Ravished Armenia/Chapter 5

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Ravished Armenia by Aurora Mardiganian, translated by Henry Leyford Gates
Chapter V — The Ways of the Zaptiehs

CHAPTER V


THE WAYS OF THE ZAPTIEHS


While we stood, in groups, looking with horror into the well, I suddenly heard these words, spoken by a woman standing near me:

“God has gone mad; we are deserted!”

I turned and saw it was the wife of Badvelli Markar, a pastor who had been our neighbor in Tchemesh-Gedzak. When the men of our city were massacred the Badvelli’s wife was left to care for an aged mother, who was then ill in bed with typhoid fever, and three children—a baby, a little girl of three, and a boy who was five. She had begged the Turks to let her remain in her home to care for her mother, but they refused. They made the aged woman leave her bed and take to the road with the rest of us. She died the first day.

During the first days we were on the road the Badvelli’s wife was very courageous. Then her little boy died. The guards had compelled her to leave her baby at the river crossing and now her little girl, the last of her children, was ill in her arms. When we passed the bodies of the Armenians from the khan, laid along the road, the Badvelli’s wife suddenly lost her mind.

“God has gone mad, I tell you—mad—mad—mad!”

This time she shrieked it aloud and ran in among the others in our company, crying the terrible thing as she went. A woman tried to stop her, to take the little girl out of her arms, but she fought fiercely and held on to the child.

I have heard how sometimes a sickness like the plague will spread from one person to another with fatal quickness. That was how the madness of the Badvelli’s wife spread through our party. It seemed hardly more than a minute before the awful cry was taken up by scores, even hundreds, of women whose minds already were shaken by their inability to understand why they should be made to suffer the things they had to endure at the hands of the Turks.

It was the mothers of young children, mostly, who gave in to the madness. Some of these threw their children on the ground and ran, screaming, out of the line and into the desert. Others ran wild with their children hanging to their arms. Their relatives tried to subdue them, but were powerless.

I think there were more than 200 women whose minds gave way under this sudden impulse, stirred by the crazed widow of the pastor.

The zaptiehs who were in charge of us could not understand at first. They thought there was a revolt. They charged in among us, swinging their swords and guns right and left, even shooting point blank. Many were killed or wounded hopelessly before the zaptiehs understood. Then the guards were greatly amused, and laughed. “See,” they said; “that is what your God is—He is crazy.” We could only bow our heads and submit to the taunt. Some of the women recovered their senses and were very sorry. Those who remained crazed the zaptiehs turned onto the plains to starve to death. They would not kill an insane person, as it is against their religion.

We had been told we were to go to Arabkir, but soon after leaving the khan we changed our direction. It was apparent we were headed in the direction of Hassan-Chelebi, a small city south of Arabkir. None of our guards would give us any definite information.

The zaptiehs made us march in a narrow line, but one or two families abreast. The line of weary stragglers stretched out as far as I could see, both ahead and behind. We had but little water, as the zaptiehs would not allow us to go near springs or streams, but compelled us to purchase water from the farmer Kurds who came out from villages along the way. The villagers demanded sometimes a lira (nearly $5.) a cup for water, and always the boys we sent out to buy it were sure to receive a beating as well as the water. We who had money with us had to share with those who had none. Sometimes the villagers would sell the water, collect the money, and then tip over the cups.

After we were on the road a week we were treated even more cruelly than during the first few days. The old women, and those who were too ill to keep on, were killed, one by one. The soldiers said they could not bother with them. When children lagged behind, or got out of the line to rest, the zaptiehs would lift them on their bayonets and toss them away—sometimes trying to catch them again as they fell, on their bayonet points. Mothers who saw their young ones killed in this way for the sport of our guards could not protest. We had learned that any sort of a protest was suicide. They had to watch and wring their hands, or hold their eyes shut while the children died.

Our family had been especially fortunate because none of our little ones became ill. Although Hovnan was only six years old, he seemed to realize what was going on. My youngest aunt, Hagenoush, who was with us, was carried off from the road by a zaptieh, who beat her terribly when she tried to resist him. When he had outraged her he buried his knife in her breast and drove her back to us screaming with the fright and pain. I think I was never so discouraged as when we had treated Hagenoush and eased her pain.

