My father was born in Cyprus and my mother in Greece, but I am of Armenian origin.
Many Western Armenians are of a similar background, living in almost any country of the world and never having been to modern-day Russian Armenia (the only part of Armenia still existing).
Why is this the case? When my great-grandparents were alive in the mid-1800s, Armenia was a large country, of which modern-day Armenia is only a fraction.
Mount Ararat was at that time in the country of Armenia and is, therefore, close to the heart of every Armenian. The Christian faith has long been very important to Armenians — in fact, to many, faith and nationality go hand-in-hand.
Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion in AD 301. Armenia’s history is full of attacks, but, despite repeated defeats, Armenia managed to adhere to the Christian faith. The early 1900s saw a revival that spread throughout Western Armenia in which many people became true Christians, including my own ancestors.
It was this faith born in them from God that was to see them through the awful years of approaching genocide.
In 1915, the world was at war and Turkey allied with Germany. Russian Armenia was the border between the Russian army and the Ottoman Empire.
Obviously, Turkey, in fighting the Russians at this border, would often find Armenians among its prisoners-of-war, and this was an excuse seized upon. Armenians living peaceably among Turks in many Western Armenian villages were blamed for the unrest and the chilling decision was made to exterminate Armenians.
Soon Armenians all over Western Armenia began hearing awful rumours, which were one-by-one confirmed and made the hearers’ blood run cold.
The Armenian genocide officially started on 24 April 1915. The genocide stands out dramatically in Armenian history, compared to all previous attacks, for two reasons: the intentions behind it and the means used to carry it out.
The intention was to systematically wipe out every living Armenian. It was a command to exterminate a nation. Sadly, the genocide also stands out for the sheer cruelty involved.
Many atrocities committed were documented by survivors and written in official reports by Westerners representing various missions, and also told us by our families.
The blacker the velvet, the brighter the diamond glittering on it shines. This was true for the Christians who lived or died in the awful years following 1915, when Armenian towns were being systematically emptied.
The Turkish army would enter any given village and, without prior notice, summon all the men. Many were immediately killed. However, most were conscripted into the Turkish army. Within this army Armenian men were given non-combatant roles, basically heavy labour. It was strictly forbidden for any Armenian to be armed, the penalty being death.
One man who survived the genocide and wrote about his experiences in his autobiography, For whom is heaven’s gates open? (written in Western Armenian, now out of print), was Nshan Baghdiguian.
Nshan was taken from his village in 1916 to Ayntap, into a huge team of 1000 men whose work was building roads. He details the suffering of those days. At night they would be packed into a nearby building to supposedly rest. He graphically describes how this place was so tightly packed with men that they could not physically lay down. They would spend the night killing lice on one another’s bodies.
Often after a heavy day’s work, they received nothing but a bowl containing a large pig bone and the water it was boiled in. This would be shared between ten men, who in their haste to eat would injure each other.
Every night 50 people were selected to go and dig graves for the Armenian men who had died the previous day. About 300 men died every day, just in his work area, from exhaustion, illness, starvation and brutality.
The next day, more Armenian men were brought in from another village. When they were transported, a chunk of bread was given for the journey, but often this was removed by the Turkish soldiers and their right to have it haggled over.
Although most men died soon during this labour, Nshan survived, but his health suffered seriously. On several occasions, unable to work any longer, he was told to go and report to hospital.
In each case, this initial command was denied or postponed, and then it was later confirmed that the hospital to which he was to be sent was simply a location where groups of men no longer fit for work were killed.
He recalls one incident, in which he was told to take the remainder of that day off for rest, as his feet were so swollen, and sent to the barracks. He was interrupted on the way by another Turk unaware of the first order and given another job. Once again, it turned out the barracks were simply a killing station.
By summer 1916, Nshan was too weak to do heavy labour and was sent to a hospital where he became a cleaner. While there, he heard dreadful rumours of life in one village from the patients.
The field outside the village was literally heaped high, he was told, with thousands of Armenian corpses; and, not daunted by this horrible sight, the Turks were playing football on the village green with women’s heads.
