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Saturday, 6 November, 1999, 12:54 GMT
Shame in a biblical land
There is shame that the assassination that took place in an ancient world

By James Rodgers in Armenia

The people of Armenia have been grieving at the funerals of the Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and seven others shot dead during an armed attack on parliament.

This late 20th century slaughter happened in a country with an ancient history.

The Armenian capital, Yerevan, is dominated by Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to have come to rest after the flood.

Armenians are proud of this biblical association. Noah's Ark has given its name to everything from a brand of mineral water to one of the country's main news agencies, Noyan Tapan in Armenian.

The ancient world lives on in Yerevan.

Flocks of sheep can be seen by the side of main roads on the outskirts of the town. Cattle cross suburban streets.

Since the killings, they pass checkpoints where soldiers peer out of armoured personnel carriers while their comrades stop and search cars.

Pride and shame

If Armenians are proud of their biblical history, they are not proud of their modern assassination. Many people I spoke to talked of the shame they felt over the killings.

The country has not prospered since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Hundreds of thousands have left during the 1990s to try to find the wealth and stability which were out of their reach at home.

An enthronement is replaced by prayers for the dead
They are the latest emigrants from a country which has communities all over the world. Denied statehood for so long, the Armenians have always looked to their church for an embodiment of national identity.

The election of a new head of that church brought many back to their homeland the week of the shootings.

Levon Karakachian was born in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. Now he is a carpet salesman in California.

He described how mobile telephones began ringing during the solemn ceremony. The bishops were annoyed until they were told what had happened.

Funeral

The enthronement of the new head of the Church, Catholicos Garegin II, was supposed to take place on Sunday.

Instead, the Catholicos was saying prayers for the dead.

The funeral ceremony was held in the national opera house. The open coffins of the politicians who had died were on the stage.

Many people wept uncontrollably as they laid flowers in front of photographs of the deceased. A soldier guarded each coffin and behind black drapes, at the back of the stage, an orchestra played funeral music.

A crowd of thousands, many of them crying too, stood in front of the theatre. Throughout the day, state television broadcast pictures not accompanied by commentary, but by Mozart's Requiem mass.

In the centre of the city, hundreds of mourners flagged down any passing vehicle to hitch a lift to the cemetery where the prime minister was to be buried.

Worried for the future

People wept before open coffins
My taxi was stopped and four women with magnificent sets of gold teeth piled in. They laughed and joked, happy to have got a lift, and then fell silent. They were ashamed by what had happened. They were worried for the country's future.

The traffic came to a standstill. We had to get out and walk. The cemetery was at the top of a rocky hillside. Here and there trees had managed to take root in the barren soil.

There was such a crowd on the road that mourners, some in high heels, scrambled and stumbled up the stony slope. At the graveside people pressed forward against each other. Elderly women and army officers wept for the man they had lost.

The sense of shock at the sudden and violent nature of the deaths in the parliament was shared by everyone I talked to. But there was also disillusionment with the institution where it had happened.

A local journalist told me that he, and many of his compatriots, had lost faith in their politicians.

The opportunities that had come with independence had been wasted, he said.

'Carry no weapons'

He had been at university with one of the men who has been charged with the killings.

"I didn't know him well. I suppose he just decided this was the only thing he could do," he said.

It seemed as if he recognised the attackers' frustration with government corruption but was horrified by their actions.

The gunmen were able to enter the national assembly unchallenged.

Three of them had passes, and there were no metal detectors. They were able to disassemble their weapons and hide them in their coats.

When I left Yerevan on a bright autumn morning Mount Ararat¿s snow covered slopes towered above the city.

As you pass through the security checks at the airport, there's a sign in Armenian and English.

'Carry no weapons,' it says.

If Armenia is to come through this period of uncertainty without further bloodshed this is a warning which must apply to politics as well as to aircraft.


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See also:
30 Oct 99 |  Europe
In pictures: Armenia's grief
31 Oct 99 |  Europe
Armenia's grief at state funerals
28 Oct 99 |  Europe
Armenia in mourning
28 Oct 99 |  Europe
Q&A: What next in Armenia?

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