Ravished Armenia/Chapter 12

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Ravished Armenia by Aurora Mardiganian, translated by Henry Leyford Gates
Chapter XII — Reunion—and Then, the Sheikh Zilan

CHAPTER XII


REUNION—AND THEN, THE SHEIKH ZILAN


With so few of us to guard, and almost all of us either young or not so very old, the nights were made terrible by the zaptiehs. For many days they had been on the road with us, and had tired of ordinary cruelties and the mere shaming of the girls under cover of darkness at the camping places. The Turks who had been recruited from the villages and made guards over us were especially brutal. It was their first opportunity to visit upon Christians that hatred with which Islam looks upon the “Unbeliever.”

When we drew near to Ourfa we were joined by a party numbering, I think, four or five hundred exiles from the Sandjak of Marash, a subdistrict north of the Amanus, of which Zeitoun, Albustan and Marash are the large cities. Nearly all of these were from the city of Marash itself—some from Zeitoun. The removal of the Armenians from the Sandjak of Marash was begun later than in other parts of Asia Minor. When Haidar Pasha first issued the orders for deportation some of the Armenians who had arms resisted. They refused to leave or submit to the zaptiehs unless they were given guarantees they would be allowed to return to their homes after the war.

Haidar Pasha had few soldiers at his command just then. He sent to Aleppo for assistance to carry out his wish to send the Armenians away. From Aleppo came Captain Schappen, a German artillery officer, who was stationed there with other German officers. Captain Schappen organized large bodies of zaptiehs and taught them the use of machine guns. He then led them personally, and with other German officers and their aides made a raid on the Armenian houses. In quarters where there was resistance he turned the machine guns on the houses.

From Marash and nearby cities fourteen thousand of my people, men, women and children, were sent away, guarded by the zaptiehs, under the command of this captain. For some reason which none of the Christians knew, these exiles were not taken directly into the desert toward Bagdad, as were others from that district, but they were kept many days, even weeks at a time, in camp with almost no food or water, then to move on only a few miles and to camp again. They were many weeks reaching the vicinity of Ourfa. When they joined us, of the fourteen thousand who were torn from their homes only the three or four hundred remained alive! No men were left—just mothers and daughters and aunts and nieces.

Captain Schappen had returned, after three weeks on the road, to Aleppo. He took with him a Miss Tchilingarian, who was fifteen years old, and who had just returned from a private school in Germany, where her parents had sent her to be educated. She was home on a vacation when the deportation began. She was very pretty, those who knew her told me, and had already won honors in music. Her family intended she should become a singer and take to the Christian world outside Turkey the beautiful folk ballads of my people. Captain Schappen marked her during the first night on the road, and had her taken to his tent. He then designated a zaptieh to be her especial guard until he took her away with him. He also took with him Mrs. Sarafian, the young wife of Dr. Dikran Sarafian, who had been educated in Switzerland, and was one of the most prominent Armenian physicians in central Turkey. Mrs. Sarafian was a Swiss, and had learned to love Dr. Sarafian while he was a student in her country. She had come to Marash to marry him just two years before. Captain Schappen had her taken to his tent also, soon after they began their march, and when her husband objected the officer ordered a zaptieh to shoot him.

When Captain Schappen and his companions decided to return to Aleppo they sent zaptiehs scouring the country for miles around looking for donkeys. For these the officers traded girl children. A pretty Child was given for one donkey. Of the children who were plain the officers gave two, or sometimes three, for a single donkey. Thus they collected a large herd of donkeys, which probably were needed by the army.

In another day after this remnant of the Christians of Marash joined us, we came into sight of Ourfa. We were ordered to camp close to an artificial lake—such a lake as often is found outside Moslem cities. The leaders of our zaptiehs rode into the city for instructions. Soon Turks, in long white coats, came out of the city to look at us. When they saw that ours was a party of almost all younger women, with girl children still left, they spread the news in Ourfa, and in a little while dozens of Turks came out in little groups of four and five.

