By Theodore Shoebat and Walid Shoebat
With the Turkish scimitar hovering above Armenia, and the crescent of the red dragon lingering over Baku in Azerbaijan, and with Russian troops being deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh, we are going back to an era that we see as away and gone, dissipated in the forgotten past. We may forsake the past, but surely the past always makes its way into the present, into our minds, into our souls. Let us reminisce a little bit into the past, to see but a glimpse of the horrors of Ottoman reign, and a brief history of how the Russians and Ottomans fought over Armenia where today the Turkish leviathan — whose tentacles expand across the Mediterranean sea, looking to engulf the waters and lands of its past hegemony — and the Russian bear — whose claws wish to grip the lands of its former empire — are setting their gazes.
For now, the Russians and Turks are being diplomatic, but how long can diplomacy last when both sides — trying to revive their old empires — have opposing goals? As long as they are pursuing empire, it is inevitable that they will eventually clash (especially given the fact that they have had so many wars against each other). An Armenian analyst named Bogdan Atanesyan, just recently made this observation:
“Will Russians be able to get used to the Turks in Azerbaijan and, as they say, live peacefully? Hardly, considering that, firstly, they have a diametrically opposite vision of the way of the region, and, secondly, because the arena of their rivalry, which gradually turns into outright hostility, is geographically heterogeneous and widely scattered (Syria, Libya, the Caucasus and, finally, potentially – Ukraine and Crimea). Their clash in Azerbaijan may not necessarily take place on the basis of the Karabakh agenda, which means that the likelihood of confrontation here multiplies. It also means that even if the Russians and the Turks are able to work out a fragile balance with a great mutual desire, it will be quite easy for some third interested force to create an explosive situation through provocation.”
We are seeing the rise of both Russia and Turkey, and they are rivaling over control of the South Caucasus. Eventually, interests will conflict and the two sides will clash. And who will suffer the most but the people in the middle of the disorder? When the Russians and Ottomans were enemies during the First World War, the Armenian Genocide occurred, and in the midst of this genocide the Russians fought against the Ottomans on the side of the Armenians. Let us look briefly into this history as to get an idea of what the future holds.
At this time, in 1914 and 1915, the Ottomans had been devastated by the British in Basra (in southern Iraq) and by the Russians in Sarikamis. The empire was declining to its end, and the Young Turks prepared for total war with the British and the Russians. When the Turks were utterly defeated by the Russians in Sarikamis, the loss did not end with the shame of being crushed in the battlefield, but continued on as a horrendous plague that killed 150,000 Ottoman troops and civilians in north-eastern Turkey. From contaminated food and water that they scavenged (since their government gave them close to nothing for food), the soldiers got infected with typhoid and dysentery; lice and fleas had invaded their bodies gave them typhus. They brought the disease to the civilians in Turkey.
The pestilence spread and became an epidemic in the country in the early part of 1915. Instead of having to deal with just wounded soldiers, doctors and nurses and Erzurum were now being overwhelmed by an inundation of infected people. The military hospital only had a capacity of nine hundred people and so now every school, every mosque and every government building in Erzurum had to be used as hospitals. At the peak of the epidemic there were up to 15,000 patients in this area. Food and medical supplies were swiftly used up and at times patients would go for two or three days without food. According to the missionary doctor, Edward Case, who treated patients in this epidemic, between December and January as many as 60,000 people were wiped out by disease in Erzurum alone. The horrors of the disease were described by Dr. Case:
“The dead were so numerous they forbade their burial by day, and at night they were carried naked by wagon-load to the trenches, their clothing having been taken from their backs. I saw a trench or rather a large hole half-filled with dead bodies in every position, just as they had been thrown in like rubbish, and half-uncovered, their heads, arms, legs and even parts of their body showing. Others were later thrown in on top of them, and all covered up. It was a terrible site to see.”
