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By Sempad Shahnazarian

Chapter Twelve 

t was an hour’s walking distance to Jerusalem to the headquarters for prisoners of war. After brief questioning, he was sent to the prisoner receiving camp that was in a vast area covered with tents.  Approximately one hundred newly arrived prisoners were led to a field adjoining the camp, where a huge steam boiler was emitting clouds of steam. A sergeant lined them up and told them to take off their clothes and lay them on the ground in front of them. Promptly, there stood a long line of naked men shivering in the afternoon sun. They carried bundles that were already numbered and tagged, over to where the boiler stood, threw them into the tank and turned on the steam.

  The line of prisoners kept moving toward a series of tubs filled with a disinfectant solution. In front of each tub stood a man with a long-handled brush in his hand. He would dip the brush into the solution and spread it over the prisoners’ bodies from head to foot. The burning sensation made them run around screaming and cursing. In that chaotic atmosphere there came a familiar voice to Sempad’s ears: “Sempad! Sempad!” A naked figure with black disinfectant all over him came to embrace him. It was Beto!

  “Where in the hell did you come from?”

  “I came from the same hell as you did.” said Beto. His white teeth were glowing next to his black face.

  This unexpected meeting made them forget their physical pains.

  “We are in a different world now.” Beto said with excitement. “They sent me somewhere near the Sassoun Mountains and then transferred me to the Palestine front! Now I am here with you, again.”

  Everything quieted down. They walked over to the tent to which they were assigned and were immediately served supper. They all had individual beds with brand new blankets.

  After supper they settled down on their beds and began thinking.

  “We are finally out of hell and are on our way to Heliopolis near Cairo.” said Sempad, pensively.

  Beto laughed, sarcastically.

  Sempad said: “I have no doubt the Allies will be victorious in this struggle.”

  “So what if they are?  Are they going to let us in on the spoils?”

 “They must give us our share of it. There are thousands of young Armenians with the Allies and they are calling us the “Little Ally.”

  “You are very optimistic! I wish I could feel the same way.” said Beto.

  “Right or wrong, I am glad I am here and as soon as I get to Heliopolis, I will explore the possibilities of joining the Legion d’Orient. You must have heard of this group which was organized under French sponsorship.”

  This conversation continued until it became dark outside. They turned quietly on one side closed their eyes and fell asleep.

  The following morning, they took the train to Cairo, Egypt. One could see the remnants of shattered battlefields on their way through the Sinai desert where the English and Turkish armies had been engaged in battle. Barbed wire stuck out here and there in the sand dunes. Portions of trenches stood out gaping in a continuous shift of the landscape. The northwestern horizon was a ridge of chalky looking mountains that covered the sight of the Mediterranean Sea. Cars and trucks rolled over a wire mat that extended from the Suez Canal down to Jerusalem giving the impression of a tarred highway. 

  Everything they saw from behind the front line down to Cairo, made them realize they were now breathing in an entirely different world, clean and pleasant.

  It took about ten minutes to walk from the railroad station to the Heliopolis prisoner of war camp. It was a large area enclosed with heavy wire fencing and contained many barracks. They stopped about fifty feet from the gate, took off all of their clothes and put them in a pile. The pile was sprinkled with gasoline and was set on fire. 

  One by one the prisoners passed a secretary, sitting at a table, who recorded each prisoner’s name. They then walked to the gate where there were two guards standing face to face. Before entering, each prisoner had to undergo a medical examination. The guards made each one open his mouth so they could have a look. They kept a record of each prisoner’s condition.  They made each prisoner bend over so that he could be given a careful anal examination. After recording the results, they allowed him to enter.

  As they entered one by one, a guard would lead each to his section which was arranged according to his nationality...Turkish, German, Armenian, Greek, Arab...

  As they approached the barracks, they stopped at barbers who removed all the hair off their bodies except for their eyebrows and eyelashes. They were given a bath in disinfectant before allowing them to enter. When they got to their assigned places they found individual bunks with brand new blankets, clothes and slippers waiting for them.

