13 August 1915 – Refugees

Collected within The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16, also known as the ‘Blue Book,’ is the following eyewitness account of the heartbreaking refugee crisis taking place as a result of Turkey’s genocide against Christian populations. Included by historian James Bryce and published via the controversial War Propaganda Bureau, the text is a letter sent from Etchmiadzin by Mr. Sampson Aroutiounian, President of the Armenian National Committee of Tiflis, a city in Russian Transcaucasia.

Between the Turkish frontier and Igdir (the first Russian village), the whole countryside is filled to overflowing with refugees. Further on, between Igdir and Etchmiadzin, all the gardens and vineyards are full of them. At Igdir, the first arrival depot, a mass of 20,000 has accumulated, and another of 45,000 at Etchmiadzin ; from these two centres they are being distributed in groups to other districts. At Etchmiadzin a hospital has been installed, as well as baths and a hospice for the orphans. Between Igdir and the Turkish frontier there are patrols of horsemen searching for the children, the sick and other stragglers, and seeing to the removal of the corpses. About fifty orphans arrive every day at Igdir ; part of them are kept there, the others are sent on to Etchmiadzin.

The refugees from Van and the surrounding country have traversed the whole distance on foot. The majority of them are sick and starving, having been able to take nothing with them at the moment of departure. In the course of their journey they have not been attacked except at Bergri-Kala, where a band of Kurds cut the defenceless column and headed off about 20,000 people at the rear end of it, whose fate we do not know. As a result of famine and fatigue, a large number of the refugees have been more or less severely attacked by various epidemics, especially by dysentery.

The stream flows without ceasing, and it is impossible to estimate the numbers with any exactitude. At Igdir, with the assistance of Aram, ex-Governor of the province of Van, and other representatives of the refugees, we fixed them approximately at the following figures :

Van district, 203,000 ; Melashkerd, 60,000, not including those who reached here at an earlier date. The average mortality amounts to 15 deaths a day at Igdir, and 40 at Etchmiadzin.

The care of all these refugees falls upon the Armenian organisations, principally upon the Committee of Fraternal Assistance at Etchmiadzin and the National Committee. The relief available is utterly inadequate to such boundless misery. The refugees need food, medical aid and clothing, especially linen and boots.

There is a dearth of travelling kitchens, tents and carts. To stamp out the contagious diseases, it is indispensable to install medical stations in all the villages.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are arriving at Etchmiadzin from Turkish Armenia. There seems no end to these solid columns moving forward in a cloud of dust. The majority are women and children, barefoot, exhausted and starving. Their accounts of the atrocities committed by the Turks and Kurds reveal indescribable horrors. The panic which set these poor people in flight came upon them absolutely unawares ; parents lost their children, and children their parents. A great number of these lost children, without food and worn out as they were, were unable to keep up and died on the road. Others have been, picked up by rescue parties, and there are now at Igdir and Etchmiadzin about 500 of these little motherless creatures. We make an urgent appeal to all Armenian ladies to come to the aid of these abandoned little ones.

From Van and Oltu, even as Russian soldiers throw back Turkish assaults, the Armenians move en masse from their homes, harassed by the Kurdish mercenaries who have served under the banner of jihad since December. Bereft of shelter, exposed to the elements, with nothing to eat, and danger on their heels, death and unthinkable separations are the norm. On the 21st of August, Aroutiounian writes:

The stream of refugees still flows, but with a slacker current. At the present moment more than 35,000 of them have accumulated at Etchmiadzin, and 20,000 at Erivan. In spite of all the zeal displayed by the Relief Committee of Etchmiadzin, under the presidency of the Prelate Bagrad, and by the National Committees of Tiflis and Moscow, with their numerous affiliated Committees, the situation is extraordinarily harrowing. There is an absolute shortage of bread, hot food and medical assistance. The majority of the refugees are ill. At Etchmiadzin and Erivan several hospitals have been installed, which are providing for about 1,500 sick people; yet there are still great numbers of the seriously sick lying out under walls, in open courtyards, or even in the streets. They are suffering terribly from dysentery. The mortality is enormous ; the day before yesterday they buried 103 people at Etchmiadzin, and yesterday 80.

At the Etchmiadzin Secondary School, 3,500 children who have lost their parents are huddled together. They sleep on the floor. Yesterday evening I visited the building ; in the big hall I counted 110 babies lying on the floor absolutely naked; some of them were sleeping, others were crying. The effect was so harrowing that one could not restrain one’s tears. The sight was too terrible for me to stand, and I fled from this hell. But in the courtyard an equally painful scene awaited me. Under the walls and in the corners there were refugees lying everywhere. One heard the cries of the sick; here and there one saw corpses. In front of the monastery gate I found the lifeless bodies of three children. The women of Vaharshapat and other places are sewing clothes and preparing bedding material, but such aid is quite insufficient. Professor Kishkin, the representative of the “Homo-Russe Society,” has just arrived from Moscow to inspect the condition of the refugees and organise all the relief available. He told us that beyond Erivan a supply station has been established at Arkhta, where the refugees are receiving dry bread, and still there is not enough of that to go round. Wherever the refugees stop, there is sickness, but no medical aid. Professor Kishkin gave the necessary orders for the immediate installation of properly-equipped medical stations between Etchmiadzin and Aghstafa, and has written to the Central Committee at Moscow for doctors, travelling kitchens, clothing, linen, etc.

Across the civilized world, as newspapers and journals carry similar accounts, relief committees form in response to the need. In Australia, a consignment of flour and produce is loaded aboard a neutral ship and blessed by the Anglican archbishop during the first week of September; in the United States, Near East Relief will deliver badly-needed aid — and delivery verification — to Armenian refugees; London and Paris and Canada will all see widespread efforts to raise awareness of the war’s impact on Armenian and Nestorian Christians, and to collect money for relief. At least a quarter of a billion dollars — more than $3.5 billion in today’s money — will be spent on food, camp construction, clinics and hospitals, orphanages, schools, and other services by 1930. But it is not enough to attenuate this ongoing atrocity, and in the years to come Bryce’s name will be wielded like a cudgel by Turkey’s denialist and revisionist historians.

A Turkish official teases starving Armenian orphans with a loaf of bread

A Turkish official teases starving Armenian orphans with a loaf of bread