Going through such a horrid experience, people began to do what always happens in these types of plights: they pointed to a scapegoat. In this case it was the Armenians. The Turkish Medical Corporal, Ali Riza Eti, was posted in Erzurum and was made chief orderly in the quarantine section. The work was strenuous, and seeing so many ill and dying, the hatred that he already harbored only grew more violently against Armenians, accusing them of disloyalty (there were Armenians who, understandably so, deserted their ranks to fight for the Russians) and saw them as having responsibility for the loss at Sarikamis. This hatred was already within Eti. While he was serving in the front in Sarikamis, when a Turkish soldier would murder an Armenian, he would simply report it as an “accidental” death. A wounded man told Eti that he had been abandoned by an Armenian soldier and left to die. After lying in the cold ground for two days, we was suffering from frostbite in both his hands and feet. The medics tried to save him and amputated his limbs, but he died the next day. Eti would write in his diary:
“Imagine how contemptible the Armenian soldier was … Could we be brothers and fellow citizens after this war? For my part, no! It is easy for me take my revenge. I will just make three or four of the Armenians in the hospital drink poison.”
In January of 1915, Corporal Eti used his position to abuse Armenian workers. “I dispatched three Armenians, one from Van and one from Diyarbakir, to be stripped and robbed [i.e., by rural marauders, who usually killed their victims]. This is what you call Turkish revenge … And I assign the most dangerous tasks to Armenian orderlies” wrote Eit with sadistic glee. The cruel rage of Eti was a reflection of a ubiquitous and insatiable bloodlust that lingered in the Ottoman atmosphere. It did not take long for the Young Turks to begin discussing the “Armenian problem”.
As Talat Pasha himself would admit in 1920, the objective was “eliminating [the Armenian problem] in a manner that is comprehensive and absolute.” In February of 1915, Dr. Bahaedin Sakir, the operational chief of the Teskilat-i Mahsusa (Special Organization, the imperial government special forces) and a member of the masonic Committee of Union and Progress Central Committee, returned to Istanbul from the Caucasus front to report to Talat Pasha and Mehmed Nazim that it was necessary to address “the enemy within” due to the “oppositional stance that the Armenians had taken toward Turkey and the assistance that they were affording to the Russian army”.
It was true that there were many Armenian nationalists who vocally supported the Allies against the Ottomans, but Armenians cannot be blamed for this. One cannot expect people to be loyal to a regime that hates them. But nonetheless, these nationalists did not really help their people by providing justification for the hatred that the Ottoman government had for them. It is why the Armenian priest, Fr. Grigoris Balakian, refused to support the nationalists and their cause. “Caught up in their nationalist sentiment,” wrote Balakian, “they were loath to miss this unique opportunity to redress the wrongs committed by the Turks against the Armenian people”. Armenian support for the Allies — for example, when the Armenians cheered in public when the British and French made their attack on the Dardanelles — was capitalized upon by the Ottomans who wanted to purge the Armenians from their empire.
One thing that occurred that would enable this ‘solution’ to the “Armenian problem” was the massive population exchange that took place after the Balkan Wars. The Ottomans would deport thousands of Greeks from their empire and the Greeks would deport thousands of Muslims from their country. The Muslims took refuge within the empire of the Ottoman, and the Greeks would return to their homeland. The massive deportation of thousands of Greeks established a precedent for the removal of populations deemed undesirable.
With their beliefs in Darwinism, the Young Turks — who were actually agnostic — had no qualms over the idea of mass extermination of people who would hinder their goal of Ottoman homogeneity, and they would use the violent hand of the jihadist to commit to their purge. What began as a controlled exchange of border populations between enemies after a war (the Ottoman Empire and Greece), and which was agreed upon by the belligerents, quickly shifted into a vicious policy of ethnic cleansing as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks were violently deported before and after the First World War. Entire villages were rounded up, and those who resisted were murdered. But while there were deaths in the deportations, most of it took place without deaths since there was a home country that the Greeks could return to. This could not be said for the Armenians, who at the time did not have their own homeland. Rather the Armenians — being a minority in every province of the Ottoman Empire — had their highest concentrated populations in only three areas: Istanbul, Cilicia and the Caucasus (where Armenia is).
In February of 1915, the deportations began. On the model of the Greek population exchanges, the Turks began to deport Armenians from Dortyol and Alexandretta to the Adana region which lies in the southern part of Turkey. They dropped them in Adana and gave them absolutely no provisions or assistance, forcing the Armenians to rely on local Christians for survival. A haunting fear was felt amongst the Armenians, and they had a harrowing sense that death was coming.
