Ravished Armenia/Chapter 10

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Ravished Armenia by Aurora Mardiganian, translated by Henry Leyford Gates
Chapter X — The Game of the Swords, and Diyarbekir

CHAPTER X


THE GAME OF THE SWORDS, AND DIYARBEKIR


From the edge of a sandy plateau I caught my first view of Diyarbekir, once the capital of our country. For two days we had ridden with the Tchetchens. We knew that some new peril awaited us in this ancient city which, centuries before, had been one of the most glorious cities of Christ.

When the Tchetchens drew up at the edge of the plateau, the walls of the city spread out far below us, with here and there a minaret rising over the low roofs. Just beyond the city was the beautiful, blue Tigris—the River Hiddekel, of the Bible. And as far as I could see, dotting the great plains that are watered by the Tigris, were Christian refugees from the north and east and west, thousands and thousands of them. Some had walked hundreds of miles. Nearly all the Armenians who were permitted to live that long were brought to Diyarbekir, where those who were not massacred in the city or outside the walls were turned south into the Syrian and Arabian deserts, to be deserted there.

More than one million of my people were started toward Diyarbekir when the deportations and massacres began. Only 100,000, I have heard, lived to reach the ancient city on the Tigris. And of these more than half were massacred within the city and outside the walls. Only young women and some of the children were saved, and these were lost in harems, or, as with the children, placed in Dervish monasteries to be taught Mohammedanism, so they might be sold as slaves when they grew up.

Nail Pasha, the Vali of Diyarbekir, was very wicked. Inside the city there are several ancient forts, built centuries ago—one of them in the days of Mohammed, and two great prisons. Already more than 3,000 Russian prisoners of war had been marched from the Caucasus to Diyarbekir for confinement in these prisons. Nail Pasha had taken away all the clothing of these prisoners, and had compelled them, by refusing to give them food, to work as masons on a large house the pasha was building for himself.

When the refugees began to arrive at Diyarbekir in great numbers Nail Pasha crowded the Russians into one of the fortresses so closely they had almost no room to lie down at night. The other prisons he then filled with the Armenian men who had been permitted to accompany their women from some of the smaller Armenian villages in the north. When the prisons were full of these exiles he had his soldiers massacre them. Outside the city their women waited on the plains or were taken away without even being told what had been the fate of their husbands, sons and brothers.

When more Russian prisoners arrived Nail Pasha crowded Armenians into the prisons in the daytime and killed them, and then compelled the Russians to carry out the bodies and remove the blood before they could lie down to rest from their day’s labor in the fields or on the stonework of his new house. The soldiers of Nail Pasha told with great enjoyment how the bodies of little Armenian children had been mixed in with cement and built into the walls of the new house to fill the spaces between the stones.

The Tchetchens who had stolen us from the monastery decided to enter the city by its southern gate—where the walls reach down almost to the river banks. But when they had galloped around that way soldiers from the gate came out and told them the Vali had issued orders that no more refugees were to be brought into the city until some of those already within the walls were “cleared out”—massacred or sent away.

Afterward I learned why the city itself was crowded with refugees while so many others were camped outside the walls. The Vali promised protection from further deportation to all who had managed to preserve enough money to bribe him. These he allowed to go within the city and occupy deserted houses. When their money ran out the “protection” ceased, and they were sent out of the city in little companies—always to be killed at the gates by Tchetchens, who had been notified to wait for them.

When the Tchetchens saw they could not enter the city with us at once, they lifted us from their horses and ordered us to sit in a circle so they could guard us easily. Of the two hundred in the monastery, only twenty-seven of us still lived. Three of the girls were younger than I. None was more than twenty, although several had been brides when the massacres came.

The bandit leader then went into the city by himself. All that day, and the next, and most of the day after that, we sat in the sand in the burning sun. The Tchetchens foraged bread and berries and gave us just a little of what they did not want themselves. Only once each day would they let us have water. On the second day one of the girls became hot with fever. She cried for water, and when a Tchetchen would have slapped her for her cries she showed him her tongue, which had begun to swell. When the Tchetchen saw this he called to his comrades, and they were afraid lest the fever spread to others of us. They paid no attention to the poor girl’s pleading for water, but dragged her a hundred feet away and left her. Once she got to her feet and seemed to be trying to get back to us. A Tchetchen went out to her and struck her down with the end of his gun. She could not get up again, and we saw her rolling about in the sand until she died.

