Ravished Armenia/Chapter 1
THE STORY OF AURORA MARDIGANIAN
WHEN THE PASHA CAME TO MY HOUSE
My story begins with Easter Sunday morning, in April, 1915. In my father’s house we prepared to observe the day with a joyous reverence, increased by the news from Constantinople that the Turkish government recently had expressed its gratitude for the loyal and valuable service of the Armenian troops in the Great War. When Turkey joined in the war, almost six months before, a great fear spread throughout Armenia. Without the protecting influence of France and England, my people were anxious lest the Turks take advantage of their opportunity and begin again the old oppression of their Christian subjects. The young Armenian men would have preferred to fight with the Sultan’s enemies, but they hurried to enlist in the Ottoman armies, to prove they were not disloyal. And now that the Sultan had acknowledged their sacrifices, the fear of new persecutions at the hands of our Moslem rulers gradually had disappeared.
And in all our city, Tchemesh-Gedzak, twenty miles north of Harpout, the capital of the district of Mamuret-ul-Aziz, there was none more grateful for the promise of continued peace in Armenia than my father and mother, and Lusanne, my elder sister and I. I was only fourteen years old, and Lusanne was not yet seventeen, but even little girls are always afraid in Armenia. I was quite excited that morning over my father’s Easter gift to me—his promise that soon I could go to an European school and finish my education as befits a banker’s daughter. Lusanne was to be married, and she was bent upon enjoying the last Easter day of her maidenhood. Even the early visit that morning of Old Vartabed, our shepherd, who came just after daybreak, with a prophecy of trouble, did not dampen our spirits.
Standing before my looking glass I was rearranging for the hundredth time the blue ribbons with which I had dressed my hair with, I must confess, a secret hope that they would be the envy of all the other girls at the church service. Lusanne was making use of her elder sister’s privilege to scold me heartily for my vanity. Lusanne was always very prim, and quiet. I was just about to tell her that she was only jealous because she soon would be a wife and forbidden to wear blue ribbons any more, when my mother came into the room. She stopped just inside the door, and leaned against the wall. She did not say a word—just looked at me.
“Mother, what is it?” I cried. She did not answer, but silently pointed to the window. Lusanne and I ran at once to look down into the street There at the gate to our yard stood three Turkish gendarmes, each with a rifle, rigidly on guard. On their arms was the band that marked them as personal attendants of Husein Pasha, the military commandant in our district.
I turned to my mother for an explanation. She had fallen in a heap on the floor and was weeping. She did not speak, but pointed downward and I knew that Husein Pasha had come to our house, and was downstairs. Then my happiness was gone, and I, too, fell to the floor and cried. Somehow I felt that the end had come.
For a long time the powerful Husein Pasha, who was very rich and a friend of the Sultan himself, had wanted me for his harem. His big house sat in the midst of beautiful gardens, just outside the city. There he had gathered more than a dozen of the prettiest Christian girls from the surrounding towns. In Armenia the Mutassarif, or Turkish commandant, is an official of great power. He accepts no orders, except those that come direct from the Sultan’s ministers, and, as a rule, he is cruel and autocratic.
It is dangerous for an Armenian father to displease the Mutassarif. When this representative of the Sultan sees a pretty Armenian girl he would like to add to his harem there are many ways he may go about getting her. The way of Husein Pasha was to bluntly ask her father to sell or give her to him, with a veiled threat that if the father refused he would be persecuted. To make the sale of the girl legal and give the Mutassarif the right to make her his concubine it was necessary only for him to persuade or compel her to forswear Christ and become Mohammedan.
Three times Husein Pasha had asked my father to give me to him. Three times my father had defied his anger and refused. The Pasha was afraid to punish us, as my father was wealthy, and through his friendship with the British Consul at Harpout, Mr. Stevens, had obtained protection of the Vali, or Governor, of the Mamuret-ul-Aziz province. But now the British Consul was gone. The Vali was afraid of no one. And Husein Pasha could, I knew, do as he pleased. Instinctively I knew, too, that his visit to our house, with his escort of armed soldiers, meant that he had come again to ask for me.
I clung to my mother and Lusanne, with my two younger sisters holding onto my skirt, while we listened at the head of the stairs to my father and the governor talking. Husein was no longer asking for me—he was demanding. I heard him say: “Soon orders from Constantinople will arrive; you Christian dogs are to be sent away; not a man, woman or child who denies Mohammed will be permitted to remain. When that time comes there is none to save you but me. Give me the girl Aurora, and I will take all your family under my protection until the crisis is past. Refuse and you know what you may expect!”