Armenian nationalists sought to resist and spark an uprising with the hopes that it would get the Allies to intervene and support their cause. In the middle of February a group of Armenian rebels travelled from Zeytun to Tbilisi to request arms from the Russians. They told the Russians that they had a force of 15,000 men who were ready for combat against the Turkish enemy. But the Russians were in no position to provide arms and support an Armenian revolution. At the end of February, a number of Armenian leaders went to the Ottoman authorities and reported to them about an uprising that was being planned by Armenian rebels.
These leaders believed that by reporting this they could demonstrate that the Armenians were loyal to the Ottoman Empire and were thus not a threat. But this did not help, and in fact only exasperated the animosity against the Armenians. Ottoman troops were deployed to Zeytun to do mass arrests. But young men fled Zeytun to join rebel forces. On March 9th, Armenian insurgents ambushed a group of Turkish officers near Zeytun, slaying some of the soldiers and stealing their money. Now the Young Turks — and all of the Ottomans who hated the Armenians — had more propaganda to use as a pretext for genocide. Every single Armenian in Zeytun was deported to Konya. Muslims were then allowed to take over their now vacant homes (this is actually what is occurring in Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenians being driven out of their homes by the tens of thousands). Over seven thousand of the Armenians deported to Konya were left homeless.
In Istanbul, the purge was commenced with the arrest of intellectuals, rebels and religious leaders. All together, they arrested 240 notables and crammed them in “blood-red” buses as we are told by Fr. Balakian, who was amongst those arrested. In the stillness of the night, they were put on a ferry and moved from the Asian side to the European side of Istanbul. “The night smelled of death; the sea was rough, and our hearts were full of terror,” wrote Balakian. More busses arrived crammed with people “in a state of spiritual anguish, terrified of the unknown and longing for comfort”.
This haunting feeling reverberated in the town of Van, where many Armenians lived which lied in eastern Anatolia on the coast of Lake Van. It would be here where much of the extermination of the Armenians would occur. In March of 1915, Cevdet Pasha, the governor of Van who was fanatically loyal to the Young Turks, ordered officers to search Armenian villages for weapons and arrest anyone who was suspected of owning a weapon to use against the state. Two Armenian rebel leaders were executed. A reign of terror was unleashed on the town of Van.
Armenians were butchered like cattle. On April 20th, Rafael de Nogales (a Venezuelan volunteer who joined the Ottoman military for the thrill of battle), wrote of how he saw Lake Van filled with “mutilated Armenian corpses”. In the village of Adilcevaz, which lies on the north shore of Lake Van, the Ottomans began butchering the Armenians. De Nogales, who was suppose to be partaking in the slaughter (being dressed in Ottoman uniform), was outraged by what he saw and demanded to an official that the bloodshed cease. The official nonchalantly told him “that he was doing nothing more than carrying out an unequivocal order emanating from the Governor General of the province [i.e., Cevdet Pasha] … to exterminate all Armenian males twelve years of age and over”.
At Edremit, de Nogales gazed upon the flames whose smoke covered the sky, from the burning homes, from the churches that were set ablaze. And from a distance he saw the Turks and Kurds fighting in gun battles with the Armenians, who were outnumbered. Gun smoke clouded the air in the midst of a torrent of flame and smoke. “Burning villages that bathed the sky in scarlet” wrote de Nogales. When he left Edremit and began heading back to Van, de Nogales witnessed the aftermath of slaughter; the smell of rotting corpses, voracious vultures crowding the road to gnaw on putrefied flesh. He would recount what he saw: “To right and left of the road circled screaming flocks of black vultures, disputing with the dogs the putrefied Armenian corpses thrown about on every side”.
