Aram, who had miraculously escaped certain death by the ingenious trap laid out by Jevdet, now instructed his party members and the community to be on the alert for sudden assaults by the Turks. In order to gain a little time, the Italian vice-consul, Seignor Spordoni, was requested to meet with Jevdet to find out reasons for Vramian’s arrest, Ishkhan’s assassination, and the beleaguered state of the city.
The other members of the delegation were; Dr. C. Ussher, American missionary, Gevork Jidechian, Chairman of the National Council, and Avedis Terzibashian, a merchant.
The delegation presented itself to the governor; it described the apprehension and anxiety pervading the Armenian community of Van, and explained that, as always, Armenians are now willing to submit to all lawful demands by the authorities. They requested that channels be opened for direct contact with the Minister of the Interior and the Armenian Patriarchate at Constantinople, to find a solution to the existing problems and hence clear up the intolerable atmosphere. Further, they queried the governor about the reasons for Vramian’s arrest, pointing out the fact that while it could be of no possible benefit to the government, it was sure to arouse suspicions among Armenians. They also inquired whether or not the rumors about the death of Ishkhan were true, inasmuch as he undertook the mission at the behest of the governor and was accompanied by his police chief and twelve policemen. Finally, Jevdet Bey was asked about the reasons behind the strict military seige being maintained in and around the city.
Jevdet’s answers to these momentous questions were evasive. He declined to set Vramian free because, he claimed, the order came from Constantinople. As to Ishkhan’s assassination, he stated he had dispatched soldiers to arrest him; if he resisted he was sure to be killed. He denied the existence of a state of seige, claiming he had nothing against the people and liked Aram personally, whom he would like very much to meet again. The governor advised the delegation not be unduly alarmed and to wait for his forthcoming plans.
The delegation conveyed these cynical answers to Aram; the last hope for a peaceful solution was shattered.
The urgency of the situation prompted indefatigable Aram and his assistant, Gregory of Bulgaria, to frenzied activity. Defense positions were set up hurriedly wherever Turkish attacks were anticipated. Some of the defenders possessed arms, but those lacking arms were classed as reserves. By the 17th of April, the following strong points had been established: Khach Poghan, Sahag Bey, Arark, Yeni-Mahla, Arijoghly, Avoyi Dar, Ourpat Creed, Taza Karez, Hanguisner, Shan Tagh, and small Kanderchi.
The night of April 17th was calm; Armenians were on guard at their positions. The following day, Sunday, as during the previous night, Armenians living in sections adjoining Turkish quarters, fearing impending massacres and pillage, evacuating their homes, and moving to the interior of Armenian quarters and to American and German compounds where they were well received.
Turkish soldiers occupied the Armenian church and school buildings at Arark and the British consulate during the night of April 18th. All three buddings were substantially built, occupied a commanding position and were a great menace to Armenians. This movement had been detected in time. There was strong desire to frustrate them, but Aram forestalled it. He would wait until Turks initiated the attack, because he wanted to have some idea of their plan and to save a little time to complete the line of defenses.
The National Coalition Assembly convened again on the 18th of April. It was decided to appeal to the governor once again in the forlorn hope of relaxing tensions. Herr Sporri, the German missionary, joined members of the former delegation for this mission.
At this interview, Jevdet was curt and crude, but more explicit. He rejected all requests for Vramian’s release; instead he demanded the surrender of all Armenians between the ages of 18 and 45 and of all arms within the next twenty-four hours, on pain of demolishing all of Aikesdan. He concluded the interview by informing both Dr. Ussher and Herr Sporri of his decision to send fifty soldiers to each of their compounds for the protection of their lives and property. “What has been started must be carried to completion. I do not wish to hear another word about this ungrateful and traitorous people. Yes, we must carry through what has already been started.”
Dr. Ussher reminded the governor that Aram would oppose his sending soldiers to either the American or the German premises. “In my opinion, it is not necessary because Armenians will never harm us, the same as your soldiers... but if you insist, then send them.”
The delegation returned dejected, and without one ray of hope. All contact with the government was now ended. “Let us die with honor” became the clarion call on every lip, even of those who in true Christian spirit had believed in forgiveness and forbearance all their lives. On his return, Dr. Ussher, an uncompromising, splendid Christian missionary, stopped at the headquarters of Ashkhadank and addressed the anxious crowd there in his somewhat broken Armenian, “I believe it is now up to you to defend your lives, because all hope is ended. Unfortunately, I can do no more... Certainly, oh certainly, you must defend yourselves. I wish you success.”
