Turkish Genocides: Eyewitness accounts of massacres 1915-1918
Serpouhi Tavoukojian, who grew up in Armenia as the daughter of Aaron Tavoukojian, experienced on her own body the call for annihilation of the Armenian people. Her father was a clothes merchant and lived in a large three story house, where the goods of the father was being sold from the ground floor. On the second floor was the family apartment. Being traders, the family was rich compared to many other Armenians in Turkey. Serpouhi grew up in a flock of 7 children. It was a happy home and a happy childhood until one day in 1915:
One day it happened! As a bolt from the blue, sunny sky: Turkey enters the world war as the ally of Germany. At the same time came an official announcement from the government in Constantinople. (Christian Armenians were still calling the city by its ancient Christian name, even after the Turks had conquered the city and given it the name Islambul.) The announcement said that the government now intended to clear all Turkish areas completely of the hated Christian Armenians. The first we heard of the trouble was a declaration from by the public announcer in the city of Ovajik. All the (Armenian male) dignitaries of the city were commanded to the schoolhouse. There they were received by Turkish officers who announced, that all healthy and able men between 20 and 45 were to enrol in the Turkish army immediately.
It was further announced that their families would have four days – and only four – to collect clothes and food for a long journey. The officer let it be clear that this deportation would be a travel forever from our homes and a final departure from those we hold dear. The mean were beaten by the Turks as a proof that they had entered military service already, and were then given 24 hours to say goodbye to their families. My father was one of those called to the schoolhouse. When he returned home and told us the startling news, we became very sad and bewildered, hardly knowing what to do. But we knew we were in the hands of a merciless enemy and should not expect any kind of pity.
The time soon came for our father to leave us. The departure was heartbreaking. He collected us in the living room for one last prayer. We prayed intensely the all-wise heavenly father to care for his dear and spare their lives, if it were to be His will. And we, who could not speak for tears, sent a prayer for him, that he may be spared. He tenderly bid each of us goodbye, wiped our tears and reminded us that even in the case that we would not meet again in this world, we would eventually be assembled as a fully numbered family in the kingdom of God. Then there was no more time. We followed him to the door and stood there watching him disappear. We were alone. He was gone.
I was merely a girl of 10 years, but how I remember these four sad days of preparation! My mother was sick from sorrow and pain. Into our clothes we sewed money and jewellery which might be traded for food on our travels, when the small ration we were able to bring would run out. The Turks, both the soldiers and the civilians, ransacked our houses, supposedly for weapons, but in reality to plunder our every possession. The stole the rolls of fine clothing from fathers shop, and destroyed the toyshop of my brother Lazarus before our very eyes.
Now everything we had was stolen. What were we to bring along? Desperately we ran around in the homely, beloved rooms we were about to abandon. In the very last hours my sister had sewn a small tent, which my brother Lazarus rolled up and tied to his back. We wore double sets of clothing. I believe that my mother was even wearing three dresses. We had also some items along from what we dared to take. We carried this in a big bundle. The food was packed. Everything was confusion.
Then came the last hour. The last moment. The mounted Turkish soldiers with guns and long knives ready for use ordered us to start walking. Where to? We didn’t know, and did not dare to ask. There was hardly time to say goodbye to our beloved home. Scared, sorrowful and confused we were driven like animals and united first with hundreds, then with thousands of compatriots, all as scared as we were.
Those who had money to pay with permitted the Turks to take the first, that is, the shortest, part of the travel by train. In spite of the payment the train didn’t consist of passenger wagons. Instead we where crammed into cattle wagons, with no space to sit. The Turks took great effort to make sure that no comfort was possible. Already on the first night the train stopped, the doors were opened, and my little bundle was stolen. All I had left now was a small doll and a fork. Those two things I carried on the long, long death march until it was over. Even though we took the train, the Turks forced us to walk through the cities. We were to walk through the cities of Eskisher and Konieh. When we exited the train, they took from us everything and even examined our hair.
