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Long After Armenian Genocide, Retracing A Grandfather's Steps To Survival

Dawn Anahid MacKeen's grandfather, Stepan Miskjian (left), is pictured with friends around 1910, just a few years before the Armenian genocide.
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Dawn Anahid MacKeen's grandfather, Stepan Miskjian (left), is pictured with friends around 1910, just a few years before the Armenian genocide.

Investigative reporter Dawn Anahid MacKeen's latest story is one her mother always wanted her to tell. It's about her grandfather and how he survived the 1915 Armenian genocide in which 1.5 million Armenians living in modern-day Turkey were killed. (Turkey doesn't recognize the slaughter as a genocide, but says they were the result of widespread conflict across the region.) In journals that became the seeds of MacKeen's new book, The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, her grandfather told the story of how he escaped a forced march through the desert.

Before she read those journals, MacKeen's knowledge of her grandfather was limited to what her mother had shared. She tells NPR's Ari Shapiro, "They were very sad stories of this man who was struggling across a desert and was just fighting for his survival and was so thirsty he had to drink his own urine, which is a very strange thing to hear as a child and it just sounded really gross. And of course it was history that I couldn't comprehend until I was in my 30s and I could finally read his first-hand testimony."

Interview Highlights

On her decision to retrace her grandfather's steps through Turkey and the Syrian desert

I had to see the land that he wrote about. You know, the desert that he was driven across with his caravans, it became a prison to him because it was inhospitable and there weren't many people around. And as I traveled from west to east and the land grew more stark — it was a hard moment to see that, to think of my grandfather outside in the elements. You know, at one point when he was in a makeshift camp in what is now Western Syria, a thousand people died from disease in just one month. So this was the kind of thing he was up against and he really had to summon heroic strength inside to have the courage to continue each day.

On visiting the Syrian city of Raqqa before it was controlled by ISIS and decades after her grandfather was there

My experience in Raqqa ... was the complete opposite of what you're hearing now from there. It was, in a way, a haven for me just like it was for my grandfather. ... When I arrived there, I met this Bedouin sheikh and he took me into his home and gave me his daughter's room and that night hosted this dinner on the Euphrates. And there were Armenians there, there were Bedouins, Arabs — everyone was around a table enjoying each other's company. There wasn't this religious divide or hatred that you see. And it just breaks my heart seeing what's happening to Raqqa and also that many people are learning of Raqqa for the first time through this message of hate.

In Syria, MacKeen pays her respects to a relative of Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh, who helped her grandfather during his escape.
/ Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
In Syria, MacKeen pays her respects to a relative of Sheikh Hammud al-Aekleh, who helped her grandfather during his escape.

On finding the clan that had saved her grandfather in Raqqa

This sheikh also, when I met him, I told him about what happened to my grandfather. And the people in this region know what happened to the Armenians. These stories have been handed down in their families of, you know, the mass graves that have been in that area or the Armenians that were taken in by the different clans. And when I told this Bedouin sheikh in Raqqa that I wanted to find the clan that saved my grandfather's life and it was somewhere in the region, this sheikh all of the sudden called someone else and this person came over and all of the sudden had two phone lines and started calling all over the region to try and find this clan. And it was an incredible moment for me to watch this happen because it was really a pipe dream to try to find this clan and all of the sudden they narrowed it down and they said, "We found them. Can you go tomorrow?" And I said, "Yes! Please, please, take me to them."

On how the war in Syria has put that clan in the same position her grandfather was in

I do keep in touch with the clan that saved my grandfather's life. And now, since the war began, communication has become really difficult but one of them has left the region and became a refugee just like my grandfather. ... He made it to Europe and was part of the sea of refugees, you know, going ... from Turkey to Greece. ... And he's trying to start his life anew there, just like my grandfather did when he came to [the U.S.] many years ago. ...

I could never have predicted this. First of all, finding them was one of the most wonderful moments of my life. But then when the war broke out and one of them told me — dealing with famine and seeing corpses in the street — he said, "We now know what your grandfather went through." ... And it just — I don't even know what to say. It's heartbreaking because I don't want anyone else to ever have to go through what my grandfather went through. ... We have to stop having history repeat itself.

On what her grandfather did after the genocide

He came to New York with my mother and my aunt in 1930 and he opened a candy store on 133rd [Street] and Amsterdam [Avenue] and he worked around the clock. And then during World War II, he moved to Los Angeles and they kind of steadily started investing. He bought a few apartment buildings, and by the time he was in his 80s he was still climbing onto the roof and fixing things. ... He achieved his dream in the United States and was always so happy to be here, he would play God Bless America on his accordion.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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