As a Christian in such awful surroundings, Nshan was able to strengthen other believers and give hope to many dying people around him. He testified that the trials of 1916 had been so bad that he felt, all his life, God had been preparing him to survive them without losing his faith or hope — a tiny diamond glittering in black circumstances.
His book finishes with: ‘I have borne suffering and pain with my nation … A Christian should not be anyone’s enemy, but must always deal with love and spread peace. A Christian’s true citizenship is in heaven and not in any country on earth. We have a Saviour who purchased us with his precious blood and we must live worthy of him’.
Deportation! What did it mean for the Armenians to be deported during the genocide?
The answer is cold and unemotional, but the reality full of tears, heartbreak and death. It meant such cruelty that makes the mind shudder. The women, children and infirm were all deported. They were driven in hordes, like cattle, into the desert wastes of Syria.
Stories abound of how convoys of women and children would trudge through the deserts, until one by one they mercifully died of starvation, thirst and exhaustion. Many were stripped of clothes and made to march naked under the burning desert sun.
At night, Kurdish tribes would invade the groups and take young girls as slaves. Many were raped. Pregnant women and the elderly were often tied in groups and dragged along. Many killed their own children to prevent them dying by mass rape.
These and other horrors are documented in many reports and books. An extensive report commissioned by the British Government became known as Lord Bryce’s Blue Book — The treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915–1916 by Viscount Bryce.
Throughout the report there are many chilling eyewitness testimonies. ‘Routes through the desert and the waters of the River Euphrates are strewn with corpses’; ‘about a million and a half inhabitants have been sent southward into exile. Travellers find nothing but thousands of Armenian corpses along these provinces’.
Another book, Out of the ark, documents the story of Sisag Manoogian, a pastor in the Adana church. The book, written by his daughter Rhoda Carswell, tells how, on 8 September 1915, the chief of the secret police ordered him to be ready to leave with his family and whole congregation, for deportation the following day.
The family left home, taking their small bundle of possessions with them. The final thing to be packed was a small trowel. Sisag had a new-born son and he was almost certain the infant would die. He wanted to give him a decent burial in the sands of some unknown desert, far from home.
As they left the home, little baby Peter’s parents dedicated him to the Lord. They promised God that, if his life were spared, they would do their best to see he spent it as a missionary in Turkey.
As this dear pastor left, he wrote a farewell letter, extracts of which were included in Lord Bryce’s report: ‘I’m afraid they mean to kill some of us, cast some of us into most cruel starvation and send the rest out of this country.
‘So I have very little hope of seeing you again in this world. But be sure that, by God’s special help, I will do my best to encourage others to die in a manly way. I will also look for God’s help for myself to die as a Christian’.
Pastor Manoogian and the Christians with him travelled that night packed in a deportation train. Stops were made at desert stations and various Armenians driven out into the desert.
It was on this train that Pastor Manoogian witnessed a miracle (certainly not the only one in his life!). An officer reached their compartment, but, before he could enter it, another officer arrived and the two officers argued together for 20 minutes.
The frightened Christians prayed for their lives and God heard their prayers. Tickets to Aleppo were granted to them. Freedom! Armenians in Aleppo were exempt from deportation.
During this awful time, the Christians supported one another and held on to their faith. One report describes how many women and children were burned in a desert barn while they prayed loudly inside. Christians would leave messages of hope scratched into surfaces at every resting place, for the deportees who followed them.
Lord Bryce’s report estimates that, of the 4.25 million Armenians alive in 1914, less than 2 million survived.
This year marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide. While we bow our heads in sorrow and remember those who went before and suffered, we thank God for those Christians who shone out with the gospel message of hope in such awful blackness. We will not forget them.
Dr Perouz Harrison is a trustee of Armenian Ministries (www.armenianministries.org.uk). Extensive reports and many horrific pictures of the Armenians’ suffering are to be found at www.genocide-museum.am/eng/remember_armenian_genocide1.php