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By Sempad Shahnazarian

Chapter Fourteen 

ergeant Sempad was standing in the guard house on top of the hill. He was surveying the panorama of the gigantic Taurus ridges, which stood calm and mute in the flaming sunset. There was no sign of habitation for miles around. A weird and treacherous silence enveloped everything like an invisible mist. These ridges, with their awe-inspiring wooded folds, resuscitated dreary memories of the day, April 24, 1915. This is when an entire nation, uprooted from its ancestral homeland, was rolling down like an immense avalanche onto its grim destiny.

  Meydan Ekbez!... He was familiar with every inch of ground and seemed to hear echoes of the screams of massacred innocents. Behind dense thickets and chaparrals, covering the gracefully sloping hills of Islahieh, he seemed to see thousands of terrified eyes, sensing the stealthy approach of the Turks, armed with rifles, knives and hatchets.

  He wanted to scream at the top of his lungs and curse the civilized world for its apathy in the face of such atrocities. He recalled the maddening whirlpool of the recent past. His miraculous escape from the massacre and the crossing of the Palestine front to the English army, the joining of the Legion d’Orient at Cyprus Island and his return to the same front against the Turks. The battle of Arara, where Turkish forces were crushed and defeated opening the way for the occupation of Cilicia, the ancestral home of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. The hope that the Armenian Legion would soon become the nucleus of the future Armenian army had enthused him immensely.

  Two years had elapsed since the defeat of the Turks and none of the dreams had materialized. He was there just wasting away, decaying uselessly! Armenian volunteers from all over the world had been waiting, in vain, to finish their business with the defeated enemy. Now the unbelievable was happening. Dark forces were at work to undo what the Allied victory had achieved. Arms and ammunition were being given to the Turks to reverse the tide of the events. Kemalist forces were being organized and encouraged by the gold-worshipping diplomats of the West to kill the claim of the Armenians, "The Little Ally.” The Armenians had fought so bravely on every front against the enemy.

  The sun had gone down behind the ridges and the somber shadows of twilight filled the valley. Sergeant Sempad came out of his meditations and noticed that the last glow of sunset had already disappeared from the horizon. He walked, sullenly, down the hillside to his tent where Beto was reading by candlelight. Without disturbing him, he took his shoes off and pushed them under his bunk. He hung his trousers and coat on the pole, sprawled out, unfolded his blanket and slowly covered himself with it.

  The silence became so burdensome, Beto interrupted his reading, looked up and said: “What is troubling you?”

  Sempad was on his back looking at the taut canvas of the tent, fighting back his tears.

  “Hey! Can’t you hear me?” called Beto. Sempad answered quietly: “My body is here, but my mind is in Moush...primitive dwellings...churches...simplicity...carefree childhood...Sourp Garabed Monastery with its huge, massive walls like those of medieval fortresses isolating it from the living world...Three steeples thrust high, like daring thoughts into the blue space. Nine old reverends appeared and disappeared, twice a day, after morning and evening services, like living shadows. Our heavenly trips on the glorious Innagnian Mountains, in search of mushrooms and partridge eggs. Flocks of sheep rolling down the slopes like a snowdrift. Then...the bomb of war exploded. Nations began to grope in the smoke and the dust of the battlefields. Our idealistic nation aligned itself with the Allies against the Central Powers. Then...the annihilation movement, because of the Armenian people’s friendly attitude toward the Allies...deportation and massacre...Monasteries, churches and towns wiped out...stinking roadside ditches...”

  He fell asleep but nightmares began to haunt him...thousands of corpses began to come to life. They slowly moved their legs and arms as if awakened from a long and restless sleep looking to the right and to the left trying to locate their relatives and friends. As if a soft whisper of autumn leaves, their lips began to move...it became louder and louder until it rang like a maddening chorus of hair-raising cries. Towns were now burning with their inhabitants in them...Smoke and flames spread out to the wheat fields. Herds of cattle fled in a wild stampede before the on-rushing fire and the Sergeant found himself right in the middle of that carnage... He turned from one side to the other and a muffled groan came out of his throat muttering some indistinct and inarticulate words. He suddenly jumped right up and sat straight in his bunk with terror in his eyes.

  Beto was still awake. He did nothing. They only exchanged furtive looks and lowered their heads. Beto, then, blew the lamp out and stretched himself on the bunk. For a long time he remained awake thinking about Sempad.

