For the 16th year, travelers in Watertown will see billboards urging them to recognize the Armenian genocide.
But artist Daniel Varoujan Hejinian, who started the tradition as a way to honor the sufferings of the estimated 1.5 million Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks, said it's pure coincidence that one of his billboards replaces one sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, the organization that has drawn harsh criticism for not wholeheartedly embracing the word “genocide” in reference to atrocities that began in earnest in April 1915.
“It was unintentional,” said Hejinian, who started a non-profit, Peace of Art, to illustrate the human condition through visual art in 2003. The organization now sponsors the billboards.
“We try to create solutions for problems,'' he said. "We are a peaceful organization.”
Growing up in Aleppo, Syria, to parents who fled the genocide, he said he was profoundly influenced by his heritage and the Armenian experience, even though his parents didn't talk much about the atrocities and grief they witnessed.
Hejinian said his uncle was hanged and his aunt died during one of marches Armenians were forced to take from their homelands to the Syrian desert.
“I put the first billboard in Watertown and Cambridge in Porter Square,” he said. “After that, it became an annual responsibility. People expect it every year.”
This year, passers-by will see President Obama's iconic “O” symbol incorporated into the billboard, which asks people to “turn hope into action” and “recognize the Armenian genocide.”
Hejinian said it's a nod to Obama's unfulfilled campaign promise that he'd call on Turkey—the country that succeeded the Ottoman Empire—to recognize the genocide.
“I understand his position and America's reliance on Turkey with the military, but I believe one day Turkey should recognize the Armenian genocide,” he said. “You cannot hide something like that.”
The billboard this year replaces an Anti-Defamation League anti-bullying billboard. The ADL drew sharp criticism from Armenians, Armenian supporters, and Watertown officials for refusing to call the mass slaughter of Armenians genocide.
Watertown officials ended their participation in the ADL's “No Place for Hate” campaign in 2007 because of the issue, and in Aug. 2007, the organization's director issued a statement modifying the ADL's official stance.
“We have never negated but have always described the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians as massacres and atrocities. On reflection, we have come to share the view of Henry Morgenthau, Sr. that the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide,” said Abraham H. Foxman in the statement.
But he was opposed a Congressional resolution calling on Turkey to recognize the genocide, saying it would be a "counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians."
Later that year, the ADL voted to take no further action on the subject of Armenian genocide.
Hejinian's billboards can be seen through the first week of May on Mount Auburn Street near the Armenian cultural centers and churches as well as at the intersection of School and Arsenal streets.
Megan McKee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.