1915: Urmia : Statement By The Rev. William A. Shedd, D.D., of The American (Presbyterian) Mission Station at Urmia ; Communicated by The Board of Foreign Missions of The Presbyterian Church in The U.S.A.
Persia is not in the war, but the war has been in Persia ever since its beginning. Indeed, the military movements of Russia and of Turkey date back several years before its outbreak. The Turks in 1906 occupied a strip of territory along the Persian border extending from a point south-west of Soujboulak to a point west of Khoi. The purpose was no doubt to secure a boundary-line making it more possible to move troops from the Mosul region into Trans-Caucasia, as well as to make it easier. to hold the frontier against any Russian attack. In 1911, the Turks evacuated this strip of territory and the whole boundary question was submitted to a mixed commission, on which the British and Russian Governments were represented as well as the Turkish and Persian. When war began in August, 1914, this commission had completed its work from the Persian Gulf to Salmas. The Russians, in connection with internal disturbances in Persia, occupied with their troops a number of cities in northern Persia. Tabriz was occupied in 1909 ; Urmia and Khoi in 1910. This measure enabled the Russians not only to control Persia, but also to secure the road from their rail-head at Djoulfa to Van through Khoi. When the Great War began, Russia was therefore in occupation.
Disturbances at once began along the border and at the beginning of October, 1914, a determined attack was made on Urmia, ostensibly by Kurds. It was afterwards clear, from statements made by Persians and Turks who were engaged in the attack, that the nucleus of the fighting force was made up of Turkish soldiers and that the attack was under the command of Turkish officers. It was also clear from statements made by Persians friendly with the Turks and unfriendly towards the Russians, that the result of success in this attack would have been the looting of the Christian population, with probable loss of life.
About a month after this attack, war was declared between Russia and Turkey. About the same time the Russians closed the Turkish Consulates at Urmia, Tabriz and Khoi, and expelled the Kurds and other Sunni Moslems from the villages near Urmia. Arms were given at the same time to some of the Christians. The Turks in response expelled several thousand Christians from adjoining regions. in Turkey. These refugees were settled in the villages vacated by the Sunni Moslems who had been expelled. Turkish and Kurdish forces gathered along the frontier and especially to the south in the Soujboulak region.
In the latter part of December, two engagements took place ---one 20 miles south of Urmia between Kurdish and Russian soldiers, in which the latter were successful; the other was at Miandoab, at the south end of Lake Urmia, in which the Russian forces, with some Persians, were routed by Turks and Kurds. About the same time Enver Pasha invaded Trans-Caucasia from Armenia at Sarikamysh in the Kars region. This threatened to cut off Russia's communications with Persia, and orders were given for the evacuation of Tabriz, Urmia and Khoi. The evacuation of Urmia took place on the 2nd January, that of Salmas a day or two later, and that of Tabriz on the 5th. Meanwhile, the military situation in Trans-Caucasia had changed with the rout of Enver Pasha's army, and Khoi was not evacuated.
For convenience it may be well to summarise the military events from the 1st January to the 1st June. Tabriz was occupied by the Turks and Kurds, but, about the 1st February, a crushing defeat a few miles north of Tabriz led to its sudden evacuation and to the flight of the Turkish forces back to Miandoab. The American Consul at Tabriz, the Hon. Gordon Paddock, with the very effective co-operation of the German Consul, who had previously been in the American Hospital under the protection of the American Consul, kept the city of Tabriz from loss of life and to a large extent from loss of property. The Turks collected large Kurdish forces from the Soujboulak region and from districts in eastern Turkey; these, together with a smaller force of Turkish regulars, moved through Urmia and Salmas against Khoi, joining Turkish forces from Van under Djevdet Bey. This campaign against Khoi lasted until the 1st March, and was unsuccessful. In March the Russian forces drove the Turks from Salmas and occupied this region. Affairs remained in this condition until April. In April the Van campaign of the Russians, with the aid of Armenian volunteers, began. A Turkish force of approximately 18,000 men with mountain guns under Halil Bey, an uncle of Enver Pasha, reached Urmia on the 16th April. They had come over the mountain passes from Mosul, having been sent from Constantinople by way of Aleppo to Mosul. Halil Bey was defeated in Salmas, and in May retreated towards Van. The Turkish forces were finally withdrawn from Urmia on the 20th May, and the Russians reoccupied that city on the 24th May. The region of Soujboulak was occupied by the Turks for some months longer, but the campaign in that region has no bearing on the Christian population, since there are no Christians in the region.
