17 March 1915 – Kurdistan

The arms of the Nestorian Church once reached India, China, and Mongolia, but under the Ottomans its adherents have faced oppression and increasing persecution, especially so with the decline of the imperial administration. In 1915, a Christian Assyrian nation stretches across what is now the southern part of Turkey into Persia as far as Lake Urmia, and the welfare of those 600,000 people is threatened with destruction — just like the Greek Orthodox Christians of Asia Minor and the Armenians. War Minister Enver Pasha has already recruited Kurdish fighters, like the ones seen above, to participate in his campaign of annihilation.

Writing today from the city of Tabriz, Iran, an American Presbyterian missionary named F.N. Jessup addresses a long letter to the Board of Foreign Missions back home describing the human disaster he witnessed in January, when a Russian strategic withdrawal from Persia left the region open to Turkish aggression. Jessup’s account of the Seyfo, as these atrocities are collectively known to Assyrians today, makes a harrowing read.

Day and night the poor Armenians fled out of the city towards the Russian border, and out of 750 or more families only about 250 were left, most of these being the poorest people. From the first we were beset by people asking to be allowed to take refuge with us. We had permission to admit those who were connected with us, and, in addition, had to make arrangements to receive all the Europeans who might need protection. It was decided that all the missionaries should come to this compound, where the Memorial School and men’s dispensary are located. You can imagine the rush and work of the first days of January — all the school-rooms to be cleared of everything so as to be ready for the crowds of people so anxious to get in, people to be interviewed day and night rules to be made as to who and what were to be admitted, our own houses to be made ready for the advent of the missionary families. For example, my house, in which I had been living alone on Friday, by Saturday night contained five families, consisting of ten adults and seven children; and whereas up to that time Dr. Vanneman and I had been having our meals alone, now in my dining-room all the Americans ate together, nineteen adults and a number of children! By this time almost all the Europeans had left the city, including the Consuls of the Allied Powers; the banks were closed and the Indo-European telegraph office was shut. The Europeans who were left in the city came to us for refuge, all except one family of Italians and a few Germans, Austrians and Turkish subjects who thought they would be safe. But even these asked to have a place reserved in case of need, for no one knew what might happen when a horde of undisciplined Kurds entered the city. Not only this, but a number of prominent Mohammedans came to ask protection, and very many more left the city to flee to Teheran, knowing that they might be molested or blackmailed.

[…] As the time went on, the blackmail and plundering on the part of the Kurds grew worse and people became more anxious. It was indeed a welcome day when the sound of cannon and machine guns was heard to the north, and it appeared that the Russians were returning to deliver the city. This they did on the 30th January, and so well had the campaign been arranged that the fleeing Kurds were cut off from the city after the battle, and so could not loot or kill on their retreat, as many had feared they might. And thus in God’s providence the city was relieved, and we and the many lives entrusted to us were kept safe from harm during that trying time.

When the roads were once again open and word reached us from other places, we began to hear of the terrible plight of the Christians of other places, especially Urmia and Salmas. When suddenly and unexpectedly the native Christians of those places heard that the Russian army was immediately to be withdrawn, they knew that their only safety from the cruelties of the approaching Kurds lay in flight. Men, women and little children were obliged to start off at once, in mid-winter, most of them on foot, unable to make preparation or to carry sufficient food, clothing, or bedding, and to flee in terror of their lives through snow and deep mud, wading through streams and toiling over the mountains and across plains covered with almost impassable mire, till at last they might reach Djoulfa on the Russian frontier, nearly 150 miles away. The story of the horror of that flight will probably never be fully told. From Urmia 17,000 or 18,000 must have fled. When they reached the Salmas plain, their numbers were swelled by thousands of Armenian Christians fleeing thence. Men who went through the experience tell us that the events of those days are indescribable. On the edge of the Salmas plain multitudes could find no lodging and had to sleep in the snow. Some children were carried off by wolves, and many more died before morning. And then the march of those days! Up before daylight, struggling in the snow and slush and darkness to find and keep to the road through the. mountain passes, hurrying on ever, knowing that at the end of the day only those who first arrived could be sure of finding shelter for the next night; parents becoming separated from each other and from their children in the darkness or in the mass of hurrying people, unable to find them again, but hoping that they might meet at the end of the day; people throwing away the quilts or other necessary bedding they had brought because physically unable to carry them; the road strewn with abandoned goods; the weak and sick falling by the wayside, many never to rise again; men become as beasts in the common struggle just to live. At night many would arrive long after dark at the appointed stopping-place only to find every caravanserai and lodging so full that they would be forced to spend the night out of doors. Those within fared little better, crowded in so tightly that often they could neither lie nor sit down, but had to remain standing all night in rooms with every door and window shut, and the air so foul that the winter’s cold without seemed preferable. And at such stopping-places exhausted mothers and fathers were anxiously going from house to house and group to group, seeking their lost children. The fugitives have many terrible tales to tell. By the time they had reached Khoi their plight was desperate, but beyond Khoi their sufferings were increased by the deep mire through which they had to struggle. One of our Christian workers from Urmia told me that with his own eyes he saw a man go up to his mother, who had sunk exhausted in the mud, and shoot her through the head, rather than leave her to die by degrees or to be killed by wolves. They tell of a family who started from Urmia—an aged father and his two married daughters, each carrying two children, one on her back and the other in her arms. There, in the mire beyond Khoi, the father could no longer go on and had to be left, and one of the women gave birth to a child. She wrapped the new-born babe in a piece of cloth torn from her dress, and taking it in her arms struggled on, but the other two children had to be abandoned like their grandfather. On arriving at Djoulfa these women found their husbands, who had been in Tiflis and had hurried down to meet the fugitives. There for several anxious days they waited, hoping for news of the lost children. The fathers had been away long, and could not be sure of recognizing them, and the mothers were too exhausted to return. At last some soldiers came in with a waggon full of lost children whom they had rescued, and among them were the two little ones. But they had suffered so from exposure that in a few days they both died. The grandfather had perished in the mire.

