This story was modified on 9/20/10 to clarify mass attendance numbers -- Ed.
As an Armenian growing up in Basra, Iraq, Vanuhi Ohannesian was always hearing about eastern Turkey’s Lake Van region, her grandparents’ birthplace and the place after which she is named.
Ohannesian’s grandparents were forced to leave the lakeside city of Van in 1915, when the Ottoman authorities drove out the region’s ethnic Armenians; her father was born during the family’s trek from Van to safety in Iraq.
“My father died two years ago and was always telling me to come to Van. He said this was our motherland,” said 68-year-old Ohannesian, who today lives in Los Angeles.
Some 95 years after her grandparents’ flight from Turkey, Ohannesian finds herself standing beside one of the Armenians’ most sacred sites, the 1,089-year-old church on Lake Van’s Akdamar Island. Closed since 1915, the island church was restored by the Turkish authorities between 2005 and 2007 and reopened as a museum.
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Yigal Schleifer is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Istanbul.