"FOUR YEARS BENEATH THE CRESCENT" VENEZUELAN OFFICER-WITNESS OF THE GENOCIDE
The book of Venezuelan writer and «soldier of fortune» Rafael de Nogales- Mendez was published in his homeland in the 20's of the last century and has long become a rare book. By some quirk of fate the author eye witnessed the first genocide of the history – the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire. Not obtaining the permit join the military service in the army of the Triple Entente, Nogales enlisted as an officer in the Turkish army and zealously served the Ottoman Empire throughout the war. He took part in the siege of Van, the ancient Armenian capital and confessedly caused considerable damage to the heroic defenders of the city. His circle of contacts consisted of primarily Turkish military officials and therefore in his book he repeats the cliché of the official Turkish propaganda against the Armenians. However the scenes of massacres of the innocent population could not leave him unfazed. After the war he was haunted by vision of slaughterhouse. Having a rare opportunity to observe the events from a close distance, he outlines facts and circumstances that are new for the modern reader, allowing assessing the important aspects of the Armenian Genocide. Nowadays the memories of Nogales have been translated for the first time into Russian language and released by «Russkiy Vestnik» publishing house.
[...] After a little rest, we left Moush. And bypassing the Frat valley from the south, at sunset we reached the village of Kodne, across from the Nemrut Dag. It is a nine thousand feet high volcano atop of which there is a spiracle, or better to say a lake with a circumference of eight kilometers. Owing to this lake, the volcano is considered one of the five wonders of Armenia.
At four or five kilometers from Kodne we gave the animals to drink from the stream, prattling not far from the road. Judging by the ruins around it at one time it was flowing under a church or a chapel of pink stone. It was the riverhead of the famous Karasu River, which sometimes historiographers confuse with the riverhead of Eastern Euphrates, located on the northern slope of Aladag, not far from Ararat.
On April 17 we finally arrived at a small village of Tatvan, nestled on the south-western bank of Lake Van (or as the ancients called it: Ariza Palus).
It sweeps away, smooth as a silver mirror, at an altitude of three thousand meters above the sea, hundred meters to the deep, hundred and twenty-five meters in length and fifty in width. Although its waters are very salty, it is rich in fish. It seems like thousand years ago its discharge to the basin of River Tigris was blocked by the stream of lava from the Nemrut Dag, back when it was still an active volcano. However, Lake Van is still coupled to the River Bitlis through the underground arteries and with Eastern Euphrates through a small Lake Nazik.
Tatvan (at least back then) was an unremarkable small village at the foot of a bare hill or a rise, from where many centuries ago both Xenophon and Tamerlane were gazing at the opal waters of the famous lake, sweeping away to the South, to the Erek mountain-range. There was a road through this mountain range that I was intended to use. However, after seeing the layers of snow covering it, fortunately I preferred the northern itinerary, although it was longer but also more passable.
In the evening while I was sitting on the bare hill of Tatvan dreaming alone and admiring the smooth waters of Ariza-Palus, the twilight started to descend slowly and Subkhan Dag, which in the evening sky resembled a foam mountain was slowly covered with lowering clouds while Ararat shone brightly in the far like a drop of incandescent earwax.
This scenery lit with dimming light lights and marked by endless sadness reminded me that I finally reached my travel destination and now I am in the very heart of the ancient Armenia.
Continuing our path along the base of Nemrut Dag, on April 19th, we arrived at Akhlat hamlet on the north-western end of Lake Van and not far from the ruins of ancient Akhlat; a city that was once carried by assault by Tamerlane under the sounds of trumpets and the beat of drums covered with skins of Akhtala defenders.
From the window of my room that was in the shade of old plane-trees I could see the local military commander instructing his officers, while a group of secretaries was deciphering a huge amount of telegrams.
At the sight of such unusual alertness I suspected that the storm was about to break out.
I was right.
