Ravished Armenia/Chapter 3

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Ravished Armenia by Aurora Mardiganian, translated by Henry Leyford Gates
Chapter III — Vahby Bey Takes His Choice

CHAPTER III


VAHBY BEY TAKES HIS CHOICE


For a time Lusanne and I debated whether we should return to the square and join mother, since Miss Graham had been stolen and could not help us, or whether we should make an effort to escape since we had so far escaped notice in our disguises. We decided that, perhaps, if we could reach the house of a friendly Turk, outside the city, and we knew of many of these, we might find a way to help mother. We did not know how this could ever be done, but we clung to a hope that surely some one would aid us.

When it was quite dark we crept through side streets to our deserted house and succeeded in getting into the garden without attracting attention. We dared not make a light, or remain on the lower floors, soldiers might enter the house at any moment. The safest place to hide, we thought, would be the attic.

In the attic there were a number of boxes of old things of mother’s. We searched until we found some old clothes, and each of us put on an old dress of mother’s under the cloaks she had given us. If we were discovered, the old clothes, we thought, might deceive the Turks if we could keep our faces covered. Neither Lusanne nor I had slept during the three days the Turks allowed the Armenian women to prepare for deportation. Toward morning we were both so worn out we fell asleep. Suddenly I awoke to find an ugly zaptieh standing over me, a sword in his hand. He had kicked me. Three or four others, who, with the leader, had broken in to search for valuables, were coming up the ladder into the attic, and the one who had found us was calling out to them:

“Mouhadjirler — anleri keselim!”—(“Here are refugees — let’s kill them!”)

The zaptieh’s shout awakened Lusanne and she screamed.

By this time the Turks had pulled me to my feet, but when Lusanne screamed they dropped me. “That’s no old one,” the chief zaptieh said, as he turned to my sister. “Her voice is young.”

They kicked me aside while they gathered around Lusanne, picked her up and carried her down the ladder to the floor below, where our bedrooms were. There they found a lamp and lighted it from the torch one of them carried. They began to examine Lusanne, who screamed and fought them desperately. I followed them down the ladder and ran into the room, but when they saw me one of them struck me with his fists, and I fell. They thought I at least was as old as my clothes looked. One of them said, “Stick the old one on a bayonet if she don’t keep still.” I could do nothing but stay on the floor, crouch tight to the wall and look on.

A zaptieh tore off Lusanne’s veil and cloak. When they saw her face and that she was young and good looking they shouted and laughed. The leader dropped his gun and laid his sword on a table and then took Lusanne away from the others and held her in his arms. She fought so hard the others had to help hold her while the officer kissed her. Each time he kissed her he laughed and all the others laughed too. One by one the zaptiehs caressed her, each passing her to the other, all much amused by her struggles.

When Lusanne’s dress was all torn and her screams grew weak I could not stand it any longer. I crept up to the men on my knees and begged them to stop. I knew there was no longer any hope that we might escape, so I pleaded: “Please take us to the square to our relatives; we will get money for you if you will only spare us.”

They allowed us to leave the house, but followed across the street to the square. It was daylight now and the women were stirring about, sharing with each other the bread and meats some had brought with them. The zaptiehs made Lusanne stay with them while I searched for mother. She was caring for a baby whose mother had died during the night. The first thing she asked was, “Where is Lusanne—have they got her?”

Mother gave me two liras. The zaptiehs took them and shoved Lusanne away. She fainted when she realized they had released her.

During the first day and night no one knew what was to happen. Such of the soldiers as would answer questions said only that the Pasha had ordered the women deported. None knew how or when. During the first night three of the mothers of girls who had been taken by the Turks the day before died. One of them killed herself while her other children were sleeping around her. So many were crowded into the square not all could find room to lie down and the soldiers killed any who attempted to move into the street.

In the center of the square there was a band-stand, where the Mutassarif’s band often played in the summer evenings. In this band-stand the soldiers had put the little girls and boys taken from the Christian Orphanage when they carried off Miss Graham. There were thirty litle girls, none of them more than twelve years old, and almost as many boys.

The children were crying bitterly when Lusanne and I, at mother’s suggestion, went to see if we could not help care for them. There was no food for them except what the women could spare from their own stores. The Turks never give food to their prisoners. Toward noon of that day Vahby Bey, the military commandant of the whole vilayet, who had under him almost an army corps, rode into the city with his staff and a company of hamidieh, or Kurdish cavalry. He was on his way to Harpout, from Erzindjan, a big city in the north, where he had attended a council of war with Enver Pasha, the Turkish Commander-in-Chief.

Vahby Bey walked from his headquarters into the public square, accompanied by his staff. Hundreds of women crowded around him, but his staff officers beat them away with swords and canes. The general walked at once to the band-stand and looked at the children. Abdoullah Bey, the chief of the gendarmes, was with him, and they talked in low voices.

When Vahby Bey had gone, several officers began to ask Armenian girls if they would like to accompany the orphans and take care of them in the place where the government would put them. The officers said they would take several girls for this purpose, and thus save them the terrors of deportation and death, or worse, if they would first agree to become Mohammedan.

