Two Accounts of the Armenian Genocide

2020-12-26 • 10 min read

Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?

Adolf Hitler

The year is 1916. Refugees are streaming out of eastern Turkey and into the South Caucasus, into cities that are part of the Russian Empire. Seeing the plight of their compatriots, the Baku Committee of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation decides to plan and carry out a survey of those who had escaped, creating what is essentially an oral history avant la lettre, as well as a tabulation of the state of things before, during and after the massacres those survivors lived through.[1] They call the result the Chronicles of Sorrow, or in Armenian Vshtapatum,[2] and these accounts will later make it into the National Archives of Armenia, whence some would be selected, edited and published in a book in 2013 with the title Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey, 1915: Testimony of Survivors, Collection of Documents.[3]

Of course eyewitness accounts are pretty unreliable.[4] And these accounts have made it through many minds before they got to me. Noise may have entered the signal when the events entered the survivors’ minds and crystallised into memories in the time that followed; when they recounted it to the scribes; when the scribes recorded their accounts; when the accounts were selected and edited; when the selected ones were translated into English; and when I was reading that translation. The book taken as a whole tells a story of elemental horror. So I thought it might be worthwhile to do a little amateur source criticism of a couple of the accounts, which I will now proceed to do.

I will put the two accounts here side-by-side, or interwoven rather. That means we’ll try to read them in parallel, not one after the other. This may help us see the two as a single narrative. The second account is by a young woman who describes her experiences of the massacre of her village and the period that followed. The first account is by her, her sister and another woman and describes what happened before, during and after the massacre.[5] For that reason we’ll start with this first account and then introduce the second when the two are aligned. But we have a bit to get through before we get there, so bear with me.

Margarians and Karapetian: Information given by Havso Margarian (aged 40), Kyulizar Karapetian (aged 50) and Salvi Margarian from the village of Apri of Lower Bulanekh: –

The former condition: – Before the war the village had 40 Armenian households and 300 Kurdish households. Fifty of the Kurdish households were sheikhs and fakhis [experts in Islamic law] whose chief was sheikh Slé.

The Armenians had 200 sheep, 200 buffaloes, 600 head of cattle, 4 horses, 40 donkeys, 70 carts, 4 ploughs, 80 wooden ploughs, more than 800 thousand cereals annually, more than 1,200 bards of hay, about 40 vegetable-gardens. The village had a church named after St James with the relics of St James, two priests one of whom had died and the other – Ter Nerses – was murdered during the massacre. There was a “Karmir” [Red] Gospel in the church.

The current condition of the village: – Sheikh Suleyman has destroyed the village church as well as the houses of the Armenians. The village is now desolate. There are almost no men to return to the village. The Red Gospel has been captured by the Kurds. All the wealth of the village – sheep and cattle, beddings, clothes etc. has been plundered. Even women’s clothes have been taken away.

Mobilisation and military service: – More than 40 Armenians were conscripted all of whom except for 4 deserted and returned to the village but they were murdered during the massacre. One of the above 4 managed to flee to the Caucasus (Mkro Gasparian, now in Tiflis). Grigor Ter Nersesian was taken prisoner by the Russians. Besides regular soldiers, the other men of the village were used as beasts of burden to Hasan-Ghala, Erzrum, etc. From each household the village gave to the army one oka of ghee, 5 pairs of gloves, 5 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of trekhs, 1 felt cloth, one pot of salt, 1 halvar of wheat flour, 1 halvar of barley, 2 oxen, 3 sheep, many chickens, 10 pots of cracked wheat and bulgur, etc. The village suffered a lot from the Turkish army since it was on a main road.

Massacre and emigration: – In 1914-15 on the order of Sheikh Slé the Kurds of the village would now and again murder Armenians, but it was done so frequently that their number almost reached 20 that year. On Monday of the Feast of the Ascension the Armenians from the village of Verin Bulanekh managed to flee with the Russian army to Manazkert and Derik. The villagers of Apri also tried to flee, but the Turkish army immediately blocked the bank of the river Aratsani, destroyed the bridge and prevented their flight. Since that day, until the Monday of Feast of the Transfiguration the Turkish army fought against the Russians. The villagers didn’t dare leave their houses. People didn’t go to the water-mill; they were grinding wheat with manual mill-stones.

The scene is set. The village of Apri, of which the three women were natives, was located in eastern Turkey, northwest of Lake Van, not too far from the modern town of Bulanık (formerly Kop). You can find it near the centre of the map below.[6] This is in the Armenian Highlands, known a long time ago as Ararat.

