1900-1999 A.D. Assyrian History

1915: Urmia: Letter from Mrs. J. P. Cochran to Friends in the United States
by Mrs. J. P. Cochran
Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 02:47 pm CST


URMIA AFTER ITS EVACUATION BY THE TURKS AND KURDS : LETTER DATED URMIA, 20th MAY, 1915, FROM MRS. J. P. COCHRAN TO FRIENDS IN THE UNITED STATES ; COMMUNICATED BY THE BOARD OF FOREIGN MISSIONS OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN THE U.S.A.

It seems almost too good to be true to think that we are going to get in touch once more with the outside world, and may be it is. But, anyway, the Governor says he will send a messenger over to Tabriz to-morrow to carry letters and perhaps he will get through safely.

I have no idea what has leaked through to civilisation since we fell out of the world, but I will give you as much of an account of the last four months and a half as the brief time allowed before the messenger goes will permit.

On New Year's Day we had our usual day of receiving callers in the city; all our Syrian and some Moslem friends called and things seemed fairly safe, though we knew we might be on the edge of war, as there was an army of Turks and Kurds within a day's march of us. They were said to be coming on to fight the Russians, who with a little force of two thousand, perhaps, were strongly entrenched here.

The next morning the Russians rose and left in haste, and many of our Syrian men and others who were known to be their supporters here left with them. Our teaching force here at the College, our newspaper and printing press work, and even our city church work was terribly crippled by the exodus, as it took away some of our best workers.

The Russians' departure was the herald for the Kurds to pounce upon the prey they had so long been held at bay from, and, even before they arrived, the Moslem neighbours in all the surrounding villages flew upon the spoil, killing Syrians, running off with their cattle and household goods and even stripping those who were trying to run away from them of their money, bundles and any clothes they took a fancy to. They also carried off women and tried to force Christians to become Moslems, keeping them safely if they would deny their faith or repeat the sentence which constituted the acceptance of Islam. In some cases they were successful in this, though, of course, many would not and some of them were killed for it.

Then came the rush of the Kurds. They came in hundreds from every Kurdish quarter, sore against the Christians for having joined forces with the Russians, who had armed them and drafted them for military service whether they would or not.

They, being armed, put up a fight and killed a good many Kurds in the battles at some of the villages, though there were a couple of thousand Syrians killed too in the villages, before they escaped to the slender protection offered by six unarmed American men in our mission compound. Our flag was put up, not only on our own property here in the city but on all the adjoining block of Christian property in the city ; doors were made or holes in the walls between all that adjoining property, to bring it under our control, and only our principal big street-gate was allowed to be opened, all others being barricaded. There in the city between ten and fifteen thousand, many thousands of them destitute, congregated and sat huddled in rooms, a hundred in a room or more, sometimes unable to lie down at night on account of the crowding.

We had a good deal of money entrusted to us by the people who had to flee, and as most of it is in silver ten-penny pieces, there being no paper money in circulation here, they could carry away but little, and we took charge of large sums without interest, to be used by us if necessary and repaid when banking was resumed. With this we began to feed the people. It was the system in the city to sell bread until noon, and after that to distribute one of the thin sheets of bread to every one who had nothing to eat and no money to buy anything. This distribution took a force of about twenty or thirty men seven hours to get through.

The city church is in the enclosure under the American flag, and it held three thousand ill-smelling people with their few earthly possessions remaining to them.

Here at the College we had about two thousand, and as we have few buildings the housing was a problem.

We had five hundred in the hospital. Our largest ward has only ten beds in it, and by putting people on the floor between the beds we could get in about twenty, but in two other large wards that we took the bedsteads out of, over a hundred apiece sat huddled together on the floor, without fire or lights, as we could not afford them for them. We had those who were destitute here ; those who had escaped with their cattle and a sack of flour or some bedding or a carpet we put over on the other side of the avenue in the College buildings.

I fed those on the hospital side besides attending to the regular hospital routine, which was heavier on account of the wounded Christians who were being brought in every day.

My own rooms consist of my dining room and sitting room, in one of which I have a couch to sleep on, a kitchen and a little room downstairs for my man.

I reserved one room for myself for living, dining and bedroom combined, and took in seven of the College boys, students from the mountains, who are here all the year round and whom I knew pretty well, to bring their native beds to live in my dining room. Seakhan had the kitchen full of her people and friends, seven or eight of them, and Choban took two families into his room downstairs.

The boys helped me by distributing the bread in the hospital and holding evening prayers in the different rooms in the hospital.

Then we all began to get the typhoid fever. We had some Turkish soldiers in the hospital with it, and the people were ignorant and careless, so we had an epidemic of it. We have. seven hundred new-made graves in our compound here at the College, as the result of it.

I have had it and recovered, and am as strong and well as ever, though somewhat thinner, fortunately. I had a Syrian trained nurse, the only one in Urmia, as I was the first missionary to go down with it, being in the most direct contact with it in the hospital (though Dr. Packard went down the day after I did). He also recovered. The little Swiss governess the Coans brought out with them was the first to die of the foreigners, and then followed the death of Mrs. McDowell and, this week, my dear Louise Shedd, my best friend here---a friend of fifteen years' standing from the time we were together in charge of the seminar . All my boys went down too, and my favourite one died---such a simple, sweet Christian boy. Others of the missionaries who have had it or are having it are Dr. Coan and Elizabeth, Bertha Shedd and Mrs. Müller. Mrs. Müller gave birth to a seven months' baby boy, who lived a day, and then she went on to have typhoid. Besides these there were Miss Lewis, Miss Schoebel, Miss Lamme and Mr. Allen.

