Ravished Armenia/Chapter 6

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Ravished Armenia by Aurora Mardiganian, translated by Henry Leyford Gates
Chapter VI — Recruiting for the Harems of Constantinople

CHAPTER VI


RECRUITING FOR THE HAREMS OF CONSTANTINOPLE


The exiles from my city were kept in a camp outside Arabkir. On the third day the hills around us suddenly grew white with the figures of Aghja Daghi Kurds. They waited until nightfall then they rode down among us. There were hundreds of them, and when they were weary of searching the women for money, they began to gather up girls and young women.

I tried to conceal myself when a little party of the Kurds came near. But I was too late. They took me away, with a dozen other girls and young wives this band had caught. They carried us on their horses across the valley, over the hills and into the desert beyond. There they stripped us of what clothes still were on our bodies. With their long sticks they subdued the girls who were screaming, or who resisted them—beat them until their flesh was purple with flowing blood. My own heart was too full—thinking of my poor, wounded mother. I could not cry. I was not even strong enough to fight them when they began to take the awful toll which the Turks and Kurds take from their women captives.

When the Kurds were tired of mistreating us they hobbled us, still naked, to their horses. Each girl, with her hands tied behind her back, was tied by the feet to the end of a rope fastened around a horse’s neck. Thus they left us—neither we nor the horses could escape.

I have often wondered since I came to America, where life is so different from that of my country, if any of the good people whom I meet could imagine the sufferings of that night while I lay in the moonlight, my hands fastened and my feet haltered to the restless animal.

There seems to be so little of tragedy in this country—so little of real suffering. I can hardly believe yet, though I have been free so many months now, that there is a land where there is no punishment for believing in God.

When the dawn broke the Kurds came out to untie their horses. It is characteristic of even the fiercest Kurds that their captives always are fed. The Kurds will rob and terribly mistreat their victims, especially the women of the Christians, but they will not steal their food. When their captives have no food they will even share with them. The Kurd is more of a child than the Turk, and nearly all the wickedness of these bandits of the desert is inspired by their Turkish masters.

When we had eaten of the bread and drank the water they brought for us, the Kurds lifted us upon their horses and galloped toward the north. There were more girls than Kurds, and we were shifted frequently that double burdens might be shared among the horses.

We did not know where we were being taken, nor to what. After many hours of riding I was shifted to the care of a Kurd who—either because he was kinder or liked to talk—answered my pleading questions. He told me a great Pasha was at Egin, a city to the north, who had come down from Constantinople especially to take an interest in Armenian girls. This Pasha, the Kurd said, even paid money to have Christian girls who were healthy and pleasing brought before him.

Egin is on the banks of the Kara Su. From Erzindjan, Shabin Kara-Hissar and Niksar, large northern cities, thousands of Armenians had been brought to Egin. Here special bands of soldiers had been stationed to superintend the massacres of these Christians. All around the hills and plains outside the city huge piles of corpses were still uncovered. We passed long ditches which had been dug by convicts released from Turkish prisons for that purpose, and in which an attempt had been made to bury the bodies of the Armenians. But the convicts had been in such a hurry to get done the work for which they were to be given their liberty, that the legs and arms of men and women still stuck out from the sand which had been scraped over them.

There had been many rich Armenian families in Egin. It was the meeting place of the rich caravans from Samsoun, Trebizond and Marsovan, bound for Harpout and Diyarbekir. For many years the Turkish residents and the Armenians had been good neighbors. When the first orders for the deportation and massacres reached Egin the rich Armenian women ran to their Turkish friends, the wives of rich aghas and beys, and begged them for an intercession in their behalf. There was at that time an American missionary at the hospital in Egin who had been an interpreter attached to the American Embassy at Constantinople. He procured permission from the Kaimakam to appeal by the telegraph to the American Ambassador, Mr. Morgenthau, for the Christian residents of the city.

In the meantime the rich Armenian women gave all their jewels and household silver and other valuables to the wives of the Turkish officials, and in this way obtained promises that they would not be molested until word had come from Constantinople. The American Ambassador secured from Talaat Bey, the Minister of the Interior, and Enver Pasha, the Minister of War, permission for the Armenians of Egin to remain undisturbed in their homes.