By the time de Nogales returned to Van the town had been won by Armenian fighters. The Ottomans now had to fight to take it back, and de Nogales partook in the ruthless fray. “I have rarely seen such furious fighting as took place during the siege of Van. … Nobody gave quarter nor asked it.” Savagery was seen on both sides, and in the midst of the chaos, there came the Russians, to take the town from the Ottomans. They saw the Armenians’ fight against Ottoman rule as their opportunity to back the Armenians and to further assert their rule in the area. The fear of the Russian army pierced the hearts of the Turks to the point that Cevdat Pasha ordered the evacuation of every Muslim in Van. Ottoman troops withdrew from the town on May 17th, 1915. The Armenians, sensing victory, set fire to Muslim homes and Ottoman government buildings. The Russians arrived in May of 1915 and appointed an Armenian nationalist, Aram Manukian, to be the governor of Van.
But the Ottomans returned and drove their Russian enemy, taking back Van. The Armenians were told to abandon their homes on July 31st of 1915, and around 100,000 Armenians left Van alongside the retreating Russian soldiers. But Russian forces would hit back, and again the soldiers of the Czar and the troops of the crescent would fight over the town. During the summer of 1915, the town of Van would switch occupiers three times, until the Russians finally took and occupied the town in the fall. By this time, the town had been utterly devastated and there was not much left of Van. Also in this time in eastern Anatolia there were very few Armenians left alive.
When the Russians entered Van in May, the Ottoman government passed the “Deportation Law”, approving the wholesale deportation of all Armenians. This was made known to the public. What was said in private, however, was a secret order for the mass extermination of all the deported Armenians. The order was never written on paper (for the Young Turks did not want to be held responsible for war crimes), but it was made orally to provincial governors by Central Committee officials such as Bahaeddin Sakir and others.
Any provincial governors who requested for the order in writing, or who disapproved of mass murder were faced with either being removed from their position or even assassinated. When a district governor in Diyarbakir Province demanded a document of the order, he was removed from office, commanded to arrive at Diyarbakir and was then murdered as he was making his way there. Provincial governors who were abiding by the murderous law began hiring armed gangs — thirsty for blood — and released criminals who, being so long in prison, had a ravenous desire for death that they were now given open reign to quench. Kurdish thugs were also allowed to hunt down Armenians like animals. Fr. Grigoris Balakian, who was now amongst his suffering flock, spoke with a Turkish captain who told him that “government officials” had sent officers “to all the surrounding Turkish villages and in the name of holy jihad invited the Muslim population to participate in this sacred religious obligation” of exterminating the Armenians. This unwritten order was attested by a member of the Ottoman Council of Ministers who testified in 1918:
“I’ve learned of a few secrets and have come across something interesting. The deportation order was issued through official channel by the minister of the interior [i.e., Talat Pasha] and sent to the provinces. Following this order the [CUP] Central Committee circulated its own ominous order to all parties to allow the gangs to carry out their wretched task. Thus the gangs were in the field, ready for their atrocious slaughter.”
Soon followed the massacres of cruel hands; of cold minds who think themselves objective and pious. Males aged 12 and older were separated from the women and slaughtered. In smaller villages, the men were murdered right in the sight of horrified women.The Armenians were forced to walk a death march towards and through the Deir al-Zur (the Syrian Desert), without food nor water. The sick, the weak, the elderly, were callously forced to walk and no sympathy was given when they were close to death or when they died. If starvation or thirst did not kill you, then it was the armed marauders who lurked about the people who were forced to tread the wilderness like cattle being led to the slaughterhouse. American Consul Leslie Davis, who witnessed the Armenian Genocide, described the systematic methods of mass murder as “the most thoroughly organized and effective massacre this country has ever seen.” The bloodshed was so harrowing and chilling, that Fr. Balakian would later recount:
“We were living through days of such unheard-of horror, it was impossible for the mind to fully comprehend … Those of us still alive envied those who had already paid their inevitable dues of bloody torture and death. And so we survivors became living martyrs, every day dying a few deaths and returning to life again.”