My father could not speak aloud. He was choked with fear and horror. My mother screamed. I begged mother to let me rush downstairs and give myself to the Pasha. I would do anything to save her and father and my little brothers and sisters. Then father found his voice, and we heard him saying to the Pasha:
“God’s will shall be done—and He would never will that my child should sacrifice herself to save us.”
My mother held me closer. “Your father has spoken—for you and us.”
Husein Pasha went away in anger, his escort marching stiffly behind. Scarcely had he disappeared than there was a great commotion in the streets. Crowds began to assemble at the corners. Men ran to our house to tell us news that had just been brought by a horseman who had ridden in wild haste from Harpout.
“They are massacring at Van; men, women and children are being hacked to pieces. The Kurds are stealing the girls!”
Van is the greatest city in Armenia. It was once the capital of the Vannic kingdom of Queen Semiramis It was the home of Xerxes, and, we are taught, was built by the King Aram in the midst of what was the first land uncovered after the Deluge—the Holy Place where the ark of Noah rested. It is very dear to Armenians, and was one of the centers of our church and national life. It lies two hundred miles away from Tchemesh-Gedzak, and was the home of more than 50,000 of our people. The Vali of Van, Djevdet Bey, was the principal Turkish ruler in Armenia—and the most cruel. A massacre at Van meant that soon it would spread over all Armenia.
They brought the horseman from Harpout to our house. My father tried to question him but all he could say was:
“Ermenleri hep kesdiler—hep gitdi bitdi!”—“The Armenians all killed—all gone, all dead! ” He moaned it over and over. In Harpout the news had come by telegraph, and the horseman who belonged in our city had ridden at once to warn us.
I begged my father and mother to let me run at once to the palace of Husein Pasha and tell him I would do whatever he wished if he would save my family before orders came to disturb us. But mother held me close, while father would only say, “God’s will be done, and that would not be it.”
Lusanne was crying. Little Aruciag and Sarah, my younger sisters, were crying, too. My father was very pale and his hands trembled when he put them on my shoulders and tried to comfort me. I closed my eyes and seemed to see my father and mother and sisters and brothers, all lying dead in the massacre I feared would come, sooner or later. And Husein Pasha had said I could save them! But I couldn’t disobey my father. Suddenly I thought of Father Rhoupen.
I broke away from my mother and ran out of the house, through the back entrance and into the street that led to the church where Father Rhoupen was waiting for his congregation. No one had had the courage to tell the holy man of the news from Van. When I ran into the little room behind the altar he was wondering why his people had not come.
I fell at his feet, and it was a long time before I could stop my tears long enough to tell him why I was there. But he knew something had happened. He stroked my hair, and waited. When I could speak I told him of the visit of Husein Pasha, and what he said to us—and then I told him of the message the horseman had brought. I pleaded with him to tell me that it would be right for me to send word to Husein Pasha that I would be his willing concubine if he would only save my parents and my brothers and sisters.
Father Rhoupen made me tell it twice. When I had finished the second time he put a hand on my head and said, “Let us ask God, my child!”
Then Father Rhoupen prayed.
He asked God to guide me in the way I should go. I do not remember all the prayer, for I was crying too bitterly and was too frightened, but I know the priest pleaded for me and my people, and that he reminded the Father we were His first believers and had been true to Him through many centuries of persecution. As the priest went on I became soothed, and unconsciously I began to listen—hoping to hear with my own ears the answer I felt must surely come down from up above to Father Rhoupen’s plea.
When he said “Amen” the priest knelt with me, and together we waited. Suddenly Father Rhoupen pressed me close to his breast and began to speak.
“The way is clear, my child. The answer has come. Trust in Jesus Christ and He will save you as He deems best. It were better that you should die, if need be, or suffer even worse than death, than by your example lead others to forswear their faith in the Saviour. Go back to your father and mother and comfort them, but obey them.”
All that day and the next messengers rode back and forth between Harpout and our city, bringing the latest scraps of news from Van. We were filled with joy when we heard the Armenians had barricaded themselves and were fighting back, but we dreaded the consequences. No one slept that night in our city. All day and all night Father Rhoupen and his assistant priests and religious teachers in the Christian College went from house to house to pray with family groups.
The principal men in the city waited on Husein Pasha to ask him if we were in danger. He told them their fears were groundless — that the trouble at Van was merely a riot. My father and mother clutched eagerly at this half promise of security, but Tuesday we knew we had been deceived. That morning Husein Pasha ordered the doors of the district jail opened, and the criminals — bandits and murderers — who were confined there, released and brought to his palace.
An hour later each one of these outlaws had been dressed in the uniform of the gendarmes, given a rifle, a bayonet and a long dagger and lined up in the public square to await orders. That is the Turkish way when there is bad work to do.
