Chapter I

Turkish-Armenian Relations

 

The participation of Turkey in the First World War exposed Armenians to the worst vicissitudes of the gigantic clash.

Preceding the declaration of war, Armenians all over Turkey responded to mobilization with exemplary patriotism. Military men of the highest rank praised Armenian soldiers as most dependable and patriotic, while Turkish dailies extolled their morale and dedication in the protection of the common fatherland. The Armenian soldier had earned this distinction through his distinguished participation in the Italo-Turkish and the Balkan wars. Enver Pash lavished praises on the sector of the army. Nevertheless this same Pasha later became one of the arch plotters and executioners of the entire Armenian population within the domain of the Ottoman Empire.

Thousands upon thousands of Armenian young men of military age reported for enlistment as soon as rumors of war became persistent and the government resorted to general mobilization. They marched with bands playing, and the red flag with white crescent flying above their heads. Similar processions took place in all of the Armenian towns, villages and hamlets throughout Vasbouragan.

During the period of mobilization, the Armenian marketplace of Van freely contributed to the supply department of the Turkish army. Goods worth millions were piled in the government warehouses without prepayment and often, without even a receipt. The Armenian storekeeper and merchant provided the Turkish army with its every need, from hats to shoes. The Armenian artisan and craftsman, be he tailor, shoemaker, blacksmith, mason, goldsmith, or engraver, donated individual or collective services to the army. The already overburdened populace willingly participated in public contributions of bread, flour, fats, wool and other essential material for the war effort.

The entire weight of the war especially fell upon the Armenian peasants. With an inborn spirit of hospitality, they shared their meager supplies with soldiers leaving for the front and with Turkish gendarmes and police who stopped at their huts under various pretexts. But these gendarmes “legally,” capriciously, and often savagely, despoiled the Armenian peasants of all their possessions. They confiscated not only grain and cereal, but also oxen and cows, and horses and flocks. In fact, all they had became the property of the Turkish government.

Under these circumstances the Armenian village became economically exhausted, facing inevitable famine and ruin. With all available hands serving in or for the Ottoman army and the harvest confiscated for its use, the Armenian village was being made to look like a ghost town. [1]

Armenian physicians, without regard to age or citizenship, rendered great service in the armed forces. The Armenian pharmacist, likewise contributed his services while his stock of medicine was taken over by the Turkish Red Crescent.

Even before the outbreak of hostilities the attitude of the Turkish government towards the Armenian people and Armenian soldiers, who volunteered all assistance and did not shrink from any sacrifice, was not only discriminatory, but outright inimical.

Eventually it became plain that, under the guise of military necessity, the Turks aimed to ruin utterly the economy of the well to do Armenian towns and villages. Without regard to methods, the Turkish Military Council, with a small army of big and petty officials, confiscated all, while higher authorities gave them their blessing instead of punishing them.

The status of the Armenian soldier in the army was even worse. He felt discriminated against at every step. Overworked, abused, savagely beaten and shot on the smallest suspicion, his lot was similar to those miserable slaves that helped build the pyramids. He was constantly exposed to insults, and his race, language and religion held up to ridicule and denigration. The dutiful Armenian soldier was the last to be cared for when it came to food, clothing and shelter.

The attitude of the Turkish government was fast deteriorating, and after the declaration of war, it resorted to outrageous acts of cruelty and murder. The country was plunged into a state of anarchy. Traffic between villages and towns came to a stop. Individual murders and looting gave way to mass murders and wholesale plundering everywhere, beginning with the more distant sections of the country. Kurdish brigands were reorganized and put into active duty by the Turkish government. Armenian villages were being constantly “searched” as a pretext for cruel beatings, repression, murder and looting.

During November, 1914, the Russian army advanced slightly along the eastern boundaries of Van. This was enough to inflame the Turks with added hatred towards Armenians. In order to implement the policy of total annihilation of Armenians, Turkish rulers, particularly Jevdet Bey, military governor of the eastern military zone, started to massacre innocent and defenseless Armenaian villagers. Following the withdrawal of the Russian army from Sarai, the inhabitants of Avzarig and Akhorig as well as adjoining villages were put to the sword to the last man. Peasants from other villages in the area escaped to Van, destitute, hungry, and without shelter. Similar events took place at Bash Kale.

The entire Armenian population of Bash Kale was massacred immediately following the retreat of the Russian army. No one was spared because of age or sex. The good looking women and girls were brought to the Shamiram Turkish ward in Van to be auctioned off and to serve their bestial lust. Some ten thousand Armenians were massacred at this time. Not one village was left standing, not one home left intact, not one soul alive except the “fortunate” few that escaped to Van Aikesdan taking refuge in its streets and cellars after horrendous experiences. About this time the Armenian population of Alashgerd were being delivered the same fate of wholesale extermination.