The three women mention that Apri was nearly nine tenths Kurdish. Another source in the same book puts the number at three quarters.[7] This was not unique in the area but from what I can tell the split was usually more even. The Kurds often show up in these accounts. Their role in the genocide spans a wide spectrum. In some places they were deeply complicit in the massacres and other crimes, but elsewhere Kurds went to great length to protect their Armenian neighbours from the Ottoman Turks.

Map of the area around the village of Apri.

These events took place in 1915. Astute readers will know that this was the second year of the First World War. That means we’re only in the very early stages of the genocide. And of course war is a great distraction which allows nations to go ahead and do what they had already wanted to do; and just as it’s easier for a person to change their habits when moving to a different country, so it is also easier for a country to carry out programs when large changes are happening and things are in flux.

Let’s fold the second account into the narrative.

Salvi Margarian: Salvi Margarian (newly married, aged 25) from the village of Apri of Lower Bulanekh who had been abducted and taken captive by the Kurd Arif – kholam (servant) of fellow villager Sheikh Slé, and taken to Mush, recounts her sufferings in the following way:

It was the Feast of the Transfiguration Wednesday when Musa bek’s Kurds joined those of our village and slaughtered the men of our village.

Margarians and Karapetian: On the Monday of [the] Feast of the Transfiguration the Russians crossed the river and attacked the Turks. The retreating Kurdish army of Musa bek and Slébe sieged Apri and demanded all men of the village to gather and go to dig positions outside [the] village. But hardly had they walked out of the village (at 10 minutes’ distance), when they were tied up with ropes and strangled. One of the strangled, a youngster who accidentally didn’t die, fled to the village. The Kurds doubted that not all the strangled were dead, so they stabbed everyone with bayonets. The fugitive youngster was killed too.

I assume that the three women make special mention of the young one who flees to the village in order to explain how it is that they know what happened to the men who were all murdered. It’s not clear how the young one escaped when all the strangled ones were also bayoneted. Perhaps he got away before that, or perhaps they didn’t bayonet everyone.

But a more pressing question arises. Why do the Kurds go through the trouble of walking the men out of the village if their endgame is only to murder them anyway? They could just do that in the village and spare themselves the time and effort. I think that they deliberately intensify things in a gradual way such that there is always an out for the Armenian men, until there isn’t. If they start killing immediately, there’s nothing for it but to fight. But if they only bring them outside the village, and then only tie them up, then the Armenians will never know for sure that their fate is preordained. They’ll still have some hope. By the time they realise that they will all be killed, it’s already too late.

Salvi Margarian: Then they started selecting the beautiful women of the village and ruthlessly murdering the ugly ones. I fell to the Kurd Arif’s lot who was our sheikh’s kholam. He ordered to follow him otherwise he threatened to kill me too. My husband had already been murdered in the village, so having no other way out I obeyed his order and took the road to Mush with them.

Margarians and Karapetian: Then it was the turn of the women and children of the village. The ugly women and the children were murdered, and the beautiful ones were taken captive. Those who had escaped the swords and the bullets were put into a hayloft, hay and kerosene was prepared to burn them when the news of the Russians advancing reached them. The Kurds left everything and fled, having no time to complete their crime.

Here we see how the three women survived. Salvi Margarian survived because a Kurd found her beautiful and took her as a sex slave, essentially. Havso Margarian and Kyulizar Karapetian must have been among those who escaped the swords and bullets and were put into the hayloft, to which the Kurds, having heard of the approaching Russian army, did not have time to set fire. They got a grain of luck among acres of misfortune.

At this point the two accounts fork as Salvi Margarian is taken away and the others remain in Apri.

Salvi Margarian: The number of the Kurds was gradually growing. The first day we reached the Armenian village of Khashkhaldagh in the Plain of Mush, passing through the Armenian villages of Ablbuhar, Tsronk, Sheikhbrim, Herkert and Sulukh. Except in Sulukh, after murdering all the men from other villages before my eyes they put the women and children into hay lofts and burnt them with kerosene and hay. When we, imprisoned Armenian women, were weeping moved by the heart-rending yells of the burning people, the Kurds were angry at us and threatened to burn us too if we continued weeping … Those who tried to flee from the fire were shot on the spot. After slaughtering the men of Sulukh, they took the women and children to the bridge, threw them into the river and drowned everybody.

They massacred the villages as follows: they would first surround the village, then they would tighten the ring of the encirclement, break into the village and start the massacre without sparing even little children.