News of the massacres and deportations had not yet reached all the villages we passed, as the road was little traveled. We came upon one settlement of Armenians where the women were at their wash tubs, in the public washing place, only partly clothed, as is the way in country villages in Turkey. Our guards surrounded the women at once and drove them, just as they were, into our party. Then they gathered the men, who did not know why they were molested until we told them. We rested on the road while the soldiers looted all the houses in that village. Then they set fire to it.

We were now in a country where there were many Turkish villages, as well as settlements of Kurds. We camped at night in a great circle, with the younger girls distributed for protection inside the circle as widely as possible. Each day young women were carried away to be sold to Turks who lived near by, and at night the zaptiehs selected the most attractive women and outraged them.

The night after the Armenian village had been surprised we had hardly more than made our camp when the captain of the soldiers ordered the men who had been taken from the village during the day to come before him, in a tent which had been pitched a little way off. The captain wanted their names, the soldiers explained. We had hoped these men would remain with us. There were seventy-two of them, and we felt much safer and encouraged with them among us. But we knew what the summons meant. The men knew, too, and so did their womenfolk.

Each man said good-by to his wife, or daughters, or mother, and other relatives who had been gathered in at the village. The captain’s tent was just a white speck in the moonlight. Around it we made out the figures of soldiers and zaptiehs. The women clung to the men as long as they dared, then the men marched out in a little company. Our guards would not allow us to follow. We watched, hoping against hope.

Soon we saw a commotion. Screams echoed across to us. Figures ran out into the desert, with other figures in pursuit. Only the pursuers would return. Then it was quiet. The men were all dead.

That was the first time the officers had raised a tent. We wondered at their doing this, as usually they slept in the open after their nightly orgies with our girls. After that we shuddered more than ever whenever we saw the soldiers put up a tent for the night.

After the massacre of the men, the soldiers who had participated came into the camp and, with those which had remained guarding us, went among us selecting women whose husbands had belonged to the more prosperous class and ordering them to go to the tent. The captain wished to question them, the soldiers said. They summoned my mother and many women who had been our neighbors or friends, until more than two hundred women whose husbands had been rich or well-to-do were gathered. With my mother my Aunt Mariam, whose husband had been a banker, was taken.

As soon as the women had arrived at the tent the captain told them they were summoned to give up the money they had brought with them, “for safe keeping from the Kurds,” he said. The women knew their money would never be returned to them and that they would suffer terribly without it. They refused to surrender it, saying they had none. Then the zaptiehs fell upon them. They searched them all, first tearing off all their clothes.

One woman, who was the sister of the rich man, Garabed Tufenkjian, of Sivas, and who had been visiting in our city when the deportations began, was so mercilessly beaten she confessed at last that she had concealed some money in her person. She begged the soldiers to cease beating her that she might give itthem. The soldiers shouted aloud with glee at this confession and recovered the money themselves, cutting her cruelly with their knives to make sure they had missed none.

The soldiers then searched each woman in this way. My Aunt Mariam was to become a mother. When the soldiers saw this they threw her to the ground and ripped her open with their bayonets, thinking, in their ignorant way, she had hidden a great amount of money. They were so disappointed they fell upon the other women with renewed energy.

Of the two hundred or more who were subjected to this treatment, only a little group survived. When they crawled back into the camp and into the arms of their relatives they had screamed so much they could not talk—they had lost their voices. My poor mother had given up all the money she had about her, but had not admitted that others of her family had more. She was bleeding from many cuts and bruises when she reached us, and fainted as soon as she saw Lusanne and me running to her. We carried her into the camp and used the last of our drinking water, which we had treasured from the day before, to bathe her wounds.

When the soldiers and zaptiehs had divided the money which they had taken, they came in among us again to pick out young women to take to the officers’ tent. The moonlight was so bright none of us could conceal ourselves. Lusanne was sitting with the children, comforting them, while I had taken my turn at attending mother’s wounds. A zaptieh caught her by the hair and pulled her to her feet.

“Spare me, my mother is dying — spare me!” Lusanne cried, but the zaptieh was merciless. He dragged her along. I could not hold myself. I ran to Lusanne and caught hold of her, pleading with the zaptieh to release her. Lusanne resisted, too, and the zaptieh became enraged. With an oath he drew his knife and buried it in Lusanne’s breast. The blade, as it fell, passed so close to me it cut the skin on my cheek, leaving the scar which I still have. Lusanne died in my arms. The zaptieh turned his attention to another girl he had noticed.