The Christian population in this region is partly Armenian and partly Nestorian---or Syrian, as they call themselves. The Armenian element consisted of four or five thousand in Tabriz, ten thousand or more in Salmas, a small number in Khoi, and some six or seven thousand in the Urmia district. The Nestorians, except for less than 2,000 in Salmas, all lived in the Urmia district. Including refugees from Turkey and the Armenians, there were in Urmia , at the beginning of 1915, not far from 35,000 Christians. The Syrians or Nestorians include not only members of the old Nestorian Church but also Protestants, members of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Roman Catholics or Chaldeans, as the last are generally called. In Maragha there is a colony of Armenians numbering some hundreds. Excepting the Christians in Tabriz, Maragha, and the city of Urmia, the last numbering not more than 2,000, all these Christians live in villages, Mohammedans and Christians sometimes sharing a village between them and sometimes living in separate villages. These Mohammedan villagers belong to the Shiah sect but speak the Turkish language.
The evacuation of the Russians put all the Christians in peril. The Salmas Christians (except about 800), most of the Christians of Tabriz, and eight or ten thousand from Urmia fled with the retreating Russians. They left on the shortest notice, without preparation and in the heart of winter. Many perished by the way, mothers dying in childbirth, old men and women and little children falling by the wayside from exhaustion. This fleeing army of refugees, increased in numbers by several thousand from the regions in Turkey between Khoi and Van, passed over the Russian border and scattered in the villages and towns of Trans-Caucasia. Many of them died of disease due to the privations and exposures of flight and life as refugees.
This flight left some 25,000 Christians in Urmia. All of these sought shelter from massacre. On the one hand the Kurds were pouring into the plain, urged on and followed by Turkish officers and troops; on the other hand the Moslem villagers set to work robbing and looting, killing men and women and outraging the women. Several thousand found refuge with friendly Mohammedans. Great credit is due to no small number of Moslems, most of them humble villagers and some men of higher rank, who protected the imperilled Christians. In some cases safety was bought by professing Mohammedanism, but many died as martyrs to the faith. In several places the Christians defended themselves, but the massacring was not confined to these. Villages that deliberately gave up their arms and avoided any conflict suffered as much as those that fought. The mass of the people fled to the city, and all, including the city people, took refuge in the mission compounds. The French Roman Catholic Mission sheltered about 3,000, and the compounds of the American Presbyterian Mission about 17,000. The latter were enlarged by joining up neighbouring yards and so enclosing in one connected compound, with only one gate for entrance and exit, some fifteen to twenty yards. The American flag was placed over the compounds of the American Mission, and here people were safe from massacre. The villages, in the meantime, with three or four exceptions, were a prey to plunder and destruction. Everything movable that possessed the least value was either carried away or destroyed.
