Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #16)

In my previous entry “Chaotic Consequences: Now and Then,” posted on July 2, 2016, I referenced the aftermath of recent disastrous battlefronts–floods of desperate Syrian refugees trying to find safety.

I likened that scene to one that occurred in December and January in 1915. When the Russians decimated the Turkish army in the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks weren’t the only ones who suffered. Their commandeered Armenian porters did, too. There was no organized retreat for the fifteen percent of those who survived the battle. It was every man for himself. Escaping the battlefront and heading in the right direction toward home was only part of the challenge. The trek home had to be done in the dead of winter, across hundreds of miles, without adequate clothing or food, on foot, and often alone.

Annie and the rest of the Gregorian family have no knowledge of the battle pitched hundreds of miles away from their farm and town in central Ottoman Turkey. All Annie knows is that she hasn’t heard from her oldest brother, Mesrop, in months. He doesn’t even return home in time for one of the most important times of the year, early January’s Feast of the Theophany. Annie wonders. Mesrop is a student at an Armenian college. Surely the war with Russia has nothing to do with him. What has happened to him? Why haven’t we heard from him? Where is he?

Two weeks after the Feast of Theophany, Annie and her father go into town with a cart of farm products and set up a booth to sell them in the bazaar.

While I was measuring out a couple of kilograms of flour into a customer’s sack, a skeleton of a man staggered up to me. Looking up from the scale I held in my hand, I stared at the man’s matted hair scantily covered by a rabbit skin tiedĀ over his head. I ran my eyes down the rags he wore. Their faded hues reminded me of clothes I had helped make for… The man’s blue lips moved. A cracked voice whispered, “Annie!” The ragged frame collapsed at my feet.

Dropping my scale, I knelt next to the heap on the snow. Putting my hand under the man’s head, I gently turned it so I could see his face.

“Mesrop!” My scream brought Hyrig and other vendors running.

“A cloak! Someone get a cloak. Some hot tea. Quick. Where’s the doctor?” Voices around me called to each other.

I sat in the snow and dirt, cradling my brother’s head, weeping, calling his name.

Someone thrust a warm cup in my hand. “See if he can sip this,” a woman’s voice said. “My husband’s gone for the doctor.”

Lifting Mesrop’s head, I tipped the cup to wet his lips with a drop of the broth.His eyelids fluttered. His tongue licked the drop. Sip upon sip brought slight color to his face.

A rattle of cart wheels and clop of donkey hooves drew my gaze up. Hyrig stooped to gather his boy in his arms. Gently, he laid Mesrop in our donkey cart. A hand offered a cloak. It was from the coppersmith that Mayrig had defended months ago.

“Thank you,” Hyrig said as he tucked the warm garment around Mesrop. “Annie, pack up our stuff. We need to get him home.”

Sensing the urgency of the voices around him, the Gregorians’ donkey hustles back to their farm. Shortly after Hyrig carries Mesrop into the house, the doctor arrives.

Mesrop revived enough to answer the doctor’s questions. “Mesrop, you’ve made it home. We’re all relieved to see you. Where have you been?”

“The Russian front. With Turkey’s 3rd Army Corps. The army conscripted all of us male students from my college. We were porters.”

“What happened at the front?”

“Blizzard. Lieutenant Mahmoud killed. Ran out of food. Many dead. Frozen. Sick. Shot. Tried to help. Long walk back. Alone.”

“Are you sick?”

“Don’t think so. Just hungry. Very tired. Sooooo cold.”

Turning to my parents, the doctor said, “Your son needs warmth, food, and rest. Best start with cleaning him up. Do you have a wash tub and warm water?”

Mayrig took the hint. “Hyrig, let’s get him out of these filthy rags.”

“You should burn them outside,” the doctor instructed. “Shave his head. Burn the hair, too. May be infested with critters.”

Mesrop makes it home. Most of the Turkish soldiers and Armenian porters don’t. Nor is this scenario of missing persons the last to be set in motion by the government in Constantinople in 1915. A mere two months later, Annie’s hyrig goes missing. (See excerpt #13, posted April 23, 2015.)

Chaotic Consequences: Now & Then

Islamic State militias rampage through parts of Syria and Iraq in recent months, staking claims to this section of land or that town. The militias say they act in God’s name.

Chaos ensues. The refugees run or paddle to places where families can live without the constant threat of rape, starvation, or death. Hordes of Syrians and others caught in the conflict have attempted to flee through Turkey or across the Mediterranean Sea. Many have drowned in their attempt to escape. Meanwhile, smugglers squeeze profit off the desperate and destitute.

But remember all this suffering was caused in God’s name. Really? Does God have anything to do with the actions of the Islamic State? Maybe the chaos is the consequence of efforts to line the pockets of the proponents of a particular segment of the followers of Islam.

We, in North America, recognize this motivation. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with mankind’s prominent sin, greed.

Chaos as a consequence of misaligned motivations is nothing new. In the late fall of 1914, Enver Pasha, the Minister of War of the Ottoman Empire, chose to pick a fight with Russia in the Caucasus Mountains. Since the proposed line of battle was hundreds of miles from a rail line, adequate roads, or completed bridges, Enver conscripted thousands of Armenians from all over the Empire to function as porters, transporting supplies for his army (See my February 22, 2013 posting, Dreams of an Empire Lost in Snow: Armenians the Scape Goats.). Enver re-conscripted Armenian men who had previously served in the army. Enver stripped Armenian colleges and universities of their young men, effectively closing them.

Lugging huge loads, the Armenian ‘donkeys’ were treated worse than the Turkish officers’ mounts. Some never reached the ultimate destination, dying en route. Bivouacked in the open, without winter clothing or adequate food supplies, many of the Armenian porters froze, starved, or died from typhus.

In early December of 1914, snow buried the Caucasus Mountains. Yet Enver chose to engage the Russian army. He claimed that a victory would return the Ottoman Empire to its former glory. Hmm. Greed again? Misaligned nationalism? In any case the result was that Enver lost the battle and 85% of his army. Consequence? Chaos. It was every man, soldier, or porter, for himself. No organized retreat. One by one those who survived trickled home. For some, it took a month to get there.

Yet Enver survived–and who did he blame for the lost battle and ensuing chaos? Himself? Oh, no. His Armenian porters, insisting he and Talaat, the Minister of the Interior, had adequate excuse for the 1915 genocide of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire that he and Talaat had been planning for over a year.