  In the morning, the atmosphere of the camp had completely changed. The entire battalion had assembled to hear the order that had just been received from the General Command. Immediately after reading the report, the tents began to be taken down and packed. Knapsacks and other equipment were arranged properly for inspection.

  He was not the same dreamy and melancholic fellow anymore. He was jovial and lively now. He was everywhere, helping his men to pack and get ready to move on. 

 “What has happened to you, Sempad?” said Beto, grinning. “Any special reason for this change?”

  “The news of the campaign! I have been getting tired and disgusted lately, sitting around and doing nothing. This inactivity was just getting on my nerves. A change might make us feel fresher and livelier. After all, we did not join the Legion to lie around. We came here for an entirely different reason and you know what that reason is.”

  “Yes, I know!” said Beto, mockingly “To finish our business with the worst criminal the world has ever seen!!”

  “Why do you speak with such sarcasm?”

  “Due to the fact that I don’t expect anything good to come out of this campaign. Our Allies simply don’t wish to hurt the Turks for our sake. They are making us fight for their own interest not for ours.”

  “I am not so sure about that,” said Sempad, thoughtfully. “Let’s not forget that the Allies have recognized Armenia as a free and independent country with Van, Moush and Erzeroum annexed to our ancestral lands.  What else do you expect?”

  “I expect to see the Truth of the Allies’ declaration...” said Beto with a grimace.

  “Even if nothing comes of it, the performance of my patriotic duty will be able to hush my inner voices and secure myself some restful sleep.” said Sempad.

  The whistle reverberated a sad farewell. Thundering applause was mixed with outbursts of joy as well as tearful handshakes. The whistle blew three times and the train pulled out. Hundreds of Legionnaires began singing the “Marseillaise” and “Pam Porodan,” and the wheels of the train slowly rolled under the silent gaze of the surrounding hills. Soon after, a hush enveloped the whole outfit. Everyone began singing to himself.  Sergeant Sempad was contemplating the panorama of the interlocking wooded ridges. Every inch of that ground was familiar to him. He remembered spots where fragments of human skeletons were strewn about with the weird and mysterious stares of bleached skulls dominating the scene.

  Twilight hung down its fluttering veil and everything was quiet and intangible. When the train drew near the entrance of Ayran tunnel, a few miles from Islahie, Turkish machine guns and small arms began firing from the surrounding wooded hills, without any casualties. 

  The train came out of the tunnel with no further incidents, unloading at the entrance of a formidable cleft formed by the gigantic folds of the Amanos. There was a strong column of French, Algerian and Senegalese soldiers there, who had been waiting for them.

  Silence reigned, save the occasional wailing of coyotes from far distant hollows. Absolute silence was the order of the night. Even the horses seemed to have understood it. They hung their heads down to the ground, swaying back and forth quietly grazing.

  “Sergeant Sempad, you have a friend here looking for you.” someone whispered. 

  The silhouette of a tall man, dressed in the Kurdish style and armed like an Armenian Fedayi stood before him.

  “I know you do not recognize me in this outfit,” he said. “I am Sassountzi Petros from Sourp Garabed Monastery, your friend. Satenik is in Sassoun now, safe. Don’t worry about her. Soon my guerrilla friends will take her to Armenia.”

  “...How in the world!!!!  Petros!!” exclaimed Sempad. “What brought you here, anyway?”

  “I am heading a band of Armenian guerrillas operating in these mountains. I offered my services to General Querette and he gladly accepted it. I am now spearheading this column of yours against the Kemalist forces operating in this area and the area surrounding Marash.”

  “I can’t believe my eyes, Petros! Eight long years since I left Sourp Garabed Monastery and then meeting you here under these circumstances...it is just unbelievable. What about our Holy Monastery?”

  “The steeples have been bombarded into gaping holes and the Cathedral has been converted into barracks.  Of course you know what happened to the nine old priests...rotting in ditches.

  “What do you think of all this?” asked Sempad pointing to the soldiers, horses and the light artillery.

.  “It is a demoniacal enterprise we are in. You, in a military uniform and I in civilian clothes,” said Petros. "We don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

  “Money and stratagem will decide,” said Beto, who was standing nearby listening to the conversation.

  “Oh! I almost forgot to introduce you to my cousin Beto,” said Sempad.

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