While Islamic State was starting to take over Ezidi towns in Iraqi Kurdistan this weekend, I was driving around in Dersim and Erzincan provinces. I was following the trail of Arshalus Mardiganian. She was 14 years old in 1915, when she and her family and all other Armenians in Tchemesh-Gedzak were forced to leave their home town on foot, on the way to an almost certain death.
Tchemesh-Gedzak, that’s the name that is used for present-day Cemisgezek in the book Arshalus (meaning: ‘light of the morning’) wrote after she arrived in the United States shortly after the genocide. Well, she didn’t write it herself, she was only seventeen years old and didn’t speak a word of English, but she shared her experiences with a journalist, who wrote it down for her. In the States, her first name changed to Aurora.
With the book, Ravished Armenia (Dishonoured Armenia), and a film that was based on it, thousands of dollars were collected, which helped more Armenian genocide survivors to reach the States. Read the version of the book that was published in 1918 here. I am digging into her story because I am writing a chapter about her for a book that will be published in the Netherlands.
The first part of the deportation route of Arshalus and her fellow Tchemesh-Gedzak Armenians went westwards, in the direction of Arabkir, nowadays Arabgir. The atrocities the Turkish-Ottoman soldiers and Kurdish militias committed are written down very plainly in Ravished Armenia, without adding any emotions. Women raped and cut open, babies pierced on bayonets, girls taken away to be sold, women and children thrown down from cliffs, men slaughtered.
I wandered around in Cemisgezek, looking for places mentioned in the book. I found the prison, which, according to the book, had earlier been a monastery, but others claim it used to be a madrassa. Armenian men were brought there after they had been gathered at the town’s square. Many were killed there, including the priest, Father Rouphen (who was beheaded), the rest were marched to the banks of the Murat river and massacred.
Nowadays, the prison is used for residential accommodation, and it seems partly empty since some of the windows are broken. I talked to one woman who lives there now, and asked her if it was true that the building used to be a prison. She said: ‘Yes, it supposedly was, but I don’t know anything about it. It’s just houses now. Normal houses.’ Of course, I didn’t make her any wiser about the history of the building.
From the book, I understood that Arshalus could see the town’s square from the window of her family’s house. I looked at all the old buildings surrounding the square. There were many newer buildings, but old ones too. Did Arshalus live here? Or in that house? Or that one? Or did her family’s house not exist any more? There is an Atatürk statue now in the middle of the square where the Armenians had to gather. I found that chilling. He would soon after the genocide lead the country to independence and institute a regime that further marginalized the remaining Armenians.
I asked around to find out if there were any remains of Armenian buildings in town. Most people I talked to said there were none, and that I would have to go to surrounding villages (partly emptied and destroyed a century ago) to find any. ‘Not even remains of a church?’ I asked again. Nope, no remains of a church. But when I went for a walk in the small streets around the town’s square, one woman said she knew there were remains of a church nearby. Coincidently, I then met a local historian, Kagan Gökalp, who pointed the former church out to me. It turned out it was on the main road, very close to the main square, and the front wall and the entrance were still (partly) there. ‘How come hardly anybody in town knows this was an Armenian church?’ I asked. ‘No interest here in history’, he stated. In an old block of houses next to the former church, I learnt, the priest used to live. Father Rouphen.
The huge dam lake on the borders of Elazig, Dersim and Ercinzan provinces was of course not there yet in 1915. So I couldn’t follow the road Arshalus may have taken. I drove from Cemisgezek to Arapgir via Baspinar and Dutluca. A breathtaking, spectacular route, with rugged multi-coloured mountains, green valleys, gorges and cliffs. Cliffs people jumped off at the time in panic and fear, into the rivers I saw flowing beneath, which in those days turned red from blood. Whenever I saw a sandy side road, I pictured that as the kind of roads Arshalus, her family and fellow Armenians walked on. Where dying children and elderly people who could walk no more were left behind on the verge.
‘Ravished Armenia’, I thought. The Armenians are gone, nowadays hardly anybody would call this Armenia anymore. It’s Turkey now, land of the Turks. Others insist on Kurdistan, but many people in this part of Kurdistan say: ‘We are not Kurds, we are Zaza’. Or they identify themselves as Alevi, as Alevi Kurds or Zaza Kurds. Any combination you like. A small group of people are descended from the former Armenian population. They were forced to become Muslims, and are Sunni now, a few of them Alevi.
Serhan (not his real name), a friend of the local historian in Cemisgezek, took me to the old Armenian graveyard. It was next to a neighbourhood where at the time many Armenians lived, but the houses are all gone; if you look carefully between the bushes and trees, you see remains of walls of homes. We came to a piece of land with low trees. ‘The graveyard’, Serhan said. I looked around but saw no gravestones. ‘The stones were taken the last couple of decades by townsmen’, Serhan explained. ‘They used them for building houses. Ready to use stones.’
We climbed higher, to where the graveyard church had been. ‘Look’, Serhan said, pointing to a row of white stones in the earth. ‘This was the foundation of an outside wall. Till some ten years ago there was more of it left but people took the stones, like in the graveyard.’ ‘Did nobody try to prevent that?’, I asked. ‘No, nobody.’ ‘Why not? And why do you care about it?’ Serhan answered: ‘I love Armenians. I mean: they and we, Alevi Kurds from Dersim, share the same fate. They in 1915, we in 1938. Massacred in great numbers. I believe in humanity. But many people in town are Sunni Turks. They believe in one flag, one nation.’
The Kurds, with their militias one of the forces that carried out the Armenian genocide a hundred years ago, are now the ones trying to save the Ezidis in Iraq from Islamic State, which carries out the same barbarism that once befell the Armenians. IS is trying to wipe the ‘infidels’ off the face of the earth, the same objective the Ottoman forces had a century ago. The battle for the Ezidi villages (Ezidis speak Kurdish, their faith pre-dates Islam and is connected to ancient Zoroastrianism) between IS and uniting Kurdish forces, even with air support from the Iraqi army, is ongoing, and the outcome is for now unsure.
No doubt the Ezidi population will again be smaller after this attack on their community – by no means the first in history. Their sacred places are in Lalesh, further east from where the battles take place now. In case the Ezidi will no longer be there, either killed or fled abroad like the Armenians, will their shrines be saved? What will be left in a hundred years? Will locals take the last stones to build homes? Will they even know about the history of the people who once lived there?
I see more and more clearly why nation states are not necessarily something to strive for. Turkey is often considered a nation state, but it was shaped, forced into being one. It’s in fact a multicultural land. It’s Turkey, it’s Armenia, it’s Greece and Kurdistan in one, and much more. When there are no nation states, there are no minorities either, just people, with rights – if you arrange your society properly. The Kurds are the only people in this part of the world that put such democracy into practice where ever they rule. Support them. And please, save the Ezidis.