The Armenian Weekly
April 2010 Magazine
The road to Der Zor—from Bab, Munbij, Meskene, Raqqa—is well documented in the memoirs of Armenian Genocide survivors and foreign eyewitness accounts. However, it wasn’t enough to arrive in Der Zor alive; deportees were driven to march further north along the Khabour River to a place where gendarmes thought no one would hear their cries for help. A letter from Jesse B. Jackson, the American consul of Aleppo, discussed the deportations north of the desert city as they began in June 1916, when Zeki Bey was appointed Ottoman governor, replacing his more lenient predecessor. According to Jackson, the deportations were systematic; Armenians were deported from the city according to their place of origin. “They were told that they would be conducted to certain villages on the Khabour River, which empties into the Euphrates below Deir, and were sent off under strong escorts of armed gendarmes. Some arrived at small villages on the Khabour, but the greater part were taken only hours from Deir al-Zor, where they were set upon by bands of Turkish, Circassian and Kurdish ex-convicts that had been liberated from prisons and taken there for that purpose. The most horrible butcheries imaginable occurred, the facts of which were related to me by a few survivors who miraculously escaped and who were given shelter by friendly Arabs and later returned to Aleppo after great hardships.”(1) Jackson recounts a period of intensified massacre in the summer of 1916 along the Khabour River. His account, when paired with those told by local descendants of survivors, indicates that buried under the lands north of Der Zor lay untold stories to be unearthed.(2)
My first trip to Der Zor was on April 24, 2000, when I attended the genocide commemorations along with other Armenians. When the ceremonies subsided I made my first pilgrimage into the desert.My only geographical reference guide was a book I had purchased in Aleppo in 1994 by Robert Jebejian, a noted Aleppan doctor, who had documented the sites of the deportations and mass murders with the help of photographer Hagop Krikorian. His since out-of-publication Routes and Centers of Annihilation of Armenian Deportees made reference to Mergada, the church that sits upon a mass burial site about 88 km. north of Der Zor along the road to Hasakeh. From there, I had no idea how to get to the sites in the desert that I had seen in the book and had read about in survivor accounts. I did have faith that locals would guide me to the right place because since arriving to Der Zor people were forthcoming about discussing their Armenian grandmothers (called hababah in the local dialect). I hopped aboard a bus headed for Hasakeh, where I started a conversation with a young man returning home after serving in the Syrian military. He told me that his home town, Shaddadeh, was where I needed to go to see the caves and meet a wise man, referred to as “the shaykh,” who knew a lot about Armenians and could help me.
From the main highway, we walked about two miles to reach the end of town. I must add that the young soldier passed by his own home—full of relatives ready to celebrate the end of his mandatory military service—in order to introduce me to the man who would help me find my way further into the desert. Even in April, the two-mile trek in the sun was exasperating. Yervant Odian, in his book Accursed Years: My Exile and Return from Der Zor, 1914–1919, describes his deportation not far from Shaddadeh and how a fellow deportee taught him to suck on a stone to sate his thirst.(3) As my dependency on the bottle of water I carried grew, I imagined what it would be like with no water in April. Experiencing the desert in April only emphasizes that the survivors who made it this far on foot had superhuman physiology, as the body naturally desires only to shut down when the sun beats down on it like a sledgehammer.
As we approached the end of the long street that cuts through Shaddadeh, a striking, grey-eyed shaykh, whose real name is Sa‘ad Hammad al-As‘ad, greeted me in front of his home on the edge of town. His first words to me were, “Are you Aintapli?” I nearly fainted because the man addressing me was wearing a white abaya over his head, a traditional white jalabiya, and was clearly not Armenian. Or was he? I asked him how he knew I was Aintapli. He informed me that many of the Armenians who had came to see him hailed from Aintap. He said that most of the people who passed by this town during the genocide were deported from there; he pointed to the back of his house as if noting a pathway. Then, he told me that his own grandmother was from Aintap and was deported only to be rescued in Shaddadeh. He invited me inside for an afternoon of enlightenment that I will never forget.
Inside the house, Sa‘ad sat in his living room ringed with elegant green cushions and armrests as his young daughters quickly served us never-ending cups of tea. There he told me his story. His grandmother was an Armenian deportee from Aintap named Khanimeh. He did not know her family name but was told that her father held an important position in the town as a mukhtar (neighborhood representative) in their city of origin. She and other small girls were brought by gendarmes to a small hill called Tel Shaddadeh in the village of Shaddadeh, which lies just outside a more recently developed town by the same name. The gendarmes ordered the chief of the district (mudir al-nahiya) to detain these girls until they came back for them. This chief was Sa‘ad’s great uncle, Khatab ‘Abdallah al-Fadhl, who hailed from a notable family of the Jabour tribe. In fact, this position of district chief had been held previously by Khatab’s brother ‘Ali, the narrator’s grandfather at one time. According to the grandfather’s account, when the gendarme left, Khatab, knowing that these girls were destined for the killing fields outside of Shaddadeh, informed his family and the surrounding residents of the ominous future awaiting the girls. The village quickly hid as many as they could among the local families. It was only later, in 2008, that I would visit the actual site of rescue, the mound called Tel Shaddadeh, where three of Sa‘ad’s male relatives rescued Armenian girls from this spot; one of the rescuers, ‘Ali, would later marry Khanimeh.
