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1915: Tabriz: Letter From The REV. F. N. Jessup
by Rev. F.N. Jessup
Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 02:25 pm CST


On the 1st November (1914) Turkey declared a "Djihad," or Holy War, against the Allies, and it was soon evident that she would try to stir up other Moslem nations. In December a small force of Turkish troops crossed into Persia at Soudjboulak, south of Urmia, but we thought nothing of it, knowing that the Russian forces here would be able to cope with them. But on the last day of December it became evident that the Russians were actually about to withdraw from here, and there was a panic among the Armenians and other native Christians. Day and night the poor Armenians fled out of the city towards the Russian border, and out of 750 or more families only about 250 were left, most of these being the poorest people. From the first we were beset by people asking to be allowed to take refuge with us. We had permission to admit those who were connected with us, and, in addition, had to make arrangements to receive all the Europeans who might need protection. It was decided that all the missionaries should come to this compound, where the Memorial School and men's dispensary are located. You can imagine the rush and work of the first days of January---all the school-rooms to be cleared of everything so as to be ready for the crowds of people so anxious to get in, people to be interviewed day and night rules to be made as to who and what were to be admitted, our own houses to be made ready for the advent of the missionary families. For example, my house, in which I had been living alone on Friday, by Saturday night contained five families, consisting of ten adults and seven children ; and whereas up to that time Dr. Vanneman and I had been having our meals alone, now in my dining-room all the Americans ate together, nineteen adults and a number of children! By this time almost all the Europeans had left the city, including the Consuls of the Allied Powers; the banks were closed and the Indo-European telegraph office was shut. The Europeans who were left in the city came to us for refuge, all except one family of Italians and a few Germans, Austrians and Turkish subjects who thought they would be safe. But even these asked to have a place reserved in case of need, for no one knew what might happen when a horde of undisciplined Kurds entered the city. Not only this, but a number of prominent Mohammedans came to ask protection, and very many more left the city to flee to Teheran, knowing that they might be molested or blackmailed.

On Tuesday, the 5th January, the Russian troops left the city and encamped on its outskirts ; the next day they started north towards Djoulfa, and on Friday, the 8th, the Turks and Kurds entered. For the next three weeks they were in possession of Tabriz. We were cut off from the outside world, without news of what was occurring elsewhere, practically shut up in this compound with the four hundred who had taken refuge with us. We had as our guests Belgians from the Customs and Finance Departments, French Catholic Sisters with forty or fifty of their school-children, two German ladies who had been sick and unable to go with the rest of the German colony, a Russian lady, and two American Seventh Day Adventist missionaries from Maragha, but most of the people were Armenian and Nestorian. As you see, they were of all nationalities and religions, but all lived together in the greatest goodwill, and things moved with a remarkable lack of trouble or friction.

We had planned to observe the regular Week of Prayer with nightly services in our church, but our church had to be abandoned, for almost every Christian from that quarter of the city had fled, and no one dared to stir out of doors after dark. But we were given a greater opportunity. Instead of a week's services attended by fifty or sixty people, we had Evangelistic services in the assembly room of the Memorial School every night for a full four weeks, with a hundred to a hundred and fifty in attendance, and all listening with the most earnest attention. And as we had with us refugee families from Soudjboulak, Maragha and other places, we had a chance to preach the Gospel to those rarely, if ever, reached by the truth. Instead of having to seek a congregation, we had it ready within our gates, and one composed of those whose hearts were softened in the fact of our common danger and life together.

As the time went on, the blackmail and plundering on the part of the Kurds grew worse and people became more anxious. It was indeed a welcome day when the sound of cannon and machine guns was heard to the north, and it appeared that the Russians were returning to deliver the city. This they did on the 30th January, and so well had the campaign been arranged that the fleeing Kurds were cut off from the city after the battle, and so could not loot or kill on their retreat, as many had feared they might. And thus in God's providence the city was relieved, and we and the many lives entrusted to us were kept safe from harm during that trying time.