At noon officers of the gendarmes, or, as they are called, zaptiehs, rode through the city posting notices on the walls and fences at every street corner. My father had gone to Harpout early in the morning to confer with rich Armenian bankers there and to appeal direct to Ismail Bey, the Vali. Mother was too weak from worry to go to the corner and read the notices, so Lusanne and I went at once. The paper read:
You are hereby commanded by His Excellency, Husein Pasha, to immediately go into your houses and remain within doors until it is the pleasure of His Excellency to again permit you to go about your affairs. All Armenians found upon the streets, at their places of business or otherwise absent from their homes, later than one hour after noon of this day will be arrested and severely punished.
(Signed) Ali Aghazade, Mayor.
When we reported to our mother she was greatly worried because of our father’s absence at Harpout. He might ride into the city at any time during the afternoon, ignorant of the orders, and be caught in the streets. Our brother Paul, who was fifteen years old, was visiting at a neighbor’s. We sent him, through narrow, back streets, out of the city and onto the plains where he could watch the road our father must ride along, and, should he appear before dark, warn him of the order. We had reason later to be thankful father was away.
We could not imagine what the order meant. We could not bring ourselves to believe it meant a deliberate massacre was planned, and that this means was taken to have us all in our homes for the convenience of the zaptiehs.
At 4 o’clock gendarmes, among them the prisoners released from jail, marched up to the homes of the wealthiest men, with orders for them to attend an audience with Husein Pasha.
When mother explained to the officer who came to our door that my father was out of town the zaptiehs searched the house, roughly pushing my mother aside when she got in their way. They then demanded the keys to my father’s business place. When Lusanne ran upstairs to get them the officer insisted upon going with her. While she was getting the keys from my father’s room he embraced her, tearing open her dress as he did so. When she screamed he slapped her in the face so hard she fell onto the floor. He left her there and went out with his men.
From our windows we could overlook the public square. Here the zaptiehs gathered fifty of the city’s leading men. Among them were Father Rhoupen; the president of the Christian College, which had been founded by American missionaries; several professors and physicians; bankers, the principal merchants and other business men.
Instead of marching their prisoners toward the palace of the Pasha, the guards turned them toward the other part of the city. Then we knew they were being taken, not to an audience with the commandant, but to the jail which had been emptied by the Mutassarif that morning.
Many women, when they realized where their husbands were being taken, ignored the order to keep to their homes, ran into the street and tried to rush up to their men folk. The gendarmes knocked them aside with rifle butts. One woman, the wife of a professor, managed to break through the guard and reach her husband, A gendarme tried to pull her away, but she clung tightly, screaming. The soldier turned his rifle about and drove his bayonet into her. Her husband leaped at the man’s throat and was killed by another gendarme.
The prisoners were compelled to march over the bodies of the professor and his wife, while their children, who had also run out of their house, stood aside, wringing their hands and weeping, until the company passed, when they were permitted to tug the bodies of their parents into their home. None of us who watched dared go to the assistance of these little ones.
The jail is a rambling stone building, built more than seven centuries ago. Originally it was a monastery, but the Turks took possession of it in 1580, and have used it as a prison ever since. It is surrounded by a high wall and has a large courtyard onto which the great, barren dungeons open.
Throughout that afternoon mother, Lusanne and I waited anxiously for father to come from Harpout. Toward evening a gendarme came to the house and asked if father had returned yet, saying that he was missed “at the audience with the Mutassarif.” Mother asked him why the men folk were taken to jail, if the Mutassarif wanted to see them. The soldier said the governor thought that would be handier, as it was a long walk to the palace. We were comforted a little by that explanation, but when evening came and the men had not returned to their homes we became worried again. And we began to fear, too, that father and Paul had been intercepted. At dark the wives and daughters of the men who had been taken from their homes could not stand the suspense any longer. Braving the order to remain indoors they began to gather in the streets, and little companies of women and children, and even the more daring men, moved toward the jails. They waited outside until well toward midnight, hoping to catch a glimpse of their relatives or to hear what was going on inside. At 11 o’clock the prison gates opened and Husein Pasha, in his carriage and escorted by a heavy guard of mounted soldiers, came out.
The women crowded around him, but the soldiers drove them away. Scarcely had the Pasha’s carriage disappeared than there was shouting and screaming in the prison. Lusanne and I, who had stolen up to the prison wall, ran home frightened. Father and Paul were there, having reached home late in the evening.
Father looked very careworn. He took me into his arms and kissed me in a strange way. Big tears were in his eyes when I looked into them. I knew, without asking, that he had not succeeded in his mission to Harpout for protection. We sat up all that night, listening to the cries that came from the prison. We learned the next day what had happened, when the one man who had escaped crept into his home to be hidden.
