The initial reaction of the government to the pleas of Vramian, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the rest, was to appoint Jevdet Bey as governor of Van. Jevdet Bey had been the sub-governor (Mutessarif) of the region of Hekkiary. He was the person who had organized the massacres at Bash-Kale during the past months. He entered Van with a contingent of some 2,000 regular troops, equipped with held and mountain artillery, all withdrawn from the fighting fronts. He hastened to extend a friendly hand to Aram and to Vramian who had come to meet him. He expressed the government’s, as well as his own, “gratitude” for the latter’s efforts in pacifying the villages of Gavash and Vosdan and in finding just solutions for the critical developments in Timar.
Only a few days after his arrival, the nature of Jevdet Bey’s plans became obvious. With undue haste and severity he demanded the conscription of all the Armenian male population between the ages of 18 and 45 into labor battalions. This was a transparent device to cover up his plans for their wholesale slaughter in far away Kurdish regions; at the same time this would deprive the rest of the population of all means of resistance. Events and incidents occuring almost daily left no room for doubt.
Although certain of the diabolical intents of Jevdet Bey, repeated attempts were made by Vramian, Aram and the Armenian Prelacy, to have Armenians serve in the fighting forces, rifle in hand, to fight and to die for the common fatherland. These appeals were based on the constitutional rights of Armenians and had been honored during the previous war; nevertheless, both the central government and Jevdet Bey categorically refused to accede. In a last desperate effort to save Armenian youth from labor battalions, which factually meant sending them to be slaughtered, it was offered to redeem them from service by the payment of forty-three Turkish Liras in gold.
However, Jevdet did agree to one compromise. Instead of all reporting at once, he agreed to have five-hundred men report each week to be dispatched immediately, without arms, to areas near the frontiers, providing the entire force was delivered within two months.
The sensitive youth of Van could not subscribe to the spirit of these negotiations. It considered unarmed enlistment debasing to national honor, intolerable on the one hand, and utterly ruinous to the best interests of both the government and the Armenian people on the other. The more impatient and hot headed elements openly expressed their distrust of the government and insisted on resistance now rather than submission to sheepish slaughter later. They were caustic in castigating the “cautious and conservative” policy of their leaders, and reminded them, again and again, of the disasterous consequences of exactly such policies dining the massacres of 1895 and the events of 1908 when the government was allowed to seize the great quantities of arms and ammunition. They demanded a voice in the shaping of our course in this hour of crisis, they demanded a meeting with the leaders. The meeting took place on the 15th of April, 1915, at the headquarters of “Ashkhadank” press. The three leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Fedaration, Aram, Ishkhan, and Vramian attended the meeting. Ishkhad was content to give a few words of advice, Aram was tensely silent but Vramian took upon himself the task of defending the policy of caution. Calm and with prophetic insight, he made the following statements, among others, which characterize the extreme anxiety of the times and the supreme nobility of his idealism.
“You talk about conspiracies by the government and I know one of these days my dead body will be found somewhere along Khach Poghan. I realize the five-hundred men we have promised to deliver to the government as a first step is like condemning them to an uncertain fate, perhaps to death. But it is not for us to start, or to signal, the unleashing of the murderous tempest which, like yourselves, we are convinced will burst upon us soon, in spite of all our attempts for peace and all our concessions. Our sole purpose is to survive this tremendous blow with minimum loss of life. Better that Vramian perish. Better that one Ishkhan be assassinated, than to let five-hundred men in the labor corps be exposed to inevitable death. Indeed, let one whole district perish through fire and sword for the sake of saving the majority, the backbone of our being. Only the moment when the enemy presses its sword at the collective neck of our race, and all other avenues are closed to us, no one will dare to blame you for resorting to arms in self-defense.”
The audience was deeply impressed by Vramian’s inspiring talk. The fiery leaders pledged to continue loyalty to the idea of protecting the collective existence of the race by the way of self-sacrifice. Representatives of all political parties, national organizations and the Prelacy convened at Norashen church on the 14th of April, 1915, and resolved to meet the demands of the government for a periodic supply of men for the labor battalions. The first contingent was to be sent to Arjesh for building roads. The assembly also resolved to issue a proclamation, in the name of Bishop Yeznig Nergararian, as vicar of the Prelacy, inviting the people to perform their “civic duties.” They appointed a special committee to take the census of males between the ages of 18 to 45.
Following is a copy of the proclamation:
“According to the latest decree by the government since the entry of the Ottoman Empire in the war, Armenian are now required to serve in agricultural and road building tasks. However, due to the rigors of the season and other causes, some of the Armenian soldiers have failed to be at their posts.
“Now that the season for plowing and road building is at hand and confident that both the government and your national authorities have taken all precautions to safeguard your lives, your honor, as well as the welfare of your families, we urgently advise the community to respond, without delay, to the government’s demands and hasten the performance of their duties as citizen.”
