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1916: Urmia, Salmas, and Hakkiari : Fuller Statement by Mr. Paul Shimmon
by Mr. Paul Shimmon
Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 03:56 pm CST


The scene of the Assyrian massacres is the plain of Urmi (or Urmia) on the west side of the lake of that name in N.W. Persia. The city of Urmi is situated on the western side of the lake ; further west are the mountains of Kurdistan, forming the frontier between Turkey and Persia. These mountains give shelter to the wild bands of Kurds (ever ready to descend on the plain of Urmi) who can easily retire to their inaccessible homes with their ill-gotten spoil. For some years past a Russian force has been stationed in the Urmi plain, with the object of keeping the Kurds under control. These troops were distributed between Khoi, Salmas, Urmi, and Soujboulak, at the extreme south of the lake. Urmi is an isolated spot, and, from a military point of view, ill-suited for defence against a strong attacking force. It is easily accessible to the Kurds from the west, while the two high passes on both north and south, and the lake on the east, seal up a besieged army in a very dangerous locality.

The plain of Urmi has a charm for all travellers ; in the spring and early summer it is a veritable paradise. Its running waters, its gardens, its vineyards, orchards, and melon fields, its tobacco plantations and rice fields, give a variety of colour and a beauty of scene seldom met with in the East.

The plain of Urmi is the home of some thirty-five thousand of the Assyrian (or East Syrian) Christians, part of whom dwell in the city, the rest being distributed among seventy villages scattered over the plain. These people are cultivators of the soil and keepers of vineyards. Away to the west, united to them by religion and language, live the mountaineer Syrians. First, we have many villages in the districts of Tergawar and Mergawar, both in Persia; then comes Nochea, the seat of the Metropolitan Bishop, Mar Khananishu. Still further west, over the frontier into Turkey, in the very heart of the mountains, dwells the Patriarch, Mar Shimun, at once a civil and ecclesiastical ruler, who is responsible to the Turkish Government for the independent tribes of Baz, Djîlu, Tkhuma, and Tiari, who are spread over the tract of country which stretches from Djoulamerk to Amadia and then down towards Mosul.

The proverbial "calm before the storm" was literally true in the case of the massacre of the Syrian Christians. In the Urmi plain, the presence of Russian troops for many years past brought security and prosperity. Raiding on the part of the Kurds was stopped, and highway robbery was no longer heard of. It did not mean that the Moslems were any more friendly disposed towards the Christians ; they feared them, that was all. The old hatred for the Christian race slumbered for a time, and dared not show itself, so long as the Russian troops were there to see that the peace was not disturbed.

Events began to take a different turn with the outbreak of war in Europe. The Kurds, always ready for a fight, began to plunder the rich districts of Tergawar and Mergawar ; the Christian inhabitants fled to Urmi, and were distributed among the villages of the plain. In October, 1914, the Kurds made a determined effort to capture the city. A violent assault was made by them, and for a time they withstood the fire of the Russian artillery. They sacked and burned the villages of Anhar and Alwach, and advanced within gunshot of the city. Reinforcements arrived, and with the help of Syrians, armed by the Russians, the Kurds and Turks were driven back. Then it was that the Russian officers found that the Syrians could do great service in scouting, and they employed trained Syrians to keep open the lines of communication.

Such was the condition of affairs before the declaration of war between the Allied Powers and Turkey. After the declaration of war the curtain was withdrawn and the drama was played, the like of which has not yet been seen, even in this most cruel war.

The Turks had become aggressive on the Russian frontier near the Caucasus. In December they massed troops at Sari-Kamysh, near Kars, and sought to cut the railway to Tiflis. This created a scare in the Caucasus which was serious enough to cause a withdrawal of the Russian forces from N.W. Persia. Orders reached Urmi on the 30th December for the withdrawal of the Russian troops, but these were not made known to the European missionaries and Syrians until three days later. The news came like a thunderclap. The Christian inhabitants were entirely unprepared; when they awoke to the fact of the danger they were in, they found that the roads were all blocked, the Russian protectors had left, means of transport were wanting, the Kurdish and Turkish armies were almost at the city gates; they were caught in a trap. A large number of the Syrians outside the city and many Armenians were able to get away; most of these were from the Nazlu district, others were refugees from the Turkish frontier, some ten thousand in all. Two English missionaries then left, also the Belgian officials of the Persian Government and some prominent Syrians of Urmi. All the rest remained behind.

