Days of Tragedy in
Armenia - Personal experiences in Harpoot, 1915-1917
By Henry H. Riggs
the explanation, the fact was that after allowing massacre to go on unchecked
for several days, the Vali at last interfered, and while the soldiers had
not proved much more kind to the remnants of those Armenian villagers than
the wild Kurds, the actual organized murder had ceased.
Naturally, the Christian population
of the city were in terror. Apparently they had been saved from the danger
of immediate massacre, but the bloodlust had been awakened, and there was
danger of its breaking forth anew at any moment. But more imminent danger
was evident in their midst. The process of arrest and torture that had
terrorized Harpoot had been carried on in Diarbekir with far greater vigor.
The prisoners there had been tortured even more fiendishly than in Harpoot,
so that those who had died under torture were very numerous. But worst
than all, the remaining prisoners, two thousand in all, had two days before
I arrived been sent down the Tigris river, and no one doubted that they
had gone to their death.
melancholy procession, followed by their weeping relatives, had marched
out of the city gate and down to the river bank. There, with almost no
preparation for a journey, they were crowded on to rafts made of inflated
goatskins, and started down the river, ostensibly to exile in Mosoul. No
one hoped that they would reach that destination alive, and later it proved
that the fears of that day were all too well founded. The rafts upset,
it was all too easy to dispose of the struggling mass, even if any could
swim and tried to make their escape. I have never heard of one of those
men who escaped alive.
Those two thousand included the leading
Armenians of Diarbekir. One of them, whom I knew well, was a member of
the Ottoman Parliament, who, in spite of being a Christian, had been elected
by popular ballot in that province. His wife told me how his Turkish associates,
in spite of all that he had done for them, had betrayed him to the police,
and how he and his son, accustomed as they were to every comfort, had had
to start out on that journey with nothing more than what they could carry
in their hands. She was somewhat comforted by the promises of the guards
that her husband and son would be escorted in safety to their destination.
I wish I might share her hope.
On the day that these two thousand
were sent into exile the Armenian bishop of Diarbekir went with them as
far as the city gate, but then, I was told, the Vali ordered him back to
the prison, saying, "I am going to burn your beard!" After a few days the
bishop was reported to have died of typhus fever! No one believed this
report, and when, the next day, I saw the sexton of that Armenian church,
he told me, when we were alone together, how he had been called to the
prison and given the bishop's body to take away and bury.
The body was hardly recognizable.
The teeth had been extracted, the cheeks had been pierced in many places,
and the beard had been burned away. Rumor had it that after the bishop
had been tortured to the point of death, he had been taken out into the
prison yard, saturated with oil, and, in the presence of guards and officers,
burned to death. He was a man of unusual courage and aggressiveness, who,
at the beginning of these troubled times, had taken active steps to appeal
to Constantinople for pity on his people, and who, even in prison, had
continued to make efforts in their behalf. This probably was the reason
for the peculiar savagery of the treatment accorded to him.
The murder of the bishop added the
last touch to the terror of the people. There had been no cessation of
the arrests of men who might be found, and the result was that shops were
closed and all the men [were] in hiding. Of my own personal friends there,
many had already gone to their death in the river, and others dared not
leave the shelter of their homes lest they, too, should fall victims to
the vigilance of the police. But in the midst of all of that terror, one
man seemed especially inspired of God to lead the thoughts of those hopeless
people to the only source of hope and peace. The pastor of the Protestant
church seemed to be the only man who was not afraid. He was an old man,
long since retired from the ministry, who had consented to take charge
of his own church for a few months, and who was, during those days, the
pastor for the whole city.
asked him one day if he was not afraid to go about. He smiled and said,
"I suppose that it is dangerous, but I would rather go in this way than
to stay at home at such a time as this." So, from home to home he went,
bringing consolation and help, and every evening, in the great Protestant
church, he held a service of prayer. Diarbekir is a city of many sects
and of bitter feuds among them, and I never hoped to see a union service
of prayer where all should meet together. But there they were, Protestants
and Gregorians, Catholics, Jacobites, Chaldeans and all, drawn together
by their common anguish and by the inspiring faith of that one man who
led their thoughts and prayers at those evening meetings. It was an impressive
and pathetic sight to see the throng bowing there in earnest prayer, each
one going through the forms to which he was accustomed in his own church,
but all united in the spirit of agonizing prayer to God. At the close of
each service the pastor led and all joined in that chant of the ancient
Armenian church, "Der Voghormia," a chant that all through the ages has
voiced the despairing faith of that martyr race, "Oh Lord have mercy!"
energy of the police in seeking out the able-bodied men among the Harpoot
Armenians was rewarded by a large number of men herded into the prisons
in Harpoot and Mezireh. No explanation was given of this action, which
was absolutely contrary to the solemn assurances of the Vali. He had definitely
promised that not one man should be sent away without his family, but that
all should be released so that they might help their families on the journey.
