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Armenian genocide survivor marks 100th anniversary

04/24/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/22/2015 02:59 EDT
Armenouhi Tenkerian-Piliguian was a baby when the Armenian genocide began in 1915 but she remembers
clearly how her father later described the streets of Armenia.

"Rivers of blood," she said, adding that aside from that, he did not want to talk about it.

At 101 years old, Tenkerian-Piliguian uses a walker and needs her daughter's help getting from her room to a family meeting room at Mount Sinai Hospital in Montreal, where she lives.

She makes the trek — with determination — to meet me because she does want to talk about it.

Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks starting in 1915 until 1923 — an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century.

Turkey insists those killed were victims of a civil war, not a genocide.

On the 100th anniversary, Armenians around the world are trying to raise awareness about the mass killings and they continue to urge Turkey to recognize it as genocide.

"The Turks, did they acknowledge they did it? No. They must," Tenkerian-Piliguian said. 

She will be featured in a video produced by the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Canada.

It will be posted, along with videos of two other survivors on the Centennial's Committee's website, marking the 100th anniversary. 

"Survivors are living archives," said Mheir Karakachian, chairman of Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of Canada. 

"The three grandmas — or medz mamas as we call them — we treat them as saints because they went through hell and they survived," he said.

Family fled Turkey

Tenkerian-Piliguian was born in 1914 and shortly after, her family left Turkey to go to Syria. 

They returned after the genocide began and her father searched for his family members.

"All the family was lost...my father had seven sisters...but he didn't find any sister," she said.

After checking several orphanages, her father did find one niece and one nephew.

Eventually the family fled to Egypt, where they lived for 40 years. 

Tenkerian-Piliguian married and had three children before moving to Montreal in 1963.

Her eldest daughter, Nayiri Hampartsoumian, remembers seeing signs of emotional wounds.

"My grandfather's eyes were always very, very sad...I never remember him laughing out loud or anything,"

Hampartsoumian, who is now a grandmother herself, says her mother is the matriarch of the family and has always taught her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren about their history.

She often did that by reciting poetry, which Hampartsoumian says was sometimes difficult for her and her siblings when they were children.

"We used to say 'Ma, don't tell us this story because we're going to start crying' because it was a very sad story about this little boy who lost his family and his friends.'No, no,' she'd say. 'You have to learn. You have to be always honest...always hold our heads up. Even if there's difficulty, to face it with honour and pride,'" 

And it's clear Tenkerian-Piliguian's sense of pride is still strong at 101 years old.

She's had her nails manicured — a must, according to her daughter — and she's carefully chosen her outfit for our interview, which includes a string of pearls.

Tenkerian-Piliguian also still has a command over her children many mothers would envy.

In Armenian, she tells her daughter to "bring the box of chocolates!" because she cannot let me and my colleague, CBC cameraman Denis Cleary,  leave without offering us a treat.

Immediately Hampartsoumian rushes out of the room saying she must get them or else her mother will be angry.

Before we knew it we were enjoying some Belgian chocolates.

Tenkerian-Piliguian's voice may be gentle but it's strong.

On this anniversary, she's adding it to those of Armenians around the world, it hopes of sparking the change they all want.

"She wishes to have Turkey recognize this as a genocide....she keeps saying I hope in my lifetime I'll see that," Hampartsoumian said.

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