Interviews with Survivors of the Armenian Genocide
As part of my fieldwork for my doctoral thesis on ‘identities in multicultural state’, I had conducted a number of interviews with survivors of the Armenian genocide. Although, these testimonies were published later, keeping with anthropological tradition, to protect their privacy I had not used their real names, neither in the thesis  nor in the publication.
It has been 8-10 years since I conducted those interviews. Though I have not been able to keep in touch with them, I know that, sadly, one of the interviewee has since passed away. The interviewers themselves did not object to their real names being used and I am certain they would approve their experiences being published. They survived the genocide and subsequently escaped to another Middle Eastern country to rebuild their lives without their parents and finally started all over again in Australia. I think their testimonies are very valuable and deserve to be read by wider audiences.
Between 1993 and 1995, I interviewed four survivors who lived in Australia, although one survivor was only two years old in 1915 and therefore had no memories of the events, except her realisation later that her parents perished in the genocide. Despite old-age, the interviewees remembered and told me key events in their lives. I greatly appreciated their candour.
Mr. Bogosyan was from Harput (Elazig in Turkish). He did not know the year he was born. However, he thought he was 7-8 years old during the 1914-15 events.
We were from a village of Harput, pazmaşen in Armenian, which means ‘with many families’. In Turkish the village was called Pizmişen. In 1914-15 we were sent to exile to beyond the Euphrates river. One day soldiers had come and they rounded up all the men. They took them away and they killed them . . . . The jandarma came and picked up all the women and the children from our village. We were to collect all our belongings, put them in carts and leave. When we arrived at the banks of Euphrates, we stayed for a night. During the night looters took most of our possessions. In any case, when we sailed across the Euphrates, we were told to leave our things. They never carried them across. We lost everything.
There were seven people in my family, four brothers and one sister. My father was sent away to the army. He had escaped and returned to the village. But they caught him and killed him.
I forgot to tell that you when we first started our journey we spent one night in a cave . . . . On our way to the Euphrates we were attacked by Circassians, Kurds and Arabs. They were taking our possessions, they were taking boys and girls away. We could not do anything. The whole convoy was led by one soldier. Another soldier was following. They did nothing to stop the looting . . . . I saw mothers throwing away their babies because they could not look after all their children.
I was with my aunt (teyze/mother’s sister). She was holding my hand. An Arab came and wanted to take me away. My aunt resisted but he threatened her with his sword. She had to let go of me. . . . The Arab later had an offer from a villager to sell me. But he kept me. He was from a nomadic tribe and was living with his mother and sister. We were in a village outside Urfa. There he made me a shepherd to his sheep.
I don’t know what happened to my mother or my siblings. Did they survive, were they killed, did they become Turks, I don’t know. I remember my mother was chubby and was walking very slowly, she was constantly falling behind, with three kids to look after. Probably she never made it. One day the Arab came and took his knife out. I thought he was going to kill me but for some reason he did not do it. One day we were sitting around the fire at his place with his mother and sister. He suddenly put a steel bar on the fire and burned me on my arm [He showed me his scar]. His mother and sister got angry with him and said to him ‘have you no mercy (vicdan)’.
Lots of time passed . . . . One day I was called to heal a sick man, because I was a Christian. They thought my prayers might heal him. I went to his house and put a goat’s hair around his wrist. Then I pretended to say some prayers. I was talking gibberish, I had no idea what I was saying. He got better a few days later, so I was often called in the village to do the same. One day I escaped to Urfa and spent some time there. He [the Arab] found me and took me back . . . . One day he got sick and died . . . . I stayed with his sister and his mother as there was no one else to look after the sheep. We moved closer to the city of Urfa . . . . I made friends with an Arab boy, another shepherd. We used to observe this huge field. The English and the Americans used to play a game with a ball. I don’t know. They used to collect Armenian kids. One day I said to my shepherd friend ‘you look after my sheep, I want to go to Urfa for a visit.’ On my way an Arab asked me where I was going, I said I was going to Urfa. He said he’ll come with me. We went to the Bazaar. There he signalled to another Arab. He said to him ‘take him away he is Armenian’. The other man spoke to me in Armenian. I had forgotten Armenian by then. He asked me my father’s and my mother’s name in Arabic. I only remembered my name and their names. He asked me if I wanted to go to an Armenian school. I did not want it at first, but they convinced me. So he took me to the school.