Although Sa‘ad wasn’t clear on the date of this event, his family’s story matches survivor narratives like that of Dikran Berberian, who was deported from Aintap to the desert near Shaddadeh. “From the banks of the Khabour, we saw drifting a hundred corpses attached to one another at the arm, some of which were dismembered. These corpses were the last traces of victims of the Shaddadeh massacre.”(4) Thus, Berberian referred to this quiet place as the “abattoir [sic] of Shaddadeh.” Sa‘ad’s account of his grandmother’s rescue in the desert complements Berberian’s, as he emphasized how young the girls rescued on the hill were: very young and far from puberty. Berberian describes “girls less than ten years old thrown into the Khabour.”(5) Sa‘ad was told by his grandfather that the girls from Tel Shaddadeh were destined for the caves in the desert; this was confirmed later when he found their dead bodies in a ditch nearby a cave. His grandfather ‘Ali took him into the desert, taught him where this cave and its ditch were located, and thereby preserved the family story for nearly a century.
Survivor accounts detail that girls were hidden in homes by Arabs living in the deserts around Der Zor. In fact, Odian writes that Armenian survivors would walk by Arab homes and hear women having conversations with one another in Armenian. Sometimes the women would say a few words out the window if they heard Armenian being spoken in the streets.(6) It is impossible to know the details of how Sa‘ad’s grandmother came to marry his grandfather. According to Sa‘ad, his grandmother was not married to his grandfather right away as she was too young to marry when she was rescued. Some survivor accounts say that these girls were reared only later to marry male family members; this seems to match Khanimeh’s being married to a clansman once she reached maturity. Sa‘ad described the way his grandmother disguised herself among the local population by tattooing her face traditionally like the Bedouin, yet she lived in fear of being discovered once again by Turkish officials. In our many conversations, it was not clear whether or not Khanimeh was in a single or plural marriage. Sa‘ad joked in front of his wife that “Aintap men only take one wife,” as he himself has not married more than one wife despite his wealth and status. But I did learn that his own father had multiple wives when I visited his mother, Zahaya, the surviving daughter of his Armenian grandmother in 2008.
In describing Zahaya, I am at a loss of words. Like her son, she is strikingly beautiful despite her advanced years and illness. She is unable to walk, but instead sits reclined on a bed with blankets on her lap. Her beautiful blue-grey eyes look even more radiant against the whiteness of her hair and the paleness of her skin. This is in contrast to many of her children and grandchildren, whose faces are bronze and even reddish in complexion as if sun kissed. I felt emotional when I met her, and she was confused by that. I had just finished an entire trek through the desert with photojournalist Kathryn Cook from Aleppo to Shaddadeh, and the village near Tel Shaddadeh was really the climax of this journey; knowing that a few miles from there was the cave where the final massacre took place was overwhelming. My emotions took over when I heard her daughter say, “Why are they here? Why is this so important to them?” I realized that despite Sa’ad’s efforts to preserve his family history, its significance was lost on some members of the family.
I asked Zahaya about her mother and what she could tell us about her rescue on the hill that was clearly visible from the family home, the home that belonged to her mother’s rescuer. She had little to say, noting that her mother never told her much about the rescue in the desert. When she was asked about her tattoos, she spoke more readily. Her tattoos were shaped like a cross along her chin and when asked if there were other tattoos, Zahaya lifted her robe to show us that she had cross-shaped tattoos on each thigh. “My mother did it,” she said. Even though I was not able to get much information about her mother, the tattoos clearly marked Zahaya as belonging to an Armenian Christian mother who through traumatic circumstances was forced into a new environment where she lived in concealment.
Tel Shaddadeh keeps telling stories. The disappearing Khabour River lies immediately next to it. During Odian’s survival in the desert, he drank from this river to quench his thirst.Now there are only a few puddles left and they happen to be on the neighbor’s side of the bend.(7) In order to continue cultivating, the neighbor had run a loud generator to pump the existing water out of the puddles to water his crops, while members of the al-As‘ad clan looked on helplessly. There continues to be no planting on their land due to the shortage of irrigation water.