In this preconceived and well-planned scheme for Armenian massacres, the total obliteration of the Armenian soldiery was contemplated, at first partially, then totally. First, they were systematically disarmed; then Turkish militiamen received secret orders to do away with them. The unburied corpses of Armenian soldiers were discovered in the Khoshab and Arjag regions.

The fate of the Armenian peasants was appallingly tragic. These hardworking people had to give up plowing the land and its harvest in I order to bear arms. Yet they witnessed the plundering and the burning of their own villages, the massacre or the flight of their loved ones, the disarming and the disappearance of fellow soldiers, the approach of the devastating tornado engendered by men for whom they had come to sacrifice their own lives.

In all of the Armenian sections of the province of Vasbouragan an atmosphere of frightful anxiety prevailed. Turkish militia engineered repeated clashes at Timar: at Ererin village in the same section, Turkish police and gendarmes opened fire on the unarmed and innocent villagers, pretending to search for arms, and killing more than a dozen people. Unable to stomach barbaric injustices, the villages resisted and a fight ensued. The overwhelmed and terrified population escaped to nearby villages and eventually to Van. A squadron of Turkish regulars arrived, ostensibly to reestablish order and to punish the offending militiamen. Instead, they pillaged the entire village, including the village church, and auctioned the spoils in the open markets of Van. Most of the homes in the village of Ererin were set on fire and the outstanding personages were brought to Van, imprisoned and put in irons.

In order to incite a clash at the village of Bairak, in Timar section Turkish police resorted to violence. The government sent regular troops and two cannons; they murdered a dozen men. Bairak and nearby villages were pillaged and put to the torch. The dispossessed, shelterless, and persecuted inhabitants flocked to the city. The Turkish government appealed to Aram and the Vramian to intervene to “help reestablish tranquility in the land” which later proved to be a ruse to cloak other treacheries it was brewing.

Aram and Vramian demanded the recall of troops from the region of Timar and indemnities paid to villages for the unjust plunder and murder. The government accepted the fact that “partial injustices have taken place by unconscionable soldiery and that compensation would be made.” But. of course, the Turkish government did not carry out its promises.

The situation along the southern boundry of Vasbouragan was as bad. In Garjgan, innocent Armenians were murdered. In the village of Pelu, district of Gavash, Turkish police returned, pretending extended search, but looting and burning the village. A feeble attempt at resistance was enough for them to sack the place completely. Horror stricken peasants fled to neighboring villages and saw their homes go up in flames. Not one stone was left standing in the ten villages in the region of Gargar by the bestial Turkish police who also pursued the villagers up the snow clad mountains.

Concurrently, serious incidents of killings, plunder, arson, and clashes were taking place in the region of Haiotz-Tzor and Shatakh.

On the slopes of Mount Varak, three corpses were found; one was that of an unknown Armenian peasant, the other two were notorious Kurdish brigand chiefs. It was presumed that the Armenians, in self- defense, had slain the brigands that tried to waylay them. Others argued this was another trick of the government to invent grounds for further atrocities. The government ordered a thorough search of the monastery, arrested the shepherds and servants and threatened to burn down the whole monastery.

The government maintained a semblance of calm for a short period in reply to Aram's and Vramian’s repeated pleadings. Three weeks later, on the pretext of investigating these incidents, it ordered the nearby village of Shoushantz occupied and had a detailed, though fruitless, search made. Yet the outstanding men among the villagers were arrested and put in the city jail, where they were subjected to beating and indignities. One of the villagers died in consequence. Unable to endure further confiscations and violence of the police, the terrorized population of Shoushantz fled to the city. The Turks looted everything and sold the livestock in the city markets. All attempts at intercession by Aram and Vramian met with no response. Three days after the forced occupation, the villagers were allowed to return to their village, which was now nothing but a heap of ashes.

As they approached the vary doors of the city, events were taking a turn for the worse. At the square of Norashen, the most densely populated Armenian ward in Aikesdan, Turkish police shot down a young man named Manoog, then opened an indiscriminate fire at passengers in the streets and school children. A fourteen year old schoolboy was shot to death.

 

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[1] According to law, men between 20 and 45 years of age were subject to military service. Due to the ignorance of the law on the part of peasants and the high-handedness of Turkish conscription officials, practically all able bodied men 17 to 45 were taken.