One hundred years ago my husband’s grandparents escaped from a genocide.
I wanted to publish this article yesterday, on the date that Armenians the world over commemorate the anniversary of this tragic chapter of history. Not that it happened in one day. April 24th is the day widely perceived as the start of the events, the date when, in anticipation of what would come next, officials of what was then the Ottoman Empire rounded up more than 250 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul and later executed them.
I wanted to publish this yesterday, but it needed a night of drinking vodka with my husband, in time-honored Armenian spirit, to gather all of the information I needed.
My husband’s grandfather, still a small child, escaped Diyarbakır during the genocide. Somewhere along the way, or perhaps even before they left, his sisters were abducted and his father was killed.
My husband doesn’t know the exact details of what happened to his family. These things were not talked about. All he knows is who survived and who did not; and who disappeared.
His father’s mother was from Zeitun, a small town in Eastern Anatolia, later renamed Süleymanlı during the Turkifisation process. Zeitun was the site of a huge resistance by the Armenian population. Armenians who know about the history of the genocide get very impressed when my husband tells them his grandmother was from Zeitun. The strength of the women from Zeitun is legendary, and almost none of them survived.
He remembers his grandmother very well. She was a strong woman. Bitter, but compassionate. He never saw her cry. She didn’t go to church like the other old women. She smoked a lot of cigarettes.
The Armenians were marched into concentration camps in the heart of the Syrian desert. Many perished along the way, either through hunger and the hardships of the journey, or from cruelties inflicted upon them by those who carried out the orders. They were not given food or water. People ate grass and dead birds to survive.
In the Armenian Genocide Museum, on a hill that overlooks Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, there are photographs of wagons filled with gaunt figures; trails of thousands of naked and starving bodies stumbling along the road to Damascus; dead bodies hung on crosses in the desert. Some of the Armenians were crucified.
Today the sands of the desert at Zeir ez-Zor in Syria are still full of Armenian bones. The Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Memorial, which stood in Deir ez-Zor in memory of these events, was blown up by The Islamic State in September last year.
Many of the Armenians who survived and remained in Syria established an Armenian community in Aleppo. Until the start of the war in Syria, it was one of the largest in the Middle-East, with around 40,000 Armenian inhabitants. My husband grew up in that community. His father had a garage where he worked as a mechanic.
Armenians who escaped spread across the world, finding safety in whatever country they could reach. Like every Armenian, my husband has relatives in many countries: Greece, the USA, Canada, France, Syria, Lebanon, Armenia, Italy, Iceland.
Armenians who remained in the Ottoman Empire during the time of the genocide changed their names to avoid detection. Armenian last names generally end in the letters “ian”, which gave them away. They changed these last letters to the Turkifised ending of “oğlu”. They converted to Islam; pretended to be Kurdish or Turkish.
During the night of our vodka, my husband tells me the story of a friend’s relatives who were married for many years, each believing the other was Kurdish. One day the husband heard his wife singing a lullaby in Armenian to their child. “You’re singing in Armenian!” he told her, “Are you Armenian?” She began to cry, confessing how her nine brothers had been killed in front of her and she had to pretend that she was Kurdish to avoid being killed herself. “But I am also Armenian!” he exclaimed.
My husband’s other grandparents were not thought to be genocide survivors. His mother’s father grew up in Cyprus, where he studied at the renowned Melkonian Educational Institute and met the woman who would become my husband’s grandmother. Later they moved to Syria, where they had his mother.
The Melkonian Institute is very prestigious. When Armenians talk about a person who was educated in there, they refer to them as “Melkoniantsi”. The institute produced many notable political and literary Armenian figures. It wasn’t until I looked up the school on Wikipedia while researching this article and read the results together with my husband, that he realised how it began. It seems that perhaps these other grandparents were genocide survivors after all.
The Melkonian Institution was created as an orphanage in the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide of 1915–1923. Zaven Patriarch of Constantinople was the first director of this institution, who in April 1926 undertook the heavy task of traveling and collecting over 300 orphans, boys and girls, amongst thousands of children left destitute on the plains of Eastern Anatolia and in the neighboring countries as a result of the Armenian Genocide. ~ taken from Wikipedia
As all four of his grandparents have now passed on, we will probably never know the truth about their lives or what they endured. What we do know is that this grandfather helped establish Armenian schools around Syria, which were also attended by Arab children. One of these schools was in Raqqa, a city now under the control of the Islamic State. All churches and schools in Raqqa have now been looted and destroyed.
My husband remembers this grandfather as being very mean; that he would criticise people around him for not being educated, including my husband as a child. He would continually demand that he answer impossible questions, such as French and English words that he hadn’t studied yet.
The Armenian district of Aleppo, where my husband grew up, is no longer an Armenian neighbourhood. Many people left to join family members spread across the globe, or they went to Armenia, where they get automatic citizenship.
My husband spoke to his mother on the phone the day before the centenary commemoration of the genocide. She told him that the Armenian neighbourhood in Aleppo is being bombed again. Many of the few remaining Armenians are preparing to leave. My mother-in-law’s neighbour left her house and sold it to a Muslim family a couple of months ago. I must admit, I’m surprised to hear that it’s still possible to sell a house in Aleppo. That people would buy a house in an active war zone speaks volumes about places they are fleeing on the outskirts of the city.
Things are not easy for those returning to Armenia either.
I will leave you with a piece of beautiful music.