Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #13)

The tenor of life in the towns and villages across the Anatolian Plains of Ottoman Turkey took a sharp turn for the worse in the early months of 1915. Turkish and Kurdish harassment against their Armenian neighbors became serious and intense. Orders from Constantinople included stripping Armenian gendarmes of their guns and the re-conscription of Armenian men into labor battalions, supposedly to do road construction.

In my book Lavash, Uncle Dikran shows up at Annie’s house to complain about being fired from his town post as a gendarme. After spouting off, he suddenly remembers a message he is supposed to pass on to his brother, Annie’s hyrig.

“Oh, I almost forgot. The town crier passed our house early this morning.” Looking at Hyrig, Uncle said, “Minister of War, Enver, has called up all former conscripts of Armenian army units to serve on labor battalions this spring. That includes you, I believe.”

“It does. Labor battalions?” Hyrig asked. “What kind of labor? It doesn’t mean serving as porters for the army again, does it?”

“No. This time it’s for road construction. Next Friday morning, you are to report to the Centrum in Kemahcelli. Bring food for a week, several lengths of rope, and a shovel.”

That Friday, as Annie says goodbye to her father, she tells him she has a bad feeling about this departure. Her premonition is that the goodbye isn’t temporary. It is really forever.

Two days later, Annie, her mother, and siblings attend church for Easter Sunday services.

She relates, “Only when we were leaving the building did the absence of our men strike me. The church was full of women and children. I could count on one hand the number of men with their families.”

Annie never sees her beloved hyrig again.

What Annie doesn’t know is that armed Turks escort the re-conscripted, unarmed Armenian labor battalions some distance from their towns of origin and summarily ‘deport’ their laborers permanently that spring of 1915, leaving the remaining Armenian population of women, children, and elderly defenseless.


The March Madness of 1915

North Americans bend over backwards, these days, to avoid incarcerating, convicting, or executing innocent people. For the most part, even for felons, who have been tried and convicted of the most heinous crimes, capital punishment has been expunged from judicial systems on this continent.

No such attitude or even ideal existed in Turkey during its Ottoman Empire days. In the last several posts about the realities behind my historical fiction Lavash, little was mentioned about what the Turkish government planned for the Armenian men. It is time for explicit exposure.

When the gangs of Turkish soldiers couldn’t find caches of guns during their raids of Armenian homes and churches in October of 1914, the soldiers photographed their own guns as ‘proof’ that Armenians were planning a rebellion (2006, Shameful Act:  The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility). Minister of War Enver and Minister of the Interior Talaat, two of the Young Turk government in Constantinople, rumored that the Armenians openly supported the Russian invasion into Ottoman Turkish territory and participated in mob violence (1989, A Peace to End All Peace). Although none of that was true, Enver and Talaat apparently functioned on the belief that if a lie is repeated often enough it becomes proof of guilt.

‘Convicted’ by rumor and false ‘evidence,’ the Armenian men, who had served in the Turkish Army in December of 1914 and had survived, were re-conscripted in March of 1915 for labor battalions. Under armed escort and carrying only shovels, these battalions of Armenian men were marched out of towns to do road construction, supposedly. Without trials, any concrete evidence, and based only on an assumption of collective guilt because they were Armenians, the men were taken out in groups of fifty, made to dig their own graves, stripped naked, bound in groups of four, knifed to death, and buried in shallow graves next to the roads they had repaired. During a transfer of several such battalions in Turkey’s interior between Harput and Diyorbakir, for example, two thousand Armenian men were killed. Their corpses were laid side by side in ditches and covered by only a few inches of dirt over their mass graves (2006, Shameful Act: …).

Meanwhile, the Armenian families never learned what happened to the husbands and fathers who went with the labor battalions. Their men left before Easter and never returned. By April of 1915, the Armenian population consisted of women, children, elderly, and a few male leaders of businesses, schools, and churches in many towns and cities of Ottoman Turkey.

Divested of guns and men, the Armenian communities were easy prey for the remainder of Talaat’s ultranationalistic scheme: Turkey’s only for Turks.