We walked, hundreds of thousands of Armenians. The Turks had marked the route we were to follow. Then we were divided into groups of perhaps a thousand persons each. Each group was driven forwards by an armed cavalry unit. Group after group were driven forwards at gunpoint and bayonets. To where? Our demeaning spirits enjoyed telling us that we were to be driven into the Arabic desert, where all, who were not dead en route, were to be killed. The Armenian people was to be annihilated, forever. God saw us, day and night we were driven onwards, with little or no rest. After a while we had little to eat and suffered terribly from hunger, thirst and exhaustion. Instead of walking on the level road, the soldiers forced us to walk beside it, where it was rough and full of stones. When we walked through the Turkish villages, people would shout “Christian pigs” and throw rocks at us. They would sell us neither food nor let us drink from their wells. When we passed Armenian villages, which had not yet been deported, it was carefully monitored that no one would ease our suffering. If we didn’t move promptly on order, they certainly would get us going. Our guardians would frequently beat us with lashes.
How we prayed for salvation, or for dying. While we dragged ourselves along during daytime, the Turkish soldiers would keep watch of the beautiful girls. When night fell, they were taken to the hills, raped, and returned sadly mistreated at dawn, sure that the events would be repeated the next night. At times we would never see them again. When the screams of terror from the helpless victims frequently filled our ears, our blood would stiffen and we prayed to God that he would salvage us from our destiny. Beauty was not attractive then. Good looking girls would smear their faces with dust and attempt to look as disgusting as possible.
As the march became longer and longer, many committed suicide. Mothers went insane and threw their children in the river to end their sufferings. When we walked through the Turkish towns, the men came to watch us. If a girl attracted one of them, he didn’t hesitate to catch her for his harem. At times he didn’t succeed in catching the girl he wanted, and he could then pay the soldiers to buy the desired girl. Many Turks were interested in purchasing Armenian girls, and the girls would often be happy to be liberated from the unbearable sufferings. One day a mounted Turkish soldier came to us and wanted to buy me. My sister answered no. We had the chance to escape. My cousin threw a heap of blankets over me and pretended that she had no idea of my existence. The soldier didn’t find me, and when he had left, I again joined my mother and my sisters on the long march.
One morning, dragging ourselves along besides the stony road, we suddenly faced another army, Arabs on their way to join Mustafa Kemal Pasha. They didn’t wear much in the way of clothing. Their long hair was falling free. They looked even more dangerous and ferocious than the Turks, and we were afraid of them. All us children kept close to our mother. She held me firmly in my hand, when suddenly one of them grabbed me and tore me away from my mother, dragging me after him. I shouted in full force, and I managed to create such commotion that some of the Armenian men in our group joined my mother. They managed to catch up with the man, and I was saved. My mother wiped my tears and squeezed me tight to calm my little heart, which was hammering from fear, while the guards were driving us back to the rows of the deported. Mother had been ill already from the beginning of the march, and now she was weakening further due to lack of food.
This pitiful caravan of despairing people, which we were a part of, walked kilometre after kilometre from the northernmost Turkey down into Syria. It was truly a death march. Thousands fell to the ground so exhausted from hunger that even one additional step was impossible. They were left in the wayside to die alone. Also the old, the sick and the small children fell in the wayside never to rise again.
When the orders for the deportations came to a town or a village, it was precise and detailed. Every Armenian was to depart on a certain day and time towards an unknown destination. There were NO exceptions. Hunger is terrible. We heard of some turning to cannibalism and eating human flesh. The entire family except me fell ill from walking day and night without food or drink. For days we ate only grass. My oldest brother Lazarus and my two sisters Ahavne and Rebekka were now so ill that they could hardly continue, and it looked as if every step might be their last. But threatened by gunpoint and bayonets they crept along.
A night during a break I was lying on a big rock facing the stars, and there I spoke to my heavenly Father about our great sufferings. He alone could help me in my misery. I spoke to Him loudly and trusted him to answer me in the way He found best. I could not sleep, so I repeated the passages from the Bible our father had taught us to know and to love: “All good things work together for those who love God.” and “The Lord encamps those who fear him.” The dreaded signal to march on came before dawn…
One day I saw a Turkish soldier peel an orange and throw the peel on the ground. Immediately I grabbed the peel and hurried back to my dear who were so ill. My brother Lazarus was lying completely still on the barren ground. He did not reply when I spoke to him. I ran to him and said: “Look, Lazarus, what I have for you to eat.” He did not move, did not answer, and made no sound. His eyes were closed. I tried to open them, but could not. I tried to open his mouth, but his teeth were clenched tight. I could not comprehend what had happened to my joyous elder brother, who had always been so kind to me. I turned to my mother and asked: “Why does not Lazarus speak to me?” Mother came close to us and said with tears in her eyes, taking my hand and stroking it: “My dear Serpouhi, Lazarus is dead – starved to death!” We bowed down by is side, my mother, Arasig and I – the other girls being too weak to move – and prayed that we who were still alive might remain faithful, as he had been, and meet our brother again in a better, brighter and happier realm than this.