The Russian army left on Saturday, the 2nd January, and on the next day the Persian Moslems plundered the village of Tcharbash, and Dilgusha, the two districts which contained the houses of the well-to-do Christian population. It was a painful sight to see the notable Moslems of the city taking part in this plunder. The whole city was out, "blessing each other's feast," as they termed it, and carrying off everything that came to hand. Houses were stripped of furniture, and even doors and windows carried away. There was also an attempt to plunder some of the houses within the city, but this was frustrated by the efforts of the French and American missionaries.

There is no doubt that the presence of the American missionaries, and of Mr. Nisan, who remained in the English Mission-house, prevented matters from taking a worse turn. The American flag, which was flying over the American and English houses, had some influence in restraining the brutal savagery of the mob.

In the villages, however, the reign of terror had begun. The Kurds had been informed of the Russian retirement, and were soon at work plundering and massacring the Christians in the Baranduz district (S. Urmi). Dizateka, Sâtloui, Aliabad, Shimshadjean, Babaroud, Darbaroud, Sardaroud, Teka, and Ardishai were already in their hands. Looting, plundering, massacre and rape were the order of the day. In one village, half Moslem and half Christian, the Syrians took shelter in the houses of their Moslem neighbours, and hid themselves under the heaps of snow in the yards. In Ardishai, Kasha Ablakhat, the Syrian priest, was escaping on horseback with his daughter ; he was killed and the girl carried off to Kurdistan, where she was married by force to a Kurd. Four months later came the sad news that she had died. During her illness she had as companion another Syrian girl, also a captive. This other girl relates that the Moslem women came and turned the sick woman's bed towards the south, the direction to which all Moslems look on their deathbed. The invalid begged her companion to turn her face to the east, that she might die a Christian.

In another village all the male population but three were killed, or died of typhoid fever.

One young man had just arrived from the United States after an absence of nine years ; he had come home to be married. The next morning, he, his mother, sister, and an uncle were all killed. Their property was carried off and 500 tomans in cash. Most of the people were killed in their flight; their bodies were not buried, for no one dared to go and perform this office. Many of the bodies were eaten by dogs.

There is one large village---Geogtapa---some five miles from the city of Urmi. To this place many people from the south of Urmi plain fled for safety, as they thought the inhabitants were well able to defend themselves. But on Monday night, the 4th January, a messenger from the Kurds came, saying that if the people surrendered and paid a large sum of money, their village would be spared. The villagers sent to Urmi to consult the village master, but long before the messengers returned the Kurds had commenced their attack on the place. The Christians put up a magnificent fight, but could not hold out long before over whelming numbers. The Kurds were also assisted by the Persian Moslems, who were eager to pay off old scores against their Christian neighbours. As the day wore on the situation grew desperate. The cries of women and children, who had gathered in the churches, were heart-rending. The smoke of the burning buildings from four sides overcame the defenders. Finally all took refuge in the two churches on the brow of the hill, which dominates the village. Late in the afternoon, by God's providence, a rescue was made. Dr. Packard, the American missionary, with three Syrian attendants, came with the American flag and made terms of capitulation. The men, women, and children were to be allowed to go out alive, and the village and all the firearms were surrendered. Late that night, Dr. Packard, with some two thousand people, reached Urmi, where with difficulty shelter was found for them in quarters already crowded, in which they passed four months of untold horrors and suffering.

In Geogtapa, one elderly woman was left behind because she could not move on account of infirmity; her husband and daughter decided to stay with her. The Kurds killed the two old people, and on the daughter refusing to become Moslem, she also was killed.

Another pathetic case was that of an old priest and his wife, who thought if they gave up everything to the Kurds their lives would be spared. These people were visited by five different parties of Kurds in succession. They helped themselves to the property of the house, and took all the money they could find. Then came another party and asked for money; they were told there was nothing left. Then the old man, with the Bible in his hands, was murdered in the presence of his wife. They decided to kill the woman also, but in some mysterious way she avoided them and hid herself. After six days of hiding she crawled out and got to a neighbouring village, where she found shelter with some Moslems, who sent her to the city.

