Chapter XIX

The Days Of Sacred Folly


For the first time in many centuries, the Armenians of Van breathed the life-giving air of freedom on the 16th of May, 1915. It is impossible to even faintly depict the grandeur of the flaming night. It would require the brush of a genius to put on canvas the crimson hue of the clouds caused by the burning of Turkish military and administrative buildings, the dense smoke curling up from a dozen or more lairs of their unparalleled tyranny. It would require a composer of inordinate talent to express, in musical notes, the feelings embodied in the endless exclamations, the bursts of cheer of the sixty thousand people. The overpowering feeling of elation and vengeance were mixed with feelings of commiseration, the feeling of hatred with that of love, the inclination to savagery tempered by a spirit of nobility, and the signs of bestiality and expressions of angelic compassion and goodness. If only a moving picture camera had been there to preserve the scenes of the milling multitude now embracing, now kneeling in prayer, in thanksgiving for their “resurrection” …

Before dawn, all Turkish strongholds were occupied, all Turkish homes searched, and important buildings were set on fire. By daybreak, the two prongs had already penetrated into the Turkish quarters of Shamirmm and Haigavank. The main line had reached the door of Tabriz in the battlements to the old city. The Armenians within the old city, who had in turn, occupied and burned Turkish positions, hurried to welcome and embrace the multitude of combatants and people from Aikesdan. Their joy overflowed all bounds...

For a whole month this scant force of twenty-five to thirty men had resisted the enemy, forcing him to shameful retreat. Haig Gossoyan had been their leader, assisted by Haro, a real fighter, and Sarkis Shahinian. a merchant by trade, but a real dynamo by nature, Mihrtad Mirzakhanian, a meek and amiable person, but daring and uncompromising in combat, Armenag Mirzakhanian, David Sarkisian, Mihran Torumanian and others. And Bishop Daniel was a real leader and man of arms in spite of his frock.

A group of them ascended to the top of the Castle Rock, took down the red flag, with the white crescent and star, the emblem of blood, bestiality and tyranny, and hoisted in its place the Armenian tricolor which, previous to the past five centuries, had joyfully fluttered in the azure blue of the skies of Vasbouragan for nearly twenty centuries.

At the foot of the rock stood the most despicable institution of Turkish tyranny, the prison. During the past ten years alone, thousands of Armenians had been incarcerated here, condemned to a living death. Many were leaders and intellectuals who tasted the tortures of this prison. The number was greatly increased during the time preceding the conflict. Unaware of the fact that although all Mohammedan criminals had been set free in preparation for the retreat, the Turks had brought the fettered Armenian prisoners out and murdered them in cold blood, they found the prison empty and they poured out their rancor by pillaging, burning and otherwise destroying everything Turkish.


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The following three days. May 16th to 18th, burning and looting continued. No authority could have curbed the uncontrollable vengefulness that had seized the Armenians of Van. Furthermore, there would have been no reason to attempt to stop this urge for retribution because everyone realized the futility of trying to bridge over the chasm created by centuries of Turkish brutality. As elemental and compulsive as the feeling was, it also served a very useful purpose; it provided the necessary food for forty thousand famished refugees whose ancestral homes had been robbed of the last piece of bread. It was mandatory to destroy all Turkish fortifications, barracks, police stations, and government buildings so that in the event the Turks returned, they would have no bases. It was necessary to despoil and destroy all Turkish quarters so they could not nurture any hopes of returning. As spoils of war, they belonged to the victor; otherwise the Russian army entering Van would have expropriated them for its own use. In addition, the enemy had left behind large quantities of arms and ammunition which were catalogued and stored. A large number of prisoners were taken, mostly unarmed men, women, old men, and even deserted children. None of these were killed.

So for three days, the Armenians reveled in their victory. Once again, they were the lords of their ancient land; in the afternoon of May 18th the Armenian volunteer corps, led by Khecho, arrived in Van.

The last proclamation by the Defense Command best portrays the sacred frenzy of the people.

“Fellow Armenians:

“We have now completed one month of glorious fighting, a fight to the death for the resurrection of the race. This month will be proclaimed as the first Spring of our liberation.

“One month ago today, when the vile enemy declared war against civilization and justice, it also declared war against us. We took up arms with confidence, certain that we would win because we were fighting against darkness, ignorance and oppression. We took up arms because the enemy, with its shells and shrapnel, wished to strike the coup de grace to our existence; to humiliate and bend the brow of our youth in the dust; to dry up the very fountainheads of our renaissance. We resisted the enemy’s fanatical and impetuous attacks and its arrogant tactics. During the entire duration of this historic struggle, the foe never witnessed the defeat of our combatants, or the desertion of any of our fortifications.

“We fought the enemy with honor to complete victory and we join our people in its celebration.

“In view of the dauntless resistance put up by us on all fronts the enemy became aware that the divine blood of fight and freedom continue to course through our veins. The resurgence of that sacred blood has caused the enemy to turn timid and recourse to shameful and precipitous retreat, who only yesterday felt itself all powerful and was arrogant, abusive and contemptuous.

“The frenzy of victory has been gripping us for the last three days. We view with admiration and rapture the fires devouring enemy barracks and the lairs of the worst criminals.

“We are inspired to divine madness at the sight of the fleeing foe, who, for so many hundreds of years, massacred, plundered, and crucified us, and we rightfully feel vindictive.

“In our souls, the God of justice and of revenge reigns; above our heads echo the pleas for retribution from millions of slaughtered men, outraged virgins, and immolated infants.

“For the first time in a thousand years, the Armenian flag is again waving today over the old citadel; it is the first time that tyranny with all its power, wealth, and families is fleeing headlong to escape our bullets.

“Now that the glorious struggle is at an end, and victory has been attained, we enter on the era of our final and complete liberation, confident that bright and joyous times are in store for a race that never abandoned hope and never stopped dreaming.

“Through our prowess in battle, we laid the foundation of splendid independence, the dream of our people; for this dream we have sacrificed millions of lives over the past thirty years.

“Above the mountain tops of fortunate Vasbouragan, the dawn of liberty is already breaking.

“Today, therefore, we are not only celebrating the end of fighting, the glory of victory, but also initiating the liberation of all Armenians from all yokes of tyranny and its beastly claws.

“Long Live Armenian Freedom!

“Glory to the fallen!

“Long live the embattled youth of Vasbouragan!

“Long live the Armenian army...!

“Defense Command

For the self-defense of Vasbouragan”

May 19, 1915