George Clooney Talks Armenian Genocide "Cruelty" in Yerevan

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George and Amal Clooney

"Hitler once famously said, 'But who remembers Armenia?' The answer is the whole world. That's who," says the actor.

George Clooney urged for the massacres that left more than 1.5 million Armenians dead a century ago to be recognized as "genocide." The actor spoke late Sunday in the Armenian capital Yerevan — on the day commemorating the beginning of ethnic slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turk forces in 1915 — saying it was time for the event to be recognized for what it was. 

"Years before anyone uttered the word 'genocide,' there was Armenia. And although the actual word was yet to be introduced, we were well aware of its characteristics," said Clooney.

"Cruelty has always been at the core," he continued. "Not self-defense. Not simply war. But the deliberate destruction of an entire people. It happened to Armenians starting 101 years ago and we've seen it repeated all over the world since. Germany. Cambodia. Bosnia. Rwanda. I've seen it first-hand in the broken limbs and broken families and broken hearts of the people of Darfur. So I've seen what mankind is capable of at its worst. But I've also seen something else, something much stronger than hate. I've seen bravery and kindness and incredible acts of love."

Clooney added, "Tonight, we celebrate the best examples of that" as he made his remarks onstage for the awarding of a new $1 million humanitarian prize funded by prominent Armenians. (The award was inspired by the help survivors of the events of 1915 were given by nations around the world.)

Clooney presented the $1 million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, which recognizes people who courageously uphold humanitarian values in the face of violence, to an African woman who saved the lives of 30,000 children from ethnic violence in Burundi. "Tonight's award celebrates heroism and bravery far beyond what most of us could do in a lifetime," said the actor. "And, our nominees didn't graduate from some hero school. They were just everyday people who saw a need and did something about it."

He concluded: "In doing so, we honor the million and a half lives that were lost 101 years ago. And we honor those lives by calling their tragedy by its true name. Genocide. The Armenian Genocide. Hitler once famously said, 'But who remembers Armenia?' The answer is the whole world. That's who."

Earlier on Sunday, Clooney joined thousands of other people in placing flowers at the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan.

The Aurora Prize — named in memory of a young Armenian woman who survived the genocide of 1915 and went on to spend her life raising money for humanitarian causes — went to Marguerite Barankitse, from Maison Shalom and the REMA Hospital in Burundi, who last year herself had to flee ethnic violence at home and take refuge in Rwanda, where she continues her humanitarian work.

The new award for people who intervene to preserve lives and advance humanitarian causes in the midst of crises was established by a group of Armenian businessmen and philanthropists and is named after Aurora Mardiganian, who as a child lost her father and brothers in the Armenian Genocide of 1915, survived against the odds and went on to devote her life to humanitarian relief and raising awareness of the atrocities she had witnessed.

The $1 million prize — which supporters liken to a Nobel prize for humanitarian awareness — will be shared among charities that support Barankitse's work.

After accepting the prize from Clooney, she said she would use an additional personal award of $100,000 to care for children displaced in violence in eastern Congo and to set up micro-credits for mothers of refugee children to establish their own businesses to help support their families.

"Love knows no frontiers," said Barankitse, a Tutsu who during violence in Burundi hid 72 of her Hutu neighbors only to be forced to watch them executed when they were discovered.

Three other finalists were awarded $25,000 each to continue their work. They included a priest in the Central African Republic who has sheltered both Christians and Muslims; a Pakistani woman working to free bonded laborers who are effectively enslaved; and an American surgeon, Dr Tom Catena, who is the only doctor for 750,000 in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where a bitter civil war is raging.

Clooney — known for his Not on Our Watch project to eliminate genocide and a highly publicized visit to Sudan in 2014 — has teamed up with 100 Lives, an initiative set up by Armenian businessmen and philanthropists Vartan Gregorian, Ruben Vardanyan and Noubar Afeyan to commemorate those who helped people during the Armenian Genocide and to "continue in their spirit by supporting people and organizations that keep the legacy of gratitude alive."

Although many nations around the world have agreed to officially name the Armenian killings of 1915 "genocide," the U.S has yet to do so. Turkey also continues to strenuously oppose moves to have the events recognized as genocide.