“God Bless You.
Vicar of the Prelacy of Van Bishop Yeznig Nergararian”
“April 15, 1915 Prelacy of Van”
All the pleas and concessions found no response. The city of Van was becoming more and more like an armed camp. Jevdet Bey had withdrawn two thousand regulars from the battle lines; the city was teaming with hordes of Kurdish brigands, with their followers, mounted and on foot. In addition, two thousand militiamen were on hand. Further, the government issued arms and ammunition to Turkish residents of Van between the ages of 15 and 80 years. Twelve pieces of artillery were stationed at strategic points. All this was being done at a time when crucial and bloody battles were taking place at the Russo- Turkish front...
The situation was even worse in Shadakh. Here Hovsep Choloyan, principal of the parish schools and a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, was insidiously arrested. All negotiations, by local Armenians to free him, failed. Events took place more precipitously at Shadakh, thus forewarning the people of Van and of the whole province.
The state of siege and the events there were unknown at Van. On April 14th, teacher Dikran, for the first time brought news from Shadakh and a report from the revolutionary committee, that the events at Shadakh described in detail proved the criminal intent of the government, and asked for help.
Jevdet Bey invited Aram and Vramian to call on him on the 16th of April. He requested that, accompanied by Turkish policemen, they proceed to Shadakh forthwith for the purpose of terminating the troubles there. Jevdet Bey requested particularly that Ishkhad, “whom both Armenians and Kurds highly respected,” be a member of this mission.
Upon their return, it was decided to have Ishkhan, along with several bodyguards, leave for Shadakh that very evening in the company of the Turkish chief of police and his retinue of police officers. It took but a few minutes for Ishkhan to get ready. With him were three of his most devoted comrades, Vahan Khranian, Kotot Boghos, and Mihran Der Markarian, a native of Shadakh. All three were vehemently opposed to the policy of appeasement adopted by Aram, and Vramian and Ishkhan had some difficulty in persuading them to accompany him on the mission. In bidding farewell to his friends, one of the men, Vahan, said, “Again we are being led into a trap, to certain and useless death, but do not be deceived.” The day following the departure of Ishkhan, the committee appointed to take census was busy registering the names of the first five-hundred young men for the labor corps.
The schools were open on this the 17th day of April; also open were the shops at Khach Pghan, Arark and Norashen sectors. A number of merchants and tradesmen from Aikesdan had left for their places of business in the old city.
The intense tension created by the incidents at Shadakh was subsiding. The appointment of Ishkhan as peacemaker compelled the most suspicious to concede to the wisdom of compromise and a policy of appeasement, in spite of the gross injustices by the government, and sacrifice as necessary to preserve the existence of the race... It proved to be the deceptive calm before the storm.
The chiefs of police, of the precincts of Khach Poghan and Arark, were instructed by Jevdet Bey to inform both Vramian and Aram of their wish to meet him at 10;00 A.M., April 17th.
Vramian was the first to receive the message, but was unaware that Aram also had been asked to report. He secreted all important papers and statements of accounts, as well as thirty pieces of Turkish gold liras in a drawer. He also left a note for Aram, informing him of his departure to meet the governor, and reminding him of the decision not to go together in order to avoid being arrested at the same time. Reflecting on his premonition of impending death and his knowledge of Aram's compelling desire to know and evaluate all events, regardless of the dangers involved, this last note of Vramian’s was destined to have crucial importance for the defense of Van.
The police chief at Arark was not as successful in locating Aram. He had left home to visit the editorial staff of the Ashkhadank daily and then to proceed to Vramian’s house for the customary evaluation of the current situation. He was at the latter’s home when the police informed him of the governor’s request; he had noticed the note in the meantime. He sent the messenger away, promising to leave shortly. He wanted to wait for the return of Vramian. He waited for Vramian’s long overdue return; then the police chief returned to impress Aram with the urgency of the governor’s request. Agitated and angry, Aram jumped in a carriage, directing the driver to take him to the old city, posthaste. Another Armenian carriage driver returning from the old city noticed this and, driving his carriage head on, stopped the other. The driver jumped out and ran to Aram exclaiming, “For God’s sake Aram, where are you going?” Have you not heard that Ishkhan had been assassinated on his way to Shadakh? Don’t you know that Vramian is under arrest? Do not go, for heaven’s sake.” Shocked by the news, Aram escaped through orchards and returned to the premises of Ashkhadank, he miraculously escaped the trap laid by Jevdet.
Upon arrival, Jevdet Bey informed Vramian that the government had demanded his return to Constantinople the same evening. His remonstrances as to the inviolability of his person as a member of the Ottoman Parliament, and other protests, went unheeded; he was placed under arrest.
Unconfirmed reports of Ishkhad’s and his companion's murder were widespread. The news of Vramian’s arrest and the extraordinary manner in which Aram had been sought left no room for doubt that the rumors were true.