In the hospital there was a time when the head physician-assistant, Dr. Daniel (who died of it), the matron, the druggist, all the nurses, the cook and the bake-woman, the steward and the washer-women were all down together, and two hundred and fifty patients to be taken care of. You can imagine, or rather you can't begin to imagine, the disorganisation of the place. Elizabeth Coan took my place at first, and in two weeks was having it. Then Miss Lamme came to take her place and in two weeks she, too, was on her back. The Syrian woman who came next to fill the vacancy is still at it, though I am back at some work, being now safe from infection. My man had it, but my woman has weathered the gale so far, and after three months we have to record to-day that for ten days past not one new case has come down here. One of the boys, Seakhan's mother and two of the men in Choban's room have died of it in my "family."

In the city it was even worse. It is raging in our big compound, though from the first they had from ten to forty deaths a day from cold, privation, illness of one kind and another, and perhaps shock from fright. In another part of the city, where we have a big school building for our Moslem boys'-school, three thousand people were rescued and brought in by Dr. Packard's valiant intervention, when he rode up to the Kurdish chief in the thick of a fight between Kurds and the villagers entrenched in Russian trenches and fighting for their lives, begged the lives of the inhabitants, and after parleying awhile succeeded in buying the souls of the people in exchange for their guns. He rode back to the city with them after the sun had set on a January night, reaching the city about nine o'clock, their homes being robbed and burned behind them by the Kurds.

Turkish rule and Kurdish plundering have reduced the inhabitants to the verge of starvation, and as yet the end is not in sight.

Yesterday the Turks and Kurds arose and departed, and it is supposed that the Russians are about to return. They are only a day's journey distant, having just been successful in a long fight with a Turkish army that came from Constantinople via Mosul, and after a three months' march was cut to pieces by the Russians near Gavilan, a day's journey from here. There were twenty thousand or more of them, well equipped, but the Russians had the advantage of a fortified position, a knowledge of the lie of the land and perhaps superior numbers. We don't know anything definite about that.

We haven't had a word of war news during 1915 so far, and feel as if we were in the bottom of a well as far as seeing what is going on about us is concerned.

No mail has penetrated the veil that hides the world from us, but we have had a telegram from the American Ambassador in Constantinople inquiring for our safety, and have sent telegrams saying we had not been disturbed personally, which is one of the miracles of missions, by the way. Just now things are very tense here; the Moslem Governor is doing well in trying to control things, but the Moslems hate the Christians, so that they are killing some of those who have gone back to their ruined villages to live.

There is no power of description that can overdraw the picture, that is and has been before our eyes constantly, of misery and distress. Instead we have to veil it, for details are too horrible, too revolting to try to convey to people who are not called upon by God to go through it. But whatever the end may be for me, I am sure I can only be thankful God has given me such an unlimited opportunity for service as these past months have been.

If the Russians come back or the Turks stay away, we shall have a mail system established again, if there is such a thing going on across the world nowadays. Since last July we have had little mail on account of the war, but some did leak through till the 1st January (1915), since when we have been like Moses when the light went out.

We are still feeding thousands of people---just enough bread every day to keep life in their bodies---and have saved the Syrian nation but have accumulated thirty or forty thousand dollars (six to eight thousand pounds sterling) of debt, which we don't know where to find money to repay. We only know of six thousand dollars (£1,200 sterling) that were telegraphed as relief two or three months ago. But we hope the Red Cross Society and charitable people in America will send us money.

We haven't even been able to get our money from the Board sent to Tabriz, but even what could be paid on our regular salaries has been paid out of these borrowed funds. However, when things settle down a little we can get at that if there are any of us left by that time.

Just now I have regularly one school-boy and often a few others at my table, as they are all hungry with the hunger that comes after typhoid and the College fare is reduced to bread and cheese.

The one who eats with me all the time is a boy from the village Dr. Packard delivered, Geogtapa, and his father was killed and his house burned and goods carried off or destroyed. Their food supplies were left, mostly, as the robbers got their fill and could only destroy the rest. For instance, a cellar had jars of molasses smashed and into that was thrown their flour, and on that pickles by jars-full---the big earthen pointed-bottomed jars that household supplies are all stored in here. Into this pudding were thrown their books, few in number, perhaps, but all the more valued for that. Then this boy, because he belongs to a village where soldier guards have been placed and some degree of safety assured, was told that he must go home. That was a general rule, and when I learned the state of things I told him he could eat with me till things cleared up. Then they have fields and vineyards that can be worked, and he has older brothers in America and Tiflis who will look after him. He is about eighteen, the youngest of the family and the only one left at home. He is only one case out of thousands equally at a loss just now. He has his room at the College and sleeps over there with other students.

I hope you have all been kept in safety during these months and will write to me all about yourselves and the world at large.



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