Dying Every Minute
By Sempad Shahnazarian
end of the first world war was in sight. The Turkish resistance on the
Palestine Front was shattered, and the British forces, assisted by the
Legion d’Orient, were in hot pursuit of the demoralized enemy.
It was autumn. A battalion of Armenian
Legionnaires was being transported on board a French cruiser, from Cyprus
to Cilicia to bolster the Allied occupational forces there.
The night was clear and windy, and
the ship plowed relentlessly through the dark waters of the Mediterranean
The masts stood high, silent and
watchful; and the guns, like huge logs, elevated on steel platforms, craned
their necks toward the dark, wet and hissing distances.
The rolling billows crashed continually
against the heavy sides of the ship; and at times, the sky seemed so low
over the heaving and raging sea, that the waves were tempted to reach higher
and higher to splash their cool and foamy shower at the jewel-studded face
of the night.
Innumerable sparks danced graciously
in the curves of the breaking waves, -- countless tiny animals with minute
lanterns, that breathed and pulsated with life.
Sitting on the deck, at the base
of a big gun, Vartan gazed wistfully, now and then, in the direction where
the vessel was moving, and read the story he was working on.
“It was about two years ago, when
that terrible thing happened; and it happened with Mustapha’s strange dream.”
A ghost stood on the bank of a river
that flowed blood, and watched in a trance, an immense conflagration that
crashed through cities and towns and ripening wheat fields.
Through the cracks in the smoke and
flames, one could clearly see the frames of the buildings burning brightly
and entire cities and villages turning into heaps of embers.
The ghost said:
“Mustapha! My son! Behold this beautiful
sight of our world! Isn’t it just enchanting? You know you were born
on the bank of this river and bathed in its crimson waters...But why are
you looking so surprised?...Oh, those voices!...Those muffled sounds!...They
are but the sighs and sobs of the dead left behind in the folds of this
Come now!...Closer...Give me your
hand!...I shall immerse you in it...Your ancestors were all born here,
and all were good swimmers...It requires talent to swim in the sluggishly
flowing thick and slimy river...It’s here where Tamerlane, Genghiz Khan,
Abdul Hamid and many others were born. Be worthy of your ancestors!...Feel,
it’s so warm and comfortable!...Dive in...Go deeper and deeper!...I know
you will like it!...
Come out now! See? The heat is caking
the blood on you...Magnificent! You look like a red statue...
Here are your tools;...Take them!
They’re the things you need the most in your life...A dagger and a hatchet...Their
blades have been tempered in the dark waters of the Styx.
Look again, at this magnificent panorama
of fire...Look and feel its charm and beauty!...Open your arms and embrace
my world; the world of your ancestors!...
Wake up, effendi! Wake up, Mustapha
effendi! Someone knocked excitedly on the door.
Mustapha jumped from his sleep and
sat motionless in bed. He looked around dazed and confounded. Then, he
shook the sleep off of him, got up, opened the door and saw one of his
men waiting outside with a letter in his hand.
Without opening it, he snapped his
fingers joyfully and exclaimed, “This is it!...This is what I’ve been waiting
He opened the letter and read it.
“Just what I thought.” He exclaimed with joy. “Get the boys ready! Quick!
We have important business to tend to...”
He went back into his room, got dressed,
and put on his high boots, spurs and sheepskin hat. From his leather belt
hung a dagger and a pistol; and two bands of cartridges crossed his chest
over his shoulders.
When he came out, his men and his
horse were waiting for him.
He said: “Men! An exact copy
of this letter has been sent to every governor and mayor by Talaat Pasha,
the Minister of Interior. Armenians are to be deported from their homes
to Arabia...You know what that means...We are all going to be rich...We
shall inherit everything they posses; Money, land and business. Today
is the day!...Get on your horses!” And they rode away.
The sight of the burning towns and
fields depicted in his dream, inspired and intoxicated him. The glorious
ocean of flames, and the rolling billows of smoke haunted his avid imagination,
and he took great pride in having found the path his ancestors had followed
ever since the dawn of their history.
Riding at the head of his gang, Mustapha
spurred his horse, and trotted on, drunk by the prospect of their exploits.
It was Sunday; and the people of
the village had gathered in the church for morning service.
A heavy scent of incense and burning
candles filled the air. An undertone of prayer rose from the congregation
like a thin veil of mist from the slumbering lake.
The lights of the torches and
altar reflected in the silver candlesticks and the sparkling cross and
the jewel-studded sacred vestment of the priest, and show red colorful
lights upon the ceiling, the walls and the congregation, giving everything
the air of unearthliness.
Madonna’s motherly smile radiated
from the loft with a caressing and comforting warmth.
At this moment, the crash of horses’
hooves was heard at the entrance. A sudden commotion, and everyone’s eyes
turned toward the door.
Mustapha followed by some of his
men, suddenly barged into the church. The curses and the clatter of their
footsteps drowned the service.