They tried to persuade our zaptiehs to let them carry away with them the young women and children they wanted. The zaptiehs would not permit this, however, unless they were paid what was then considered high prices for Christian women. They said they had brought us this far, and now they intended to profit—that they had only permitted us to live because they hoped to get “good prices” for the choicest of us in the Ourfa market.

The Turks did not want to pay the high prices, and the zaptiehs would not trade with them. The zaptiehs said there was a good market in Ourfa for pretty Armenian women, and they preferred to get the Mutassarif’s permission to hunt purchasers there who would bid against each other. The Turks went back to the city disappointed.

That night, just after sundown, these same Turks came out again and opened the sluices that held the artificial lake, allowing the water to spread over the plain and flood our camp. We had to run as fast as we could to scramble to safety, and there was great confusion. Even the zaptiehs were caught by surprise.

In this confusion the Turks rushed in among us and helped themselves to our youngest girls—the prettiest children they could seize. We were powerless to save them, as each of the Turks carried a heavy stick, with which they beat down the mothers or relatives who tried to rescue their little ones. By the time we had escaped the water and assembled again, and the zaptiehs were recovered from their own panic, the Turks were gone—and with them fifteen or twenty beautiful little girls.

Later I learned what was the immediate fate of the children stolen when the lake was opened on us. Haidar Pasha had seized the ancient Catholic Armenian monastery there, and had transformed it into a “government school for refugee children.” Since I have come to America I have learned that when complaints were made to the Sultan at Constantinople by foreign ambassadors of the stealing of children the Sultan’s officials replied that they were taken as a kindly deed by the government, which wished to place them in comfort in the “government school” at Ourfa and other cities.

But this is what the “government school” at Ourfa was:

Haidar Pasha sent his soldiers, under command of a bey, to take possession of the monastery, a large stone building. They surrounded it and forced the monks, among them Father Antone and Father Shiradjian, two priests who were much beloved by Protestant as well as Catholic Armenians, to walk in between two rows of soldiers. The soldiers closed in behind them and marched with them outside the walls of the city. Then the soldiers halted and the Bey asked how many there were among the monks who were willing to take the oath of Islam and forswear Christ.

When the Bey ceased speaking Father Antone lifted his voice with the words of an ancient song of the good Saint Thomas Aquinas, and all the monks joined in. While they sang the soldiers shot them down—volley after volley—until all were dead. The last monk to fall died with the words of the song on his lips.

Haidar Pasha then cleared out the monastery of all its relics and religious symbols. Among these were some things which were very dear to my people. There was, for instance, a piece of the lance which pierced the side of Jesus at the Crucifixion. What has become of this and other things that were associated with Christ, Himself, and kept by the Fathers in this monastery I do not know. It is said they were taken to Damascus and placed in a mosque there, to be ridiculed by the Moslems.

When the monastery was cleared Haidar Pasha gathered from among the Armenians who were then being taken out of the city, a number of Armenian girls of the best families and confined them in the monastery. He then seized hundreds of Armenian girl children, from 7 to 12 years old, and shut them in the monastery, to be taught the Moslem religion and raised as Moslems. He compelled the older girls to teach them the beliefs of Islam, under penalty of the most awful cruelties. To this monastery then came rich Turks from all over Asia Minor to select as many little girls as they wished and could buy for their harems—where they would grow up to be submissive slaves.

While we were waiting outside the city for the zaptiehs to dispose of us according to whatever their plans might be I saw coming toward us, out of a city gate, a company of hamidieh, or Kurd cavalry, with a supply train of donkeys and arabas, which indicated a long journey ahead. There must have been a full regiment of the horsemen, as they filled the plain outside the city while forming their line of march.

When they drew near, to pass us within a hundred yards or so, I saw a little group of women and children riding on donkeys and ponies between the lines of horsemen. I recognized these as Armenians. This was an unusual sight—Armenians under protection instead of under guard. In those days my curiosity had been stunted. So many unusual things went on about me all the time I had lost my sense of interest in anything that did not actually concern me. But something seemed to hold my attention to this strange looking company.

I got up from the ground where I was sitting and went to the edge of our camp to watch the soldiers passing. The first lines went by. The Armenian women came nearer. Suddenly all the world about me seemed lost in a haze. I rushed in between the horses, screaming at the top of my voice:

“Mother! Mother! Mother!”

