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1915: Urmia, Salmas and Hakkiari : Statement by Mr. Paul Shimmon
by Published in the Armenian Journal "Ararat," of London, November, 1915
Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 03:02 pm CST


Seeing that Ararat is truly a searchlight on all the sufferings of Eastern Christians, a comforter to the broken-hearted and a fighter for their rights, I have felt it my duty and privilege to write just some bare facts of the past and present position of the Syrians in Urmi (Urmia) and Salmas in Persia, and in the Kurdistan mountains south of Van. What I will say of Urmi and Salmas applies equally to the Armenians of the two places, in the latter of which they predominate.

The Russian troops had been in occupation of Azerbaijan, north-western Persia, for a number of years, and their presence meant safety, prosperity and security of person and property both to Christians and Moslems alike. Under the conditions then prevailing, the Kurds had been restrained entirely from their occupation of plunder, and the Turks were deprived of prominence in that part of Persia which they have coveted for years. The Persians also have been restless, and their attitude towards the Christians was somewhat doubtful. On the 2nd January, 1915, it was suddenly known that the Russian army, consulate and all, were leaving Urmi---and not that alone, but it was found later that they were withdrawing from all northern Persia. It came like a thunderbolt, for it had been positively stated all along to the Christian population that the Russian army would under no circumstances withdraw from Urmi. Here, then, in the heart of winter, some 45,000 Christians, from nine to ten days' journey from the nearest railway station to the Russian border, found themselves in a very precarious position. No conveyances, horses, &c., &c., could be had for love or money. Roughly speaking, one-third of the people who happened to know of this withdrawal, through whose villages the army was to pass, left for Russia. The great majority simply left their homes and walked out. Some only heard of the withdrawal during the night, and so could hardly make any provision for the journey. A good number of people from Tergawar and Mergawar, and outlying districts, who were already refugees in Urmi---having been plundered on two or three occasions previously---left with the army. So there was a concourse of over 10,000 people, mostly women and children, walking in the bitter cold, scantily provided, sore-footed, wearied, that had to make their way to the Russian frontier over mountains and along miserable roads and through swamps. Their cries and shrieks as they walked were heart-rending. The people of Salmas had left two or three days earlier and under somewhat better conditions. There was a swamp between Salmas and Khoi where people actually went knee-deep, where oxen and buffaloes died of cold, and where there was no real resting place and provisions could only be procured from a distance of some ten miles. The agonies of the children were inexpressible. Some mothers had two or three children to take care of, and they dragged one along while they carried the other on their shoulders. Many died on the roadside, many lost their parents, many were left unburied, many were picked up by the Russian cossacks and were taken to the Russian Caucasus to, be there cared for by Armenians and others. Such was their plight when they reached Russia, and in some way or another were provided for in the Syrian and Armenian villages in Erivan and in Tiflis, where they passed their time till the spring, when they again wearied of their lives and returned to Urmi and Salmas in the months of May and June.

About two-thirds of the people who stayed behind at Urmi had the cruellest of fates. No sooner had the Russian forces withdrawn than the roads were closely guarded, and no one was permitted to come in or go out of Urmi for over four months. The Kurds poured in from every quarter, and the Persian Moslems joined hands with them. They engulfed the Christian villages ; plunder, pillage, massacre and rape were the order of the day. Every village paid its share. First they killed the men, then they took the women---those who had not escaped---and carried them away for themselves or forced them to become Moslems, and finally they plundered and burned the villages. In one village 80 were killed, in another 50, in a third 30, and so the thing went on in varying degrees among the 70 odd villages in Urmi. About one thousand people were disposed of in this way. In the meantime all that were able escaped to the city to the American mission quarters, whose premises were soon filled to suffocation, and altogether some 20,000 people or more found shelter in the American and French mission quarters, while some hid themselves among Moslem friends and landlords. These refugees, in their flight, were repeatedly robbed on the way by soldiers and officers sent for their protection, and by civilians as well. Many a woman came terror-stricken, shrieking, and bleeding, and almost naked; and many were forced to become Moslems. Some 150 cases or more of these unfortunate women came under the notice of the American missionaries, who tried to restore them to their own folk. One woman had two sons, four and six years of age, who were thrown into a brook to freeze, while the brute of a mullah set to work to force their mother. She at last escaped and took away. the children alive, but they died of exposure the next morning.

Thus in the course of a fortnight all the 45,000 Syrians and Armenians were plundered---not one village escaped. There was no exception. The village of Iriawa was in the keeping of an Armenian---a Turkish subject. He, with twelve other Armenian soldiers, was shot, and the village plundered. Gulpashan was the last to be attacked, when, on the 1st February, 51 of its elders were taken during the night to the graveyard and there murdered most horribly and their brains knocked out. The orgies committed on women and tender girls can be left only to the imagination. I have known the village from childhood and all its inhabitants.