Although Sa‘ad told his story first, his wife Ghazaleh’s story was just as remarkable. It is important to note that her grandfa ther, ‘Abd al-Muhsan al-Sa‘ud al-Fadhl, was a cousin to the two al-As‘ad brothers mentioned earlier and married one of the surviving girls from Tel Shaddadeh. Ghazaleh remembered her Armenian grandmother clearly, even knew her full Armenian name—Nazili Hovsep Shamilyan—and believes was originally from Mardin. Her grandmother clearly maintained her Armenian heritage throughout her life by informing her grandchildren of her real name rather than assuming a Muslim name. Ghazaleh remembers that her grandmother tried to teach her and the other children Armenian, and she still remembers some of the Armenian names for parts of the body that she learned growing up. Her grandmother also read an Armenian Bible quite often, and since her death, this Bible has become a major point of contention among the grandchildren, as they have disputed over who gets to keep it. Ghazaleh claims that the Bible is a thousand years old, making it even more precious to her. During one visit, she began calling relatives to see if she could get the Bible to show it to me. I found Nazili’s story remarkable as she really worked to maintain her own identity and introduce it to her grandchildren.
Ghazaleh, unlike Sa‘ad, had even more clues about her heritage, as she once received a letter written in three languages—Arabic, Turkish, and Armenian—from her relatives who lived in Istanbul. She allowed me to photograph this undated letter, which included an address in Kadikoy, Istanbul, and was signed by Hovsep Shamilyan, Nazili’s brother. It was a profound piece of evidence linking Ghazaleh to the Armenian side of her family tree. This letter, written by a brother to his long-lost sister, is precious to her as she still hopes to find her Shamilyan relatives, whom she believes have since moved to Montreal, Canada. She has asked me to contact them, and I have tried to find them to no avail. I would love to fulfill her dream by finding the Shamilyans, if only to repay the family’s endless generosity they have shown me though out the years.
On one of my more recent trips to Shaddadeh in 2007, we revisited the caves in the desert. Sa‘ad had trouble finding his way to the cave this time, in part due to a debilitating struggle with diabetes; he and Ghazaleh both have diabetes and suspect that it may be something they inherited from their Armenian grandmothers. On this trip, Sa‘ad’s vision was so poor that we could not find the cave he had taken me to on previous visits. There was a strange irony in the scene of a nearly blind man walking through the desert in search of a cave he had guided so many Armenian pilgrims to over the years. He has been the guide in this morbid tourism for decades, to a historical site that’s unprotected, unpreserved, and somewhat unrecorded except in memories. I realized this may be one of our last trips to the site since Ghazaleh is increasingly protective of his health (rightly so as a scrape on his foot could take months to heal with his diabetes). As I began to fear that his knowledge of this tract of desert would be lost, a soldier stationed in a nearby post pointed us in the right direction. He also informed us that technically we weren’t supposed to be trespassing on this land because of the military outpost or oil interests in the area. Yet, the fact that the cave is common knowledge to the locals reassured me that the memories of this place will never be forgotten by the Arabs of the desert, who in many cases carry with them both the stories of their grandmothers and their rescuers.
Sa‘ad is the most passionate of his fellow siblings about his Armenian heritage, and his wife is equally passionate. They are devout Muslims, but also embrace their Armenian ancestry and take pride in it. Sa’ad does what he can to preserve the memory of the event that shaped his family by constantly welcoming Armenian pilgrims into his home and serving as their guide into the desert behind his home. His dream is to go to Armenia and visit the genocide memorial outside of Yerevan; he has expressed this wish to me almost every time I have seen him, and we talk to each other often. Although he is certainly Arab and Muslim, he sees himself as connected to the Armenian people in a very profound way, through a set of memories passed onto him by his grandparents—memories shared by all descendants of the survivors.
1. United States Official Documents on the Armenian Genocide, vol. 1, ed. A. Sarafian, 1993, pp. 148–149.
2. Hilmar Kaiser, At the Crossroads of Der Zor: Death, Survival, and Humanitarian Resistance in Aleppo, 1915–1917 (Reading, UK: Taderon Press, 2002), pp. 66, 68.
3. Yervant Odian, Accursed Years: My Exile and Return from Der Zor, 1914–1919, trans. Ara Stepan Melkonian, intro. Krikor Beledian (London: Gomidas, 2009), p. 154.
4. Dikran Berberian, “Le Massacre de Deir-Zor,” in A. Andonian, Matériaux pour l’histoire du genocide, pp. 12–15. The English is my translation, while the original French text is posted on www.imprecriptible.fr/rhac/tome2/p2t51.
6. Odian, 213.
7. ibid., 168.