On the evening of our second day of waiting outside the walls there was a great commotion at the city’s southern gate, and presently a stream of refugees, all women, came pouring out onto the plain. All that day groups of Tchetchen horsemen had been gathering from the surrounding country and taking up positions nearby. Now we knew why these horsemen had come—they had been notified a company of refugees was to be sent out of the city.

The Turks themselves seldom massacred women in a wholesale way. Constantinople had not authorized the killing of submissive women—the work was left to Kurds and other bands.

I think there must have been more than 2,000 women and some children in this company. They began to come out of the gate before sundown, and were still coming long after it was dark. The Tchetchens herded them into a circle about one mile from the walls. They were half a mile or more from us, but when the moon came up we could plainly hear the shouts and screams that told us the Tchetchens had begun their evil work.

All night long we heard the screams. Sometimes they would be very near, as if fugitives were coming our way. Then we would hear shouts and the hoofbeats of horses. There would be piercing shrieks and then only the sound of hoofbeats growing fainter. The Tchetchens who guarded us did not bother us, they seemed to be saving us for something else. But we could not sleep that night. Sometimes even now I cannot sleep, although I am safe forever. Those screams come to me in the night time, and even with my friends all about me I cannot shut them out of my ears.

When the first gray mist of dawn spread over the plain the excitement was still at its height. Then, suddenly, everything was quiet. We were too far from the city to hear the voices on the minarets, but we knew that silence meant that the hour for the Prayer of Islam had arrived. Even in the midst of their awful work the Tchetchens instinctively heard the call and stopped to kneel toward Mecca. I remember how I wondered that morning, while the bandits were reciting their prayer to their Allah for his grace and commendation, how my Christ would feel if His people should come to Him in prayer at the sunrise after such a night’s work as that.

More than ever before I loved Jesus Christ and trusted Him that morning while the Mohammedan bandits were praying to him they call Allah.

I think less than 300 of that company of Armenians were alive when the sun came up and we could see across the plain. One little group we saw moving about, huddled together. All around them were the Tchetchens searching the bodies scattered over a great circle—making sure in the daylight they had missed nothing of value in the massacre and robbery during the night.

During the morning the Tchetchens busied themselves with the young women who had been permitted to survive the night. We could see them go up to the little group of survivors and drag some of them away.

It was when the Tchetchens began to tire of this that we saw them preparing, a little way from where we were, in a flat place on the plain, for one of the pastimes for which wild Circassian tribes are famous, and which they frequently repeated, as I afterward learned, as long as my people lasted.

They planted their swords, which were the long, slender-bladed swords that came from Germany, in a long row in the sand, so the sharp pointed blades rose out of the ground as high as would be a very small child. When we saw these preparations all of us knew what was going to happen. When Armenian children are bad their mothers sometimes tell them the Tchetchens will come and get them if they don’t be good. And when the children ask, “And when the Tchetchens come, what will they do?” their mothers say:

“The Tchetchens are very wicked robber horsemen, who like to sharpen their swords with little boys and girls.”

Already I was trembling with sickness of heart because of the awful night before and the things I had seen that morning when daylight came. The other women beside me were trembling, too, and felt as if they would rather die than see any more. We begged our Tchetchens to take us away—to take us where we could not look upon those sword blades—but they only laughed at us and told us we must watch and be thankful to them we were under their protection.

When the long row of swords had been placed the Tchetchens hurried back to the little band of Armenians. We saw them crowd among them, and then come away carrying, or dragging, all the young women who were left—maybe fifteen or twenty—I could not count them.

Each girl was forced to stand with a dismounted Tchetchen holding her on her feet, half way between two swords in the long row. The captives cried and begged, but the cruel bandits were heedless of their pleadings.

When the girls had been placed to please them, one between each two sword blades, the remaining Tchetchens mounted their horses and gathered at the end of the line. At a shouted signal the first one galloped down the row of swords. He seized a girl, lifted her high in the air and flung her down upon a sword point, without slackening his horse. It was a game—a contest! Each Tchetchen tried to seize as many girls as he could and fling them upon the sword points, so that they were killed in the one throw, in one gallop along the line. Only the most skillful of them succeeded in impaling more than one girl. Some lifted the second from the ground, but missed the sword in their speed, and the girl, with broken bones or bleeding wounds, was held up in the line again to be used in the “game” a second time—praying that this time the Tchetchen’s aim would be true and the sword put an end to her torture.