The next morning on April 20, 1915 driving round the Akhlat on the other way around, we bumped into many disfigured Armenian corpses lying along the road. An hour later we noticed several giant pillars of smoke, rising from the opposite shore of the lake and showing the place where the towns and villages of Van province were seized by flames.
At that moment I realized: the die is cast. The Armenian revolution has resumed.
At sunset we went into the ancient fortress of Adil-Djevaz surrounded by forests and dark olive groves, over which hang the rocky mountains. The slim poplars and willows stood high over the roofs of the houses in the courtyards. And the ruins of ancient mosques and magnificent tombs rested in the shadows of spreading plane trees.
On the lake near the shore the waves were slightly rocking several boats. In the empty and dismal markets it hits the eye the plundered Armenian shops and the stains of clotted blood evidencing that here the murders reached their victims. A group of heavily armed Turks and Kurds scurried about the streets while the echo of distant fire shots proclaimed that hunting people had not stopped yet. The county governor or kaymakam was waiting for me in front of the local government building surrounded by important officials. They greeted me on behalf of the government. After having a breezy conversation we went into the conference room decorated with carpets and golden inscriptions rendering the surahs of Koran.
Here I learned from the abovementioned gentlemen how serious the situation was and also there was an impending danger from the Armenians who according to them had fortified their positions in the mountains around the hamlet.
The sun went down and the sky was colored with blood red color while the eastern part of the capital of Armenia Van was enveloped in flames and destroyed by the attacks of Turkish artillery mortar that tore up this bloody night with the crash of distant salvo fires.
April 21. I woke up at dawn from the shootings and bark of artillery bombs. The Armenians have attacked the town.
I instantly saddled up and accompanied by several military men went to sound out the situation.
But to my greatest surprise, I learnt that the aggressors were not the Armenians at all but the local authorities themselves. Supported by Kurds and the local population they besieged and plundered the Armenian neighborhood, where three hundred or four hundred Christian craftsman desperately defended themselves from the unruly crowd of scum. The attackers smashed in the doors, climbed over the mud brick fences, barged into the houses, and slaughtered their armless victims; they then forced wives, mothers and daughters to drag the bodies outside where the other bastards beat them to death. Then stripping off the clothes from the bodies they threw corpses everywhere to feed the ravens and jackals. Despite the violent firefights in the streets I finally managed to get to the belediye reisi, i.e. the mayor of the town who was running this disorder, to order him to stop the atrocities. Yet, to my utter surprise, he informed me that he only obeyed the peremptory letter order from the governor-general of the province «to kill all the male Armenians from twelve years old and senior».
When I saw the order from the civil authorities the implementation of which I as a military man could not prevent much as I would like to, I ordered my gendarme to steer clear of the events and myself waited for the massacres to end.
After one and half hour of these massacres from all the Armenians living Adildjevaz there were only seven left alive who I could drag off from the clutches of slaughterers menacing them with a gun.
Surrounded by these unfortunate people that grabbed the tail and the crest of my horse as an emergency exit, accompanied by the crowd of enraged people jaded with blood and loaded with prey I headed to the center of the town. I had to make my way through the throng mainly consisting of Turkish and Kurdish women. For the record, they were gazing at that horrifying scene sitting on the streets or on the roofs of the houses motionless, impermeable, just like sphinxes.
When I dismounted the horse in front of the local government building the kaymakam met me halfway and on behalf of the government thanked me for protecting the town from the horrible attack of Armenians.
Struck from the unheard-of impudence at first I did not know what to answer back. Then I asked him to temper justice with mercy towards my captives. Laying his hand on his heart he gave me his word of honor and then added in an important and solemn manner, that he is responsible for their lives.
Nevertheless, the same night he ordered to behead them. And their bodies together with other forty three bodies of Armenians were thrown into the lake, who before that were hidden God knows where.
This is how in the East, city authorities, subordinates of sultan keep their oaths and swears!
In the meantime the telegraph communication was restored. In a while the motor boat arrived sent for me by the vali of Bitlis, so that I could continue my journey.