The refugees in the French and American mission yards remained there for over four and a half months, in daily terror and fear of their lives ; the quarters were crowded to suffocation, and no man dared leave the premises. Seeing that a few houses of Christians were left in the city which were not plundered, the dozen or less of Turkish officials, who had control of things, began to fleece the people. They forced them to pay a fine of 6,600 tomans (a toman is about one pound sterling), on the pretext that the Christian stores, offices and shops in the city would be saved from plunder. But no sooner was this sum extracted through the kindly offices of the American missionaries than they began to put up to auction and dispose of all the shops, offices and stores. Not satisfied with what they had done, they obtained 5,500 tomans as blood money for Mar Elia, the Syrian Bishop, whom they found in hiding on the roof of a house, and threatened to kill him unless the money was paid. Then, again, such prominent men as Shamasha Lazar, Shamasha Babu and Dr. Isaac Daniel had to pay 3,000, 2,000 and 1,000 tomans respectively to save their lives. Such was the perpetual terror in which the whole community lived.

Soon disease broke out, typhoid played havoc, and over 4,000 died of the epidemic alone. There was scarcely any life left in the remnant of the people when the Russians retook Urmi in May. They were worn out and so emaciated that one could hardly recognise them. It was the first time for months that they were able to crawl out of their filthy winter quarters and to inhale fresh air. The Americans, who had fed these people all through the winter, now gave the men and women spades and sickles to return to their villages, and some flour to start life in their ruined homes. I have seen villages turned to ashes, where not one window door or any woodwork was to be found. Indeed, one day a woman came and said to me: "I have one room out of seven left on the second storey, but what shall I do ? There is not a single ladder in all the village that I can borrow so as to mount to it." What they had left in their "homes," these people found on their return to have been eaten by dogs and cats. They have not sown anything this autumn, nor were they able to do any sowing or cultivating in the spring. Ninety per cent. of them have absolutely nothing left, and they sleep on the bare hard earthen floor, with no bedding or any other protection beyond their ordinary rags. This is their second winter!

The majority of the Salmas Christians had left for Russia by the time the Urmi people reached Salmas. But there were some left who had hidden themselves among kind Moslems here and there. When the Turks took possession of Salmas, they used every means to find out the whereabouts and number of all the Christians that had remained behind, and one night during March last they took some 723 Armenians and Syrians to the fields in Haftevan and mangled and butchered them in a most brutal manner. Three days later the Russians retook Salmas and buried these people in some trenches which they dug for them. The same fate was awaiting the women, and perhaps worse, but the advent of the Russians saved them.

The troubles of Mar Shimun's independent tribes of Tiari, Tkhuma, &c., in Kurdistan, south of Van, began last June. Mar Shimun's seat in the village of Quodshanis was attacked by regular troops and Kurds, destroyed and plundered. Most of the people escaped to Salmas. Mar Shimun at the time was in the interior with the main body of his congregation. A regular Turkish force with artillery and some 30,000 Kurds, &c., marched on the Christians. The forty villages of Berwar, those nearest towards Mosul, were destroyed first, and only some seventeen of them are known to have escaped. The women of many of the others have been forced to become Moslems. For forty days the people defended themselves against superior forces, and that only with flintlocks and antiquated rifles. At last, unable to withstand the onslaught of modern artillery, with which the Turks also bombarded the Church of Mar Sawa, the people withdrew to the interior of the mountains with the Patriarch's family in their centre ; and here they subsisted on herbs and some sheep they had taken with them, while many were daily dying of starvation. Mar Shimun came to Salmas---I had an interview with him there, and he has sent me to speak for him and his---to effect the escape of his people, or at least of as many of them as could be saved. All this happened in the latter part of September, when, according to the telegram received here from H.B.M. Consul Shipley at Tabriz, some 25,000 had already arrived, and with them Mar Shimun, himself as destitute as the rest, while 10,000 more were to follow. The condition of the remnant, for in all there are over 100,000, is very precarious, but let us hope not hopeless. Assistance can be sent to them through Mar Shimun and through H.B.M. Consul Shipley.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's Mission and the Armenian (Lord Mayor's) Relief Fund have sent £500 and £550 respectively to these people. I understand that the Lord Mayor's Fund is telegraphing a further £500 for the relief of the Christians in Persia for which I for one feel infinitely grateful, as it cannot but assuaged some of the terrible suffering that exists.

Let us now survey the whole situation. As over 90 per cent. of the Christians at Urmi are destitute, and the condition of some 10,000 to 15,000 Armenians and Syrians in Salmas is not much better, we have at once some 80,000 people and more who must be assisted, if they are not to starve during the coming winter. I this we are not taking into account the remnant of Mar people or any Armenians that might have found their way to Persia, where the Russians are now in occupation, and where the condition of the Christians will be, so far as personal safety goes, more hopeful. The turn events are taking politically in Persia seems also favourable, but one must never be too confident of the political situation there.

I am delighted to see such a magnificent spirit of response from all corners of the world whence Armenians themselves are coming to the help of their countrymen. We have to cheer each other up in our misfortunes in every way we can, till God in His own way shall solve the problem. And with such noble friends as we have in England, among whom are the Primate, Lord Bryce, and Members of Parliament like Mr. Aneurin Williams and Mr. T. P . O'Connor, and I am sure in America as well-people who would do anything for us-let us be patient and prayerful, hoping for, recompense and release from this tyranny that has had us in its grip ever since Mohammedan rule began in our country.

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