The afternoon sun was glowing like a ball of fire over the blue waters of Lake Van on May 18th when the first cavalry detachment of Armenian volunteers entered Van commanded by Khecho, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. He was accompanied by Russian Colonel Ozali. The long line of the Cavalry was leisurely approaching Aikesdan by way of the white hills of Shah Baghi. At the other end of the plain, at the foot of the Rock Agerpi, the entire population of Aikesdan had gathered to bid them welcome and embrace them in brotherly love. Over one thousand of the combatants, in military formation, armed with rifles and pistols, formed the front line. There stood the quaint cannon made by Gregory of Bulgaria thundering a triumphal welcome. Aram, head of the reception committee, reminded everyone of the prophet, Moses, who had led his people through the Red Sea. With him were the staff of the Defense Command and Haig Gossoyan with a dozen of his brave ones from the old city. The student body of the Normal school and the band that had cheered the people and trumpeted our victories throughout the siege, had taken position around the “cannon.” At the proper moment, Gregory, the unpretentious hero, fired three bursts of welcome which reverberated through the surrounding mountains. The band played “Our Fatherland” with unparalleled emotion. Perhaps never before had Nalbandian’s grand dream been so truly, so magnificently, realized, as on this day of the 18th of May at Van.
“Our Fatherland, for centuries Subdued and fettered,
By the sacred blood of her valiant sons Shall again be free.”
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” burst forth from ten thousand throats as the volunteers approached. The overjoyed volunteers, in their turn, saluted heroic Van. Solemn and impressive scenes of embraces, felicitations, and prayers, followed. Their path was strewn with multicolor flowers — the gorgeous, profusely fragrant May flowers of Van, which bloom under no other skies.
The triumphal procession moved toward the Armenian section of Aikesdan. With the flowers and green branches along the road of welcome were also the scorched remains of Turkish barracks and the rest of the strongholds of their tyranny.
Dro, the valiant leader of the equally valiant volunteer legions, arrived late that night. In the early dawn, next morning, others came from various directions. The Russian Commander General Nikolaeff, arrived the same night.
The main body of the Russian army came in on the 19th of May. They were greeted with joyous demonstrations. Cannons at the top of the Castle Rock, abandoned by the Turks, fired salvos of salute and welcome. In the large square of Khach-Poghan Armenian maidens made garlands while old grandmothers prayed in silence.
In the following historic telegram, General Nikolaeff reported to the Russian Headquarters:
“Thanks to the armed Armenian population and the leadership of Aram, a Russian subject, Van was defended for one month; only three days ago Armenians prevailed, forcing the Turks to retreat. The city is burned. Some sections inhabited by Armenians and the Russian consulate, are intact. As we approached the city, salvos of welcome were fired from the six cannons captured from the Turks. Armenians presented me with the keys to the citadel. The people of Van, led by its defenders, the bishops, and the clergy, organized impressive demonstrations; surrounding us, they shouted “Hurrahs” and showered us with flowers.”
★ ★ ★ ★
The Russian army entered Van three days after the Turks had been driven out from Aikesdan and from the old city — three days after the people of Van had succeeded in becoming masters of their destiny. Instead of its bloodthirsty, age-old foe, the Russians found a creative, industrious and friendly people, hungry for freedom; they were received with open arms.
Irrespective of their wishes, the Russians were obligated to entrust the first government of Van to Armenians. The staff of the Russian army corps replied, by telegram, to General Nikolaeff’s communication:
“Telegram No. 5452
From Corps Staff
To General Nikolaeff:
“In accordance with your appointment, I confirm Aram in the office of the provisional governor of Van, entrusting to him the government of the region around Van. His administrative staff is to be selected from Armenians exclusively and be supported by Armenian home guards. Have sent telegrams to Army Commandant and to our consul at Tabris regarding the appointment of temporary envoy.”
“Telegram No. 1709
From Corps Staff
To General Nikolaeff:
“The Commandant has confirmed Aram’s appointment on condition he be subject to the military authorities, the chief of garrison, to be appointed later. Aram is to be instrumental in carrying out all orders of the military command.”
In his communique No. 24, Major General Nikolaeff informed the army at Bayazid, “The general command of the armies of Caucasus has confirmed Aram’s appointment as provisional governor, subject to the authority of the chief of garrison. All military arrangements are to be effected by Aram.”
“Major General Nikolaeff”
On May 21, 1915, as governor of Vasbouragan, Aram issued the following appeal;
“The advance of the victorious Russian army initiates a new era in the political and social life of our dispossessed people, both in the city and the province. It marks the end of centuries of thraldom and political persecution. We are today celebrating the fruition of the creative and constructive spirit of the Armenian people.
“In appreciation of the valor of the people of Vasbouragan in thwarting Turkish attempts at our genocide and, in approval of our cultural aspirations, the Commander of the Russian forces, through the decree No. 16, issued on May 20th, 1915, has graciously appointed me as governor of Van and its environs.
“Police, judicial, agricultural, refugee, and municipal authorities have already been set up.
“It is mandatory for all to apply to the proper departments of the new government for all your needs, so as to enable us to establish normal conditions within our jurisdiction.
“Faced with these tremendous responsibilities, we need the full cooperation of our people. Rally, with enthusiasm, toward your government, and help all you can in establishing normalcy. This is the way to merit the approval of the heroes who sacrificed their lives, during the last quarter of a century. This is the means to prove the cultural mission of the Armenian people in this distant comer of Asia Minor.
“It was the through recognition of these aspirations by the Russian general that prompted him to place this great confidence in the Armenian people and in myself.
“Citizens, it is up to us to justify our claims and to realize our hopes in order that we may deserve the continued and increased confidence of the conquering Russian army and its general.”
“Governor of Van”
May 21st, 1915