After that some neighbours helped to manage a superficial funeral, by laying him in the wayside and covering as well as possible with the stones, they could lift. Lazarus was left behind amongst the wild, barren rocks, but not quite alone, for doesn’t our heavenly Father take care of his children, whether dead or alive?
Very early the next morning we were ordered to march again. … Mother prayed for her children. But the officer on guard was a large, strong and brutal man. My mothers’ prayers were of no interest to him. What different made two dying Armenian girls among these thousands? His ferocious face became red from anger, and his large moustache, twisted twice in each end, was sticking out. He raised his hand and hit mother. This was too much, and I shouted: “Oh, please don’t hit my mother!” But he just hit her again, hissing an oath. He had the right to hit and abuse us as he pleased, and he did! The more of these Armenian pigs were to die on the way, the less he would have to murder at the end of the road. Poor mother stood up, weak and poor, as she was, and my smaller brother now carried the tent that provided us with a bit of shelter. But my sisters could not get up again. They were too weak. It was not possible.
I ran to see if anyone could help. But everyone had plenty to do with their own trouble. Everywhere laid people dying. Many were already dead, and nobody were left to bury them. But then came a cart provided by Armenians who had converted to Muhammedanism to save their lives. Many of those had become rich in this manner, some even millionaires. They were not unmoved by our sufferings and arranged this cart. The two dying sisters were laid in the cart, but mother could not keep up with it. I even had to drag her along. We walked in fear and insecurity for the safety of the girls, but there was no mercy to be found except what came from God.
We could not keep up, the cart vanished from our sight, but little brother tried to keep up, whereby he soon also vanished from our sight. Poor little brother! I can still see him stumble along – his swollen belly, his body but skin and bones, his eyes sunken, and looking as if the apathy of death was drawn in his face. His fate on the further tour is unknown to us.
(After many days of transport they reach a village. They attempt to hide, but the inhabitants of the village hunt them back into line with sticks and stones, screaming: “Armenian pigs, Armenian pigs!” Finally they reach the river Ontos, where they are permitted to drink and find a large opening with many dying humans. Eventually the two sisters of Serpouhi are found).
Will I ever forget this dreadful sight? Rebekka, who had just turned 14, was just about to die. Hunger, and its fellow, suffering, had done their terrible work. Mother screamed: “Oh Rebekka, my child, what has happened?” Rebekka opened her big, brown eyes and looked first at mother, then at me, but could not speak a word to either of us. A few minutes later it was over. We had arrived just in time to see her die.
We cried bitterly, when we closed her beautiful eyes, and stroke her over the hair. Then my sister Ahavne spoke: “Do not cry, mother”, she said, “we all are going to die”. But for some reason these words were unable to heal our pain and sorrow. The soldiers did not permit us to stay long enough to bury Rebekka. Mother asked a woman standing nearby to help us. We managed to carry her onto a field, and there we were forced to leave her uncovered, alone. There was not even time to pray a single prayer. The Turks were driving us on and on! But I am certain that our beloved Father in the Heavens were looking down from the Heavens and noticed her last resting place. She never rejected him by word or by gesture. If I am faithful, I shall meet her again on the morning of resurrection, when Jesus comes to gather his people.
Another morning broke. How could we walk? We were about to die, our shoes were worn out and gone. But we had to walk! No escape, no rest was possible. No more transportation of the ill. That stopped suddenly. Still Ahavne was forced to walk. She was so ill that she could not lift her head. We helped our sister on her legs, and she would lean on me while walking. Slowly we followed the flow of desperate, tormented people: My sister forced herself to walk several kilometres in this fashion and with her own pitiful force. But eventually she collapsed at the edge of the road, unable to march any further.