She heard, and little Hovnan, and Mardiros, and Sarah heard. Mother slid to the ground as I ran up to her. I tried to throw my arms around her neck, while my little brothers and sister clung to me. But mother caught my arms and held them. Her eyes were closed, and she was still and silent. I cried to her to speak to me. A terrible fear came over me. Had she gone mad? Had she lost her speech?

I screamed—this time with anguish. Mother opened her eyes.

“Be patient, my daughter,” she said, with the dear, sweet gentleness for which all our friends had loved her. “Be patient, my daughter. I was just talking with God—thanking Him that my prayers have come true!” When I had kissed and cried over Hovnan and Mardiros and Sarah I looked again into mother’s face.

Little Aruciag—she was not there. Mother saw the question in my eyes.

“Aruciag has gone. She grew tired one day and could not keep up. A soldier threw her over a precipice!”

An officer of the hamidieh came up to learn what was happening, why mother and the children had dismounted to stand in the way of the horsemen. Mother explained to him that I was her daughter, who had come back to her. She said she wished that I might travel with her. The officer was kind. He gave permission and promised to send another donkey for me to ride.

There were four young Armenian girls with mothers and several older women, whose faces bore the marks of much suffering. As we rode along mother explained to me.

When I was stolen from her and our party from Tchemesh-Gedzak, so many weeks before, she was lying at the roadside, cruelly wounded by the soldiers. But the thought of the children summoned her back to life. Friends cared for her, and the next day when the company moved on they carried her in their arms until she could walk again.

She passed Malatia, Geulik and Diyarbekir. At last she reached Ourfa. By this time only eighteen were left of the original four thousand exiles from Tchemesh-Gedzak.

At Ourfa there lived my uncle, mother’s cousin, Ipranos Mardiganian, who had moved from Tchemesh-Gedzak to Ourfa many years ago—before I was born. Uncle Ipranos had become very wealthy, and had established a great trading business, which had branches even in Persia and in Constantinople.

In the Abdul-Hamid massacres of 1895 Uncle Ipranos was persuaded by his powerful Turkish friends at Constantinople and in Ourfa to become Moslem and thus save his life. He pretended to do so, and was rewarded with a government position of high trust, and rose to high estate among the Moslems. He adopted a Turkish name, and was known as Ibrahim Agha. Secretly, though, he still prayed to God and was Christian.

Mother remembered him when she reached Ourfa with the refugees. She knew he was in the favor of the Turks, who no longer looked upon him as Armenian. She asked one of the soldiers with her party if he would take a letter into the city for her, promising that if he would deliver the letter secretly he would receive pay. The soldier took the letter to Ibrahim Agha’s house. In it mother appealed to her cousin for his assistance in the name of their family, and asked him to give some money to the soldier.

Ibrahim Agha was grieved by mother’s letter. He sent her word that he would help her. He went at once to Haidar Pasha and procured his permission to bring mother and her children to his house. Then he came for her and took her to his home. In his house mother found four Armenian girls. Their mothers were deported from Ourfa, but before they had left the city they had appealed to Ibrahim Agha to take their daughters under his protection, thinking to save them. He could not refuse, although he endangered his own life, and had to keep the girls hidden from his neighbors. A few older women also were in his house, hidden in his cellar. He had taken them in from the streets when soldiers were not looking.

For more than a month mother and the children were safe in her cousin’s home. Then, one day, Haidar Pasha sent him word to come to the government building. He returned with heavy heart. Haidar Pasha had told him it would not be safe for him to keep his relatives in his house any longer; that many high military officials were in Ourfa, and if some of them should hear of refugee Armenians being thus protected all might be killed, and both he and Ibrahim Agha suffer.

But Haidar Pasha offered to obtain from the Turkish general at Aleppo military permission for mother and the children and the other exiles in his house, of whom my uncle now told him, to travel back to their homes in the north with soldiers being sent to Moush to join the campaign against the Russians. For this Haidar Pasha asked one thousand liras cash—about $5,000—and another thousand liras when mother and the others had safely reached their homes and had received permission from their home authorities to remain. This permission the Pasha promised to arrange also.