When the roads were once again open and word reached us from other places, we began to hear of the terrible plight of the Christians of other places, especially Urmia and Salmas. When suddenly and unexpectedly the native Christians of those places heard that the Russian army was immediately to be withdrawn, they knew that their only safety from the cruelties of the approaching Kurds lay in flight. Men, women and little children were obliged to start off at once, in mid-winter, most of them on foot, unable to make preparation or to carry sufficient food, clothing, or bedding, and to flee in terror of their lives through snow and deep mud, wading through streams and toiling over the mountains and across plains covered with almost impassable mire, till at last they might reach Djoulfa on the Russian frontier, nearly 150 miles away. The story of the horror of that flight will probably never be fully told. From Urmia 17,000 or 18,000 must have fled. When they reached the Salmas plain, their numbers were swelled by thousands of Armenian Christians fleeing thence. Men who went through the experience tell us that the events of those days are indescribable. On the edge of the Salmas plain multitudes could find no lodging and had to sleep in the snow. Some children were carried off by wolves, and many more died before morning. And then the march of those days ! Up before daylight, struggling in the snow and slush and darkness to find and keep to the road through the. mountain passes, hurrying on ever, knowing that at the end of the day only those who first arrived could be sure of finding shelter for the next night ; parents becoming separated from each other and from their children in the darkness or in the mass of hurrying people, unable to find them again, but hoping that they might meet at the end of the day; people throwing away the quilts or other necessary bedding they had brought because physically unable to carry them ; the road strewn with abandoned goods; the weak and sick falling by the wayside, many never to rise again; men become as beasts in the common struggle just to live. At night many would arrive long after dark at the appointed stopping-place only to find every caravanserai and lodging so full that they would be forced to spend the night out of doors. Those within fared little better, crowded in so tightly that often they could neither lie nor sit down, but had to remain standing all night in rooms with every door and window shut, and the air so foul that the winter's cold without seemed preferable. And at such stopping-places exhausted mothers and fathers were anxiously going from house to house and group to group, seeking their lost children. The fugitives have many terrible tales to tell. By the time they had reached Khoi their plight was desperate, but beyond Khoi their sufferings were increased by the deep mire through which they had to struggle. One of our Christian workers from Urmia told me that with his own eyes he saw a man go up to his mother, who had sunk exhausted in the mud, and shoot her through the head, rather than leave her to die by degrees or to be killed by wolves. They tell of a family who started from Urmia---an aged father and his two married daughters, each carrying two children, one on her back and the other in her arms. There, in the mire beyond Khoi, the father could no longer go on and had to be left, and one of the women gave birth to a child. She wrapped the new-born babe in a piece of cloth torn from her dress, and taking it in her arms struggled on, but the other two children had to be abandoned like their grandfather. On arriving at Djoulfa these women found their husbands, who had been in Tiflis and had hurried down to meet the fugitives. There for several anxious days they waited, hoping for news of the lost children. The fathers had been away long, and could not be sure of recognizing them, and the mothers were too exhausted to return. At last some soldiers came in with a waggon full of lost children whom they had rescued, and among them were the two little ones. But they had suffered so from exposure that in a few days they both died. The grandfather had perished in the mire.

Mr. Labaree, of our station, left for the Caucasus as soon as the way was open, to find out conditions and see what we could do to help the poor refugees. There are 70,000 or more reported in those regions, not only from Persia, but from Turkey and the border. The Armenians of the Caucasus had organised relief committees, and the Government was also helping. The average grant was about 2d. or 1 1/2d. per adult a day. The villagers among whom those thousands of absolutely destitute strangers were distributed were very kind, but the burden was very heavy for them. Mr. Labaree said that the poor fugitives were in a pitiable state. Sickness had followed the exposure and strain---scarlet fever and other diseases---and in almost every room he visited he heard of four or five children who had died.

But the condition of those who did not, or could not, flee from the Urmia and Salmas plains has been even worse. In Urmia about 12,000 took refuge in the three compounds belonging to our Mission, while 3,000 more were in the French Catholic Mission. Here most of them have remained since the 1st January, but some have withdrawn to yards adjoining ours, some have been taken out by force and killed by the Turks, and many have died. Urmia has been entirely cut off from us. A few letters and messages they have succeeded in sending through, and from these we have learned something of their condition. At the first arrival of the Kurds and Turks, most of the people remaining in the Christian villages fled to the Mission for protection. Of those who stayed in the villages, many girls and women were carried off by the Mohammedans and many men killed. In those first days of January, about ten thousand were crowded into our compound at Urmia city. In the church there were three thousand, so many that they could not lie down to sleep. At the beginning from ten to twenty-five were dying daily in our city compound, and a little later the mortality increased to from twenty-five to forty a day. At first it was not possible to take the bodies out of the grounds for burial. Later, when they were able to secure some adjoining yards, conditions became a little better. Dr. Packard, hearing that a large Christian village was being attacked by the Kurds, rode out there and, at the risk of his life, made his way to the Kurdish chiefs and then to the village, and persuaded the Kurds to spare the lives of the people on condition of their surrendering their goods. Thus, by his influence with the Kurds, won by many medical services in the past, he was able to save nearly a thousand poor people from massacre and conduct them that night to the city.