Mother begged the soldiers for permission to stay with her the few hours she would have left to live. But they responded in Turkish: “Continue! Continue!!” All the while they pointed at us with their guns and whipped us with their leather straps. Why did they not kill us on the spot? That might have been TOO merciful.
The despair and fear of my sister when she found that she was to be left behind to die was heartbreaking. Terrified she begged us not to leave her. Mother tried to comfort her by telling that we would probably also die in a few days time. But that did not help much. There was no time for prayer, not even for one last embrace. Ahavne waved weakly with her hand when we looked back. It was as if it was impossible to leave her. But we were forced forwards by guns and bayonets. We waved back with tears streaming from our faces and our hearts broken from sorrow. Then the road turned at the base of a mountain, and – that was all…!
Dear Ahavne! She was so lovely, loving and so loved. I do not know what befell her later, but at that point she was possibly beyond all suffering in the last stage of starvation. But to leave her dying, alone by the roadside, left to wild animals and brutal men – how can I even write this down! But our Father in Heaven knows everything. He has set a mark on the spot where she rests now, and I am sure that her angel stood guard at her side, when her dear ones could not. One day we shall meet again. My dear sister! What joyful reunion would that be!
Now only three of us were left. More days with exhausting marches followed, without food and only tiny amounts to drink.
(Eventually they collect manure from the soldiers mounts and try to eat it, but are throwing it up. Reaching a bazaar, they hear that an Arab merchant is purchasing girls. Mother takes her last desperate chance and sells Serpouhi, her own beloved daugther, to the traders. When the man wants to take her along, she protests and resists with force).
“I embraced my mothers’ neck, cried and cried. This was too much! How could I leave my dear mother? Eventually my new lord loosened my hands and said: “Now you must come with me. One other day we will come back to pick up your mother.”
I was broken. I kissed my mother over and over. She said that I should one day return to try to find my father, and that I must not forget to pray to our Father in Heaven and keep his days sacred. The last she told me was that we would meet again in the new world. Then the Arab took my hand and led me away.
My mother and my brother stood staring at me, staring and staring. Somehow I felt that I would never meet them again. But I do not believe my brother understood what had happened – even so close he was, to die from starvation. I am sure that none of them lived longer than a few days, even for the little food they were now able to purchase for the money, the Arab gave mother for me. Another two lonely, unknown graves! I do not know where these graves are, but God knows.
(Serpouhi was brought to Syria with the Arab caravan. Here she was dressed as an Arab girl and left to the care of the wives of the Arab; himself leaving shortly thereafter. Serpouhi now describes the terrible jealousy these women are suffering from. They beat her and starve her, whip her with leather straps and eventually tosses her into the desert to die, in order that they may get rid of their rival. “Die, you pig!” are the last words they leave her with. When the Arab returns, she is saved in the last minute. She gets a tattoo in the forehead like the Arab girls from that region. The wives receive a round of beatings.)
My family did all they could to convert me to Islam. They even taught me a prayer to Allah. Sometimes I would repeat the words after them, but it was never a prayer from me. In my heart I always prayed to the true God in Heaven. He was my only consolation.
(One day she learns that they discuss her future. She learns that she is to be married away. She decides to escape one day when the gate has not been locked properly, but to her fear crashes into a soldier with a gun. The girl shivers from fear and expects that she is to die now. But to her wonder she discovers that he speaks Armenian, is himself Armenian, and knows her father, Aarob Tavoukdijan in Ovajik. He tells her that the 1st world war is over, that Turkey has been defeated and is to lose much land. The allied powers have decided that no Armenian is to be annihilated in Turkish areas. He and other have been assigned the task of travelling in the remains of the The route through the mountains taken by the deportations. (from the collection of eyewitness Armin Wegners) Osmannic Empire and trace girls and women sold into slavery, forced into Turkish or Arab harems and set them free.
Also the girls sold to Arabs were to be taken back and given their freedom. They were to be returned to their families if they were still alive. Otherwise they would stay in a series of Armenian orphanages under the protection of the allied powers and the League of Nations. The Armenians in Turkish uniforms had been sent on a special mission throughout the Arab areas to search for girls in particular. Serphouhi was terrified of following a person in a Turkish uniform. Even after long time of searching he only managed to trace two Armenian girls. They were assigned an entire battalion of soldiers to protect them against Turkish attacks on the return journey. It was a very long journey through the once so vast Turkish empire to a French orphanage not far from Constantinople. Red Cross accompanies her on a travel to her home town.
