YEREVAN, Armenia — It took only one word to turn the life of American jazz musician Alex Baboian upside down: genocide.
The 28-year-old was born and learned to play guitar in Boston — and it was also there that he found out about his ancestors’ painful past.
Historians agree around 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I. Armenians are still fighting to get this event universally recognized, however, with Turkey maintaining the deaths happened in the fog of the war amid the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire.
This controversy was highlighted last month after Pope Francis used the word “genocide” for the second time in as many years while on a visit to the former Soviet republic.
“My great-grandparents were from Armenia, but I was too young when they died and knew very little about them,” Baboian told NBC News during the pontiff”s visit. “So I asked my grandmother. That’s when the word ‘genocide’ hit home.”
Baboian had never heard about his own family’s suffering. His grandmother told him a story that her own mother had only spoken of once, before never mentioning it again.
“Armenians are proud people,” he said. “It’s not part of our character to sit around and talk about the fact that our great-grandparents were murdered and raped and tortured, and the people who escaped, took their stories to their graves.”
Baboian was among the 480,000 people with Armenian ancestry living in America, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2011.
Many of these are descended from families who fled the massacre.
The story Baboian’s grandmother told him spurred a move back to the home of his ancestors two years ago. He still spends time there but now lives mainly in Berlin, Germany, where he makes a living as a musician.
The story began in 1915, around the time Ottoman Turkish troops started rounding up and deport ethnic Armenians. Soldiers stormed Baboian’s great-grandmother’s town, killing her parents in front of her and telling her and her siblings they would be relocated.
Instead, they were sent on one of the many “death marches,” in which Armenians were forced out into the desert or into the mountains and left to die. In the space of few years, up to 1.5 million people died of hunger, thirst or exhaustion, or were murdered along the way.
But Baboian’s great-grandmother survived, managing to walk 1,500 miles to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. On the way, however, her little sister was kidnapped and she never saw or heard from her again.
Today, Armenia is still suffering widespread social issues. Despite some economic reforms since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has an unemployment rate of almost 18 percent — compared with 5.5 percent in the U.S..
Its population of nearly 3 million is still slightly shrinking, but the 1990s mass exodus in the years following the separation from Moscow has slowed.
Groups such as Birthright Armenia, a non-profit organization that has offices in Yerevan and Pennsylvania, are encouraging the country’s diaspora to reconnect with their roots.
But the worldwide struggle to get universal recognition for the term “genocide” is still a source of anger for many of those inside the country and abroad.
A growing list of nations, including Canada, France, Russia and most recently Germany, have said they recognize the killings as a genocide. Barack Obama used the term as a presidential candidate in 2008 but he and his administration have since drawn criticism for using more ambiguous language.
The Armenian National Committee of America says Washington is “fearful of offending Turkey,” which is one of Washington’s key NATO allies.
Kim Kardashian, perhaps Armenia’s most famous daughter, visited her ancestral homeland just weeks before the 100th anniversary of the killings last year. She made no mention of the event but campaigners hoped it would draw attention to their plight.
The Vatican is among those who recognize the genocide and Pope Francis used the term during the 100-year commemorations last year. His said it again after landing in the capital Yerevan on June 24.
But for Baboian words are not enough.
“I don’t care if the pope or other leaders recognize it was genocide. I know, we all know it was genocide, I don’t need other to tell us,” Baboian said. “I want justice, some kind of action being taken. For instance, the boycott of Turkey until they finally accept that what they did was ethnic cleansing.”
Only a few hundred yards away, at the end of his address in Yerevan’s main square the pope urged Armenia and Turkey to seek reconciliation and to shun “the illusory power of vengeance.”