During the months of Turkish occupation there was never a moment of real safety for the Christians. The most unremitting efforts on the part of the missionaries secured comparative safety within the city walls, so that the people were scattered to some extent from the Mission Compound; and a few villages, including two that were not plundered at the beginning, were kept comparatively safe through the efforts of the Persian Governor. Beyond these narrow limits the Christians could not go. This was shown by constant robberies and murders when Christians ventured forth. During this period the Turks were guilty not only of failure to protect the Christians effectively, but also of direct massacres under their orders. One hundred and seventy men thus massacred were buried by the American missionaries, their bodies lying in heaps where they had been shot down and stabbed, tied together and led out to be murdered by Turkish agents. These massacres took place on three different occasions. Once men were seized by Turkish officers in the French Mission and sent out from the Turkish headquarters to be killed ; once there were men seized in a village which was under the protection of Turkish soldiers and had had its safety pledged repeatedly by the highest Turkish officials ; and once there were men from just over the border in Turkey who had been forced to bring telegraph wire down to Urmia and were then taken out and killed. In each of these cases some escaped and crawled out, wounded and bloody, from the heaps of dead and dying, to find refuge with the American missionaries. Besides these, the Armenian soldiers in the Turkish army, previously to the arrival of Halil Bey, were shot. In Urmia, the total losses of this period, from the evacuation of the town by the Russians on the 2nd January until their return on the 24th May, were the murder of over one thousand people---men, women and children; the outraging of hundreds of women and girls of every age---from eight or nine years to old age ; the total robbing of about five-sixths of the Christian population ; and the partial or total destruction of about the same proportion of their houses. Over two hundred girls and women were carried off into captivity, to be forced to embrace Islam and to accept Mohammedan husbands. The Salmas district suffered quite as much as Urmia, excepting that the mass of the people fled with the Russian troops, and consequently the crimes against women were not so numerous. About 800 who remained in Salmas, most of whom were old people, with some of the poorer and younger women, were gathered together by Djevdet Bey before his withdrawal from Salmas and were massacred. This happened early in March. The Salmas villages were left in much the same condition as those of Urmia.
The relief work began before the evacuation. Unsettled conditions had frightened people, and many had brought their goods for safe keeping to the American missionaries. With the evacuation many more brought their property, whatever they could save from the general riot. The protection of those under the American flag and of others in the city and in Mohammedan homes was accomplished only by the most constant vigilance during all those months. It was necessary to feed thousands .of the people, and over ten thousand people were fed for about six months. Many of the girl., and women who were taken captive were found and returned to their homes ; information was secured as to others, which led to their subsequent rescue. Conditions of life were such that it was impossible to prevent epidemics, those that carried off the largest number being typhoid and typhus. Both of these diseases were probably brought by Turkish soldiers cared for in the American Hospital. The total number who died of disease during the period of Turkish occupation was not less than four thousand. Of eighteen adults connected with the American Mission, thirteen had either typhus or typhoid, and three lost their lives. The French missionaries suffered just as severely, and were in greater peril of violence.
To assign guilt and analyse the causes of this terrible loss of life and property is not an altogether easy task. There is no class of Mohammedans that can be exempted from blame. The villagers joined in the looting and shared in the crimes of violence, and Persians of the higher class acquiesced in the outrages and shared in the plunder. The Kurds were in their natural element. The Turks not only gave occasion for all that happened, but were direct participants in the worst of the crimes. On the other hand, individuals of every class deserve credit. There were many villagers who showed only kindness. The Persian Governor made it possible, by his co-operation, for the American missionaries to do what they did ; the Kurds responded to appeals for mercy and, in some cases, returned captive girls unsolicited and did other humane service. A few individual Turkish officers and a number of their soldiers took strong measures to keep order. One such officer saved the city from loot when riot had already begun. There were various causes ; jealousy of the greater prosperity of the Christian population was one, and political animosity, race hatred and religious fanaticism all had a part. There was also a definite and determined purpose and malice in the conduct of Turkish officials. It is certainly safe to say that a part of this outrage and ruin was directly due to the Turks, and that none of it would have taken place except for them.
The duty of Americans, and especially the missionaries, is not so much to apportion the blame as to repair the damages. The task in Persia is very great, but the opportunities are equally as great. The number of destitute persons has been increased by the influx of forty or fifty thousand refugees from Turkey---Nestorians who lived in the mountain region between Urmia and Van, and who were forced to flee from their homes by the Turks and Kurds. In outlying districts the men have been massacred, and those who have survived are mainly women and children; but from the mountain valleys, where the bulk of these people live, they were able to escape en masse.
1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History Archives