★ ★ ★ ★
The Central Committee of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in Van received the following letter from Shirin Hagopian, its agent for Arjag and Kharagonis:
“There is no way to restrain the enemy. They demand the surrender of young men from Kharagonis. There are continuing arrests in these regions, and we feel massacres to be imminent. Armed and mounted Kurds have congregated here from all directions; from the Russo-Turkish battlefront, artillery pieces and militiamen have been withdrawn and brought here. I have reliable news that massacres will start on the 19th of April.
“Yesterday, April 18th, our messenger and my close friend, Nuro, the Kurd, informed me that Zia Bey, the district governor of Pergri, had summoned all the elders of the region, giving them strict orders not to give asylum to any Armenian, or protect them in any way, even when the latter embrace the religion of Islam during the massacres; those who disobey will be subjected to the same fate as their Armenian proteges.
“I have, so far, succeeded in avoiding arrest. I have no doubt that I will be killed, but I will die with my people. Do not view this as a cry of hopelessness. We are determined to defend ourselves against forces ten times stronger. We sorely lack weapons; if possible, help us.
“I have just been informed that the massacres are to begin in a matter of hours. Turkish regulars, militia and the Kurds are arresting people, and beating others; women are being attacked without restraint. My companions and I have pledged to defend the people to the last cartridge.”
April 17, 1915
Practically all of the regions inhabited by Armenians in the province of Vasbouragan shared in the tragic fate of Arjag and Haiotz-Tzor. The curtain was to be raised on this bloody drama on the 19th of April. This fact has been established by documents and information received at the headquarters of the Revolutionary Federation. It was supported by the events that took place both during and after the struggle to prove, that all had been planned and perpetrated by the government through its faithful and crafty agents, one of whom was Jevdet Bey, the governor general of Vasbouragan.
The entire governmental machinery was geared to the task of exterminating the Armenian element. The old city was isolated from Aikesdan; traffic among villages was stopped through the establishment of guard houses and mobile units. Kurdish chieftains and their tribes were alerted to be ready for massacres of a given signal. Fighting fronts were being robbed of their strength to reinforce the sinister undertaking. Revolutionary leaders had either been arrested or killed; those at large were being relentlessly pursued. Under the guise of conscription, men were arrested or forced to be fugitives. The grim specter of wholesale massacres hovered over isolated and defenseless Vasbouragan.
Now the mask of deceit and hypocrisy was finally torn off, revealing the culpability of the government in every detail and every phase of this attempt at genocide of the Armenian people. Some friendly Kurds whispered to their Armenian neighbors, “Be aware, save yourselves any way you can; Jevdet has been brought back from the Persian front to massacre you and your leaders.” Kurds met with similar treatment by the Turks, later.
Peno, a Kurdish gendarme and a native of Gomer village in Shadakh, was arrested on suspicion at the village of Sivdag, but was released through the intercession of Azad, an agent of the Revolutionary Federation. On the eve of the incidents at Shadakh he wrote, “Friend Azad, I owe you one debt of gratitude which I will never forget and wish to warn you to be very careful these days. Tomorrow the Kaimakam (governor) of Shadakh is going to start enlisting Armenians. He knows you are going to avoid enlisting, so he will start massacring Armenians. Lezgin, chieftain of Grav clan in Nordouz, with his thirty men, is now waiting for orders at Haiotz-Tzor. Jevdet Bey has ordered him to wait in readiness for the start of trouble at Shadakh, when he can arrive and avenge his father’s death. The clans of Yezdinan and Alan have already arrived here for the purpose. The gendarmy of Khoumar have been called back. The armed forces of the clans of Khalilans and Khavshdans, from Nordouz and Pervar, have been instructed to report for action here. The Kurds of the neighboring villages, as well as the militiamen, have been issued weapons. Hoping to have discharged my obligation to you, I beg that only God, you and myself know of this letter.”
“Peno of Gomer”
Representatives of the Armenian political parties held a meeting on the 18th of April, to survey the situation. In view of the extraordinary tensions and a situation that was worsening by the hour, there was unanimous agreement that the government had decided to annihilate the entire Armenian population of Van. All agreed to pool all resources for self-defense, to be placed at the disposal of a committee to be known as the Armenian Defense Command. With unanimous approval. Gregory of Bulgaria, Gaidzag Arakel, and Armenag Yegarian were selected. The first two were members of the Federation while the third was a member of the Armenian Democratic Party. They were well qualified, being experienced in guerilla warfare, and loved and respected for their coolness, cunning, and bravery. Two auxiliary offices were also created at this time to assist the defense committee, intelligence, and the control and distribution of weaponry. Hmayag Manoogian, Onnig Mukitarian and Armenag Poghahaian headed the intelligence service all being at the same time secretaries to the Defense Command. Assisting these men were Vartan Babigian, Arpiar Safrasdian, Hrant Kaligien and Garabed Ajem Khachoyan. The committee for the control and distribution of weaponry was composed of David Papazian, V. Der Boghossian, Garabed Baylerian, and Gabrial Semerjian.