There was great rejoicing then among the Christians of Egin. A few days later the first company of exiles from the villages to the west reached the city on their way to the south. They had walked for three days and had been cruelly mistreated by the zaptiehs guarding them. Their girls had been carried off and their young women had been the playthings of the soldiers. They were famished also for water and bread, and the Turks would give them none.

The Armenians of Egin were heart-stricken at the condition of these exiles, but they feared to help them. The refugees were camped at night in the city square. During the night the zaptiehs and soldiers made free with the young women still among the exiles and their screams deepened the pity of the residents. In the morning the Armenian priest of the city could stand it no longer—he went into the square with bread and water and prayers. The Kaimakam had been watching for just such an occurrence!

He sent soldiers to bring the priest before him. He also sent for twenty of the principal Armenian business men and had them brought into the room. As soon as the Armenians arrived his soldiers set upon the priest and began to torture him, to pull out his hair and twist his fingers and toes with pincers, which is a favorite Turkish torture. The soldiers kept asking him as they twisted their pincers:

“Did you not advise them to resist? Did you not take arms to them concealed in bread?”

The priest screamed denials. The twenty men had been lined up at one side of the room. In his trickery the Kaimakam had stationed his soldiers at a distance from the Armenians. When the torture of the priest continued and his screams died away into groans the Armenians could stand it no longer. They threw themselves upon the torturers—not to assault them, but to beg mercy for the holy man. Then the soldiers leaped upon them and killed them all.

The Kaimakam reported to Constantinople that it was impossible longer to obey the Ministry’s orders to allow the Armenians in Egin to remain—that they had revolted and attacked his soldiers and that he had been forced to kill twenty of them. Talaat Bey sent back the famous reply which now burns in the heart of every Armenian in the world—no matter where he or she is—for they all have heard of it. Talaat Bey’s reply was:

“Whatever you do with Christians is amusing.”

After this reply from Talaat Bey, the Kaimakam issued a proclamation giving the Armenians of Egin just two hours to prepare for deportation. The women besieged the officers and said to them: “See, we have given our precious stones to your wives, and we have given them many liras to give to you. Your wives promised us protection, and we have done nothing to abuse your confidence. Our men did not attack your soldiers in violence.”

But the officers would only make light of them. “We would have gotten your jewels and your money anyway,” they replied.

In two hours they had assembled—all the Armenians in the city. The soldiers went among them and seized many of the young women. These they took to a Christian monastery just outside the city, where there were several other Armenian girls residing as pupils.

The Armenians had many donkeys and horse carriages. The mayor had told them they might travel with these. The soldiers tied the women in bunches of five, wrapped them tightly with ropes, and threw one bunch in each cart. Then they drove away the donkeys and horses and forced the men to draw these carts in which their womenfolk were bound. The soldiers would not let husbands or brothers or sons talk to their womenfolk, no matter how loudly they cried as the carts were pulled along.

An hour outside the city the soldiers killed the men. Then they untied the women and tormented them. After many hours they killed the women who survived.

The Kaimakam sent his officers to the monastery where the young women were imprisoned. They took with them Turkish doctors, who examined the captives and selected the ones who were healthy and strong. Of these, the Turks required all who were maidens to stand apart from those who were not. The brides and young wives then were told they would be sent to Constantinople, to be sold there either as concubines or as slaves to farmer Turks. The maidens were told they might save their lives if they would forswear their religion and accept Mohammed. Some of them were so discouraged they agreed. An Imam said the rek’ah with them, and they were sent away into the hopeless land—to be wives or worse.

One maiden, the daughter of an Armenian leader who had been a deputy from that district to the Turkish Parliament, was especially pretty, and one of the officers wanted her for himself. He said to her:

“Your father, your mother, your brother and your two sisters have been killed. Your aunts and your uncles and your grandfather were killed. I wish to save you from the suffering they went through, and the unknown fate that will befall these girls who are Mohammedan now, and the known fate which will befall those who have been stubborn. Now, be a good Turkish girl and you shall be my wife—I will make you, not a concubine, but a wife, and you will live happily.”