I went on board. Saying goodbye to the authorities and residents of Adildjeavaz, who specifically came to the shore of the lake, we shaped our course towards Van. The motor boat quickly drifted away from the hamlet that seemed the most peaceful place in the world from the far.
The crew consisted of the captain, a small group of gendarmes and four armless Armenians who were both mechanics and sailors. Feeling tired I went to take a nap. When I woke up it was already five in the evening. We were still away from the shore. I began to walk on the deck and reaching the engine room I noticed that of the four Armenians only two were there. Where were the two others?
This question should never be asked in the East if you do not want to be known as an ignorant person.
The people of sultan kill without an excess noise, mostly at night like vampires, carrying out the massacre in the middle of deep lakes where there are no unnecessary streams that take the corpses to the shore or in the distant mountainous caves where dogs and jackals help them to hide the traces of committed crimes.
In the twilight we reached to the small island of Akhtamar. It seemed there were no other buildings on the island, except for the beautiful ancient monastery, which was the residence of the bishop of Armenian Church of Van. The facades of the monastery were covered with allegorical paintings, but in the twilight it was almost impossible to see them clearly from the motor boat. The bodies of monks and the bishop lay just around the corner and in the yard of the monastery. One had the impression that there was no other human being on the island except for the Turkish gendarmes, who killed this unfortunate people.
When the gendarmes requested to provide them with ammunition to go and kill God knows who else, we left them five thousand bullets and sailed farther towards the shore. As to where the shore was located, one could hardly guess from the distant flashing of flames, storming in the villages and splashing the sky with red flames.
Among these villages a place called Artamid shone brightly and fitfully of the fire flames, where the wealthy merchants of Van usually spent their summer. The church of Artamid seemed like torchlight and served us as a flashlight.
At about ten in the evening we got off in a total darkness. It was as quiet as in a tomb. Only randomly we could hear the shootings in the far and ominous whine of jackals. Not wishing to wait here for dawn the captain and I left two gendarmes to guard the motor boat and walked to the fields and pastures. After half an hour we heard the rough voice of the lookout: Kim var?
When we approached the end houses of Artamid the local military commander met us halfway. He greeted us and congratulated us on arriving safe and sound as according to him the roads are controlled by the Armenians. And he was right. No sooner had we come than the shooting resumed and we became convinced that we stayed alive purely by chance.
The small area where we were standing and talking was lightened up by the tongues of fire that like giant snakes out broke from the ruins of burnt church. The muzzles of rifles of our bashi bazouks hang out from the windows of the neighboring houses: bedangled with shot-shell carriers, they used self-operated guns and wore slices and Mausers on their belts.
Among them I also noticed several Kurds; they were part of large group of people who at dawn should come to help to finish off the Armenians, who were still continuing to control several positions and houses around the hamlet.
I saw that exchange of fire was getting fiercer. Furthermore it was impossible to inhale the smell of burnt meat from the corpses of Armenians lying among the smoking ruins of the church. We walked away, cautiously making our way through the gardens and finally got hold up on a white wall of a big house. Here I was destined to spend the night.
Before going to bed I decided to open the window and look at the rageful fire around for the last time. Leaning out I heard the whizz of bullets and one of them rubbed the sleeve of my uniform jacket.
Despite the continuing firing, disturbing the night silence, I had a peaceful sleep until the early hours when I was awakened by a cry of despair followed by a series of shots.... The Kurds entered the town and attacked the Armenians from backside.
It lasted a quarter of an hour. And while I was having breakfast on the balcony with some Kurds that had come to greet me, we witnessed such a terrible picture that one could hardly imagine.
The Armenians were running like coursed rabbits chased by case-shot that struck down dozens of them. Many of them sat on the ground and froze waiting humbly for death, like sheep taken to slaughter.
Only a small group of young men pressed up against the mud brick fence continued to defend themselves desperately until they were exhausted and gave up. The young men fell one after another hit by the gun butts and knives: to save bullets Kurds preferred to use cold weapon.