Mr. Labaree, of our station, left for the Caucasus as soon as the way was open, to find out conditions and see what we could do to help the poor refugees. There are 70,000 or more reported in those regions, not only from Persia, but from Turkey and the border. The Armenians of the Caucasus had organised relief committees, and the Government was also helping. The average grant was about 2d. or 1 1/2d. per adult a day. The villagers among whom those thousands of absolutely destitute strangers were distributed were very kind, but the burden was very heavy for them. Mr. Labaree said that the poor fugitives were in a pitiable state. Sickness had followed the exposure and strain—scarlet fever and other diseases—and in almost every room he visited he heard of four or five children who had died.

But the condition of those who did not, or could not, flee from the Urmia and Salmas plains has been even worse. In Urmia about 12,000 took refuge in the three compounds belonging to our Mission, while 3,000 more were in the French Catholic Mission. Here most of them have remained since the 1st January, but some have withdrawn to yards adjoining ours, some have been taken out by force and killed by the Turks, and many have died. Urmia has been entirely cut off from us. A few letters and messages they have succeeded in sending through, and from these we have learned something of their condition. At the first arrival of the Kurds and Turks, most of the people remaining in the Christian villages fled to the Mission for protection. Of those who stayed in the villages, many girls and women were carried off by the Mohammedans and many men killed. In those first days of January, about ten thousand were crowded into our compound at Urmia city. In the church there were three thousand, so many that they could not lie down to sleep. At the beginning from ten to twenty-five were dying daily in our city compound, and a little later the mortality increased to from twenty-five to forty a day. At first it was not possible to take the bodies out of the grounds for burial. Later, when they were able to secure some adjoining yards, conditions became a little better. Dr. Packard, hearing that a large Christian village was being attacked by the Kurds, rode out there and, at the risk of his life, made his way to the Kurdish chiefs and then to the village, and persuaded the Kurds to spare the lives of the people on condition of their surrendering their goods. Thus, by his influence with the Kurds, won by many medical services in the past, he was able to save nearly a thousand poor people from massacre and conduct them that night to the city.

[…] This is the most awful calamity which has befallen the Nestorian people in the ninety years of our mission work among them. About 1,000 had been killed and 2,000 had died of disease or fear up to the middle of March, just in Urmia itself, and the Nestorians here estimate that perhaps as many more died on the flight to Russia or have died since. This would mean a fifth or a sixth of the 30,000 Nestorians who live on the Urmia plain. Their prosperous villages have all been pillaged and most of them burned, and their churches destroyed. Of the survivors, half are refugees in great want in the Caucasus, the rest remain in Urmia in conditions of peril and fear and need which wring one’s heart. Already over £4,000 sterling must have been spent by the Missionaries in Urmia to preserve the lives of those taking refuge with them. As soon as it becomes in the least safe, they must be helped to return to their ruined homes and villages to make a fresh start. Two months ago Mr. Labaree appealed to America for at least £10,000 sterling as the smallest sum required, and as time goes on it becomes evident that more will be needed. Thus far about £2,400 has been received from the American Red Cross and our Board, £30 from our missionaries in Hamadan, and £20 from the English missionaries at Ispahan. Of course we here are trying to help too. These poor distressed Nestorians are the especial charge of our American Presbyterian Church, which has laboured so many years for their good, and there is little hope of help for them in this hour when so many nations are in trouble, except in so far as we help them.

And it is not only the Christians of Urmia that are in great need. Those of the village of Miandoab (Armenians, these), have similarly lost everything. The Kurds still occupy their town., and they are refugees in Maragha and Tabriz. At Maragha the Armenians have suffered greatly, for most of them had to flee, and now they have the burden of all the refugees from Miandoab and other villages. And in Salmas it is worse. All the Christian villages on that plain have been smoked. Most of the Christians fled when the army withdrew in January, but some remained behind and these sought the protection of their Moslem neighbours. But a few days before the return of the Russian army to Salmas, when the Turks saw that they would be compelled to flee, they secured the names of all Christians by a ruse, pretending that all who registered would be protected. Then they gathered all the men into one place and carried them out in companies of about twenty-five, each to be shot down in cold blood. Others were tied with their heads sticking through the rungs of a ladder and decapitated, others hacked to pieces or mutilated before death. In this way practically every Christian man remaining in Salmas was massacred. You can imagine the fate of girls and women. The most detailed report received, signed by a number of men now on the ground, stated that from 712 to 720 men were thus killed in Salmas.

As the Ottoman’s genocide begins to find its rhythm, the one thing which might end it — an allied victory — is becoming elusive. Due to poor health, yesterday British Admiral Sackville Carden had to leave his command of the allied naval forces trying to fight their way through the Dardanelles Strait; Vice Admiral John de Robeck, his second-in-command, assumes the post today. General Sir Ian Hamilton, who left London last week, also arrives at the Greek island of Lemnos today to take charge of the allied landing force. He is still working under the assumption that landings in force will be unnecessary for victory.

A century later, the people of an unrecognized Kurdistan seek to recognize, and apologize for, their ethnic ancestors’ role in the genocide of Armenians and Assyrians. By contrast, the modern Turkish regime denies any state culpability in the mass-murder, forced dislocations, and systematic destruction of subject religious minorities from 1914 to 1923 — and sees the Kurds as yet another problem within its own borders.

A map of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres

A map of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, in which the victorious western allies tried to carve up the Ottoman Empire. Kurdish participation in the genocide of Assyrians and Armenians was one factor in their not being given a country after the war