Chapter XIV

Fighting At Shoushantz And Varak

 

On the eve of hostilities, a considerable number of villagers, about five thousand, from Haiotz-Tzor, Khoshab, and other suburbs of Aikesdans, preferred the comparative security of Shoushantz and mount Varak to crowding into Aikesdan. Mostly old men, women, and children, they lacked both a means of defense and leadership. This was a broken, hopeless crowd which, in the last few days, had seen their ancestral homes burned to ashes, and their loved ones bestially murdered. Now they had no place to rest their heads, not a crumb of bread to sustain them, and no hope for survival.

Aram was the first to comprehend the scope of this tragedy and its fateful consequences unless quick steps were taken to organize this demoralized mob. During the second week of hostilities, the Defense Command took steps to protect them against Turkish atrocities. Besides, this was a first line of defense for Aikesdan and could well prove the last resort for the embattled Aikesdan.

Shirin was a born leader and organizer with extensive experience in revolutionary and guerrilla fighting; he was both loved and respected by the people and he understood them well. He had just arrived from Arjag and after two days rest in Aikesdan, he was sent out to assume the responsibility. Available were several peasant leaders with their armed groups of ten, who were to watch over the area including Darman and Sikhga villages and Varak Mountains. It was also their duty to organize surprise attacks on Turkish villages with the purpose of providing bread and other foodstuffs. To organize the procurement and distribution of food, the Defense Command provided a commission of four men. Besides, Aikesdan set aside a small portion of its ammunition for Varak and Shoushantz. It also shared with them its meager supply of bread, sugar, soap, clothing and necessities. The Red Cross assisted by sending a group of pharmacists and orderlies, and a quantity of drugs.

Shirin succeeded in organizing this crowd in a short time. He appointed leaders for each group of able bodied men, and set them in defense posts along the front covering the villages of Sikhga, Darman, Gogbhantz, Shoushant, Varak, etc. New barricades were erected and extensive trenches were dug by men lacking arms. He established regular contact with Aikesdan, and, above all, kept the enemy busy by causing big and small skirmishes. He was thus able to occupy Sikhga, Tzorovantz and Zervandantz villages expelling Turks from the area. He was being constantly attacked by the enemy forces at Haji Bekir barracks or from barracks at Hanguiser, which were always repulsed. For ten days, he was able to maintain all of the defense positions in Shashantz and Varak against Turkish attacks. Another important contribution of his forces was keeping regular contact with Aikesdan, furnishing information on the course of events at the old city, and reporting the movement of Turkish forces both on land and on the lake.

The Turks recaptured the village of Sikhga on the 1st of May by vigorous counter attack. After a week’s resistance, the small Armenian force fled to Aikesdan. This resulted in exposing the northern flank of our Shoushantz defenses. The leader of the group was disarmed and degraded. Several attempts to regain the village failed. The Turks had themselves well entrenched at Sikhga and were attacking our defenses daily. The contact with Aikesdan became more difficult. From May the 1st, Turks increased their pressure on our defenses which were now literally within their crossfire.

May the 8th proved a fateful date for Aikesdan in general and for Shoushantz in particular. Early that morning, about one thousand infantry and cavalry force, assisted by two field artillery, advanced against Shoushantz from the north and from the south in a pincer movement. Two hundred soldiers from the Haji-Bekir barracks had already entrenched themselves in the hillocks opposite Shoushantz, profiting from the darkness and the drizzle of the past night. The resistance forces were taken by surprise. After a futile attempt to stop the attackers, the men in the northern post, facing Sikhga, fled to the mountain. In less than half an hour the two Turkish prongs made contact and the combined forces rushed the village. The cannon fire had already demolished most of the village; what was left, was wrecked and burned after being plundered by the victorious enemy. The bewildered and panic stricken peasantry, armed and unarmed alike, fled up the mountain and lost several dozen persons in the attempt. The church building was destroyed, and Turkish soldiers, with swords unsheathed, overran the streets demanding Shirin’s surrender. But Shirin and his men kept on fighting to gain time for his retreating people. Two of his comrades were killed, but Gasha, the veteran preacher (Assyrian by race), was at his side fighting like a tiger. For three hours this handful of heroes fought an enemy force of crushing superiority. In the meantime, the panic stricken mob, having reached the upper reaches of the mountain, took stock of the situation. The armed men, seeing that Shirin was still fighting, were ashamed of their cowardice and hastened back to assist him. This time the Turks were surprised. Forced to evacuate the village, they came out to face the forces descending upon them from the mountain. Shirin took immediate advantage of the enemy’s confusion; always fighting he went back to join a group of defenders to initiate a counterattack. The hopeless situation became impossible when the two hundred soldiers from Haji Bekir barracks returned to reinforce the detachment at Shoushantz, after having captured our defenses at Varak monastery.

The resistance at Varak crumbled after three hours of struggle against overwhelming forces. Some of the people there fled to the distant parts of the mountain; the rest slipped through the cordon, suffering some losses, and taking refuge at far away positions.