What the girl replied was so well remembered by the Turks who heard her that they told of it afterward ward among themselves until it was known through all the district. She looked quietly into the face of the Turkish officer and said:

“My father is not dead. My mother is not dead. My brother and sisters, and my uncle and aunt and grandfather are not dead. It may be true you have killed them, but they live in Heaven. I shall live with them. I would not be worthy of them if I proved untrue to their God and mine. Nor could I live in Heaven with them if I should marry a man I do not love. God would not like that. Do with me what you wish.”

Soldiers took her away. No one knows what became of her. The other maidens who had refused to “turn” were given to soldiers to sell to aghas and beys. So there was none left alive of the Christians of Egin, except the little handful of girls in the harems of the rich—worse than dead.

When the Kurds carried me and the other girls they had stolen with me, into Egin they rode into the center of the city. We begged them to avoid the crowds of Turkish men and women on the streets because of our nakedness. They would not listen.

We were taken into the yard of a large building, which I think must have been a Government building. There we found, in pitiable condition, hundreds of other young Armenian women, who had been stolen from bands of exiles from the Erzinjdan and Sivas districts. Some had been there several days. Many were as unclothed as we were. Some had lost their minds and were raving. All were being held for an audience with the great Pasha, who had arrived at Egin only the night before.

This Pasha, we learned soon after our arrival, was the notorious Kiamil Pasha, of Constantinople. He was very old now, surely not less than eighty years, yet he carried himself very straight and firm. Once, many years before, he had been the governor of Aleppo and had become famous throughout the world for his cruelties to the Christians then. It was said he was responsible for the massacres of 1895, and that he had been removed from office once at the request of England, only to be honored in his retirement by appointment to a high post at Constantinople.

With Kiamil Pasha there was Bukhar-ed-Din Shakir Bey, who, I afterward learned, was an emissary of Talaat Bey and Enver Pasha.

A regiment of soldiers had come from Constantinople with Kiamil Pasha, and had camped just outside the city. This regiment later became known as the “Kasab Tabouri,” the “butcher regiment,” for it participated in the massacre of more than 50,000 of my people, under Kiamil Pasha’s orders.

Kiamil Pasha and Boukhar-ed-Din-Shakir Bey came to the building where we were kept and sat behind a table in a great room. We were taken in twenty at a time. Even those who were nude were compelled to stand in the line which faced his table.

The pasha and the bey looked at us brutally when we stood before them. That which happened to those who went to the audience with me, was what happened to all the others.

“His Majesty the Sultan, in his kindness of heart, wishes to be merciful to you, who represent the girlhood of treacherous Armenia,” said Boukhar-ed-Din-Shakir, while Kiamil looked at us silently. “You have been selected from many to receive the blessing of His Majesty’s pity. You are to be taken to the great cities of Islam, where you will be placed under imperial protection in schools to be established for you, and where you may learn of those things which it is well for you to know, and forget the teachings of unbelievers. You will be kindly treated and given in marriage as opportunity arises into good Moslem homes, where your behavior will be the only measure of your content.”

Those were his words, as truly as I can remember them. No girl answered him. We knew better than to put faith in Turkish promises, and we knew what even that promise implied—apostasy.

“Those of you who are willing to become Moslems will state their readiness,” the bey continued.

Though I cannot understand them, I cannot blame those who gave way now. The Pasha and the Bey said nothing more. They just burned us with their cold, glittering eyes, and waited. The strain was too terrible. Almost half the girls fell upon their knees or into the arms of stronger girls, and cried that they would agree.

Boukhar-ed-Din-Shakir waved his hand toward the soldiers, who escorted or carried these girls Into another room. We never heard of them again. Kiamil still looked coldly and silently at those of us who had refused. The Bey said not a word either, but raised his hand again. Then soldiers began to beat us with long, cruel whips.