  The camp looked like a populated desert that was spotlessly clean. Every morning, some of the prisoners were assigned to pick up cigarette butts, sticks of matches and other rubbish. In order to keep the prisoners in motion they had to do some minor daily chores such as carrying a shovelful of sand from one point to another, back and forth, for a couple of hours each day. They would have their lunch, lie down to rest or go under the shower all afternoon, talking, joking and laughing.

  One day a middle-aged Armenian man came to see the newly arrived Armenian prisoners. After he met Sempad and got through talking with him he asked him for a favor. He wanted him to write an article about some of his experiences at the front, in French, for the Commander of the camp. After the Commander read his first article he asked him to continue this writing. He earned a couple of shillings every week in payment for this.

   One day, the kitchen was short of help and someone was sent out looking for a cook.

   Beto jumped right up and said: “Here I am!”

  “Where have you worked as kitchen help?” the man asked.

  “Kitchen help?” Beto exclaimed contemptuously, as if his dignity were hurt. “I used to be the chef for Talaat Pasha’s cuisine. Do you know who Talaat Pasha is? He is the Turkish Minister of the Interior...One of the greatest criminals on earth.”

  “Oh!” he exclaimed. “You are all right then! Let’s go!”

  Beto came to his bunk as if he were looking for something.

  “I never knew you worked as a chef anywhere!” said Sempad.

  “Neither did I.” whispered Beto. “I’ll see you later.”

 Beto followed the man out of the barracks, contentedly. At the threshold Beto turned around, looked at everyone with a mysterious smile and was gone.

  The following morning he returned from the kitchen, sick. He flopped on his bunk, half dead. Sempad wondered what had happened to him. He was rolling on his bed uncontrollably from one side to the other. He was breathing as if a ten ton weight was on his chest. He kept watching him and saying nothing. Beto knew he was worried. After a few minutes, he regained himself and stammered: “This is going to be my last visit to the kitchen!”

  “Why?” asked Sempad.

  “I made a mess of it! To tell the truth, everybody was complaining... That will never happen again. I had never done any cooking in my life. What do you expect? Yesterday evening, after supper was served, each one of us was given a double ration. Three large kettles had to be scrubbed. At the bottom of each, there remained a thick layer of molasses. Of course, we couldn’t discard it. It would have been a shame. So all three of us scraped it and ate it all until our stomachs were on the verge of bursting. We fell down crammed full, unable to turn from one side to the other all night, suffering and cursing ourselves. At sunrise someone kicked us out and here I am!!” 

  All the time Beto was telling his tale, Sempad was playing with the shilling in his hand wondering what he could buy with it..

  “What’s in your hand?”

  Sempad showed him and told him how he had earned it.

 “Bravo, Sempo! Keep up the good work...We can use these things.”

  Beto scrambled to his feet, took a deep breath and stretched his arms in a gymnastic maneuver and said: “Give it to me!” He took the money and went around until he finally stopped at the kitchen and returned with a stack of flat round bread that he had bought. While they were eating the bread, Beto asked him what he had been doing with the two packs of cigarettes they have been giving them every day.

  Sempad said: “You know I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. I just give them away.”

  “You just give them away, eh! Well, from now on, you are not going to give them away anymore. I will take care of them. You don’t like to smoke but you do like to eat.” he said.

  From then on, he swapped Sempad’s cigarettes for bread. 

  Days passed on one after the other, drearily. Sempad, Beto and Vartan (a newly arrived prisoner) kept relating the incidents they had experienced and discussed the wisdom of joining the Legion d’Orient.

.   “Why are you fellows hesitating?” said Sempad. “Look at me! I was a lieutenant but I threw that uniform away. Did I do it for fun? No, I did it for this day. Let’s not waste our time.”

  “You are a highly idealistic boy, Sempad. You are floating in space...Can’t you come down a little and walk on the hard ground...reality?”

Chapter Twelve  - Continue >
Updated 20 June, 2000 Contents.......
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