While all this was happening in the gardens, the patrols were walking along the streets and checking the basements and houses of Muslims in search of non -annihilated Armenians.
If they found Armenians, they either beheaded them with yatagans or thrusted the dagger into the chest. Needless to say how hard it was for me to portray a smile on face at the sight of these atrocities, seeing how people writhed in pain and fell on the ground in throe and also hearing their cries of despair that are haunting me up to day.
Not long before consumatum est (it ended (Lat.) —ed. note), the patrols brought me two young men from noble families who when saw me extended their hands begging for protection.
Wishing to rescue them by all means I ordered to lock them in the neighboring building strictly forbidding touching them until I decide what to do with them. But at that moment a few Kurds came and pretending as if they did not hear my order took the Armenians outside and busted four bullets into them. Hearing sounds of shots and a long death cry I figured out what had happened. However I pretended that I did not understand anything as in the East it is impolite to demonstrate feelings or protest against something you cannot change. [...]
Closer to noon the cavalry escort with gendarmes sent by governor-general Cevdet-Bey, arrived. Hardly did we leave this hell, where unheard-of atrocities prevailed, when we noticed a small villa on the shore of the lake that belonged to the American Mission in Van. There were two corpses by the gates. On both sides of the road, flocks of black ravens were whirling with loud cawks and battling with dogs for the decomposed bodies of Armenians lying everywhere. In the west through the bare branches of poplars one could see the minarets and domes of Van the capital of Armenia. Van is located almost at the southern slope of a lonely standing rocky mountain that is 80metres high and stretches from east to west on the valley almost a kilometer. The mountain peak is wreathed with giant castellation walls and an ancient fortress, which as per the legend was built in the days of Assyrian queen Semiramid.
Van formerly called Tushpa, Alniun or Semiranokert looked gloomy and sad just like almost all the towns of the Armenian Plateau covered with endless prairies. Its average height is from 5 to 6 thousand foot. There is a snow on the ground six months a year and only in the basins of the rivers the small amount of the population has found shelter and fertile lands.
Many houses here are two or even three-storeyed, they are built from the unburnt brick and stand on bottom stones.
Almost all the blocks of the town were covered with thick smoke through which rose the forks of flame. From the peak of the long narrow rock that looked like the crest of approaching wave ready to crash against the shore, one could constantly hear the salvo fire of the Turkish artillery, which did not allow Armenians to rest neither during the day nor at night.
Several kilometers to the South there was the so-called villa area, or Aygestan, that was connected to the city by a wide road, built for a full due. On both sides of the road there were cottages and villas, surrounded by gardens and fields irrigated with the help of ancient conduit named after Seramis-Su in honor of her famous foundress.
Aygestan mainly comprised separate buildings protected with enclosures. Armenians skillfully used these enclosures for creating solid line for well-fortified defense.
In addition to these defense works capable to withstand honorably the fire of our artillery, they hastily built about eighty small blockhouses. These blockhouses allowed them to control the situation along the valley.
Almost all the houses of Armenians that were outside the field of fire, were demolished by the Muslim vulgar, fanatically looking for treasures; in the East very few people kept their savings in the bank. The majority hid their money inside the walls or under the floor and sometimes under the roof. To find these treasures they had to demolish the whole house.
Arriving in the city I saw that the authorities were covering up the last tracks of their crime. In other words, they were urgently burying the corpses of Armenians lying everywhere. Perhaps they did not want me to understand the dimensions of what happened.
However, right in front of my eyes I could constantly see heaps of corpses, and also dogs that gnawed human hands and legs sticking from the ground.
There was an unbearable smell of carrion. I felt happy when I finally made it to the governor's residence. I did not find him at home; he had gone to the fortress. Not feeling comfortable to wait until he returned I went there myself to meet him.
However to get to the fortress we had to make a detour, as the Armenians started an uninterrupted precision fire. More than a bullet whizzed above our heads, and the endless rumble of shells was so deafening that even a few kilometers away from Van one could hear how it calmed down and then strengthened up, but it never stopped.