Mother had not seen—she was still too exhausted from her own sufferings. Aruciag and Hovnan, my little brother and sister, saw it all, however, and had run to where I stood dazed, with Lusanne’s limp body in my arms. I laid her on the ground and wondered how I could tell mother.

A woman who had been standing near took my place at mother’s side. I led the little ones away and asked another woman to keep them with her, then I returned to my sister’s body. I could not make myself believe it. I counted on my fingers—father, mother, Paul, Lusanne, Aruciag, Sarah, Mardiros, Hovnan and my two aunts. With me that made eleven of us—eleven in our family. Then I counted father, Paul, Aunt Mariam, and now Lusanne—four already gone!

I cried over Lusanne a long time. Then I realized I must do something. I was afraid a sudden shock might kill mother, so I must have time, I knew, to prepare her. With the help of some other women I carried Lusanne to the side of the camp and with our hands we dug her grave—just a shallow hole in the sand. I made a little cross from bits of wood we found after a long search, and laid it in her hands.

When morning came mother had gathered her strength, with a tremendous effort, and was able to stand and walk. Some strong young women, offered to help carry her, even all day if necessary, if she could not walk. Mother insisted upon walking some of the time, though, leaning upon my shoulder.

She asked for Lusanne as soon as we began preparation to take up the day’s march. I tried to make her believe Lusanne was further back in the company—“helping a sick lady,” I said. But mother read my eyes—she knew I was trying to deceive her.

“Don’t be afraid, little Aurora,” she said to me, oh, so very gently; “don’t be afraid to tell me whatever it is—have they stolen her?”

“They tried to take her,” I said, “but—”

I stopped. Mother helped me again. “Did she die? Did they kill her? If they did it was far better, my Aurora.”

Then I could tell her. “They killed her—very quickly—her last words were that God was good to set her free.”

We saw the zaptieh who killed Lusanne, during the day, and little Aruciag recognized him. “There is the man who killed my sister,” she cried. Mother put her hands over her eyes and would not look at him.

We all were in great fear of what might happen to us at Hassan-Chelebi. Some of the young women who had been taken during the night to the tent of the officers reported that the officers had told them during the orgie that some great beys were coming from Sivas to meet us at Hassan-Chelebi, and that something was to be done about us there. We were afraid that meant that all our girls were to be stolen.

When the city loomed up before us our young women began to tremble with dread, and many of them fell down, unable to walk, so great was their anguish. The soldiers whipped them up, though, and we were guided into the center of the town. Hundreds of our women were wholly nude, especially those who had been stripped and beaten when the soldiers robbed them. The zaptiehs would not allow them to cover themselves, seeming to take an especial delight in watching that those who were without clothes did not obtain garments from others. These poor women were compelled to walk through the streets of Hassan-Chelebi with their heads bowed with shame, while the Turkish residents jeered at them from windows and the roadside.

At the square the Turkish officials from Sivas came out to look at us. Among them were Muamer Pasha, the cruel governor of Sivas; Mahir Effendi, his aide de camp; Tcherkess Kior Kassim, his chief hangman, who, we afterward learned, had superintended the massacre of 6,000 Armenian Christians at Tchamli-Bel gorge, near Sivas; a captain of zaptiehs and a Hakim, or judge. Two of these officials were noted throughout Armenia—Muamer Pasha and his hangman, for their characteristic cruelties toward Christians.

After the officials had walked among us, closely surrounded by soldiers so that none could approach them, the Mudir, or under-mayor of the city, came with the police to get all boys over eight years of age. The police said the mayor had provided a school for them in a monastery, where they would be kept until their mothers had been permanently located somewhere and could send for them. Of course, we knew this was a false reason.

I greatly feared for Mardiros, but he was so small they did not take him. There must have been 500 boys with us who were between eight and fifteen, and these all were gathered.

The little fellows were taken to the mayor’s palace. Then soldiers marched them away, all the little ones crying and screaming. We heard the cries a long time. When we arived at Arabkir we were told by other refugees there that all the boys were killed as soon as they had crossed the hills into the valley just outside Hassan-Chelebi. The soldiers tied them in groups of ten and fifteen and then slew them with swords and bayonets. Refugees passing that way from Sivas saw their bodies on the road.