He went up the stone steps to the
altar, with a whip in his hand. He stood insolently by the priest, an ironical
smile on his face, and his hands on his hips, while his men scattered around
in the church, they all awaited his signal...
“...Stop the service right away and
follow my men out!” said Mustapha.
The church sunk in silence. The old
priest, with the silver cross in his hand, said calmly, “What do you mean,
“... Just what I said.”
“...But this is a crime.”
“...Shut up! Do as I said.”
“...But this is a crime, an
unpardonable crime...The way you’re acting in the presence of God.” said
“...Shut up you bloody beggar.”
Raising the cross solemnly before
his eyes, the priest continued quietly.
“...You will, someday, be punished
by this Holy Cross for your horrible attitude here.”
Mustapha, knocking the cross out
of his hand, kicked him down the steps of the altar.
A chorus of hair-raising screams
came out of the congregation, like the crash of huge waves breaking against
the reefs of the ocean.
Arsen, a youth of twenty, dashed
with an uncontrollable rage, to the altar and threw himself upon Mustapha.
But sensing the sacredness of the spot, he stood before him with clenched
fists, and his eyes stared at him like the steel blade of a knife.
“What do you mean by all this?”
The corners of Mustapha’s mouth curled
up, and with a diabolical glint in his eyes, he spit in his face.
“...Come on out, you coward,” said
Arsen. “I can’t fight in the church.” And he walked down the steps to the
Outside, the congregation clashed
with Mustapha’s men. Women and children were trampled over. Screams
and terror filled the air; and soon everything subsided, leaving several
fatally wounded men and women on the ground.
At the edge of town, the priest and
many prominent men were overpowered and, with their hands tied behind them,
they were slaughtered with hatchets.
Children screamed, terrified, and
took refuge behind their mother’s aprons and shut their eyes tightly, so
the Turks couldn’t find them.
The sun went down, and the caravan,
surrounded like storm-driven sheep, moved on to an unknown destination,
joining on the way, other caravans and other bands.
After marching for three days, they
arrived at Ayran, in the Amanos ridges. Many women and children had already
died from hunger and exhaustion, and their corpses had been thrown away
in the bushes.
The sun was on the meridian. The
sky clear and bright and the heat torturing. Arsen’s hands were tied
behind his back and he managed as much as he could to walk with Hasmik
and her mother, carrying on his shoulder Hasmik’s baby brother, Armen.
They came down the rocky slope limping
and panting. Avalanches of shattered stone and gravel went down the
mountainside. Perspiration had caked the chalky dust on their faces.
To protect the chastity of their daughters, mothers had smeared mud on
their faces with the hope of making them repulsive.
Mustapha and his men kept the caravan
moving under the cracks of their whips. Babies who couldn’t keep pace with
the grown-ups, were left behind to be taken care of by the beasts.
Armen had been crying for water all
day. A bluish haze of heat shimmered over the woods and the valley, down
below. Brownish metallic rocks poured out inexhaustible heat, and Armen
cried persistently for water. He hadn’t eaten anything for two days.
They coaxed him to have a little patience...Soon they would have some...Just
a little patience and everything would be all right. His fingers clung
tight to Arsen’s hair, and his soft thighs pressed against his face. He
was quiet now; they were glad. He didn’t cry any more for water....He had
become patient...He knew everything would be all right....He even tried
to cooperate in torture...bad as it was...He even stopped squirming...
Then, suddenly, his grip loosened,
his legs got cooler against his cheeks and with a muffled moan he fell
off onto the ground, with a small avalanche of gravel and stone rolling
with him down the rocky slope.
His mother and sister screamed frantically
and tumbled down after him. They took him in their arms, and kissed him,
coaxed him, implored him.
Their reviving efforts were futile,
and suddenly, they both burst into tears. He was dead.
Mustapha’s whip cracked on their
heads with obscene cursing.
“...Move on! Get going!
You bloody bitches!”
Not very far from there, in a secluded
hollow, hordes of Turks and Kurds dashed from behind the bushes and chaparral,
and swooped down upon these unfortunates with knives and hatchets.
The crowd charged with their
bare hands, kicking, biting, cursing. But the knives and the hatchets
proved to be far more sharper...The slaughter was under way. Mustapha successfully
tested how sharp his knife and hatchet were. With one stroke of his hatchet,
he chopped the head of Hasmik’s mother off into the ditch.
Hasmik screamed and lunged after
her, unnoticed, beneath the headless heap of corpses, pressing her breast
against the bleeding head of her mother.
After everything was over, Mustapha,
accompanied by two of his men, took Arsen to the nearby town, Islahie.
Why didn’t he kill him? Why all this
They stopped in front of a one-story
building. Two guards stood at the gate, with fixed-bayonets. They entered
the courtyard. His clothes were gray from the chalky dust of the road,
and his face was caked with dirt.