Saturday, July 10, 2021


Earlier this year I was honoured to be invited to address the Melbourne Armenian Community’s protest march against the Australian government’s lack of recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Commencing on a Saturday at Federation Square, we marched down a Swanston Street studded with shoppers and concluded at the steps of the State Library, where the various speeches were given. These are all very public spaces and at all times, one could see passersby look up and take notice. I was able to count at least fifteen who approached participants to make a comment or ask a question, and when we arrived at the State Library, it being opposite Melbourne Central Station, I noticed a number of spectators stand around and observe, while others came and went. 

A number of thoughts popped into my head. The first was one of admiration for the dogged determination of the Armenian community. Despite the Genocide having been perpetrated over a hundred years ago and indeed, despite not having an independent nation-state until 1991, (except for the briefest of periods in 1918), the Armenians world-wide have maintained their anger and their rage. They have never stopped protesting and raising awareness of the heinous crime that befell their people. Given the privileged position afforded the perpetrator by powerful nations as a result of its geostrategic position and realpolitik, until recently, it appeared to all but the most idealistic, that Genocide recognition was an impossible dream. Yet a few days after the Armenian demonstration in Melbourne, United States President Joe Biden did what none of his predecessors dared to do: he formally recognized the Armenian Genocide. This, in large part was due to generations of Armenian persistence. Even here in Australia, such success that the relevant Greek and Assyrian communities has achieved in having the Genocide perpetrated against their communities recognized on a state level, is due largely to the activism of the committed Armenian community. 

The second thought was an inevitable comparison with the annual “Justice For Cyprus” march. While the Armenians deliberately chose to march through a busy thoroughfare on a day in which shoppers are out in force, thus ensuring maximum exposure for their message and enhanced community engagement, year after year, the Cyprus march has traditionally taken place on a Sunday, when there are few if any shoppers, weaving its way up a cold and empty Spring Street, where absolutely no-one is to be seen, to conclude at a just as desolate Parliament. In terms of exposure, engagement and conveying a message, the event does not achieve its aim. It is as if we are all howling in the wind. 

Further, unlike the Armenians, whose fervor for campaigning for Genocide recognition has not abated down the generations, our community does not seem able to maintain anything resembling that level of interest in pedestrian protest. There are few if any living survivors of the Armenian Genocide. There are large numbers of survivors of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, a crime that took place less than half a century ago. Nonetheless, we have seen numbers participating in the Justice For Cyprus demonstration dwindle year after year to a point where the inevitable question has to be asked: What are we protesting about if no one actually cares? 

Last year, due to the lockdown, the Justice for Cyprus march did not take place. This year, SEKA, the Justice for Cyprus Co-Ordinating Committee has announced that the march will again not take place, citing Coronavirus as its reason. While Coronavirus did not deter the Armenians and the Greek and Assyrian friends who marched with them, SEKA’s decision is at least understandable. One community stalwart even ventured to opine on radio that it is for the best that the march be cancelled because it creates trauma for victims of the invasion. There is a realization that something that has been deemed a moral imperative for over four decades may have become deleterious to the mental health of all of those victims living in our city. 

It is sad to witness the demise of the Justice For Cyprus march after so many decades and it is difficult not to view it as a barometer for the health of our community and its capacity for collective action and social activism. Yet its fate is a cursory tale of what happens when one perpetuates a tradition solely for the sake of self-perpetuation, having lost the ability to critically evaluate the effectiveness of the action in achieving the desired aim in the first place. The Justice For Cyprus rallies of the past two decades have had scant effect on Australian government policy in relation to the Cyprus issue, which has remained stable and sympathetic from the outset. If anything, the dwindling numbers of participants suggests to politicians that this is no longer an issue pertinent to the affected community and thus, no collateral damage at the ballot box will be incurred should policy change occur to our detriment in the future. 

Furthermore, protest marches while voluble, are fast becoming an outmoded form of applying political pressure. Governments these days have developed mechanisms to neutralize crowds, largely deal behind closed doors, with interest groups and their representatives, and are rarely influenced on ‘marginal’ issues by a flag waving, marching constituency, especially one whose numbers are so small that they can all fit on the steps of Parliament. Instead, protest marches are legally sanctioned because they provide participants with the conviction that because they are able to an express an opinion and blow off some steam, they are taking part in the democratic process, despite the fact, especially in relation to the Justice For Cyprus march, that there is absolutely no one listening. 

I am going to miss the Justice For Cyprus march, a winter fixture since my childhood, one that had a marked effect in the formation of my community consciousness and sense of social responsibility. On the other hand, I consider its abolition by SEKA to be a brave and necessary decision, for SEKA too is at the cross-roads, faced as it is with the task of self-evaluation. Up until now, the march has been the key event in its yearly programme. Now, divested of the burden of convening an event that the community finds irrelevant and avoids, SEKA is free to explore novel ways of continuing and broadening the scope of its activism as it seeks redress for the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. A composite approach, comprising story-telling and photographic exhibitions in local libraries, social media updates on political developments, recording and publishing the memoirs of refugees for posterity, forming targeted dedicated lobby groups staffed by experts, the sponsoring of public lectures, drawing and literature competitions, research on the experiences of Australians living on the island at the time and indeed funding academic research on the issue, reaching out and collaborating with the other ethnic communities resident on the island such as the Maronites and the Armenians, both of which have a vibrant presence in Melbourne, engaging with the Turkish-Cypriot community in order to compare experiences and foster closure, all of these and so much more could serve to capture and maintain the interest of members of our specific and broader communities in the crime that took place in 1974, and its continued after-effects. 

Ultimately, SEKA is a community organization of volunteers and it is only as strong as the community that supports it. All of our formal institutions must get behind it in a meaningful way. It deserves and must have the active participation and assistance of all of us, for it is the most important “national issue” affecting the security of the two Greek-speaking countries that comprise our motherland, something we ought not to forget, considering that the undeterred perpetrator has applied the same tactics in Syria, Artsakh and elsewhere. Ours is a multi-faceted community comprised of people with an enormously diverse range of skills. All of these need to be harnessed if we are to honour those who lost their lives in the 1974 invasion, remain sensitive to the victims of rape, abuse and ethnic cleansing and maintain our vigilance in demanding of our government that it takes the necessary steps to seek justice from the perpetrator and ensure that such events never take place again. 

At the 2019 Justice for Cyprus rally, an old man, expressing his disappointment at the low turn-out, remarked to me: «Κοίτα πόσοι λίγοι είμαστε. Εμείς και εμείς είμαστε». My response was that we have always been just us. But sometimes, just us, in clever and novel ways, is all you need. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 July 2021