My uncle had to comply. The four girls had no homes or relatives in the north, but they had to go, too, or be deported and seized by Turks. Mother agreed to take them to her home in Tchemesh-Gedzak—if they should really reach there alive.

At Moush an army corps was assembling. The Turks had retired before the first advance of the Russians through the Caucasus, and Dejevdet Bey, Vali of Van, was rallying his armies here for a dash at the Russian flanks, which already had reached Van. Soldiers occupied all the houses in Moush, from which the Armenians had been ejected, and the hamidieh officers believed it would be best for us to be quartered outside the city while arrangements were made for the rest of our journey. Mother depended upon the papers given her by Haidar Pasha to secure for us an escort from Moush to Tchemesh-Gedzak—and Ibrahim Agha had said Haidar would telegraph the authorities at Moush to guarantee our safety.

We stopped at Kurdmeidan, a village a few miles outside of Moush, at the foot of Mount Antok. There had been many Armenians in the village, and there was an Armenian church. All the Christians had been massacred, however, and their homes were occupied by mouhajirs—Moslem immigrants from the lost provinces in the Balkans. We went into the deserted church and prepared to remain there until arrangements were made for us to leave. The hamidieh officers called the village Mudir before them and cautioned him that we were to be protected and fed—that we were “especially favored by the Porte.”

The villagers treated us kindly—so great is the fear of the population of anything “official” or governmental. Days went by and we did not hear from the city. We began to worry. Mother wanted so much to see our home again at Tchemesh-Gedzak. “Were it not for you and the children,” she would say to me, “I would be willing to die on my doorstep—if God would just let me see our home again!” My poor, dear mother!

We dared not go alone into the city to inquire what was to be done for us—we could only wait.

One night, just after the Moslem prayer, the streets of the little city suddenly became crowded with horsemen. Some Turkish women who were just outside the church rushed in to get out of the way of the horses’ hoofs. “It is Sheikh Zilan,” they said. “The Sheikh Zilan of the Belek tribe, who has been called in from the mountains with his thousand Kurds to fight for the Turks!”

The name of Sheikh Zilan was widely known. His horsemen had harried the countryside for many years. It was said he frequently made raids with his tribe into Persia, and even into the Russian Caucasus before the war, to steal women for the secret slave markets in European Turkey.

The tribe was on its way into Moush. Entrance would be denied them after dark, they knew, so they had decided to camp for the night in Kurdmeidan. Some followers of the Sheikh saw the Armenian church building, and decided to use it as a stable for the horses of the Sheikh and his chiefs. They broke in the door while mother and the rest of us crouched in a corner. But we could not hide—the Kurds saw us and gave the alarm. Soon the church was full of the wild tribesmen.

Mother showed her letters from Haidar Pasha. This awed the Kurds for a moment, and they sent for one of their chiefs. When the chief came he read the letter carefully. Then he examined our party. “The Pasha here says there is an Armenian woman and her servants and three children, to whom immunity has been promised and safe conduct. That we will grant, although the word of a Pasha is not binding upon the will of the great Shiekh Zilan. But the Pasha’s writing says nothing of five young Armenian women, too old to be classed as children and too young to be described as servants. These we will take, lest the Pasha be imposed upon.”

They would not believe that I also was mother’s daughter. They took me and the four girls mother had brought from the house of Ibrahim Agha, and at the same time forced mother to leave the shelter of the church and camp in a nearby yard. They took us out of the village, to where their main camp was.

With halter ropes they tied our hands behind our backs and then tied us to each other by looping a rope through our arms. Soon Sheikh Zilan himself came to look at us. He seemed greatly pleased when he had looked into our faces. He gave some orders we could not understand, but which, evidently, had to do with our safety, and walked away. We spent the night sitting on the ground, for we were bound in such a way we could not lie down. The Kurds looked at us curiously as they walked around us, and often one of them would kick us to make us turn our faces toward him. But otherwise they did not molest us.