Nazlu District.

The Baranduz river villages and Geogtapa are south of the city of Urmi, and so were the first to fall a prey to the Kurds as they advanced from the south. The villages of the Nazlu district, such as Âda, Superghan, Mushawa, Sherabad, and Karadjalu, some of the wealthiest, not being in the line of advance, should have escaped the horrors of the other villages ; but their turn came later, and their story of their woes is equally heartrending.

Ada, one of the largest villages, had been a place of refuge for many Syrians and Armenians late in the year 1914. Then when the Russian army passed that way many of the people followed them, to the number of sixty. The rest, however, all remained. Sunday, the 3rd January, passed off quietly, but the next day their troubles commenced. The Persian Moslems began to plunder the Syrian Christians. They broke open the houses, carried off the doors and windows, and emptied the buildings. No one was killed, however, although some shots were fired to intimidate the people. The Syrians exercised great restraint, as they feared a general massacre if they opposed the Moslems who came against them. The elders of the village, while this was going on, sent to the city to ask for protection. The messengers returned with a Turkish and Persian flag and a few soldiers, thinking this would be security for them; but they were deceived, for almost at once the Kurds attacked the village from all points. They stripped every man they found, took his money, and then killed him. As the others fled to the vineyards, they were followed by the Moslems, who killed them there. It is said that one Persian Moslem had killed twenty-five persons, and said: "I am not satisfied yet." Some eighty bodies lay about unburied; many who had been wounded were left to die of their wounds, as there was no one to tend them after they fell. The women and children, who had climbed to the roofs to avoid the fury of the Kurds, were afterwards brutally treated by their attackers, who behaved with the greatest barbarity. The churches were polluted, and the holy books destroyed. Many women were carried off and forced to become Moslems, and afterwards sold or married to their enemies.

A pathetic case is reported from Karadjalu. A woman, fleeing with her two children---her husband was abroad---met a Moslem mullah in her flight. He took the children, stripped them of their clothing, and threw them all into a stream, which was on the point of freezing. He then offered to marry the woman. On her refusal he left the woman on the road to her fate. She returned to the stream, and, taking her children from the water, carried them to a vineyard near by, where she placed them in a hollow place with some straw over them to try and warm them ; both children died in the morning. Later the sorrowing woman found her way to Urmi, and five months afterwards the Russians caught this inhuman brute and made him suffer for his crime.

The flight to Urmi.

The city of Urmi became a veritable city of refuge for the Syrians and Armenians from the villages of the whole plain. By far the larger number found shelter in the American Mission premises, and some more in the compound of the English Mission, where Mr. Nisan was living. We have read of the flight from Antwerp in the Times, but it is a fairy tale compared with what happened in Urmi. Women arrived at the city in a bleeding condition. Some had been stripped of part of their clothes on the way, and arrived in one tunic shivering in the bitter cold of January; some told us how they had been stopped by four different bands of robbers; many were carried off, made captives, and forced to become Moslems.

The French Mission also afforded another place of refuge, where the French Lazarists, with Monseigneur Sontag and the Sisters of Charity, live. The crowded state of all the houses in the city quickly bred disease, which, combined with semi-starvation, made life unbearable. The Americans throw open their College and Hospital outside the city, and these were soon overcrowded. The Archbishop of Canterbury's Mission premises and the American yard close by formed one great quadrangle, and over this block the American flag was flying. In normal times these buildings could accommodate five hundred people ; now there were some ten thousand crowded into this same area. After the first rush was over, the missionaries went to the villages, to search for this or that person who was missing. In this way many young women were restored to their families and delivered from Moslem captivity. But many of the less fortunate had to remain in the Moslem houses to which they had been carried. Many were ill and could not move ; others were enceintes, and were ashamed to return to their homes. A young Moslem was carrying his Syrian "wife" to another village when he met Dr. Packard on the road. The girl threw herself at his feet and asked to be freed from her captor. She was taken to Urmi, only to die after a few weeks of typhoid fever.

The problem of feeding so large a number of people was a great one, and only half a pound of bread a day could be provided. But the worst suffering was caused by the overcrowding. Every available space was filled-rooms, churches, corridors, cellars, and stables, all alike were crowded with human beings.

