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1915: First Exodus From Urmia
by Reverend Robert M. Labaree
Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 02:14 pm CST


In view of your interest in the welfare of the Persian Christian refugees here in the Caucasus, and your efforts in their behalf, may I submit to you a report on their condition as I have seen it in my journey hither from Tabriz ? Commissioned by the American Presbyterian Mission of West Persia to investigate the affairs of the many thousands who have fled recently from Persia into Russia in order to escape the cruel vengeance of the Kurdish border tribes, I left Tabriz over two weeks ago and have spent the intervening time visiting the various centres where these refugees are congregated. It is hard to estimate exactly the number of these refugees from Persia, for mingled with them are a multitude of fugitives from Turkey. The total number of all these unfortunates in the district of Erivan, where most of them have found refuge, was stated by a good authority to be seventy thousand. The Persian contingent is pretty consistently estimated at from fifteen to twenty thousand. The refugees from Turkey are almost entirely Armenian, and are being taken care of by the wealthy Armenians of this province through their well organised relief committees. Those from Persia are less fortunate, for a majority of them are Syrian; and, although the Armenians have been very generous to them also, they have no influential friends to speak in their behalf and minister to their needs. It is also safe to say that the fugitives from the Urmia plain are the most sadly in need of assistance, for they had no previous warning of the impending disaster, and most of them have come out without any preparation whatever for their prolonged sojourn in a strange land.

I doubt whether the story of that awful flight can ever adequately be told. Few tales that I have ever heard can compare with it in heart-rending interest. The whole northern section of the Urmia plain learned of the departure of the Russian troops about ten o'clock on the night of Saturday, the 2nd January (1915). By midnight the terrible exodus had begun, and by morning the Christian villages of that district were practically deserted. People left their cattle in the stables and all their household goods in their homes, just as they were, and hurried away to save their lives. If anyone possessed a horse or a donkey or any other beast of burden he was fortunate, and if he happened to have ready cash in his home he was even more so; but, well-to-do as a man may be, cash is not always on hand in the villages, and so many who, according to the standards of the country, were rich, started on their long journey with a mere pittance, and the vast majority of men and women and children were on foot. Before the seven days' hard walking through the slush and mud to the Russian border was accomplished, all encumbrances were cast aside, quilts, extra clothing, and even bread, for it became a question with the poor, tired, struggling crowd which they would carry---their bedding or their babies. Of course, very many of the weaker ones never reached Djoulfa at all, but lay down by the roadside for their last long rest, and those who did reach the Russian border were so haggard and emaciated that their own friends did not recognise them. Almost worse than the weary tramping by day, in the most terrible mud, were the nights in the villages by the way. Every possible shelter was so crowded that there was no room whatever to lie down, and the air became so foul before morning that the occupants were nearly suffocated ; and yet those who could find no shelter and lay out all night in the wet were even more miserable. As one has heard the same sad story repeated a score of times with only a difference in details, one has wondered what human flesh and blood can stand in a great crisis like this. I should like to give two instances that have come under my personal knowledge ; such stories might be multiplied a thousand times.

One old man with two daughters-in-law and six grandchildren started on that fatal night from the village of Karagöz. All were afoot, and the women carried their little ones by turns, while the old man stumbled along as best he could, unable to carry any burden. He at last gave out, lay down by the roadside and died. The two women and their little charges pressed on for a day or two longer, when one of them gave birth to a baby, also by the roadside. The mother tore off her dress, wrapped the baby in the pieces and resumed the weary tramp. Fortunately for them, the two women found their husbands waiting for them in Russian Djoulfa; but, alas, in the new complications arising from the coming of the baby two of the other children were separated from the party and lost. Two days the parents waited in Djoulfa, until a wagon-load of little waifs was brought in by kind-hearted soldiers. They found their two little ones among the number, but so emaciated by their hardships that they died shortly afterwards. People dying and children being born by the way are commonplaces of this journey; but it is not every one that has had a combination of such misfortunes.

Here, again, is another instance no less sad. The pastor of our Cosi congregation set out, as others did, in the dark, together with his wife, married daughter, and five-year-old granddaughter ; but he became separated from them very soon, so that the women were compelled to make the journey alone. They reached the town of Nahichevan, in Russian territory, with hundreds of others in a wholly exhausted condition. All three of them were sick and were taken to the local hospital, where a few days later the father of the family found them. But shortly afterwards, when the thousands of refugees were cleared out of the town and scattered in the villages, he was forced to leave, and his family have not seen him since. The daughter and grandchild were dismissed from the hospital, and the old mother, rather than remain alone, sick as she was, left also. For five days they stayed with a crowd of others in the railway station, when they were moved on to another village ; and there, the old woman's dysentery having become so bad and the little girl having developed the prevailing scarlet fever, they were taken to the village hospital. I found them there a couple of weeks later, or rather the younger woman and her child ; the mother had passed away two hours before I arrived. I buried the dear old woman, in whose house I have been many times. I gave her a better funeral than most of the other dying refugees ; but it was only a rough coffin with shavings as a pillow for her poor tired head. And then, with a little money put into the hand of the daughter and a promise to do what I could to find her father, I left her, dazed as a woman in a dream, and came away. The father cannot be found, and I fear that he has dropped down in some unknown spot and died.