In the meantime the Jews of Diyarbekir had come out from the city, driven by gendarmes, to gather up the bodies of the slain Armenians. They brought carts and donkeys with bags swung across their backs. Into the carts and bags they piled the corpses and took them to the banks of the Tigris, where the Turks made them throw their burdens into the water. This is one of the persecutions the Jews were forced to bear. The Mohammedans did not kill them, but they liked to compel them to do such awful tasks.

Late in the afternoon the chief of our Tchetchens came out from the city. His men drew off to one side and talked with him excitedly. When it grew dark they lifted us upon their horses and carried us into the city through the south gate. At the gate the Tchetchen chief showed to the officers of the gendarmes a paper he had brought from the city, and the Tchetchens were permitted to enter. We passed through dark narrow streets until we came to a house terraced high above the others, with an iron gate leading into a courtyard off the street. A hammal, or Turkish porter, was waiting at the gate and swung it open.

The bandits dismounted outside the gate to the house and lifted us to the ground. The leader waved us inside. With half a dozen of his men he entered behind us and the gate closed. Some of the Tchetchens went into the house. In a few minutes they came out, followed by a foreign man, whose uniform I recognized as that of a German soldier.

Servants followed with lighted lamps, and the soldier looked into our faces and examined us shamefully. Only eight of the girls pleased him. I was among these. We were pushed into the house and the door was closed behind us. Then we heard the Tchetchens gather up the other girls and take them into the street. I do not know what became of them. The soldier and the servants, all of whom were foreigners, whom I afterward discovered were Germans, took us into a stone floored room which had been used as a stable for horses.

It must have been two or three hours afterward—after midnight, I think; we could not keep track of the time—when the soldier and the servants came for us. Before they took us from the stable room they took away what few clothes we had. They led us, afraid and ashamed, into a room where were three men in the uniforms of German officers. The soldiers saluted them. The officers seemed very pleased when they had looked at us. We tried to cover ourseives with our arms and to hide behind each other, but the soldier roughly drew us apart. The officers laughed at our embarrassment, and then dismissed the soldier, saying something to him in German, which I do not understand.

The officers talked among themselves, also in German. They tried to caress us. It amused them greatly when we pleaded with them to spare us, to let us have clothes and to have mercy, in God’s name.

Almost two weeks I was a prisoner in this house. The principal officer’s name was Captain August Walsenburg. He was middle-aged, I think, and very bald. After awhile I learned many things about him. He had been connected with a German trading company, the “Oriental Handelsgellschaft,” in the city of Van.

He was a reserve army officer and had been called into service. He helped the Turkish officials at Van mobilize an army there and had taken part in the Armenian massacres at that city. He had been ordered to report to a German general whose name I do not remember at Aleppo, where the German commander was organizing Turkish soldiers for the Mesopotamian armies. But when he reached Diyarbekir there was news of the Russian advance in the Caucasus, and he had been ordered, by telegraph, to wait at Diyarbekir for instructions. The two other officers were lieutenants, who had accompanied him from Van, and they, too, were awaiting instructions.

They were the only German officers at Diyarbekir at that time. The Vali was very friendly with them. He had set aside for them the house to which we were taken as captives. To this house were brought many pretty Armenian girls stolen by the Kurds and Tchetchens. When they tired of them they sent them away to the refugee camps outside the city or to be sold to Turks.

The German captain asked me to be submissive. I fought him with all my might. I told him he might kill me. This amused him. It was while I was his prisoner I tasted, for the first and only time in my life that which I have learned in America is called “whiskey” It was bitter and terrible. The officers had brought some of this from Van. They drank much of it, and it made them very brutal. One night they assembled all the girls in the house into a room where they were eating and forced them to sit on a table and drink this awful whiskey. They were delighted when it made us ill.

One by one the other girls who had been stolen with me from the monastery were sent away, after the officers had wearied of them, and their places were taken by new ones. I think I was kept because I fought so hard when one of them approached me. The captain always clapped his hands and laughed aloud when I fought.

There was another girl, who had been a prisoner in the house longer than others—since before I was taken there. She had especially pleased one of the under-officers. She told me of one night when the officers had taken much of their whiskey and were particularly cruel. She said they sent for some of the girls then in the house and, standing them sideways, shot at them with their pistols, using their breasts as targets. Afterward I was told this thing was done very often by the Turks in the Vilayet of Van when they massacred our people there.