Before we left Hassan-Chelebi, Tcherkess Kior Kassim, the hangman, came among us, with a company of zaptiehs and picked out twelve very young girls—most of them between eight and twelve years old. The hangman was going soon to Constantinople, the soldiers said, and wanted young girls to sell to rich Turks of powerful families, among whom it is the custom to buy pretty girls of this age, whenever possible, and keep them in their harems until they mature. They are raised as Mohammedans and are later given to sons of their owners, or to powerful friends.

Just outside Hassan-Chelebi, which we left in the afternoon, we were joined by a party of 3,000 refugees from Sivas. They, too, were on their way to Arabkir, and had encamped outside the city to wait for us. Among them was a company of twenty Sisters of Grace. These dear Sisters, several of whom were Europeans, had been summoned at midnight from their beds by the Kaimakam, or under-governor. When the Turkish soldiers went for them they were disrobed, sleeping. The soldiers would not permit them to dress, but took them as they were, barefooted and in their nightgowns.

They had managed, during the long days out of Sivas, to borrow other garments, but none had shoes and their feet were torn and bleeding. They were very delicate and gentle, and all had received their education in American or European schools. They had demanded exemption from the deportation under certain concessions made their convent by the Sultan, but the soldiers ignored their pleas.

Instead of arousing some slight respect upon the part of their guards because of their holy station, these Sisters had been subjected to the worst possible treatment. They told us that every night after their party left Sivas the soldiers and zaptiehs took them away from the party and violated them. They begged for death, but even this was refused them. Two of them, Sister Sarah and Sister Esther, who had come from America, had killed themselves. They had only their hands—no other weapons, and the torture and agonies they endured while taking their own lives were terrible.

The refugees from Sivas included the men. There were more than 25,000 Armenians in that city, and all were notified they were to be taken away. The party which joined ours was the first to be sent out. They had passed many groups of corpses along the road, they reported, the reminder of deportations from other cities.

When we arrived at Arabkir we were ordered to encamp at the edge of the city. Parties of exiles from many villages between Arabkir and Sivas already were there. Some of them still had their men and boys with them, others told us how their men had been killed along the route.

The Armenians of Arabkir itself were awaiting deportation, herded in a party of 8,000 or more, near where we halted. They had been waiting five days, and did not know what had happened to their homes in the city.

A special official came from Sivas to take charge of the deportations at Arabkir. With him came a company of zaptiehs. Halil Bey, a great military leader, with his staff, also was there, on his way to Constantinople where he was to take command of an army.

In the center of the city there was a large house which had been used by the prosperous Armenian shops. On the upper floors were large rooms which had been gathering places. Already this house had come to be known as the Kasab-Khana—the “butcher-house”—for here the leading men of the city had been assembled and slain.

Shortly after the special official’s arrival soldiers summoned all the men still with the Sivas exiles, to a meeting with him on the Kasab-Khana. The men feared to go, but were told there would be no more cruelties now that high authority was represented. The men went, two thousand of them, and were killed as soon as they reached the Kasab-Khana. Soldiers were in hiding on the lower floors and as the men gathered in the upper rooms the doors were closed and the soldiers went about the slaughter. Men leaped out of the windows as fast as they could, but soldiers caught them on their bayonets.

The bodies were thrown out of the house later in the day. The next morning they were still piled in the streets when the official called for the girls who had been attending the Christian colleges and schools at Sivas, and the Mission at Kotcheseur, an Armenian town near Sivas. There were two hundred of these girls, all of them members of the better families, and all between fifteen and twenty years old. The soldiers said the official had arranged for them to be sent under the care of missionaries to a school near the coast, where they would be protected.

The girls were summoned to the Kasab-Khana. It was then we learned, for the first time, what had happened to the men the day before. They stood in line but a few yards from the great piles of the bodies still lying in the street.

The official received them in a room on the upper floor of the house, which still bore the stains of blood on the walls and floors. He asked them to renounce Christ and accept Allah. Only a few agreed—these were taken away, where, I do not know. The rest were left in the room by the official and his staff. As soon as the officers had left the building the soldiers poured into the room, sharing the girls among them. All day and night soldiers went into and came out of the house. Nearly all the girls died. Those who were alive when the soldiers were weary were sent away under an escort of zaptiehs.