Apparently my aunt had seen me once and had recognised me. She sent 3 or 4 people to pick me up from the Arab, but he had sent me to the mountains for a few days, where I slept in caves, so the Armenians could not find me. But she knew I was alive and she used to check the school regularly to see whether I was found.
Anyway. I started the Armenian school in Urfa . . . . The English woman in charge of the school asked me my name and those of my parents’ . . . . Then they put me in a large pool and washed me with soap . . . . Then they put me in the girl’s section with my aunt’s daughter for a fortnight. After a fortnight I moved to the boy’s section.
In 1920, the school moved to Beirut. We walked until Syria. The first night, we slept in a cave outside Urfa. On the way it was raining and it was windy. A one-armed German priest was with us and he carried some children who were exhausted. In Syria we got on a train to Aleppo. Thence we took a train for Beirut.
In Beirut I continued my schooling. An uncle of mine used to send money for me from America. One day he had an accident so he could not work any more. He stopped sending money. One day the school principal called me and said to me that my uncle is no longer sending any money for me. So they could not keep me in the school. However, he said that they would keep me for six months so I can learn a trade. I became a shoe maker (kunduracı). That’s my trade.
Eighteen years ago I came to Australia. All this time I was in Beirut. In Australia I worked in a factory for eight years.
My wife was from Adana. She was taken to Greece by a Greek woman who was married to a German. She later to came to Beirut. She had lost all her family too. [His wife lost her memory four months ago].
Mrs. Arsenian was born in Ankara, in 1913. She never knew her parents as they were massacred in 1915. She was too young to remember any events leading up to and including those of 1915.
Mr. Arsenian was born in Hadjin (Hacın) in 1906. He well remembered the incidents of 1915. In fact, when he retired in 1978, he recorded his life and collected photographs and letters. He showed me photos and other documents to prove to me, he said, that he was telling the truth.
He remembered that in 1914, Hacın had a population of 35,000 Armenians and about 4-5,000 Turks. “We lived like brothers with the Turks” he said. He and his family, consisting of his mother and sisters, were exiled to Dezgör beyond Halep. His father has already been murdered during the Adana incidents in 1909.
The Patriarch of the city had appeased Armenians by telling them that, even though times were hard they would be all right, since they had managed to live there for so many years. “What are they going to do to us?” he said. So he convinced people to go to a temporary exile and return when things were expected to be calm. The Turks gathered all the Armenian ag^as (land owners) in the monastery and tortured them for forty days. As a result, the Turks managed to get all the information they needed, weapons and valuable possessions in the town. They seized all the weapons.
Mr. Arsenian remembers that they even seized the knife his family used to cut the bread. His mother protested that she needed it and could not see what harm could be done with a little knife. The Turk replied “with this knife you can butcher Turks”. The opposite happened, says Mr. Arsenian - that is, the Turks killed Armenians.
The Arsenian family stayed in exile for four years, although they were still in Ottoman territory. Mr. Arsenian showed me the ‘scars’ he carries from that period of his life. Tattoos on his right arm depict an Arab knife (hançer), the Islamic crescent and star, and a spider, badly drawn (as he says). He thinks these tattoos were to disguise Armenians as Muslims and were done by local Muslims (mainly Arabs) to assist [save] them.
In 1917/18  the Arsenian family returned to Hacın with the assistance of a Turkish soldier. The whole city had been burnt down but there was still a population of about 6,000 Armenians who started re-building their town. He was sent to Istanbul to go to school. However, half-way through his journey he had to abandon it, as Mustafa Kemal had started his uprising against the Sultan and the occupiers [It must have been 1919].
Mr Arsenian then went to Adana, where, he says, he was lucky to be, because the Turks massacred all 6,000 Armenians left in Hacın, including his mother and sisters. The massacres ended on the 15th of October, 1920. It is interesting to note that, although he could not remember the exact year of their return to Hacın;n, he remembered the exact day when all Armenians in his town were killed.
I then went to Adana. I was lucky to be in Adana because in Hacın the Turks massacred all 6,000 Armenians left in the town, including my mother and my sisters. The massacres ended on the 15th of October, 1920.