The majority of Armenians were well armed, many had Mausers, and within a short range of shooting they terrified the enemy. Their impact could only be compared to that of the machine gun, as instead of firing a bullet after a bullet, Armenians directed four, five, six bullets to the same target almost simultaneously. Furthermore they had invented something like borax, and by using it they quickly made holes in the clay walls of the buildings. Consequently, as soon as we fought back any position from them, they pushed in the guns to the new holes and before we could understand what was going on, they wreaked death among us.
Many of the besieged (primarily children and women) found shelter in the houses located in the southern part which partly saved them from the artillery shelling from the fortress.
On the high side of the rock there were still cuneiform inscriptions in Old Armenian language. Apparently these inscriptions were made during the reign of Sarduri from Urartu, i.e., in IX-VII centuries B.C. Most part of the inscriptions was in three languages and told about Darius's son Xerxes.
Unfortunately I could not properly review them from a close distance as this place was intensively fired by the besieged.
Judging by the wrecked pillars, footstalls and stone-slabs that could be seen above the fortress walls, this fortification was destroyed and reconstructed the whole time by a number of conquerors: Turks, Seljuks, Byzantines, Romans, Parthians, Persians, Medes, Assyrians, Babylonians and Sumerians, who throughout millenniums had tried to wipe off from the face of the earth all the human settlements on the Armenian Plateau. The truth is that for all the conquerors of Anatolia, Armenia together with Syria and Palestine was a huge terminal point or a dead end: only gaining grounds in this territory they could protect themselves from the attacks of the combative hordes from Central Asia.
Peculiarly citadel was a set of many rock cut military barracks, and also powder depots. The white mosque rose above them, where the next day I arranged my main military barrack.
At a height of the minaret piercing into the sky like a stone needle, I oversaw the course of combat and directed the fire of our artillery into the city of Van that spread out in front of me like a big map. At a height I could easily distinguish sometimes with an unaided eye any house, any yard and even the people walking on the streets.
Several kilometers to the West one could see the white houses of Skelekyoy that resembled a flock of doves afar, decayed to the shore of the lake; in the East in the darkling distances one could hardly distinguish the outlines of villages Artchag, Hazeeran, Bogas-Kesen, Shushants and others. These villages were inhabited mainly by Armenians. The villages lay around Van in the shape of a crescent, the northern end of which rested against a small lake Erchek, and the southern one against the gloomy and inaccessible mountain Varaga.
On the western slope of the mountain there was a huge monastery built as a fortress. It was called Yedi kilisa. Owing to it Armenians could control the whole Vartak gorge along which the caravan track passed that connected the central part of Van vilayet with the Hayots Dzor valley and Iranian border.
On the day of my arrival the siege of Van began.
Aram Pasha with his over thirty thousand Armenians, as per the data published by Miss Knapp and Mr. Rushmondi, occupied almost the entire city inside the city wall and region of Aygestan. We controlled the fortress and the suburbs, forming a steel ring that became tighter after every successful attack.
Rarely had I seen people fight with such exasperation like in the siege of Van.
It was a running, never-ending battle here and there turning into hand-to-hand fight. Here nobody begged for mercy and nobody had mercy on anyone. Neither a Christian, nor a Muslim returned from the captivity.
To save a captive at those days was as impossible as taking away the prey from the hungry tiger.
The eagerness of my people was so strong that sometimes I had to command to set the artillery inside the houses to destroy the walls that separated us from the adjacent buildings. When we captured these walls, we burnt them, so that our enemies could not restore them overnight.
Simply as that: with burnt hair, dirty face from the gunpowder and smoke, half-deafened from artillery shells and firing, we were able to move slowly, at the cost of incredible victims to the centre of this stubborn city, where Armenians continued to desperately defend themselves among the burning ruins of their houses, fighting to the last breath for free Armenia and for the victory of Christian faith...
I rued the hour when the malevolent fate turned me into the executioner of my brothers and sisters in faith.
Source: ANIV magazine, №2(5)