Many mothers thought this the only way to save their daughters from the harem. Some of the younger women, among them brides whose husbands had been killed, were so discouraged and frightened they were eager to accept this chance. The officers said only young girls would be accepted, and bade all who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to gather at the band-stand. More than two hundred assembled, with mothers and relatives hanging onto them. I don’t think any of them really was willing to forswear Christ, but they thought they would be forgiven if they seemed to do so to save themselves from being massacred, stolen in the desert or forced to be concubines.

A hamidieh officer, looking smart and neat in his costly uniform, went to the stand to select the girls. He chose twelve of the very prettiest. One girl who was tall and very handsome, and whose father had been a rich merchant, refused to take the Mohammedan oath unless her two sisters, both younger, also were accepted. The officer consented. The three girls had no mother, only some younger brothers, and these the officers said might accompany the orphans. The three sisters were very glad they were to be saved. One of them was a friend of Lusanne’s, and to her she said: “Our God will know why we are doing this; we will always pray to Him in secret.” Esther Magurditch, daughter of Boghos Artin, a great Armenian author and poet, who lived in our city, also was willing to take the oath, and was chosen. Esther had been one of my playmates. Her mother was an English woman, who had married her father when he was traveling in Europe. Esther had married Vartan Magurditch, a young lawyer, just a week before. When both her father and husband were taken from her she almost lost her mind.

When all the fourteen girls had said the Mohammedan rek’ah, soldiers took them with the orphans to the big house in which Esther’s family had lived. It was the largest Armenian home in the city.

As soon as the children and the apostasized girls entered the house Esther prepared a meal for them from the bread and other food that had been left. While the children were eating the girls were summoned to another part of the house, where an aged Mohammedan woman awaited them with yashmaks, or Turkish veils, which she told them they must put on, as they had become Mohammedan women and must not let their faces be seen.

The young women were then told to seat themselves until an officer came to give further instructions. They still were waiting in the room when childish voices in the other part of the house were lifted up, in screams. The girls rushed to the door, only to find it locked.

Suddenly the door opened and Vahby Bey, with his chief of staff, Ferid Bey, and Ali Riza Effendi, the Police Commissary, whose headquarters were in Harpout, entered. With them were a number of other smartly dressed officers, who had been traveling with General Vahby. The girls fell to their knees before the officers, and asked them, in Allah’s name, to let them go to the children. The officers laughed. The three sisters, who had taken their little brothers with the other children, appealed to General Vahby to tell them what had happened to their little ones. Vahby Bey did not answer, but pointed to the taller one of the three girls, the one who was so handsome, and said to the chief of staff: “This one I will take; guard her carefully.” Ferid Bey, the chief officer, then called some soldiers, who picked up the girl and carried her upstairs to a room which Vahby Bey had occupied. Vahby Bey followed. Ferid Bey then selected Esther, and soldiers carried her up to another room. Ferid Bey followed and dismissed the soldiers, with orders to place a guard outside his door and another outside the door of Vahby Bey’s room.

Downstairs the other officers of Vahby Bey’s staff each selected a girl, the officers of higher rank taking first choice. There were three girls left, one of them the youngest sister of the girl Vahby Bey had taken, and the soldiers took possession of these, not even removing them from the room.

How long these three girls lived I cannot tell. It was Esther who told us what happened that afternoon in her house, for she was the only one of the fourteen who escaped alive. Before she got away from the house she looked into the room where the soldiers had been, and saw that the three girls were dead.

Esther tried to resist Ferid Bey, and to plead with him; but he threatened to kill her. When she told him she would rather die he opened the door so she could see the men standing guard in the hall, and said to her:

“Very well then; if you do not be quiet I will give you to the soldiers!”

Surely God will not blame Esther for shrinking away from the sight of those many men and allowing Ferid Bey, who was only one man, to remain.

The officers busied themselves with the girls until evening. When Ferid Bey left her Esther begged him again to at least tell her where the children were, that she might go to them. He had assured her during the afternoon that the orphans were safe, and that the girls could return to them later. Now he pretended no longer. “We have no time to bother with the children of unbelievers,” he said. “We drowned them in the river!”

Ferid Bey told the truth. We found some of their bodies when we passed that way later on. The soldiers had tied the children together with ropes in groups of ten and had driven them to Kara Su, also a branch of the Euphrates, ten miles away. Those who were too little to walk or keep up with the others, the soldiers had killed with their bayonets or gun handles. They left their bodies, still tied together, at the roadside. On the river banks we found other bodies that had been washed up.

As soon as Ferid Bey had gone and Esther heard the other officers assembling on the floor below, something warned her to try to escape immediately. Her clothes had been nearly all torn away, but she dared not wait even to cover herself. She climbed onto the roof by a small stairway which the Turks were not guarding, and hid herself there.

General Vahby and his officers went to their quarters. The soldiers hunted out the girls they had left behind. Esther heard them fighting among themselves over the prettiest ones. After a time most of the girls died. The soldiers killed the rest with their swords when they were finished with, them. From what Esther heard them saying to each other as they did this, she believed they had been ordered not to leave any of the young women alive as witnesses to Vahby Bey and his officers having done such things openly.

