23-24 April 1915: The overnight arrest in Constantinople of hundreds
of intellectuals was the first public act of the war's most terrible
crime. Robert Fisk on the Armenian genocide


Monday 28 April 2014

"About 50,000 Armenian refugees were flooding down the road‚?¶
It was an amazing and tragic sight," British Army medical officer
Alan Glenn wrote years after he saw the survivors of the greatest
war crime of the First World War. "There were old men and women and
children‚?¶ Now and then, we passed at the roadside a dying person,
or one already dead and half-eaten by dogs‚?¶ We could do nothing for
them‚?¶ Craig told me later that he attended an old refugee in the
road who, before he died, gave him a leather belt full of sovereigns,
which he asked him to spend to help the refugees."

Greater love hath no man. Glenn's memoirs of Gallipoli and Mesopotamia,
his manuscript difficult to read on the fading, typewritten paper
lying among his widow's papers when she died in 1984, were published
by his sons only last year. Thus we can now read another precious,
independently witnessed, albeit tiny, fragment of the vilest act of
the 1914-18 war ‚?" the annihilation in 1915 of 1.5 million Armenian
Christians by the Ottoman Turks and their "special units" of mass
murderers. Glenn was watching the Armenians die in north-west Persia
more than three years after their genocide began, an event which
prefigured the Jewish Holocaust and one which was almost formally
instituted with the overnight arrest in Constantinople (now Istanbul)
on 23 to 24 April 1915 of 235 Armenian academics, politicians,
lawyers and journalists. Another 600 were later detained.

Children of Armenian refugees in a camp (Getty)

All were sent to Anatolia, most of them slaughtered. The Armenians,
the government declared, were traitors; they were in league with the
Allies, especially Tsarist Russia, against the Ottoman Empire. They
were stabbing the empire in the back. The Nazis would use the same
routine in their rise to power a few years later.

Then began the rape, pillage, torture and mass murder of the Christian
men, women and children of Turkish Armenia. So awful were the killing
fields that stretched from Turkey into the deserts of Syria that
entire rivers changed their course because the mountains of Armenian
corpses thrown into them blocked the waters of the Euphrates.

Unlike the Nazi genocide of the Jews, the West knew of the Armenian
mass slaughter within days because Western missionaries and
international diplomats ‚?" the United States was still neutral ‚?"
witnessed the death marches and the piles of bodies at first hand. The
Allies warned the Turks that this was a war crime of unparalleled
proportions. They were right. The Bryce report, published by the
British Foreign Office in 1916, faltered only when it came to
describing in detail the mass rape of Armenian girls.

Armenian civilians being led away by Ottoman soldiers

But save for a few hangings after the war, the Armenians were later
abandoned. They never received the status of nation state which the
1919 Treaty of Versailles was to have awarded them. To this day,
and to its immense shame, Turkey officially denies that its Ottoman
ancestors committed an act of genocide. And also to its shame, the
Israeli state denies that this terrible crime was a genocide ‚?"
even though individual German officers training the Turkish army at
the time and who witnessed the deportation and executions of Armenians
(in one case posing next to the skeletons of the dead) later performed
precisely the same acts of mass murder against the Jews of the occupied
Soviet Union in the Second World War. Fearful of upsetting modern-day
Turkey, Tony Blair colluded at a "genocide day" in London to which the
Armenians were not originally invited. A confidential Foreign Office
briefing in 2007 mendaciously concluded that "it has proved extremely
difficult to disentangle the truth" about the Armenian genocide.

Against such grand lies the Armenians still gather up, jackdaw-like,
every scrap of evidence of their people's First World War persecution,
every forgotten account ‚?" such as Glenn's ‚?" and every fearfully
snatched snapshot of the doomed, every recording of the few survivors,
every buried document (especially foreign and thus more undeniable
to Turkey's holocaust deniers) in every archive. For Armenians, the
denial of their holocaust is as evil as it would be if Europe denied
the Jewish Holocaust. The genocide of the Armenians remains the one
blood-boltered event of the First World War which is still ‚?" to this
day ‚?" denied by those who committed this monstrous crime. German
atrocities against Belgian civilians or the Austro-Hungarian mass
slaughter of Serbs pale beside the Armenian calvary.

A public hanging in Istanbul (AFP/Getty)

So here are a few, largely unpublished memories of those who knew
the Armenian genocide was real. Read them, and think of another
genocide, just a quarter of a century later, in Nazi-occupied Poland
and Nazi-occupied Belarus and Ukraine and Russia. Here, for example,
is Sam Kadorian from Harpoot, only seven or eight when his family
were sent on the death march:

"Some time later, Turkish gendarmes came over and grabbed all the boys
from five to 10 years old‚?¶ They grabbed me too. They threw us all
into a pile on the sandy beach and started jabbing us with their swords
and bayonets. I must've been in the centre because only one sword got
me‚?¶ nipped my cheek‚?¶ here, my cheek. When it was getting dark, my
grandmother found me‚?¶ It hurt so much. I was crying and she put me
on her shoulder and walked around. Then some of the other parents came
looking for their children. They mostly found dead bodies. The river
bank there was very sandy. Some of them dug graves with their bare
hands ‚?" shallow graves ‚?" and tried to bury their children in them.