I have wondered time and time again whether this panic-stricken flight was not some terrible mistake, and whether the people had not better have stayed at home and cast themselves on the mercies of the Kurds and their Moslem neighbours; but as the stories of the sufferings of those who remained behind begin to reach us---stories of bloodshed and forced apostacy, and of women and girls carried off to a life worse than death---I have revised my judgment. Even all this untold misery by the way and in a strange land is better than the fate of those who remained at home.

But I must pass on to report the conditions as they now exist among the refugees. In my effort to get the facts, I have had interviews with the Exarch (the Metropolitan Bishop of Tiflis), the Governor of the Erivan district, the Armenian Bishops of Tabriz (now in Nahichevan) and of Erivan, members of the various relief committees and the village elders, who act as local relief committees, together with a very large number of the refugees themselves in various sections of the province. Whatever one may find to criticise in the administration of relief, one cannot but recognise the tremendous burden that has descended upon the people of this region and the serious problems they have had to face. While one cannot say that there has been an adequate effort to grapple with the difficulties, yet much has been done. The Government officials have given free railway transportation to the interior, and they have wisely had the people scattered among the villages, where they can best be taken care of. The energetic Armenian committees have taken care of their own people, and have been unexpectedly generous to the Syrians who are quartered in their midst. In Tiflis the Syrians themselves have done much for their own race in that city, and have had an efficient committee working in conjunction with the municipal relief committee. But more worthy of praise than any or all of these together are the humble kind-hearted villagers themselves, who have carried the heaviest end of the burden, taking in the homeless wanderers, giving them shelter and even bedding, and furnishing them with food. Had it not been for this unorganised relief, the misery would have been many times more intense. In one village, of 50 houses, I found 307 refugees ; and in another, of 100 houses, 850 dependents. In the former place all that had been received from outside sources had been 220 roubles, and in the latter the extent of outside relief had been about six pounds per head of poor flour. But the farmers of that section have had a bad year of it, and are themselves feeling the pinch of poverty ; and the burden of all this multitude of destitute people is getting to be almost intolerable. At best, too what has been done by all agencies combined has failed to save the wretched refugees from their sad plight. With often twenty of them in one room, sleeping on the grass, destitute of bed-clothing and having unwholesome-looking bread to eat, their lot is not to be envied. No wonder that after the hardships of the journey scores and hundreds of them have died, pneumonia and enteric troubles and scarlet fever having carried off a multitude. The scarlet fever has been especially virulent, and there was scarcely a house which I visited where from two to five little ones had not been carried out to the cemetery. One could hardly hope to save a man with dysentery on the five kopecks (1 1/4d.) a day given for his support, or with the coarse flour given in other districts. While one cannot but pity all, yet one's especial sympathy goes out to those whom one has seen in their own country living in comfort and, for this country, even in luxury, yet here, in this strange land, dependent on the dole of bread given them.

With such conditions I have not dared to do anything in the way of relief, except to leave here and there small sums for the sick and for those particularly suffering. As long as I have not found anyone that has died or is dying from hunger I did not think it justifiable to expend our little funds in the hopeless task of making men comfortable. More and more am I persuaded that we must reserve our efforts to the time when these people begin to return to their homes. If the way opens for such a return, it must be our first endeavour to restore them to their villages ; for very many of them have their wheat-fields and vineyards, and if these are not looked after this spring, the relief problem of the future becomes many times more serious. But how are these unfortunates to get home ? Some of them had a little money when they came out and some reserve strength; now both funds and physical force are gone, and after the hard journey back they will reach homes plundered of everything, and in many cases burnt. Officials here have declared that there is no question but that the Government will send them back by rail to Djoulfa free of charge ; but, when they are once in Persia, then all relief committees save our own cease to act. It is on this basis that I wish to make my appeal to the American public. In a report which I subjoin, Dr. Shedd, of our Mission in Urmia, gives us a picture of the conditions there among those who, to the number of ten to fifteen thousand, have found shelter in our Mission yards. Up to the 25th January I learn that he has spent over eight hundred pounds sterling in their support ; and he names £3,000 as the minimum of what is needed for the people there. He himself considers this an under-estimate, looking at the problem only from the limited knowledge he had at his command ; and I am sure that it is. Five thousand for those in Urmia and five thousand for those who have fled, seems to me a more reasonable estimate. Ten thousand pounds is a big sum to ask, especially at this time, when so many other portions of the world are stretching out their hands to our country for aid; but most of these have many eloquent tongues to voice their cry, while for this people, that have lived so far away among fanatical Moslem masters, who is there to speak ? I can only hope that this little story of their sufferings may bring some relief, even if it is not the sum asked and so much needed. I wish I might hope that others would help in this work; but the French Mission has little assistance to give, and the Orthodox Mission, that has made a big bid for the friendship of this people, seems to have completely flattened out. I doubt whether anything can be hoped for from that source, and I am very sure that nothing will be given in a large unsectarian way. And so it appears to me that we of America are the only ones that can be relied upon to come to the assistance of this old historic people, who have now endured the heaviest blow that has fallen upon them for centuries.

There is one other matter. I have said that we must reserve our help for the time when these people return home; money given them here, unless it be in very large sums, can do no good. You, however, have suggested that £200, given through me to the heads of the Relief Committees of the Caucasus to be used for these Persian refugees, might do more than anything else to quicken their own assistance to this unfortunate people. The reasons you have given for this judgment have seemed to me strong ones, and I have telegraphed to-day to our headquarters, stating the facts. If any such funds are sent, I shall ask you to help me in giving the money in such a manner as shall produce the best results. In the meantime I wish to thank you most cordially for all that you have done to assist me in this good work.

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