Under these conditions, combined with the bad water supply and the lack of sanitary arrangements in an oriental city, it is not surprising that typhoid fever soon broke out and carried off thousands of people. More than four thousand lost their lives from this disease, while a thousand were killed by the Kurds in the villages. An accurate statement, prepared by the European missionaries, shows that 20 per cent. of the Urmi Christians perished in four months.

At the beginning of this reign of terror which we have described, the Kurds of Mamash, Mangur, Zarza, in the south, poured into the city. The Herki and the Begzadi from the west poured in at the same time. The son of one prominent sheikh from Shamsdinan came from Nochea and established himself in Dilgusha, just outside the city gates. On the arrival of the Turkish army, a few days later, order was for a time restored, and the Kurds and Moslems restrained from the bigger acts of violence. But as soon as the Turkish officers got hold of the reins of government the lives of the Christians became unbearable. For a time a Djihad---a Holy War---was spoken of on all sides, and the Christians gave up all hopes of being allowed to live. The Turks made it quite clear that they had come to serve Turkey, and did not conceal their desire to get rid of all Christians. They also set to work to fill their own pockets ; 6,600 tomans were taken from the shop and store owners and other well-to-do people. They prepared a list of "suspected persons," who were to be put to death if not ransomed by the payment of a sum of money. In many cases the money was not forthcoming, and the prisoners were put to death.

It was in this way that Mar Dinkha, Bishop of Tergawar, met his death. Mar Elia, the Russian Bishop, was ransomed after a payment of 5,500 tomans had been made to the Turks.

The Tragedy of Gulpashan.

The case of the treatment of the village of Gulpashan is without parallel in the history of the Urmi massacres. It is the most wealthy and prosperous of all the villages of the plain, and its inhabitants are quiet and law-abiding people. When the sister village of Geogtapa was plundered and burnt, by an ominous fate Gulpashan was spared. Karani Agha, a Kurdish Chief, well spoken of as a man of high principle, had announced that the village was his property and that it was to be spared. For two months the people were left in peace. It was said to be due to a friendship which existed between the Christian village masters, one of whom was related to the German Consular Agent at Urmi, and the Moslems. A servant of the German Agent was there, and Turkish soldiers were placed to guard the village. On the 24th February, a band of Persian fedais, who had been unsuccessful in an attempt on Salmas, returned to Urmi and attacked the village. They feigned friendliness at first, until they had got the men of the place in their power. Then they tied them together with ropes and drove them to the cemetery, where they butchered them in a barbarous and cruel way. Then the men, still wild with blood, turned on the women, and, after treating them in an unseemly manner, put some of them to death. The American missionaries went afterwards and buried the dead, which they did in many other places also. This was the last of the massacres in the Urmi plain. The awful deeds that were perpetrated here were telegraphed to America, whereupon such strong representations were made by the United States Government that an order was given for their cessation.

The Massacre in Salmas.

In the plain of Salmas, to the west of Lake Urmi, there are many large and beautiful villages inhabited by Syrians and Armenians. For the most part these people had fled to Russia before the flight from Urmi took place; but their homes and fields shared the same fate as those in Urmi. The Turks found on their arrival there that a good number of Christians had hidden themselves in the houses of friendly Moslems. The Moslem Hadjis were ordered to prepare a letter, which every Christian must sign, stating that they had received kind consideration at the hands of their protectors. This was only a trick on the part of the Turks, for in this way they got to know the names and dwelling-places of about 725 Armenians and Syrians in Salmas. A few days later all these men, roped together in gangs, were marched to the fields at night between Haftevan and Khusrawa, and some were shot, while others were hacked to pieces, in one way and another, in the most horrible fashion. This happened in March, only three days before the return of the Russian troops. This timely arrival of help prevented the women of the place from sharing a like fate.

The Attack on the Syrians in the Turkish Mountains.

