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1916: Urmia District : Report on the Distribution of Relief, Covering The Period 1st June to 31st December, 1915
by The American Committee For Armenian and Syrian Relief.
Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 03:44 pm CST


At the beginning of June, 1915, when the people emerged from our premises emaciated from sickness and malnutrition and crushed by the blow that had fallen upon them, they were confronted by a seemingly hopeless situation. Practically all their household furnishings and food supplies had been plundered; the same was true of their domestic animals, on which they depended in large measure for their subsistence. Their houses were without any doors and windows, and probably a full third of them had been demolished. They were in terror about going back to their villages; they feared their Moslem neighbours, who had despoiled them of their property, outraged their wives and daughters, and killed many of their relatives; they feared, too, lest the Russian troops might again withdraw and leave them to the mercy of their enemies ; and they were anxious lest the missionaries who had sheltered them for the previous months might forget them when they were out of sight. Everything tended to make them cling to our Mission compounds or their vicinity. To permit them to do this was of course out of the question. Our efforts, however, to scatter them to their village homes formed one of the most pitiful phases of our relief work. The people had to go, but as long as they received their bread from our yards they would not; and so we had no choice but to cut off the food supply, after giving each family sufficient flour to support them a week. At the same time, with the help of the newly arrived Russian Consul, pressure was brought to bear upon the landlords of the Christian villages to support their tenants until harvest. Some of these could not, because they themselves had been plundered ; others would not, in spite of Consular pressure ; and others promised to give the needed assistance, but delayed it from day to day with all the ingenuity of excuse for which the Orient is notorious. The result was that our yards were thronged daily with hundreds of people clamouring for food. To give way would have nullified all our efforts to get the people on to their own feet; and only when it was absolutely clear that nothing could be gotten from the landlords of any one village did we assume any degree of support for the people of the village. Little by little progress was made, and although the villagers were wretchedly miserable, the approaching harvest made subsistence by their own effort possible, and virtually all food distribution ceased for a period of three months.

There was another form of relief, however, that was imperative. In the vast majority of villages there was not a spade to use in repairing their houses, in ridding their vineyards of weeds or in burying their dead, and there was not a scythe or sickle with which to reap their harvest. The best and surest way to help the people was to give them these implements, and so for upwards of a month we virtually subsidised all the blacksmiths of the city in our endeavour to get these instruments in time for the harvest. When we closed this department of our relief work, we had distributed 2,661 scythes and sickles and 1,129 spades at a cost of 18,909.90 krans. (The exchange value of a silver kran is approximately 4 1/2d.)

By the beginning of August the situation was considerably more hopeful. The people with Consular help had succeeded in collecting a good deal of their plundered property, including bedding, household utensils and a few cattle ; the harvest was good, although the acreage was below the average, and the promise of the vineyards was excellent. Then fell another blow, what seemed an inexplicable Providence. Events in another section of the war necessitated orders for a sudden withdrawal of the Russian troops, and the evacuation was actually carried out with the exception of a small force which remained with the Consul on the hills outside the city. With the going of their protectors the whole Christian population of the plain, with the exception of some 200 sick and aged who again took refuge in the Mission yards, fled, some only to the northern edge of the plain, but many to Salmas and Khoi and even Djoulfa. Fortunately it was summer time, but even so the misery was intense, and cholera and want and hardship claimed many victims in those few weeks. Worse still, much that the people had reclaimed of their stolen property and gathered from their fields was taken once more by their Moslem neighbours ; and so, after nearly a month of miserable hardship and uncertainty, the poor Syrians and Armenians returned to their twice plundered homes. Very little relief, however, was given during the next few weeks ; for from the fields and vineyards much could still be secured in the way of food.