The road from Apri to Khashkhaldagh on the Euphrates is, according to Google Maps, something like 15-16 hours by foot and involves crossing a mountain ridge. Ablbuhar, Tsronk, Sheikhbrim and Sulukh do indeed follow a line to Khashkhaldagh from a reasonable point of descent into the Mush valley (I couldn’t find Herkert on the map). The Kurds here have the same modus operandi in both accounts: first they kill all the men, then they separate women by their looks before finally putting the rejected women (and in one account children) into hay lofts and immolating them with hay and kerosene. And again, the Kurds’ interruption by the Russians in Apri is how Havso Margarian and Kyulizar Karapetian could survive and give their account.

Map of the area around Mush.

Margarians and Karapetian: The Russians entered the village [of Apri], freed the rest of the people and took them to the Manazkert fortress. From there, together with other refugees, they reached Etchmiadzin and were placed in the following villages: Hamamlu – 4 households, Bash-Aparan – 1 household, Etchmiadzin – 3 households, Tiflis – 2 households, Kars – 1 household, Jermalu (Kars) – 1 household. In all, about 80 people survived: twelve men who had in advance moved to the Caucasus are now volunteers. There are also 11 boys up to 10, and 3 elderly men. All the rest are women and girls. There are now 27 women and girls in captivity as well as about 15 boys up to the age of 15. Two women were recently freed from captivity.

Here it seems the Russians held the Manazkert fortress shortly after the massacre, which started on the day of the Feast of the Transfiguration. From what I can tell, this happens on the 14th Sunday after Easter in the Armenian church, which in 1915 would have been early-ish July, I think. So when Salvi Margarian mentions, as she is about to, that the Russians had retreated from Manazkert some time in July, she is not inconsistent. The Ottomans retook Malazkirt on July 20.

Salvi Margarian: After reaching Khashkhaldagh, the Kurds left us there and went to take part in the massacre of Mush and other villages of the Plain. We stayed in Khashkhaldagh until the harvest time. During the harvest time Musa bek’s and sheikh Slé’s Kurds scattered over the Armenian villages of the Plain and started harvesting the Armenians’ ripe fields. The Russians had already retreated from Manazkert (in July). In winter we moved to the Armenian village of Khosh-Geldi of Bulanekh. In that period all the Kurds were having a sumptuous life: besides harvesting the fields of the Armenians, they were taking over their wheat pits, sating with their ghee and cheese, sheep and cattle until the Russians again broke into Manazkert.[8] The Kurd who abducted me was killed in that fight; the other Kurds had no time to take everything with them and fled in panic leaving us there. The Russians entered the village. There were 20 women and 10 little children with me in the village of Khosh-Geldi. We crossed ourselves and making the Russians understand that we were Armenians, were saved. The Cossacks took us to the Russian commander in Liz[9]. He delivered us to the local headquarters of the Armenian volunteers. We stayed there for 20 days feeding on their meals. At Easter they moved us to Alashkert and we were scattered around from there. I came to Igdir with some volunteers and when I learned that my sister was in Bash-Aparan, I came here to my sister.

I found this book in a cramped, drab bookshop in Tbilisi. It’s a book that breaks hearts. One of the things that stand out, apart from the sheer horror of it, is the consistency of the stories. There’s a kind of pattern or rhythm in how everything plays out. Like folk tales, they’re similar but vary in different ways – in length, in tone, in geography, in brutality, in little details and so on – but share the same motifs, like a theme and variations of mass murder.

Footnotes #

  1. Virabyan, A., Avagyan, G. & Baghdasaryan, L. (2013). Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turkey, 1915 : testimony of survivors, collection of documents. Yerevan: Zangak Publishing House. ↩︎

  2. ibid. ↩︎

  3. ibid. ↩︎

  4. Though according to the editors’ introduction, those who carried out the survey aimed “to make make sure that the accounts were not skewed by any judgment or prescriptive philosophy” and, so the editors continue, “it was also imperative that the witnesses be deterred from allusions to literary works or making exaggerations; instead solely facts were to be clearly and concisely recorded under the relevant name and date”. And the accounts are indeed quite unimpassioned and matter-of-factly. ↩︎

  5. I recognise that the fact that the two accounts I cover here were related on the same day, to the same scribe(s) and by some of the same people means that they aren’t fully independent accounts. Far from it. Hence it should not be surprising if they mostly agree with each other. ↩︎

  6. The maps in this post came with the book. ↩︎

  7. Virabyan, A., Avagyan, G. & Baghdasaryan, L. (2013). Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turkey, 1915 : testimony of survivors, collection of documents. Yerevan: Zangak Publishing House. ↩︎

  8. The Russians had made it to Mush by March 2nd, so presumably they crossed Bulanekh (where Manazkert and Khosh-Geldi lay) in February. ↩︎

  9. You can find Liz on the first map. It’s located between Apri and Khosh-Geldi (Khoshgyaldi). ↩︎