Once again I walked through the well known streets, and we approached our old home. I was chocked over its state. Completely destroyed – a mere ruin. Windows were broken, the yard grown over and filled with garbage. It did not remind me of my own home at all. And where the large business rooms of my father had been was but a tiny shop. My father at first could not believe that I had come home. He had not thought that any of his daughters might be alive. He was certain that we were all dead. I ran to him, embraced his neck, cried and cried from joy.
“Which of my daughters are you, and what have you done to your face?” he asked, holding me out and watching me closely. It was like a dream for me.
(Serpouhi moves in with her father. The year is now 1919, but one day she sees a terribly beaten man walk down the street, black and blue all over the body, almost without clothes and blood running from wounds. She gets scared, until the man lets himself be known. It is her father. The Turks had assaulted him and robbed almost everything from the store. They kneel down and thanked God for him still being alive, and as they still had some wares left, they decided for their safety to move to a larger city, Ismid.
Their new business went well. But in 1922 war broke out again, this time between Turkey and Greece, who had achieved independence after 500 years of Islamic occupation. All advised us to flee, as the Turkish soldiers led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk were approaching. Greek soldiers came carrying the wounded on stretchers, and masses of Greeks as well as smaller number of Armenians surviving the previous genocide were fleeing towards the coast in panic.
Thousands were waiting for ships. The crowd resembled a herd in panic. From the coast the refugees could watch their homes and businesses being set on fire. Columns of smoke rose towards the sky. The Greek, who had inhabited the coasts of Asia Minor for millenniums, were now forced to leave everything behind, their home, property, culture, all. Millions of Greeks had to leave everything to save their lives.
In Pireaus the father of Serpouhi recognizes that it will never be possible for her daughter to return to their beloved country, Armenia, which is now plundered and robbed from them. Even the orphanages of Constantinople, which had been under allied protection, are forced to close down, and the inhabitants as well as their leaders escape the country. Serpouhi’s father decides to spend their last means to bring the last of his beloved children into safety. In Pireaus she boards a ship to America.)
My father followed me to the ship, when I left Thessaloniki in order to travel to Pireaus. This was the last time I saw him, and I shall never forget his last words to me: “Serpouhi”, he said, “we may not meet again in this world, now that you will be travelling far from your ancestral land Armenia, but remember that we have another home, a better place than this, where there shall never be tears or sorrow, and were we will never need to part. Shall we not set ourselves to meet in Heaven in the New Jerusalem?” He wept, and I also felt very unhappy for having to leave my dear father.
(In USA Serpouhi is educated to be a nurse and has surgery to remove her tattoos. After ten years Serpouhi gains American citizenship in 1932. At the same time, the Turkish foreign minister Talat, who ordered the final genocide against the Armenians, has taken residence in Berlin, where he lives for many years until murdered by an Armenian. Serpouhi ends her tale with these words):
You, my dear reader, may wonder why I have told this painful tale of the sorrow and suffering that has stricken my people. I have told this because I wish to give witness that the faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour and friend is an anchor, which is safe and firm even in the worst of storms. The hope for an eternal life, which he has promised his children, is in truth a blissful hope, which I have never forgotten during my great trials. He helped me bear them all. And not only this, but I know that it is due to the protection of my heavenly Father that my life has been spared. He has preserved me, because he had an task for me. My only wish is to serve him faithfully and execute exactly the task he has for me.
When I think of all he has done for me, I do not believe I can love my Saviour enough, and that no sacrifice he might demand from me may be too large. Let me tell you, dear reader, that he will be just as wonderful, just as true and as loving a friend for you, if you will permit him. … This world is full of disappointments and uncertainty, but I know that all will be well eventually. In the midst of my disappointment and insecurity and loneliness it is my privilege to have trust in an allwise Father. I am certain that he guides me, even when I cannot see clearly where it leads me. I bow to his will and am – ready to go, ready to stay – ready to take my place – ready for service, great or small – ready to do His bidding.