When Talat Pasha ordered for the general deportation of Armenians on June 21st, 1915, Fr. Balakian bribed local officials with 1500 pieces of gold which gave him and the small group of Armenians in Cankiri their freedom which only lasted seven months. After this, Balakian found himself in the Der al-Zur where he was confronted with the most egregious minds, saw the horrors for himself, and met with those who attested to the human slaughterhouse that the desert became. He met with one Captain Shukri and asked him: “Bey, where have all these human bones along this road come from?” To this Shukri responded: “These are the bones of Armenians who were killed in August and September. The order had come from Constantinople. Even though the minister of the interior [i.e., Talat] had huge ditches dug for the corpses, the winter floods washed the dirt away, and now the bones are everywhere, as you see”. “Upon whose orders were the massacres of Armenians committed?” asked Balakian. “The orders came from the Ittihad [i.e., Unionists] Central Committee and the Interior Ministry in Constantinople”.
As the front page of an Ottoman newspaper, Ikdam, wrote in November of 1918 — when the Young Turks had fled in fear of being prosecuted for war crimes: “Their response to eliminate the Armenian problem was to attempt the elimination of the Armenians themselves.”
In the ruthless Syrian desert, the people walked and walked, followed by the barrels of rifles, by the edges of blades, by insatiable cruelty and unquenchable lust for slaughter. Death followed them, and so unbearable was that walk through the wilderness, that some looked at death and embraced him, convinced that they could only escape this nightmare they were in by relinquishing themselves fully to the darkness.
“Lead me to the river’s edge” said one woman to her nine year old son. Her feet had become swollen from the miles of walking through the rugged desert, and she knew that if she were to succumb to her frailty that she would be pounced upon by a pack of marauders . “I am going to throw myself into the water. If I stay, the Arabs will kill me with torture.” Her husband would have none of this and refused to comply with her demands. But her neighbor carried her on his back and took her to the banks of the Euphrates. She threw herself into the river’s current, her son standing right behind her, watching his mother go down to her death. Her husband would fall asleep some days later, and never woke up. The boy, Manuel Kerkyasharian, was now an orphan, left to witness before him women and children — who, like him, were left behind — slaughtered by soldiers.
Manuel was eventually rescued by four Kurdish women who found him wandering on the open road. He spent the remaining years of the war going from one Kurdish village to another, surviving on compassion, and fleeing the sadism of the followers of the crescent. One evening, under the curtain of the night sky, he saw a village engulfed in flames. A Kurd noticed he was watching this and cruelly cried out: “Hey, child of disbelievers. Did you see? All of the Armenians of Turkey and all of the disbelievers of Turkey have been liquidated. The burning village is an infidel village and they are all being burned alive.” The village is filled with Assyrian Christians.
In the Anatolian town of Palu, Ottoman officers forced the women and children into a church and closed them in. They then heard horrific screams from outside. One girl climbed up to a window and peered outside. She described what she saw: “They’re cutting the men’s throats, and throwing them into the river.” The women and children were forced into the death march. One young girl, Heranus Gadarian, who was inside that church, recalled how when her pregnant aunt became ill the officers immediately bayoneted her to death. She would later write: “The elderly, the infirm, the ones who couldn’t walk — throughout the march they’d kill them with their bayonets and leave them lying there, just where they fell.” People today love to talk about how the End Times are coming, but reading this history, its as if the Apocalypse has shown its face in these prolonged moments of horror. Reading of these harrowing stories, one is reminded of the voice of the wicked in the Wisdom of Solomon:
“let us not spare the widow
or regard the gray hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.” (Wisdom 2:10-11)
“It is impossible for human language to describe what those who went to Der Zor experienced”, said an Armenian coachman (who was serving in the Ottoman transport corps) to Fr. Balakian. He went on to say:
“Thousands of families put on the road from Aleppo, to be sent to Der Zor; of these, not even five percent reached Der Zor alive. Because bandits in the desert … in groups on horseback and armed with spears, attacked these defenseless people; they killed, they abducted, they raped, they plundered, they selected those appealing to them and carried them off, subjecting those who resisted to horrific tortures, before picking up and leaving. Because it was forbidden and impossible to turn back, those who survived had no choice but to go forward and were subjected to new attacks and plundering. Not even five percent reached Der Zor.” *
Reading the horrors of history, we should not simply confine them to the past, but understand that as long as humanity continues to be drunk off the grandiose ideal of power, there will be blood. *
*The information on the Armenian Genocide are mainly from Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans, ch. 7.