A report by Joseph Khlghatian received by the Central Committee of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation of Van, described the assassination.
“Ishkhan and his three companions arrived at Hirj village on Friday, late at night. They preferred to stop over at their old friend’s, Kiarim Oghly Rashid’s home. While enjoying the supper and the hospitality of their Kurdish host, with their weapons laid away, twelve armed brigands rushed in and killed all four. The brigands had been sent from Van, by order of Jevdet Bey, to carry out the sinister mission.
“I am informed that the bodies were thrown in a well after thorough mutilation. Their arms and horses have been expropriated. Armenian peasants have been massacred, as was to be expected, and only one fellow escaped.
“It looks like it is our turn now. Many thousands of armed Kurds, mounted and on foot, from Nordouz and Khishab have blocked all the roads in Haiotz-Tzor. The Kurds are led by Lezgi, son of Shajir Agha. We are preparing to defend ourselves, but there can be no hope of success in view of the preponderance of enemy strength. We severely lack both men and arms...Farewell.”
April 17, 1915 Haiotz-Tzor
Vramian’s admonition of a few days ago had been fulfilled. The moment had arrived. Pursuing the policy of yielding further was not only insane but was also contrary to the spirit of the Federation as well as to the sentiments of the intrepid youth of Van. The two great men who had been exhorting caution and forbearance had themselves been its tragic first victims. The death of Ishkhan and the disappearance of Vramian were important factors in organizing and inspiring the youth of Van. Their assassination shocked the timid and the brave alike. They all concurred; the only way to survive was to resist.
Hmayag Manoogian, an eyewitness and participant in the fighting in Van gave the following evaluation of the effect of the news of Ishkhan’s death on the people of Van.
“The sudden and tragic death of Ishkhan and the surrounding circumstances furnished the needed spark. Everybody, whether old or young, male or female, partisan or neutral, reactionary or revolutionary, felt, with an explosive force, that there could be no other choice than armed resistance. The choice was instinctive and elemental; it did not need the persuasion of inspired speeches, nor was it the outcome of counseling and ballots. Ishkhan's death was the cause of the unification of all our capabilities for a single objective. It molded an irresistible will to survive and to conquer. Petty anxieties were forgotten, personalities and quarrels laid aside, as collective effort became the overpowering obsession. Despair and defeatism vanished and the God of Victory spread its wings over the youth of Van.”
To this I add my own reflections, as recorded in my diary, only a few hours after the news of Vramian’s arrest.
“I arrived at Norashen in great haste. Here it looked as if a gigantic tremor had demolished the buildings forcing the people of Aikesdan into the streets. They seem to be awestruck suffering from uncontrolled hysteria.
“This mob, at times, converges into a group to listen to the latest foreboding news, then disperses in all directions in fear and in anger. Further on, I notice mobs surging, one after the other, like the waves of the sea. Some are running hither and dither, lost in sweat. Where are they going and why? Shop doors are being locked and muffled preparations are being started in cellars. Groups of young men, stripped for action, cross the streets and orchards; when they meet they whisper a few words and hurry on. There are throngs of people in the streets and women and children watch from open doors and windows. Some are crying, some are lost in somber thought, some are pallid with fear, while others are happy for they disdain death and are anxious for the impending crisis.
“I directed my steps to the house of Sahag Bey crossing the orchards of Aghesatzor. Here I met a group of youth openly armed with Mauser pistols, ready to move to Khach Poghan to prevent any treachery by the enemy. Standing by the garden gate, the mistress of the house helps her two young daughters to evacuate the contents. They move the furniture, bedding, etc., to hiding places. The owner of the house, Manoog Agha Gosbarian, is consulting with the defense leader to determine the most likely directions of enemy attacks and the best ways to counter them. Manoog is a man of experience and his house has a history of its own, as it was here, in 1908, that the revolutionary’s bomb felled the traitor, Davo of Dher.
“Dickran, the leader, is already busy constructing ramparts. Seven or eight youngsters, some 17 to 18 years of age, armed with Mauser pistols, are his assistants. They clamor for rifles. A light hearted bunch, they sing and dance while helping to build defenses. One of these is Levon Shaljian, a jovial youth, a ham actor, who led his fellow students in dancing and singing;
“To mountain Varak let us repair
Ishkhan has come with Mauser”
“They are working, singing, dancing, and frolicking, and waiting for the moment when the first enemy bullet whistles through the air as the signal to avenge the death of Ishkhan.
“I proceed to Khach Poghan, meandering through many orchards. Here Nalbandian’s orchard was crowded with young men, some armed, the rest unarmed; it looks like whoever could, had arrived. These had not been advised of the tragic news and were busy discussing strategy. They are radiant and pleasant lot, happy that, finally, the chance has come to fight back and avenge the death of their self-sacrificing and optimistic leaders.”