Others just pushed them into the river, they pushed them into the
Euphrates. Their little bodies floated away."

And here is Astrid Aghajanian, who died in England only last year,
talking to me in the final years of her life:

"At a village one night, my father, who had been deported with us,
came to see us. He told my mother that he thought he was being allowed
to say goodbye, that he would be shot with the other men. I remember
my mother told me that my father's last words were: 'The only way
to remember me is to look after Astrid.' We never saw him again‚?¶
It was a long march and the Turks and Kurds came to carry off girls
for rape‚?¶ My other grandmother died along the way. So did my newly
born brother, Vartkes. We had to leave him by the roadside. One day,
the Turks said they wanted to collect all the young children and look
after them.

Some women, who couldn't feed their children, let them go. Then my
mother saw them piling the children on top of each other and setting
them on fire. My mother pushed me under another pile of corpses‚?¶
My mother saved me from the fire. She used to tell me afterwards
that when she heard the screams of the children and saw the flames,
it was as if their souls were going up to Heaven."

A pile of skulls from the Armenian village of Sheyxalan (AFP/Getty)

The Iranian writer Mohammad Jamalzadeh was travelling from Aleppo to
Constantinople in 1915:

"Right at the beginning of our journey we witnessed unbelievably and
unspeakably shocking and extraordinary scenes: we saw numerous groups
of Armenians who were being escorted by armed mounted Turkish soldiers
being driven to their death, towards annihilation‚?¶ At first, it was
very shocking to us. However, later it became so common that we would
not look at them. Hundreds of Armenian women and men along with their
children in a miserable condition were being driven along on foot,
under the blows of whips and guns‚?¶ whipping them along like flocks
of sheep."

An Austrian architect and engineer called Litzmayer ‚?" we do not know
his first name, but he was working for the German government on the
Baghdad railway ‚?" saw a large army moving towards him north of Ras
al-Ain. He thought it was a Turkish army heading for Mesopotamia. In
the words of Armenian priest Grigoris Balakian:

"As the crowd came closer, however, [Litzmayer] realised that it was
not an army but a huge caravan of women, moving forward under the
supervision of soldiers. They numbered‚?¶ as many as forty thousand‚?¶
They had known hopelessness and physical hardship, starvation, filth,
abduction by Kurdish and Circassian mobs, pillage, and so on‚?¶ They
were mere skeletons enveloped in rags, with skin that had turned
leathery, burnt from the sun, cold, and wind ‚?¶ When these wretched
women met the Austrian engineer‚?¶ they surrounded him and begged
him to give them each a piece of bread. Litzmayer made every effort."

When Sarah Aaronsohn arrived in Palestine by rail from Turkey
in December 1915, she was in a state of shock. Her brother was to
describe how "she saw the bodies of hundreds of Armenian men, women
and children lying on both sides of the railway‚?¶ Dogs were observed
feeding on the bodies. There were hundreds of bleached skeletons."

Sarah's train, according to the historian Scott Anderson, was
besieged by thousands of starving Armenians. In the stampede,
"dozens fell beneath the wheels of the train, much to the delight
of its conductor". Because she expressed her horror at the scene,
Sarah, who came from Ottoman Palestine and was Jewish, was condemned
by Turkish officers on the train for her "lack of patriotism".

Winston Churchill was the first to call the Armenian genocide a
"holocaust" ‚?" in fact, he called it an "administrative holocaust",
emphasising its organised and industrial nature ‚?" and many hundreds
of thousands of Israelis, unlike their pusillanimous government, today
acknowledge the Armenian genocide. "There is no reasonable doubt
that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons,"
Churchill wrote. "The opportunity presented itself for clearing
Turkish soil of a Christian race opposed to all Turkish ambitions,
cherishing national ambitions which could be satisfied only at the
expense of Turkey." The atrocities, Churchill was to write, "stirred
the ire of simple and chivalrous men and women spread widely about
the English-speaking world". Not for long.

For when Turkey commemorates the 1915 battles at Gallipoli next year
‚?" joined by the British, Australians, New Zealanders and French ‚?"
it will take the opportunity to smother further the memory of the
gorgon crime which it carried out against the Armenians during the
First World War, a people-killing that began at almost the hour of
the first Anzac landings. Guests from Britain and Australia and New
Zealand and France will not mention the fate of the Armenians which
began the day their own soldiers stormed ashore at Gallipoli.

On the Somme, more than a million men were killed or wounded. They
were all soldiers. But a million-and-a-half civilians were killed
in Armenia's Somme. And we ‚?" our representatives, our diplomats
‚?" will ignore them when we meet the Turkish genocide deniers at
Gallipoli next year. And thus, so say the Armenians, we will help to
kill the dead of their First World War holocaust all over again.