All these thousands have had to be fed and cared for. It has meant a daily expenditure of from £50 to £55 sterling for the three tons of bread distributed each day. Some of the wealthy fugitives to Russia left money with the Missionaries on their departure, with permission to borrow it and use it if necessary, and in this way they were able to get on up to the last reports, for we have been unable in any way to reach them or send them money. But it is now nearly a month since we have received authentic news from the Missionaries at Urmia. At that time they reported the situation as very grave. We have heard that a Turkish officer and several men entered our Mission grounds by force, beat Mr. Allen twice because he could not tell them of the whereabouts of some men they sought, and carried off several men to kill them. From the Catholic Mission, in the same way, some forty men were taken and massacred. In a village whose people had from the first been peaceful and had paid a large sum for protection, 51 (others report 85) men were seized, taken outside and butchered, and then the soldiers returned to outrage the women and girls, not even little children being spared.

For three weeks Mr. Labaree has been in Salmas, hoping that a Russian expeditionary force might be sent to rescue the Urmia Christians and that he might be able to go over to help the Missionaries, who must be greatly worn by the strain and by their work. But as yet he has neither been able to go nor to send or receive any word, nor are there any signs of a rescue.

This is the most awful calamity which has befallen the Nestorian people in the ninety years of our mission work among them. About 1,000 had been killed and 2,000 had died of disease or fear up to the middle of March, just in Urmia itself, and the Nestorians here estimate that perhaps as many more died on the flight to Russia or have died since. This would mean a fifth or a sixth of the 30,000 Nestorians who live on the Urmia plain. Their prosperous villages have all been pillaged and most of them burned, and their churches destroyed. Of the survivors, half are refugees in great want in the Caucasus, the rest remain in Urmia in conditions of peril and fear and need which wring one's heart. Already over £4,000 sterling must have been spent by the Missionaries in Urmia to preserve the lives of those taking refuge with them. As soon as it becomes in the least safe, they must be helped to return to their ruined homes and villages to make a fresh start. Two months ago Mr. Labaree appealed to America for at least £10,000 sterling as the smallest sum required, and as time goes on it becomes evident that more will be needed. Thus far about £2,400 has been received from the American Red Cross and our Board, £30 from our missionaries in Hamadan, and £20 from the English missionaries at Ispahan. Of course we here are trying to help too. These poor distressed Nestorians are the especial charge of our American Presbyterian Church, which has laboured so many years for their good, and there is little hope of help for them in this hour when so many nations are in trouble, except in so far as we help them.

And it is not only the Christians of Urmia that are in great need. Those of the village of Miandoab (Armenians, these), have similarly lost everything. The Kurds still occupy their town., and they are refugees in Maragha and Tabriz. At Maragha the Armenians have suffered greatly, for most of them had to flee, and now they have the burden of all the refugees from Miandoab and other villages. And in Salmas it is worse. All the Christian villages on that plain have been smoked. Most of the Christians fled when the army withdrew in January, but some remained behind and these sought the protection of their Moslem neighbours. But a few days before the return of the Russian army to Salmas, when the Turks saw that they would be compelled to flee, they secured the names of all Christians by a ruse, pretending that all who registered would be protected. Then they gathered all the men into one place and carried them out in companies of about twenty-five, each to be shot down in cold blood. Others were tied with their heads sticking through the rungs of a ladder and decapitated, others hacked to pieces or mutilated before death. In this way practically every Christian man remaining in Salmas was massacred. You can imagine the fate of girls and women. The most detailed report received, signed by a number of men now on the ground, stated that from 712 to 720 men were thus killed in Salmas.

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