vatican—for archives that could build the case against the Turkish government. Luisa herself traveled extensively, poring over archives and trying to piece together the strongest argument to bring in front of an Argentine court.
In 2004, soon after she returned from one such trip, Hairabedian’s life was tragically cut short in a car accident.
In the wake of Luisa Hairabedian’s death, her entire family came together to take up her mantle.
In March 2005, the Hairabedians established the Luisa Hairabedian Foun-dation to honor the legacy of a woman who invested her life in fighting for human rights. The foundation mobilized social scientists, academics, lawyers and historians to continue to build the case Hairabedian had set in motion. Her father Gregorio and her son Federico began traveling in her stead to collect documents all over the world.
In 2011, Judge Norberto Oyarbide sustained the Hairabedian claim, issuing a warrant to the Turkish government to make available all files and archives that may inform the family of the fate of their 50 relatives who disappeared during the Armenian Genocide. The final verdict was that genocide was committed by the Turkish state against the Armenian people, and against the Hairabedian family.
“The fight for human rights never ends,” LHF President, and Luisa’s son, Federico Gaitan Hairabedian explains. “If we do not put these rights in action, they simply become a menu of laws.” Since its establishment 15 years ago, the foundation has worked to engage as many people from as many places in the fight for justice. With programs and initiatives at the intersections of education, culture and law, LHF links Armenian and Argentine history through parallel narratives, becoming a nexus for anyone looking to be involved.
Through the LHF Educational Pro-gram, thousands of high-school age youth have participated in curricula designed to develop an understanding of human rights and genocide. Educators have benefitted from modules created specifically around these difficult topics. From supporting
the publication of books—like that of Siruoyan’s—to organizing lectures at universities around the world, producing theater pieces to arranging arts exhibitions, the foundation does what it can to develop collaboration among institutions, solidarity among communities, and trust among individuals. Luisa Hairabedian’s pioneering legacy lives on in the work her family does to sustain her namesake.
Shall We Be Silent?
The story of the Armenian people often runs parallel to narratives of resistance and resilience, pursuing justice in whichever society they settle. Stories like that of Anahit Aharonian and Luisa Hairabedian, and their families, illuminate the individual definitions of justice that impact the world across generations and societies.
“Every one of us is a whole,” Anahit Aharonian explains. “I am Armenian. I am Uruguayan. And my commitment is to fight ceaselessly and always for a world of justice—here, there, or anywhere.” In earnest, she begs the question: “How can we ask others to help us in our struggle for justice when we do not involve ourselves in their struggles for justice?”
¡Nunca más! [Never Again]
Chief Justice León Carlos Arslanián and the 1985 Trial of the Juntas
Soon after his inauguration marked the end of the military dictatorship in 1983, Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín established the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP). The organization meticulously documented the crimes of the juntas, preparing the famed Nunca más report. It revealed the vast scope of human rights violations committed from 1976-1983: kidnapping, forced disappearances, the abduction of children, and the torture and murder of an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people. Based on CONADEP’s findings, the Trial of the Juntas began in April 1985.
Chief Justice León Carlos Arslanián was one of six judges presiding over the trial, the first major one held for war crimes since Germany’s Nüremberg Trials, and the first to be conducted by a civilian court. Nine of the dictatorship’s most prominent military officials were sentenced for their crimes and the landmark trial set a precedent for seeking justice after years of political repression in Argentina.
The personal significance of Arslanián’s role in the trial was amplified by his Armenian heritage and his own family’s journey from Aintab to Buenos Aires. “I could see and connect Argentina’s past with that of Armenia, a past that wounded both peoples,” he explains. “Advocacy for human rights and my interest in culture, social matters and politics are in the genes I have inherited from my father.”
Orphaned during the Armenian Genocide, Arslanián’s father Levón was just a child when he made the journey from a Syrian orphanage to Lebanon, then France, to England, and finally, Argentina. Though his father spoke little about what he lost, the search for justice and truth imprinted on Arslanián and would lead to a prolific career in law, irrevocably impacting Argentine society. In the years following the trial, he would serve as Argentina’s Minister of Justice, the minister of Justice and Security for the Buenos Aires Province and president of the Buenos Aires Institute of Criminal Policies and Security.
Banner photo by Andres Stapff / Reuters