After the loss of Vramian and Ishkhan, Aram was the only person endowed with the gift of leadership; he assumed the moral responsibility of inspiring courage, endurance and hope, and coordinating and supervising the activities of the various bodies.
The Defense Command embarked on its tasks by instructing the resistance leaders through the following bulletin:
“To area leaders, position leaders, and fighting men; to all fighting for survival;
“It has been impossible to yield further to the unjustifiable demands of our enemy. It has become amply evident that Turks want to carry out, at all costs, their plan for the extermination of Armenians. We are now forced to enter the arena of bloody battle. In spite of all our desire for peace and attempts to maintain it, we must defend our people to the last drop of our blood. In order that we may hope to succeed, we recommend our fighting men carry out the following instructions:
(1) Our basic plan is defensive except when it becomes necessary to secure more strategic positions or to terrorize the enemy when offensive action is allowed.
(2) Area leaders are responsible to area leaders, and fighting forces are answerable to their leaders.
(3) Armed men at any defense position may not leave their post at will. If allowed temporary or permanent leave, his arms and ammunition shall be left with the leader, without exception.
(4) It is imperative to be sparing of ammunition in the event of attack. Fire only when you can see the enemy and are certain your bullet will find its mark.
(5) Each group must fire directly on the enemy attacking its position. Do not waste your ammunition when a nearby post is being attacked.
(6) No group is allowed to change its defense point without the permission of the area leader. No area leader can move to another area without the permission of the Defense Command.
(7) Sleep without undressing or removing your cartridge belts.
(8) Guards must be on duty always. It is necessary to study and scout enemy positions, and movements of enemy forces shall be reported to the Defense Command.
(9) Drunkenness is absolutely forbidden.
(10) Anyone in the fighting forces, be he area leader, leader, or private, who is found derelict in his duties, particularly deserters, shall be punished.
(11) Punishment shall be based on the gravity of the offense. Forms of punishment consist of rebuke, disarmament, imprisonment, beatings, and the severest military penalty.
“Leaders shall read and explain these instructions to their men and see that they are carried out.
“And now let us hark to the call of our sacred duty, let us act...”
“The Defense Command”
April 18, 1915
★ ★ ★ ★
While the party leaders and public bodies in cordial cooperation were straining all their efforts to reinforce all aspects of armed resistance, the general public, spontaneously, formed a supply organization to provide food and clothing for the men. With one or two exceptions, these men were mostly merchants and not affiliated with political and revolutionary parties. They lived through the massacres of 1895 and had been exposed to the Revolutionary teachings of Portugalian. Outstanding among them were Kevork Soojian, Simon Shiroyan, Sahag Shegoyan and Hmayag Tarpinian. The Supply Committee had its headquarters close to the square of Norashen. They gathered considerable quantities of grain, flour, sugar, kerosene and miscellaneous other victuals and cattle. No sooner was the Defense Command created than this Supply Agency put its services and stores at its disposal.
Another such spontaneous development was the creation of the Armenian Red Cross with its separate units of stretcher bearers, nurses, orderlies, surgeons and physicians. They improvised several hospitals in the comparatively secure sections of Aikesdan. Druggists and other in possession of medical supplies donated them to the Red Cross. People donated large quantities of beds, bedding, and linen. Red Cross workers were distinguished by the red cross emblem on their hats and arms. Dr. Sanfani, M.D. (Khosrof Chitjian) was the inspiring spirit of the Red Cross, assisted by Dr. Khachig and Armenag Voovoonian, the druggist.
Dr. Garabed Torkomian, surgeon, with many years of experience at the American hospital, was in charge of surgery. Dr. Ussher of the American hospital was very sympathise to the efforts of the Red Cross; he promised to assist them in any way he could and, indeed, placed the facilities of the hospital and the drug store at their service. The majority of the Red Cross workers were inexperienced school boys, but who learned fast. After futile attempts to obtain arms and join the fighting forces, these youngsters had come to the Red Cross as the next best way to serve the common cause. Women, mostly teachers, volunteered as nurses. Among them were some young girls who ran away from home to participate in the struggle for survival.