Esther crept out of the house and crawled through a back street to the square. She found my mother and fell into her arms. When daylight came a soldier saw her and recognized her as one of the girls who had apostasized the day before, and the zaptiehs carried her away. At noon more soldiers came to the square, with zaptiehs and hamidieh, and officers began to go among us, saying that within one hour we were to march. They told us we were to be taken to Harpout, but we soon saw our destination was in the direction of Arabkir.

That last hour in our city, which had been the home of many of our family ancestors for centuries, and beyond the borders of which but few of our neighbors ever had traveled, was spent by most of the mothers and their children in prayer. There was almost no more weeping or wailing. The strong, young women gathered close to them the aged ones or frail mothers with very young babies. Each of us who had more strength than for our own needs tried to find some one who needed a share of it.

We were encouraged a little when the time came for us to move by the apparent kindness of some of the new Turkish soldiers, who seemed to want to make us as comfortable as possible. It was at the suggestion of these that many aged grandmothers whose daughters had more than one baby were placed together in a group of ox carts, each with a grandchild that had been weaned. The soldiers said this plan would relieve the young mothers of so many children to watch over, and would let the old women have company, while, being together, the soldiers could keep them comfortable.
Aurora's wanderings.jpg
THIS MAP SHOWS AURORA’S WANDERINGS
The black line indicates the route covered by Miss Mardiganian, who
during two years walked fourteen hundred miles.

When we were three hours out from town these ox carts fell behind. Presently the soldiers that had been detailed to stay with them joined the rest of the party ahead. When we asked where the grandmothers and the babies were, the soldiers replied: “They were too much trouble. We killed them!”

It was very hot, and the roads were dusty, with no shade. Many women and children soon fell to the ground exhausted. The zaptiehs beat these with their clubs. Those who couldn’t get up and walk as fast as the rest were beaten till they died, or they were killed outright.

Our first intimation of what might happen to us at any time came when we had been on the road four hours. We came then to a little spot where there were trees and a spring. The soldiers who marched afoot were themselves tired, and gave us permission to rest a while, and get water.

A woman pointed onto the plain, where, a little ways from the road, we saw what seemed to be a human being, sitting on the ground. Some of us walked that way and saw it was an Armenian woman. On the ground beside her were six bundles of different sizes, from a very little one to one as large as I would be, each wrapped in spotless white that glistened in the sun.

We did not need to ask to know that in each of the bundles was the body of a child. The mother’s face was partially covered with a veil, which told us she had given up God in the hope of saving her little ones—but in vain!

She did not speak or move, only looked at us with a great sadness in her eyes. Her face seemed familiar and one of us knelt beside her and gently lifted her veil. Then we recognized her—Margarid, wife of the pastor, Badvelli Moses, of Kamakh, a little city thirty miles to the north. Badvelli Moses once had been a teacher in our school at Tchemesh-Gedzak. He was a graduate of the college at Harpout, and Margarid had graduated from a Seminary at Mezre. They were much beloved by all who knew them. Often Badvelli Moses had returned, with his wife and Sherin, their oldest daughter, who was my age, to Tchemesh-Gedzak to visit and speak in our churches. Besides Sherin, there were five smaller girls and boys. All were there, by Margarid’s side, wrapped in the sheets she had carried with her when the people of her city were deported.

“There were a thousand of us,” Margarid said when we had brought her out of the stupor of grief which had overcome her. “They took us away with only an hour’s notice. The first night Kurdish bandits rode down upon us and took all the men a little ways off and killed them. We saw our husbands die, one by one. They stripped all the women and children — even the littlest ones — so they could search our bodies for money. They took all the pretty girls and violated them before our eyes.

“I pleaded with the commander of our soldier guards to protect my Sherin. He had been our friend in Kamakh. He promised to save us if I would become a Moslem, and for Sherin’s sake, I did. He made the bandits allow us to put on our clothes again, and Sherin and I veiled our faces.

“The commander detailed soldiers to escort us to Harpout and take me to the governor there. When we left the Kurds and soldiers who were tired of the girls were killing them, and the others as well. When we reached here the soldiers killed my little ones by mashing their heads together. They violated Sherin while they held me, and then cut off her breasts, so that she died. They left me alive, they said, because I had become Moslem.”

We tried to take Margarid into our party, but she would not come. “I must go to God with my children,” she said. “I will stay here until He takes me.” So we left her sitting there with her loved ones.

It was late at night and the stars were out when we arrived at the banks of the Kara Su. Here we were told by the soldiers we could camp for the night. In the distance we could see the light on the minaret in the village of Gwazim, where father and Paul had died in the burning prison.

All along the road zaptiehs killed women and children who could not keep up with the party, and many of the pretty girls had been dragged to the side of the road, to be sent back to the party later with tears and shame in their faces. Lusanne and I had daubed our faces with mud to make us ugly, and I still wore my cloak and veil.

For a time it seemed as if we were not to be molested, as the guards remained in little groups, away from us. Only the scream now and then of a girl who had attracted some soldier’s attention reminded us we must not sleep.