There was nothing else Shirin could do now. No leader could have done any more. With ammunition gone, that night he led the people into Aikesdan. He went to Aram to confess his “guilt,” his defeat. Extremely agitated he told Aram he wished he was not there because he felt guilty, guilty because he should have been killed...

The enemy had completed its work of devastation at Varak and Shoushantz by noon May 8th. They also burned down the monastery of Gamervor, close by.

The loss of this important flank was a real calamity for the Armenians who were powerless to remedy the situation. Aikesdan could not risk one combatant or one cartridge. Rumors had it that fresh reinforcements had arrived and that the Turks were ready for the final blow. The Defense Command made one futile attempt to regain the village of Sikhga, and to divert part of the enemy forces advancing on Shoushantz. Aikesdan had to resign itself to this tragic defeat, to complete isolation, and to the task of feeding an additional crowd of five thousand famished villagers.

In spite of great difficulties, Shirin succeeded in bringing into Aikesdan some three thousand armed and unarmed people. The remaining two thousand took refuge in the mountain reaches for a few days and, after some skirmishes with the enemy, managed to enter Aikesdan, bringing with them the grim specter of famine and defeatism.

The fall of Varak and Shoushantz was a crippling blow for the people particularly for those not in the defense forces. For the first time, the chill of defeat became contagious and would have reached epidemic proportions if the Defense Command not taken immediate and necessary measures, if the struggle not entered into a new phase and particularly, if new and unexpected events not taken place.

 

★ ★ ★ ★

 

The new influx of refugees imposed a very serious problem. All organized bodies such as the Defense Committee, the Supply Commission, the Relief Agency, the Women’s organizations and the municipality, etc., concentrated their efforts on saving the population from the menace of famine. The Defense Command exhorted the combatants to be frugal, to supply their own bread and not to feed stragglers. Later on, more restrictive orders were to be issued. For those of the defenders lacking their own food sources, a quota for food, sugar, bread, etc., was established. By permission of the Defense Command, the Supply Commission commandeered all provisions in excess of one month’s supply from families who had it. The result was very disappointing. It was thought that the average family would have several month’s supply from families who had it. The result was very disappointing. It was thought that the average family would have several month’s supplies on hand; it turned out most of them had enough for only a few days. All meat animals were registered and no one was allowed to butcher them without the permission of the Supply Commission.

During the deliberations about the matter in the Defense Command, it was proposed to organize raiding parties for the purpose of procuring needed grain and other foodstuffs. The plan had great appeal and certain possibilities, except that not a single fighter or a single cartridge could be spared for the venture.

Even before the advent of refugees from Shoushantz and Varak, we became conscious of a curious phenomenon beginning May 9th. Every day since then, the Turks drove refugees into our positions. In groups of tens or hundreds, emaciated old men, women, and children were escorted to our positions by the Turkish militia. Soon, orchards, streets, and courts were teeming with many thousands of these miserable wretches whose life Jevdet had spared so they could enter Aikesdan and break the resistance through famine.

No more horrible spectacle can be imagined than the sight of these refugee skeletons dressed in tattered garb. They had just lost their homes, their everything; they had just seen their father, brother, or son murdered; their sisters and mothers ravished. Some, unable to comprehend such inhumanity, had lost their minds; others had been numbed by the experience; forlorn and sullen, they showed no interest in life and lacked self-respect. Still others told of their experiences in an impersonal manner, as if telling of ancient happenings...

Unable to subdue and massacre Aikesdan by the superior manpower and firepower at his command, Jevdet resorted to a “fifth column” treachery. He knew, as hard pressed as they were, the magnanimous Armenians never would refuse entrance to their God forsaken kinfolk. He was confident the tens of thousands of refugees would be instrumental in precipitating victory through his three sinister allies working from within; famine, epidemic and demoralization.

Armenians in Aikesdan were fully aware of Jevdet's designs. They prepared to meet, head on, the new and more insidious enemies. They were imbued with the spirit of their old adage, “Dying together, for a great cause, is like a wedding feast.”

The overflow of the new arrivals were sheltered in Norashen, Sandukhdian, and Benevolent Society’s school buildings, as well as the courtyard of Norashen church.

The Red Cross and Women’s Society redoubled their efforts against the previous fighting, the spread of contagious diseases, and in trying to provide clothing. Without exception, all families contributed their maximum in food, clothing, blankets, etc., for this purpose.

The committee responsible for military supplies distributed the arms brought in by the refugees from Varak and Shoushantz to the various defense positions. The able bodied men, sound in spirit, were allocated by the Defense Command to assist in the defense work. The rest of the able bodied men were catalogued to participate in the labor force. It may be said that within four days, May 8th to May 11, epidemics and despondency were brought under control. And yet Aikesdan had to endure a lot more, as the Turkish forces and famine were a constant menace.