★ ★ ★ ★
Gradually, the Turks completed the encirclement of the city. They brought in large forces, placed them along the perimeter, facing our own defense positions. The southern flank was covered by the largest of Turkish barracks, Haji-Bekir, with its contingent of five-hundred regulars and several pieces of artillery on a commanding position. From here the Turks could bombard our positions to separate the villages of Shooshantz and Gooroobash from Aikesdan, and the German Missionary compounds, and could easily sweep across the plains that laid between the city and Mt. Varak. In this plain, the Turks dug extensively paralleling our fox holes there. Through our field glasses we could see the two cannons at the barracks as well as the numerous patrols that covered the field. It was evident it would be extremely difficult to keep communications open with Shooshatz and the mountains, which as a last resort, could serve as an escape route from the death trap for some.
Equally threatening was their position at Toprak-Kale on the north flank. Here they had placed their heavy artillery, while lower down on the banks of Hanguisner stood their large barracks swarming with very large numbers of militiamen and Hamidies (Kurdish detachments). The barracks of Hamud Agha fronting our main defenses, was heavily fortified; nearby two storied buildings were seized and fortified. The orchards along the highway to Sikhga were similarly replete with Turkish and Kurdish forces; but the southern Armenian quarters prevented direct contact of Turkish forces at Hamud Agha, Ourpat Creek, and Haji-Bekir. Jevdet’s purpose in wanting to place soldiers at the German Missionary compounds was to overcome this gap. On the southeasterly perimeter, Turks succeeded in occupying the church and school building at Arark without any resistance from Armenians. Backed by Turkish quarters, this important strategic position included the police headquarters. On the north, and facing Armenian homes and the defense position of Sahag Bey, Turks occupied and reinforced the Turkish homes of Hamzo, Mucho, Jalal-Mirza, and others, including the orchards. Further away Turks seized the very substantial building of the British consulate with its dominating position over Armenian quarters. Turks also had complete possession of the square of Khach-Poghan and the avenue of the same name, including all the area extending west to the old city. On the north, Turks also controlled the Armenian wards of St. Jacob as far as Agrpy and thence to Toprak-Kale. In this area, Turks had barricaded themselves in the school and related building of the Dominican Fathers. The northwesterly perimeter was densely populated by Turks in Shan Poghan as far as the hills of Sev-Kra. Thus, through a preconceived strategy, the Armenian population of Aikesdan was being hemmed in on all sides, rendering escape impossible.
It is not possible to make an accurate estimate of Turkish strength. It is known, however, that not less than one thousand militiamen had been stationed at Van; that Jevdet had brought fifteen-hundred regular and five-hundred Kurdish soldiers from the front; that two battalions of militia had arrived from Moosh and Khnus. It was certain that during the last week, large numbers of armed forces were pouring in, though Jevdet was trying to keep their movements secret. During the last three days, multitudes of Hamidie forces entered the city; they were to be joined, without doubt, by the Turkish population. It is safe to estimate the strength of Turkish forces at six thousand bayonets on the eve of the fighting. This number was to increase to ten thousand later on. They enjoyed an inexhaustible supply of ammunition and of food, freedom of movement, and of deployment.
★ ★ ★ ★
The following is quoted from my diary;
“The night of April 18th. The enemy’s plans for our total extermination have awakened the necessity for united action among us. There has been no confusion, no cross purpose activities in our efforts which are hourly gathering momentum. This consciousness pervades all individuals, families, parties and organizations. We have collectively decided and vowed to sell our lives and the lives of our people dearly, very dearly, before we fall victim to the death dealing scythe of the Turk.
“It was reported this (Sunday) afternoon that Jevdet was visiting the barracks of Hamud Agha. Aram and Gregory of Bulgaria, in company of a dozen men, rushed to the vicinity, ready for any eventuality; the visitor proved to be only a high ranking military officer.
“April 19th. It was quiet last night. Villagers from Sukhga and Shooshantz took refuge in Aikesdan. The orphans, pupils and the teachers of Varak Monastery also came in. Some of the monks and servants preferred to stay and were later butchered by the Turks.
“Last night, several armed men from Avantz village arrived to ask for help and seek information as to the general situation. They had been fired on by Turks when passing near the village of Sikhga. They managed to slip away without returning the fire.
“Our men are feverishly busy around the American and German mission compounds, lest Jevdet surprise us by deploying soldiers there. That would create a very dangerous situation.