I was in the streets and Turkey was in turmoil. I was assisted by the English Lord Mayor’s Fund. The American Near East Relief collected 45,000 Armenian children and the Lord Mayor’s Fund 1,000. My number was 91. I was sent to Limassol, Cyprus in 1920/21 where I spent nearly a year and then to Istanbul in 1921 with the Italian ship Evzonia. [Istanbul, of course, at the time was still under allied occupation].
Mustafa Kemal was preparing to occupy Istanbul so the children were taken to Corfu, Greece in 1922 [in 1922, the ‘Greek tragedy’ was in progress]. In Corfu, 3,500 children were from the American program and around 450 from the English, one of them being myself. The Lord Mayor’s Fund sent most of the children to any relatives they could find and the remaining children were given to the American Fund [for the Armenians]. There were orphanages in Athens, Corfu, Korinthos, Kavala, Kefalonia and Siros for the Armenian children.
“In 1925, I was sent to Egypt on the Egyptian vessel Famaka Hody Ismail. The date was 25th of December.” When I said “on Christmas Day then”, Mr Arsenian bitterly added, “some Christmas”. “I met with my wife in Egypt. We had 3 sons and a daughter who are all in Australia.” Mr and Mrs Arsenian arrived in Australia 22 years ago. Seven of these years, however, they spent in France.
When I asked him whether he feels any hostility towards Turks, he said that he did not. He talks to Turks, unless they are ‘uneducated’ Anatolian people. Otherwise, he does not feel any hostility towards them. He then proceeded to tell me a story in relation to a Turkish friend of his, who is in his 40s.
This friend of his is from Kayseri. His friend told him that he was interested to find out about what happened in 1915. He told Mr. Arsenian that when he asked an old Turk, who lived in that period, about 1915, he was told that it was true that the massacres took place but he should not investigate these things.
Subsequently, his Turkish friend went to Turkey for a visit and upon his recommendation went to Mr. Arsenian’s town and met an old friend of his. This friend was an Armenian who turned Muslim and was Turkified in order to save his life in the late 1910s. He had two daughters who grew up as Turks. This whole conversation was recorded on video along with scenes from the town for the benefit of Mr. Arsenian. Mr. Arsenian’s old house was also recorded unintentionally on the video. Mr. Arsenian said that he was very emotional when he watched the video which was given to him as a gift.
I suppose Mr. Arsenian told me this story to demonstrate that he does not feel any hostility to individual Turks and that his Turkish friend also met with people who confirmed that the massacres, indeed, took place.
The interview was conducted in Greek. Although her Greek was rusty at times, she was near fluent. Mrs. Arsenian was born in Ankara, in 1913. She never knew her parents as they were massacred in 1915. She was sent to Istanbul and later to Greece and Egypt with the help of the American Near East Relief. She learned Greek by interacting with Greeks in Egypt. She met her husband in Egypt where they married. She spoke Armenian, Arabic, French and English. She did not speak Turkish, although, it was my understanding that she comprehended a few words.
Mr Kerkesharian started talking in Greek first (with a Cypriot accent), although he used Armenian words occasionally. He later switched to Armenian when I had the benefit of his daughter’s translation. He then switched to Turkish, although he occasionally slipped back into Greek and Armenian.
“I was born in 1906. I remember the events quite well. I am from Adana. Adana was a very rich place . . . . People used to immigrate to Adana from other cities. Many Greeks, Armenians and Jacobites. The government gave land outside the city [for the immigrants].
The Turks were lazy, they used to be barbers, they used to sell food in the markets, [pseudo] jobs. They [the Turks] decided to kill the Armenians [to take their property]. They could not kill the Greeks to take their property, because of the existence of Greece.
My family lived in Çarçabık Mahallesi , just outside the city, nearby the train station . . . . My father was a shoemaker outside the city. He had a small shop in Terskapı Mahallesi. It was a no through road. A hoca was living in that street. He loved my father very much. There was also a Turkish barber who used to love my father very much. But in 1909 they [the Turks] started killing Armenians. One day the Hoca came and said to my father ‘Usta  what are you waiting here for? Close your shop and go home’ . . . . The people decided that it was time to kill Armenians. The government had no part in this. It was ordinary Turks. 30,000 Armenians were killed. I was very young 3-4 years old.
After three months the soldiers arrived. The Turks started accusing Armenians about the deaths . . . . They started executing Armenians. There was a song about Kasap [Butcher] Mısak who supposedly killed many Turks.