The police, on the contrary, set themselves to the task of seeing to it
that not one man should be allowed to travel with his family.
As soon as the Mezireh prison was
full to capacity of these men-none of whom, it should be remembered, had
had any form of trial, nor even an accusation of any sort-it was necessary
to empty it. Suddenly, without warning and without giving the men any opportunity
to prepare for the journey, the men were started out "into exile." There
were eight hundred men in prison at that time, and they included the choicest
of the Armenians of Harpoot and vicinity. Bound, with their hands tied
behind them, and many of them roped together in bunches of three or four,
they were hurried out of the prison early one morning and marched along
the road toward Malatia.
They followed the highway for about
ten miles, and then were turned off toward the right, and marched up into
the mountains. Soon after passing the crest of the ridge, they were marched
down into a deep ravine, where they were ordered to sit on the ground.
When they were all seated, bound as they were, their guards, with their
rifles and bayonets, fell upon them and commenced a butchery that the imagination
refuses to picture.
So huge was the task of slaughter,
that three or four men succeeded in escaping from the ravine while the
gendarmes were busy with the horrid labor. These fugitives scattered and
hid, but were pursued and hunted out by the relentless guards,
who found and butchered them in their hiding places only one escaping,
so far as known. This young man, whose name I dare not reveal as he is
still living in Turkey, succeeded in evading his pursuers and hiding till
nightfall. Then he started out to try to return to some place of safety
but lost his way in the dark and wandered all night long, not knowing which
way he was going. At last, as dawn began to break, he found his bearings
again, and in the gray light, stole in to the American hospital and to
it was, who brought the first authentic report of the fate of "the eight
hundred." He could not explain how he had escaped from that charnelhouse.
He suddenly found himself free and ran for his life. He thought that a
bullet must have cut the rope with which he was tied, though it is of course
conceivable that the sudden terror gave him the supernatural strength to
snap the ropes in two. The horror of the experience had almost unhinged
his mind. The sudden onslaught of the gendarmes, the shots and blows, the
sight of his companions dropping in death agony, and their screams and
struggles, all made a picture that he could not recall without breaking
down. He was barefoot and footsore when he arrived and thought he must
have been obliged to take off his shoes before the massacre began-a bit
of fiendish forethought on the part of the butchers!
Though his story was so confused,
there is no reason to doubt its incredible details, for not only was he
himself a young man of unimpeachable integrity, but the details of the
horrid story were fully verified by the testimony of Kurds who had seen
some of the other fugitives before they were overtaken and butchered by
the pursuing gendarmes. Not one of those seven hundred and ninety-nine
was ever heard of again.
A few days after this party of eight
hundred had met their fate, renewed activity on the part of the police
filled the prisons again. This time old men and young boys were not spared
as they had been at first. It was a day of horror when these survivors,
infirm old men, cripples, and bedridden young boys in their early teens,
gathered in by the vigor of the police, were marched off down the hill
to the prison in Mezireh, whence the others had been sent out to death.
I watched from my window as the party
marched by, two or three hundred men and boys, tied as were the others,
and guarded by fifty gendarmes, each with his rifle and fixed bayonet.
The men marched along as briskly as they could under the circumstances,
though many among them were so infirm that they could hardly keep up the
pace that the gendarmes demanded. Near the head of the column, at the right
hand side, staggered an old man, evidently too weak to walk. He was one
of my dearest friends, a man of rare character, one of the noblest and
sweetest Christian gentlemen whom it has been my privilege to know. A man
universally respected and loved, who during his long life had made many
most devoted friends among Moslems as well as Christians.
He had been sick in bed for some
time, quite unfit to be on his feet, but when the police visited his [house]
to arrest him, they showed absolutely no mercy, and he was dragged from
his bed and forced to walk to the prison. And that day, as he staggered
along, I saw the gendarme prodding him with his bayonet to make his walk
more briskly, till, in his feebleness, the old gentleman tottered out of
line and nearly fell. I saw his brutal driver strike him with butt of his
rifle, to strike him back into line. So beaten and terrorized, these men
and boys, many of them refined and educated gentlemen, all of them altogether
innocent of any suspicion of crime, not even a pretense of an accusation
having been brought against any one of them, were driven along like sheep
to the slaughter.