“Last night (Sunday) defense leaders of the Federation party convened at the Shdigian house where Aram and Gregory of Bulgaria addressed them. In eloquent and inspiring terms, Aram asked them to follow the heroic example of Ishkhan and Vramian, to remain true to the traditions of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to the end, and to knowingly sacrifice themselves in order to save the people. Gregory confined his speech to defense matters and stressed the very critical nature of the situation. That discipline was of paramount importance.
“April 19th at 12:00 o’clock noon. Armenian inhabitants living in the immediate neighborhood of Turkish wards, have taken refuge in the American and Germans missions. The overflow have been placed in homes. Evacuated entirely are the wards of Glor Dar, and the parish of St. Jacob; the sectors of Arark, Hanguisner and Khach-Paghan have been partially evacuated.
“Communications with adjoining areas have been cut. So thorough is the siege that it has proved impossible to contact the old city, Avantz, Shah-Baghi, Timar, Haiotz-Tzor, Shadakh, etc. An attempt will be made by Siroun of Pergarib and a dozen of his men to slip through the cordon and reach Timar.
“An hour ago, the Defense Command was informed that Turks were transporting mule loads of arms and ammunition, guarded by soldiers. Defense leaders are asking for permission to seize this war material but Aram refused permission stating, “We are not going to fire the first shot, so long as the government has not resorted to force.”
“News has been received that in the name of Jevdet Bey, a Turkish officer has demanded the surrender of our defenders at the Hotel defenses, covering Armenian wards in the section of Khach Poghan. If they fail, all will be hanged. The Defense Command instructed them to refuse and retaliate in kind, if necessary.
“Evening of April 19th. We waited all day with deep anxiety. We could not understand why Jevdet did not carry out his threats against our defenses at Hotel.
“Today a number of outstanding personalities visited Aram privately. All concurred as to the extreme gravity of the situation. There was but one thing to do, fight and die with honor. Some foreign dignitaries were among the visitors.
“Aram, usually of a nervous, imperious temperament, has become very calm. He is busy issuing orders. Gregory of Bulgaria is occupied with military matters, selecting and establishing new defense points, and supervising the distribution of arms and cartridges. He is assisted in this task by Teos Deghdrigian, and Nishan and Gregory Sharanbeyian.
“There is a great scarcity of arms. Members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, lacking their own, were issued arms. The democratic Party had barely enough weapons for its members, without any reserves. The Hunchag Party possessed no arms at all. It was, therefore, decided to make arms available to all eligible persons without regard to party membership and reserve a small amount for emergencies.
“Our defense positions are now likely to be the paths of onslaught. Some defenders are well armed, others have only antiquated weapons; some are experienced, others are novices. The strategic importance of each position is reflected in the number of fighters and arms allocated to it. Mobile units are in readiness to give immediate assistance wherever needed.
“The area commanders, position leaders and their assistants have been appointed. They are old hands at revolutionary guerilla fighting. Each group is supplemented with one supervisor, supply agents, scouts and messengers. Each group includes a number of unarmed men for guard duty who will replace fighters killed in action.
“Our fighting force, according to the latest count, number eight-hundred. Half of them are armed with miscellaneous types and makes of arms, the other half, with Mauser pistols. We have approximately fifty positions with as many leaders, and five area commanders.
“This morning of April 19th, the Central Committee of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation dispatched its last letter, in code, to comrades in Moosh, Garin, and Constantinople, with the following content:
‘They have unexpectedly arrested Vramian and sent him to destinations unknown. Ishkhan and his three comrades have been killed on their way to Shadakh by the treachery of Jevdet. He was on his way there to help quiet the situation as a representative of the government and ourselves.
‘We are living in suspense, facing maximum danger. We have used up all possible means of extricating ourselves. Further concessions are impossible with all people exposed to massacres. We are surrounded on all sides by Turkish troops and artillery. It is possible that massacres have already started outside. Momentarily, we are waiting for the first rifle shot by the Turks. We will defend ourselves, with whatever we have altogether, with singleness of purpose and complete harmony.’
“Midnight, April 19th. The night has been quiet. Party leaders and intellectuals are visiting defense positions. The former impart necessary instructions, the latter inspire the fighter, and create a cheerful and radiant atmosphere.
“In the plains, our trenches are partially completed.
“Siroun of Pergarib and his eight comrades have reached Timar, unnoticed by the enemey.
“A dense and dark cloud of anxiety hovers over us. What will tomorrow bring?”