The rest of the awful story comes from the Turkish side, where the Patriarch and the larger number of the Syrians live in the mountains of Kurdistan. It was many months before news reached their brethren in Urmi as to what had been happening some hundred miles away. The Patriarch, Mar Shimun, was driven from his home in Quodshanis. He fled to Tiari with all the members of his household. The Patriarch's house was burnt, together with many other houses, including the house of the English Mission. Mar Shimun, writing to England a few days ago, tells us that for four months he has been a wanderer with his people, carrying on a war with the Turks and Kurds. They only gave up fighting when Turkish artillery was brought against them, which made it impossible for them to offer an effective resistance. Tiari and Tkhuma, both of which districts embrace many Christian villages, have been entirely destroyed. In August last 35,000 mountaineers fled to Salmas, Persia, but the larger part of the Syrians are still in the mountains wandering about from place to place, without food, and with no hope of anyone coming to their relief. The most pathetic part of the story is this. Surma, the Patriarch's sister, with Esther, her sister-in-law, and three small children, went down to Tchumbar in Tiari in June last for safety. With the approach of the Turkish army they soon had to flee to Dadoush, and from there to the great Church of Mar Audishu, in the Tâl country. They always had to travel on foot with just the clothes they could carry. " Oftentimes," Surma writes, "we were hungry, and the little children, who were with us, would fall asleep on the road, as we always had to travel at night." Surma spent three months in Mar Audishu, expecting to leave at any moment, when the enemy drew near. During that time there was food but almost no water, and none at all could be spared for washing or bathing. Occasionally they walked to a stream to bathe and wash their clothes.

The last day of their stay there was the saddest of all. On that day their brother Ishaya died of fever. Mar Shimun, hearing of his illness, had come over the day before. The enemy was then very near, and they could hear the sound of the guns in Tkhuma. Just when the funeral of their brother was to take place, Surma, Romi, and Esther with her children were compelled to leave the place, lest they should be caught by the enemy. Mar Shimun, two priests, and a few laymen remained behind at this time of danger to bury their brother. The burial service was quickly said and the body hastily interred, and Mar Shimun hastened after the fugitive women and children. They were only just in time, for, a few hours after their departure, the Turks arrived and made straight for the church, having heard that the Patriarch's household was there.

When writing to us on the 6th October, Mar Shimun says that he is in a village in Salmas, Persia, with his sisters and one or two, members of his family. At the present moment there are with him 35,000 Syrians camped out in the plain of Salmas (4,000 feet. above sea-level), sleeping in the fields with no clothes to cover them at night, clad in the rags which they have worn for many months, without food or shelter. The British Consul has telegraphed to England to say that unless these people are helped by charitable folk at home, two-thirds of them will die. No Christian nation has ever suffered for their religion as these people, and none has so great a claim on us as this unhappy Syrian remnant.

A List of the Ruined Nestorian Villages.

  2. Darbaroud.
  3. Sardaroud (Armenian).
  4. Babaroud.
  5. Ardishai.
  6. Teka.
  7. Alkian. 1
  8. Kurtapa.
  9. Shenabad.
  10. Kosabad.
  11. Mouradaloui.
  12. Dizateka.
  13. Shimshadjean.
  14. Satloui.
  15. Aliabad.
  16. The Tazakands.
  17. Diza of Baranduz.
  18. Saralan.
  19. Gulpashan.
  21. Geogtapa (partly destroyed).
  22. Wazerabad.
  23. Teharbash.
  24. Sangar-Burzukhan.
  25. Sangar-Beglerbegi.
  26. Alwaj.
  27. Seir.
  28. Haidarloui.
  29. Mar Sargis.
  30. Hasar and Kom.
  31. Anhar.
  32. Diza Agha Ali.
  33. Balaw.
  34. Kizilashuk (chiefly Armenian).
  35. Gerdabad (chiefly Armenian).
  36. Mata d'Zaya and Karagöz.
  38. Ismael Agha's Kala.
  39. Armudagatch.
  40. Kosi.
  41. Nazi. p
  42. Karalari.
  43. Shumbulabad.
  44. Superghan.
  45. Ada.
  46. Mushabad.
  47. Yengidja.
  48. Khaneshan.
  49. Sherabad.
  50. Gavilan.
  51. Djemalabad.

All villages, including

  1. Queana.
  2. Mawana.
  3. Palulan.
  4. HAKKIARI DISTRICT (Ottoman territory) :

All Tiari.
All Tkhoma, except Mazra'a.
All Barwar.

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