When Husein Pasha arrived at the prison he told the men who had been gathered that new word had come from Constantinople that the Armenians were not loyal to Turkey, and that they had been plotting to help the Allies. He demanded that the prisoners tell him what they knew of such plots. Every one of them assured him there had been no such plotting, that the Armenians wanted only to live in peace with their Turkish neighbors, obey the Sultan and do him whatever service was demanded of them. Husein seemed at last convinced and went away, saying the men could all return to their homes in the morning.
While the prisoners were congratulating each other upon their promised release, and hoping there might be some way to get word to their families in the meantime, gendarmes appeared and drove the men into one corner of the courtyard. While the others were held back by the levelled guns and bayonets one prisoner at a time was pulled into a ring of soldiers and ordered to confess that he had been conspiring against the Sultan.
As each one denied the accusation and declared he would confess to nothing, he was stripped of his clothes and the gendarmes fell to beating him on his naked back with leather thongs. As fast as the men fainted from the lashing they were thrown to one side until they revived, when they were beaten again, until all the soldiers had taken turns with the thongs and were tired. Eight of the older men died under the beatings. Their bodies were thrown into a corner of the jail yard.
While they were beating Father Rhoupen an officer interfered. He said it was a waste of time to beat the priest, as all priests must be killed anyway. He then turned to Father Rhoupen and told him he could live only if he would forswear Christ and become Mohammedan. If he refused, the officer said, he would be beaten until he died.
Poor Father Rhoupen was almost too weak to answer. When the soldiers dropped him, at the officer’s command, he fell into a heap on the ground. When he tried to speak his head shook and the Turk thought he was signifying he would accept Mohammed.
“Hold him up—on his feet,” the officer ordered.
Two soldiers lifted him. The officer commanded him to repeat the creed of Islam —“There is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet.”
“There is only one God”—Father Rhoupen began, just as clearly as he could, and with his eyes turned full upon the cruel officer. He stopped for breath, and then went on —“and Jesus Christ, His Son, is my Saviour!”
The officer drew his sword and cut off Father Rhoupen’s head.
Professor Poladian, president of the College, was next told that he might save his life if he would profess Mohammed. Professor Poladian was one of the most loved men in all Armenia. He had studied at Yale University, in the United States, and had been highly honored by England and France because of his noble deeds. He was very old.
I loved him more than any man besides my father, because once when I was very little I was sick and cried when I had to stay away from a Christmas tree at the College on which Professor Poladian had hung bags of candy for all the little girls of Tchemesh-Gedzak. Professor Poladian asked Lusanne, my sister, why I was not with the other children who gathered about the tree, and when she told him I was at home, ill, and that I cried because I couldn’t come, he drove all the way to our house, almost two miles, brought me my candy bag and told me the Christmas story of the birth of Christ. I remember after that I always wanted to pray to Professor Poladian after I had prayed to God, until my mother made me understand why I shouldn’t.
Professor Poladian was not beaten, but the officer told him he had been spared only that he might swear faith in Islam. The Professor was almost overcome with his suffering at having to witness the treatment of his friends, but he told the officer he would give his life rather than deny his religion. The soldiers then tore out his finger nails, one by one, and his toe nails and pulled out his hair and beard, and then stabbed him with knives until he died.
Throughout the night the screams from the prison yard continued, and the women waiting outside were frantic. At dawn soldiers drove the women away, telling them their husbands would soon be home.
As soon as the women were out of sight the soldiers took out the men who had lived through the torture, and, tying them together with a long rope, marched them out of the city behind the jail toward the Murad River, ten miles away. When they reached the river bank the soldiers set upon the men and stabbed them to death with bayonets. Only the one escaped by pulling a dead body on top of him and making believe that he, too, was dead.
The next day, Thursday, which is the day before the Mohammedan Sunday, the soldiers went through the streets at 9 o’clock, calling for all Armenian men over eighteen years of age, to assemble in the public square. In every street an officer stopped at house doors and told the people that any man over eighteen who was not in the square in one hour would be killed.
Mother and Lusanne and I flew to father’s arms. We each tried to get our arms around his neck. He was very sad and quiet. “One at a time, my dear ones,” he said, and made us wait while he kissed and said good-by to each of us in turn. Little Sarah, who was seven, and Hovnan, who was six, he held in his arms a long time. Then he kissed me on the lips, such as he had never done before. He told mother she must not cry, but be very brave. Then he went out.
Little Paul followed father at a distance, to be near him as long as possible. When father got to the square Paul tried to turn back, but a soldier saw him and caught him by the collar, saying, “You go along, too, then we won’t have to gather you up with the women to-morrow.” Father protested that Paul was only fifteen, but the soldiers wouldn’t listen. So my brother never came back home.