A study room reminiscent of a ship’s cabin witnesses over 100 years of history in one afternoon. As the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean illuminates the window, Hernán Couyoumdjian Bergamali, a man with a 44-year-long career in the Chilean navy who takes pride on his Armenian roots and has an endless love for his homeland recalls his family’s history.
Retired Vice Adm. Hernán Couyoumdjian is a frank, determined and hospitable man who has not had an easy life. He entered the Navy at age 14, holding over 30 different positions in his 44-year-long career as commander of various ships, general officer of the Navy and admiral. He has served as adviser to three defense ministers and two presidents. As the first Armenian in the Chilean navy, he is highly decorated. “I am remembered for having done things,” he says.
Couyoumdjian finished his career as chief of staff of national defense and now lives in Viña del Mar.
In his garden, the Armenian flag flutters right next to Chilean and the admiral ensigns.
Fourteen thousand kilometers separating the two countries are no impediment: “I feel very Armenian and get emotional when I see that flag,” he says proudly. And he takes it everywhere: in winter he wears an Armenian tricolor scarf. “My sister knitted it for me, I wear it every day and for naval ceremonies,” he smiles.
|Hernán Couyoumdjian at his graduation as a naval officer with his parents and brothers, December, 1962.|
The start of a long journey
The admiral traces his ancestry back to the Ekislers and the Bakirgians in Julfa. In 1605, Shah Abbas deported 30,000 families from Eastern Armenia to the north of Persia. The deportees established a new city, New Julfa, in Iran. Many years later, some of their descendants migrated toward the Mediterranean and settled in Smyrna (Izmir), in the west of Asia Minor. Ohan Couyoumdjian and his wife Marina Bakirgian, Hernan’s paternal grandparents, managed the local branch of Bakirgian Frères, a company that imported and distributed textiles from the family’s factories in England. In Izmir, they lived in a three-story house on the seashore.
|Ohan Couyoumdjian and his wife Marina Bakirgian, Hernán’s paternal grandparents.|
For some time, the Armenian Genocide that swept throughout the Ottoman Empire starting in 1915 mostly passed Izmir by. Moreover, when Greek troops landed in Izmir and took the region under their control in 1919, the city sheltered tens of thousands of Armenian refugees fleeing other parts of the empire. “My father Loris Couyoumdjian was nine years old at the time. He and his family moved to a Turkish neighbor’s house in order to accommodate, in their own house, over 200 Armenians coming from other provinces to escape the massacres,” Hernán recalls.
But Izmir couldn’t avoid a dire fate. In September 1922, the Turkish army under Mustafa Kemal’s command took control of the city and continued exterminating Armenians. On September 13th, the army set fire to Armenian and Greek quarters. About 100,000 people perished while the survivors fled to the seashore. After a while, they were evacuated by ships of the Allied Powers.
Saved by the sea
The Couyoumdjian-Bakirgian family escaped a few days before the fire, on September 8th, aboard the American destructor USS Edsall.
The escape was possible thanks to Adm. Mark Bristol, commander in chief of the American fleet in the area and also High Commissioner for Near East Relief, an American organization caring for thousands of Armenian orphans and refugees.
“My father’s uncle, who lived in Constantinople, donated 20,000 gold British pounds to charity with the express request of getting our family out of there,” Hernán says. This is how his family and 671 other Armenians and Greeks were rescued and taken to Salonika (Thessalonica), Greece.
After living in Greece and France, Loris Couyoumdjian studied in England and later joined the family business in Manchester. In 1936, 23-year-old Loris was sent to Chile to close down a local branch because it was losing money. Loris arrived in South America and rebuilt the company’s business, settling in Santiago. In Buenos Aires he met Lola Bergamali Missirian, who became his wife and the mother of his four children.
|Ohan Couyoumdjian (center), Marina Bakirgian Couyoumdjian (seated), Hagop Couyoumdjian, Arturo Couyoumdjian (left), Loris Couyoumdjian (Hernán’s father, right). Rozet (little girl, seated). Nice, France.|
Couyoumdjian deals well with a diasporic Armenian’s dual identity: “I feel Chilean and also Armenian, I have them both: the ius solis and the ius sanguinis,” he says. “The Armenian identity is everywhere, in all aspects of life. As I have a varied viewpoint, I can tell it like it is.”
In 2006, Hernán Couyoumdjian was elected president of the Armenian community in Chile. He thus followed in his father’s footsteps: Loris was the first president of the local community in 1957. He took on the major challenge of restoring the “HaiDun” (Armenian House) and reviving the Armenian flame in Chile. He succeeded.
It is no accident that Hernan takes a great interest in the community. His maternal grandfather, Armen Bergamali, played a key role in establishing the Armenian community in Buenos Aires, which he presided over for 30 years, and in the construction of the Saint Gregory the Illuminator cathedral. In turn, his maternal grandmother greatly contributed to the creation of the Couyoumdjian kindergarten in Vicente López. His great uncle, Marco Bakirgian, was president of the Armenian community in Manchester. His descendants continue his legacy.
|Hernán at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Armenia, paying homage to the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Yerevan, Janurary 2013.|
Going home to home
In 2013 the Armenian Ministry of Defense invited Hernan, together with other officers of Armenian origin from around the world, to celebrate the National Army Day in Armenia. The trip gave him the opportunity to get to know Armenian society better: “I noticed that the Armenian people have a profound sense of sovereignty, deep national values,” he says. The attachment this man feels to this geographically remote country shows in his gaze: “When I returned, I felt very proud to be Armenian.”
Hernán Couyoumdjian believes that although Armenia is in a difficult position, it has clear objectives: “Armenia needs to achieve stability on its borders, without the wear and tear of permanent war. It also has to achieve, by international recognition, a free transit corridor to the Black Sea.” As for the issue of Turkey’s recognition of the Genocide, “Recognition of the truth will be hard to achieve because it would imply compensations and restitution of territories and confiscated property. Armenia has to work on raising awareness in the current Turkish society, which is not responsible for the Genocide, and which will, little by little, learn the truth and put pressure on the authorities.”
Of Armenian blood
For Couyoumdjian, family is the cornerstone of life. “This year we went on a family trip; there were 24 of us, including my five children and 13 grandchildren.” Being proud of his origin, he has passed the Armenian family history on to the next generations. “Although they do not speak Armenian, they all know what happened and feel strongly about Armenian matters,” he says. This is how he keeps this legacy alive. “We have been educated with our history and we pass it on to our children and grandchildren, without instilling hatred toward modern Turkish people but with sharp criticism toward Turkey’s rulers. All things Armenian evoke strong feelings. The Armenian blood is kept through the family.”
Hernán Couyoumdjian served as artillery and missiles specialist, tactical diver, parachutist, staff officer and military teacher, commander of BE Esmeralda and other vessels, later becoming naval attaché to the Chilean embassy in France. Over his ten years as admiral he has been a weapons director, research and development programs director, commander in chief and Navy judge of the first naval zone, general staff director and chief of general staff of the Navy. He finished his career as chief of staff of national defense, serving as adviser for three defense ministers and two presidents.
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.