After 55 days spent in a small enclosure with no food and only jugs of water, a thinner and thick-bearded Agasi Vartanyan emerged from his perch Thursday, his voice weak but his spirit swelling with victory for a mission accomplished.
Vartanyan needed no help as he used a ladder to climb down from a glass enclosure built on a high platform outside St. Leon Armenian Cathedral in Burbank. A flock of doves was released and a crowd of people clapped as he stepped on the ground, raised his arms to give the peace sign, then sat in a wheelchair. The 55-year-old Glendale man had entered the 12-foot-by-12-foot enclosure on April 3 promising to fast for 55 days to draw attention to the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
He went in weighing 224 pounds and emerged nearly 60 pounds lighter. After a quick check-up by a medical crew, Armenian television reporters swooped in and Vartanyan told the crowd he felt well and that he was grateful for all their support.
“I have great satisfaction,” the Armenian man said through a translator. “You wouldn’t believe the reaction I had from around the world.”
• PHOTOS: Agasi Vartanyan ends his 55-day fast to bring attention to Armenian Genocide
Vartanyan’s hunger strike was meant to cast global attention on what he and many have called an injustice to the 1.5 million Armenians killed under the command of the Ottoman Turks starting a century ago this year. From 1915 to 1923, Armenians were forcibly deported from their homes and killed as part of a systemic ethnic cleansing that also affected Assyrians and Pontic Greeks.
Historians, scholars, human rights activists and even Pope Francis call it the first genocide of the 20th century, but the Turkish government maintains the deaths were a result of betrayal and civil unrest in what was then a collapsing Ottoman Empire.
Vartanyan couldn’t participate in the March for Justice last month when more than 100,000 people walked for six miles through the streets of Los Angeles to mark the April 24 centennial. But he said he watched television and saw news reports and was filled with pride when he learned of the great outpouring.
His efforts were supported by the nonprofit Crimes Against Humanity — Never Again (CAHNA), which formed to raise global awareness on genocides past and present. The organization set up a live stream camera of Vartanyan, which drew some 19 million viewers.
That sort of attention will help the organization’s next goal, which will move away from trying to garner recognition of the Armenian Genocide to fighting for justice for those who are descendents, said CAHNA’s president Harut Sassounian, who lost relatives to the genocide. That includes pursuing legal actions against the Turkish government, which has refused to call the events of that time a genocide.