We fell to the floor under the blows. The soldiers continued to beat us with slow, measured strokes—I can feel them now, those steady, cutting slashes with the whips the Turks use on convicts whom they bastinado to death. A girl screamed for mercy and shouted the name of Allah. They carried her into the other room. Another could not get the words out of her throat. She held out her arms toward the Pasha and the Bey, taking the blows from the whip on her hands and wrists until they saw that she had given in. Then she, too, was carried out. Others fainted, only to revive under the blows that did not stop.

Twice I lost consciousness. The second time I did not come to until it was over and, with others who had remained true to our religion, had been left in the courtyard. I think there were more than four hundred young women in the yard when I first was taken into it. Not more than twenty-five were with me now—all the rest had been beaten into apostasy. No one can tell what became of them. It was said Kiamil and Boukhar-ed-Din Shakir sent more than a thousand Armenian girls to Kiamil’s estates on the Bosphorus, where they were cared for until their prettiness had been recovered and their spirits completely broken, when they were distributed among the rich beys and pashas who were the political associates of Kiamil, Boukhar-ed-Din-Shakir Bey, and Djevdet Bey of Van.

We were kept in the courtyard four days, with nothing to eat but a bit of bread each day. Three of the young women died of their wounds. Often Turkish men and women would come to look into the yard and mock us. Turkish boys sometimes were allowed to throw stones at us.

On the fourth day we were taken out by zaptiehs to join a party of a thousand or more women and children who had arrived during the night from Baibourt. All the women in this party were middle-aged or very old, and the children were very small. What girls and young women were left when the party reached Egin, had been kept in the city for Kiamil and Boukhar-ed-Din-Shakir Bey to dispose of. The older boys had been stolen by Circassians. There were almost no babies, as these either had died when their mothers were stolen or had been killed by the soldiers.

With this party we went seven hours from the city and were halted there to wait for larger parties of exiles from Sivas and Erzindjan, which were to meet at that point on the way to Diyarbekir.

Both these parties had to pass through Divrig Gorge, which was near by. The exiles from Erzindjan never reached us. They were met at the gorge by the Kasab Tabouri, the butcher regiment, and all were killed. There were four thousand in the party. Just after this massacre was finished the exiles from Sivas came into the gorge from the other side.

The soldiers of the Kasab Tabouri were tired from their exertions in killing the 4,000 exiles from Erzindjan such a short time before, so they made sport out of the reception of those from Sivas, who numbered more than 11,000 men, women and children.

Part of the regiment stood in line around the bend of the gorge until the leaders of the Armenians came into view. Panic struck the exiles at once, and they turned to flee, despite their guards. But they found a portion of the regiment, which had been concealed, deploying behind them and cutting off their escape from the trap.

As the regiment closed in, thousands of the women, with their babies and children in their arms, scrambled up the cliffs on either side of the narrow pass, helped by their men folk, who remained on the road to fight with their hands and sticks against the armed soldiers.

But the zaptiehs who accompanied the party surrounded the base of the cliffs and kept the women from escaping. Then the Kasab Tabouri killed men until there were not enough left to resist them. Scores of men feigned death among the bodies of their friends, and thus escaped with their lives.

Part of the soldiers then scaled the cliffs to where the women were huddled. They took babies from the arms of mothers and threw them over the cliffs to comrades below, who caught as many as they could on their bayonets. When babies and little girls were all disposed of this way, the soldiers amused themselves awhile making women jump over—prodding them with bayonets, or beating them with gun barrels until the women, in desperation, jumped to save themselves. As they rolled down the base of the cliff soldiers below hit them with heavy stones or held their bayonets so they would roll onto them. Many women scrambled to their feet after falling and these the soldiers forced to climb the cliffs again, only to be pushed back over.

The Kasab Tabouri kept up this sport until it was dark. They were under orders to pass the night at Tshar-Rahya, a village three hours from the gorge, so when darkness came and they were weary even of this game they assembled and marched away singing, some with babies on their bayonets, others with an older child under their arms, greatly pleased with such a souvenir. Some salvaged a girl from the human debris and made her march along to unspeakable shame at the Tshar-Rahya barracks.

Only 300 of all the 11,000 exiles lived and were able to march under the scourging of the handful of zaptiehs who remained to guard them. They joined us where we had halted.