Armenians and Turks were friends before. They were two parties: the royalists, Sultan Hamit, and Jön Türkler, a fascist party.
In 1914 the war had started. The Turks started to deport Armenians by train to Osmaniye .... People from many places in Turkey concentrated in Osmaniye. There were many tents set up, many people. We were four families together. One day a father and son from Osmaniye came to sell some carts. Four families together we bought two carts. We then took to the road. The night was full moon, it was the fourteenth of the month. There was light on the way. We got out of the town. However, one person from the other families had forgotten something. We stopped. Two people appeared from the dark. They were thieves. They approached the cart at the front. There was a woman there. They attempted to take her away and her money. [Silence for a few minutes at this point]. I remember as if it was today. The woman started shouting for help. Two white horses appeared. This sudden appearance of horses scared the thieves and they left.
We were going to Katman near Aleppo. We had spent three months in Osmaniye. There were one to two thousand people there. Whoever had money bought carts, others walked. We spent another three months waiting outside the town. They said that some people would travel in trains.
Some people, such as those from Zeitun, had nothing with them. They had migrated to Adana in 1913 and now they had to move for the second time. They had no protection [tents, carts, food]. Everyday 10 to 15 people died. They were mostly from Zeitun.
We crossed the river [Euphrates].
We stayed there [on the banks] for two nights. My mother said to my father ‘I can’t walk any more but I don’t want to die here. Take me to the river’. My father said that he couldn’t do it. His friend said that he could do it for him. He placed my mother on his shoulders and took her to the river. I still remember my mother floating away in the river.
[Later] I changed my shoes for half a kilo of bulgur. We mixed it with water and we cooked it in a tin. Then we continued to walk. The next morning, when I got up, my father was dead.
[At this point Mr Kerkesharian explained an earlier incident]
From the group they took away the men and they killed them. The Chechens did. They are paying for it today. My father was 55 years old. They had selected to kill him. But they only whipped him once or twice. He was very tired. They let him go. He died one night anyway.
My feet were swollen. I could not walk any more. The Chechens were shouting ‘gâvurlar’ (infidels). Some died, some stayed back. God knows what happened to them. I had a good coat. My mother was a master tailor. She had ... a nice coat. They took that away from me . . . . A Kurd said to them [Chechens] ‘I want to adopt this child’. The Kurd took me to his village. But he just took my clothes and left me with my trousers. It was April so the weather was cold. I had two pairs of trousers so I wore the second pair over my shoulders. I found an inn. I had this feeling that God was protecting me. I fell asleep. I woke up in the morning I was not feeling cold, I did not feel hungry, I did not feel thirsty. I sat by the fountain. A man approached me. He said his prayers (namaz). Then he took me with him to his home.
He had another Armenian boy in his house, about 14 to 15 years old. The house was as clean as if it was a Christian house. They had 4 or 5 daughters. We stayed in their stable for a while. We stayed there for a few days. Another Kurd said he wanted to take me with him [to adopt?]. My friend was in bad condition, he was he had a bullet in his foot and he was poisoned. He told me to go and save myself but I did not want to leave him.
[One day] we left the house and started walking. A rock just swung by my ear. Some people were throwing rocks at us. My friend died in this attack. Then, they started beating me up. I thought they might want my clothes so I gave them my underpants and my trousers. They let me go, but I was totally naked. I was close to the village of Sarmısak, so I walked towards the village. I heard two people, a man and a woman, talking in the fields. They were speaking in Armenian, in the Hacın dialect. Then I saw a man holding a knife. His armed hand went up and down. I said to myself ‘poor woman’. It must be my turn I thought. But God protected me once again. The man stood in front of me for a while, he murmured something and then he left. I looked at the woman. She had lots of knife wounds.
I approached the village. A kid tried to attack me calling me a gavur [infidel]. But others stopped him. There were Christians in the villages. I was still naked. They washed me and gave me some clothes. May God give them health (Allah sağlık versin). I stayed in that village for a while.”
Mr Kerkesharian eventually found himself in Cyprus, where he got married and lived most of his adult life. He learned Armenian after he got married.
 R. Donef, “Identities in the Multicultural State: Four
immigrant Populations from Turkey in Australia and Sweden: Greeks, Armenians,
Assyrians and Kurds”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 1998.