By Emil Danielyan
The men in Gyulena Musoyan’s extended family knew that something terrible is about to befall their village as they discussed their future in the run-up to the bloody spring of 1915. The anxiety on their faces was forever imprinted in the 11-year-year girl’s mind.
“I remember my father and five uncles gathering and saying that murderers will be coming soon,” says Musoyan, now a white-haired woman approaching her 102nd anniversary. “We children got very scared and didn’t leave our homes after that.”
The family’s worst fears were to materialize before long as Turkish soldiers entered the village in the Kessab region of what is now Syria to implement their rulers’ vicious plan to wipe out the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Their actions followed an all too familiar pattern, with men drafted to the Ottoman army to face subsequent execution and women, children and elderly persons forced on grueling marches which most of them did not survive.
“They told us to leave the house,” Musoyan recalls as she sits on a couch in her Yerevan house. “We all cried. I can’t describe how awful it was. We thought we are going to be massacred.”
Yet miraculously, the family survived. Musoyan lived on for 90 years to bear witness to what many international historians see as the first genocide of the 20th century. She is now one of the oldest survivors of the Armenian genocide.
According to the Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan, there were still as many as 4,600 such people in Armenia a decade ago. Only about 550 of them were thought to be alive as of last October. Museum officials say their number has been shrinking at an increasingly high rate.
Kessab’s geographical location meant that the Musoyans were spared what would have been a death march to Deir el-Zor, a desert in northern Syria to which hundreds of thousands of Armenian women and children were herded from the eastern regions of the collapsing empire. Most of them died of hunger, disease and exhaustion.
The Kessab Armenians were instead forced to trek further to the south with little food and water. Musoyan can not forget an exhausted woman who abandoned her infant child on the dusty road to Amman, now the capital of Jordan. “My mother asked her, ‘Sister, why are you leaving your child?’ She said, ‘What can I do? Either she, or I will die. I can’t carry her anymore’.”
Once in Amman, the girl and her siblings and cousins had to beg on the streets to support their mothers until their fathers somehow managed to escape and rejoin their loved ones. It was not until the start of French rule in Syria in 1919 that they returned to Kessab. Gyulena’s family moved to Soviet Armenia in 1947, swelling the ranks of hundreds of thousands of genocide survivors and their descendants.
A large part of them were former residents of Van, a once bustling city in the southeast of present Turkey. Van was one of very few Armenian-populated parts of the Ottoman Empire that put up an armed resistance to the Young Turk regime. A resistance that saved the lives of most of its residents.
Varazdat Harutiunian, a prominent Armenian architect born in Van, was 6 years old when the fighting began. “I remember that spring well,” he says. “The trees already blossomed, but myself and other kids were locked in our houses because a war was underway.”
Ottoman troops unsuccessfully besieged Van’s two Armenian quarters until being driven out by the advancing Russian army in May 1915. But the Russians were forced to retreat from the city shortly afterward and a mass evacuation of the entire Armenian population followed.
Despite constant overnight attacks by Turkish forces and Kurdish irregulars, Russian-guarded convoys of Armenian refugees successfully trudged to safety in Echmiadzin, the nearest town in Caucasian Armenia, then part of the Russian Empire. But this, as it turned out, was not the end of their ordeal.
Within days a huge refugee camp sprung up around the Echmiadzin cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church. “What I witnessed there got stuck in my mind for the rest of my life,” Harutiunian recounts. “The church courtyard was filled with thousands of people. There was a typhoid and cholera epidemic. Every day hundreds of corpses were carried away and buried in the fields.”
Among the victims were Harutiunian’s father and 5-year old brother Gurgen. Harutiunian, now 96, also suffered from typhoid but survived the disease before ending up in an Armenian orphanage in Tbilisi. By the time he reunited with his mother in 1920 only three out of nine members of his family were left alive.
The extended family of Geghanush Khostikian, also from Van, was far more fortunate. “There were 18 of us,” says the 94-year-old former construction engineer. “We reached and went through Echmiadzin without losses.”
Khostikian’s clearest memory of her Van childhood relates to the day when the Russians entered the city. “I remember us shouting in Russian, ‘Give us apples, give us apples’,” she says.
Midil Galjian, 91, was too young to have any recollection of her hometown. The retired bank accountant was a 18-month-old toddler when her pregnant mother fled Van in a horse cart in the spring of 1915. Her father and brother joined them in Tbilisi a few months later.
“My mom would tell me years later that if we didn’t get a carriage she might have had to throw me into the river,” Galjian says.
Very few of the Van-born Armenians have been able to revisit their hometown over the past 90 decades. Varazdat Harutiunian spent four days in Van in 1991 and was shocked not to find any traces of the centuries-old Armenian presence there.
“The Van I remembered didn’t exist anymore,” Harutiunian says, puffing Armenian cigarettes also called “Van.” “All but one of its 15 Armenian churches were completely destroyed. Our beautiful Van was completely Turkified. I left it in tears and even regretted going back to my hometown.”
In his view, the systematic destruction of medieval Armenian churches and other monuments in eastern Turkey finished the job begun by the last Ottoman rulers. Harutiunian and other genocide survivors remain too distrustful of the Turks to believe that they will one day willingly recognize the Armenian genocide.
“The Turks must apologize and compensate us, but they won’t do that,” says Geghanush Khostikian.
But what if they do one day? “I will never believe in their sincerity,” says Midil Galjian. “The Turks can’t be trusted.”
Gyulena Musoyan agrees: “We must not forgive them. Even if we do, God won’t forgive them.”
(RFE/RL photos: Gyulena Musoyan, left, and Geghanush Khostikian.)