At this time we calculated that about 10,000 to 15,000 of the Christian inhabitants would have to be supported during the winter months, and we were making our plans accordingly, when a new and overwhelming burden descended upon us. For months the Syrians of Kurdistan had been holding their own in their mountain fastnesses, hoping for succour from the Russians. When this failed and their enemies increased on every hand, they had to flee---many, many perishing in the attempt. Some 30,000 of them arrived at last in Salmas and the neighbourhood in almost absolute destitution. A few succeeded in bringing a part of their sheep, but most came with nothing, half-naked, and without any means of livelihood. This army of wretchedness was halted by the authorities on the plain of Salmas and on the hills surrounding it, until their location should be determined upon. Mr. McDowell of our Relief Committee, who has had years of experience among these people, left at once for Salmas and grappled with the serious problem of their immediate relief. But for the assistance given by our Committee there, hundreds of them would have perished from hunger. As, it was, cholera, typhoid and pneumonia did their worst among a people wasted by hardship, unprotected from the cold and without shelter. Shortly the streams of suffering humanity began to pour across the pass that separates the Salmas from the Urmia plain, and to scatter themselves in the villages of this section. A few weeks before we had been wondering how the inhabitants of the plain would find shelter for themselves in their half-ruined villages; but from the accompanying statistical report it will be seen that they have made room for nearly 16,000 refugees from other districts. For example, the village of Geogtapa has doubled its population, having received as many of these guests as it had inhabitants of its own.

About the middle of October we began to take steps in preparation for our winter relief work. The first thing was to buy up all supplies of wheat that we could secure while the price was low---the lowest for years, for the purchasers were few and the owners anxious to turn their crops into cash before any more untoward events might transpire. The wheat thus secured was stored in different parts of the plain accessible as distributing centres. The doing of this required quite a force of reliable men, who could act as wheat buyers and weighers.

The next step was to get accurate lists of the actually destitute in every village. This was no easy task, for many felt themselves entitled to assistance who were not wholly destitute, and to discover who were really in want, among the hundreds of poverty-stricken, plundered inhabitants of each village, required both tact and firmness. The task was made doubly hard by the constant stream of new arrivals from Salmas. On the basis of these lists tickets were issued for bedding and for food---the two most crying needs.

For bedding it was decided to issue large wool quilts, large enough to cover several persons. These we found could be made for three or three and a half tomans (12s.) per quilt. Under the efficient direction of Miss Lewis, and later of Miss Lamme, a quilt factory was started, which in time employed over a hundred needy women in carding wool and sewing the quilts. This factory during its three months' existence consumed over 84,000 yards of calico, 35,000 pounds of wool, and some 1,500 pounds of cotton, and expended over 18,000 tomans ; it taxed the resources of the dry goods merchants to supply our demand and it quite exhausted the wool supplies of the city. Our plan was to give only one quilt to four persons, families of over four to receive two or more according to the number of members ; but after the issue of tickets we found that we could not possibly supply the need, and so regretfully we had to limit our giving to one quilt to a family. The inadequacy of this relief was seen when we began to distribute to the families of mountaineers ; for with them all the brothers and their wives and children form one family, and it was not uncommon to have families of over 20, one being as high as 35. But in spite of their inadequacy, the 5,510 quilts issued have saved the lives of many, for literally thousands were facing the rigours of winter without any bedding whatever.

Our wheat distribution, too, had to be of the most economical nature. We issued what was supposed to be a two months' supply at one time, giving a Russian pood and a half per capita for this period, that is, about 50 pounds. To the widows and orphans and to the new comers from the mountains we gave flour instead of wheat, the actual cost of this assistance in food at current prices being two and a half shahis per day to a person, or between a half-penny and three-farthings. But even with this small gratuity, the total amount given of wheat and flour was 4,000 poods, or about 140,000 pounds, costing about the same as the quilts, that is, about 18,000 tomans.

With these small gifts to individuals amounting in the aggregate to large figures, and with the similar work that has been done in Salmas and Khoi, and even for the district of Albek, our funds have been exhausted, and we are waiting now to see what the generosity of America will do about it. Had it not been for this generosity, many would have died of hunger and cold the last two months, for, apart from what our Committee has done, very little has reached the people from any other source. We are grateful indeed to acknowledge the receipt of considerable sums from his Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Syrian refugees from the mountains, but still the largest part has come and must come from America. We shall have to look to our friends in America for their continued aid, if this unfortunate people, the victims of Mohammedan hate, are to be kept this winter and established in their homes once more.

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