At last orders came to the officers to leave Diyarbekir. I understood they would have to go to Harpout. They prepared to leave immediately and set out the next morning. They had in the house many rugs and articles of valuable jewelry they had bought from Kurds and Tchetchens, who had stolen them from Armenians, and all of this booty they carefully packed in boxes to be kept for them by the Vali until a caravan bound for the railway at Ras-el-Ain came through.

They were so hurried they paid little attention to us. When they left all their servants accompanied them, riding donkeys behind their masters’ horses. So we were alone in the house.

We would have been happy in our deliverance had it not been for the danger which threatened us at the hands of the Turkish gendarmes, who would be sure to discover us. We searched until we found where the servants had hidden our clothes in a dark room, into which the clothes of all Armenian girls who had been brought to the house had been thrown. We each took something with which to cover ourselves.

We spent a day and night in constant terror of discovery. We were afraid to venture into the streets and afraid to stay where we were. There were many foreign missionaries in the city, including Americans, but they lodged in a different quarter, and we never could have reached them. The gendarmes came the third day after the officers left. I do not think they expected to find any one in the house, but came to look for things the Germans might have left unpacked.

We saw them entering through the courtyard gate. There was no place we could hide, as the house was built in tiers. We could only huddle in a corner and put off our capture till the last minute. The gendarmes saw us from the courtyard and rushed after us with shouts.

When I ran through the room that had been occupied by one of the officers I saw a knife he had left behind. I seized this and hid it in my clothes. It was the first time I had held a knife in my hands or other weapon since I was taken from my home in Tchemesh-Gedzak.

A gendarme cornered me in one of the rooms, just as all the other girls were trapped. He caught me by the arms. He was taking me into another room when the officer of the gendarmes saw me. He halted the man, took me from him and ordered him to “find another one for himself.” The officer pushed me into the room.

But when he tried to pinion my arms I turned on him with the knife. I know God guided my hand, for I am sure I killed him. He fell at my feet.

In other parts of the house and in the courtyard the gendarmes were giving their attention to the girls they had found. I reached the street without being seen. I looked in each direction and could see no one except a Turkish woman, who came out of her gate on the opposite side of the street. For an instant I thought I would be caught, and I gripped the knife, which I still kept under my clothes.

But the Turkish woman was kind. She pitied me. She stepped back into her gate and motioned me to follow. I was afraid, yet I trusted her. She closed the gate and took me in her arms. She was sorry for me and my people, she said, and would help me. But she dared not take me into her house. She told me I could hide in her yard till night, when I might slip out of the city to where the refugees were.

During the day she brought me food. At dark she came to take leave of me, and kissed me, and gave me three liras, which was all she could spare without earning a scolding from her husband. “Go out by the north gate, not by the south gate,” she said to me. “All the refugees who are taken around by the south gate are killed; those who are camped beyond the north gate may live. But do not join them while it still is night, or you may be caught in a massacre. Hide among the rocks in the pass through the Kara-jah hills, a mile from the city. If the Armenians are allowed to pass these rocks when they are taken away, it means they will be allowed to live through another stage of their journey.”

I reached the south gate without being stopped, as I was careful to keep in the shadows. Gendarmes guarded the gate, but they were not very watchful. I ran onto the plain and followed the directions the friendly Turkish lady had given me until I came to the rocks which marked the road through the low hills that skirted the city on the north. Along this road the refugees sent to the southern deserts from Diyarbekir must pass.

I waited at the rocks through the night. In the morning I thought to walk along the road to where I would not be seen by soldiers, Kurds or Tchetchens roving on the plains near the city, and where I could wait until a company of my people passed.

But while I was picking my way through the narrow pass between the rocks I saw a little group of zaptiehs coming toward me along the road beyond. I had not expected to meet any one. I screamed before I could stop myself. The zaptiehs heard me and I ran back into the shelter of the rocks and drew out my knife, which I had kept so I might kill myself rather than be stolen again. But I was afraid God would not approve. While the zaptiehs searched the rocks I knelt in a crevice and asked God to tell me what I should do—if He would blame me if I killed myself before the zaptiehs found me. “Dear God, tell me, shall I come now to You or wait until You call?” I asked of Him.

I know He heard me, and I know He answered. For something told me to throw the knife far away—and I did.

That was God’s will, I know, for after awhile He was to lead me into the arms of my mother that I might be with her once again before the Turks killed her.