‘Aleppo Protocols’ Depict What Children of Genocide Saw -
Orphan girls at the Aleppo Armenian orphanage 1923 (AGBU archives)
GENEVA — Today when the name Aleppo appears in the press, the story will be about human suffering in the once-beautiful Syrian city, now a battleground between terrorist-linked forces and the Syrian government military. The war has been raging for more than three years and those most victimized by the killing are the civilian population, increasing turned into a mass of refugees.
Almost a century ago Aleppo served as a safe haven for refugees, survivors of the Armenian Genocide who had made their way out of Anatolia. Newly published material from the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, offers rare documentation of the Genocide, through the short personal histories that survivors provided on arrival at a reception house of the League and the Danish Friends of Armenians (Danske Armeniervenner, DA). These were Armenians, many of them young orphans, who had been released from Muslim households (Turkish, Kurdish or Arab) in the period between 1922 and 1930.
The records, known as “The Aleppo Protocols: Histories of the Armenian Genocide,” have been compiled, annotated and edited by Taner Akçam, Dicle Akar Bilgin and Matthias Bjørnlund. They are being published on www.armenocide.de, an online publication launched by German Genocide historians Wolfgang and Sigrid Gust, who first made available the relevant material from the archives of the German Foreign Ministry during World War I. Joining them on the editorial staff are Akçam, Vagharshak Lalayan and Matthias Bjørnlund.
It was Karen Jeppe, a Danish field worker for the relief organization, DA and her staff who, as the League’s Commissioner for the Protection of Women and Children in the Middle East, helped free Armenian survivors who had been kept in Muslim households, often as slaves or servants. Between 1921, when she was assigned to the League’s position and 1927, Jeppe’s organization worked through a networks of “agents,” including priests and businessmen, to locate and save Armenians in Anatolia/Asia Minor. As the editors write in their introduction, this was “an enormous task: some 100,000 Armenians, mainly female and very often poor, diseased, unemployed, orphaned, malnourished and traumatized, were scattered around Syria, many eking out an existence in refugee camps. Although Armenian and American organizations in particular had been working to release Armenians since the end of the war, approximately 20,000-30,000 of the women and children were still living in Muslim captivity, victims of kidnapping, forced marriage, rape and sexual slavery that had become de facto instruments of genocide from 1915 onward, as testified by numerous eyewitness accounts and diplomatic reports.”
To locate these Armenians, the operation set up search stations in various locations including Rakka, Der Zor, Ras ul Ain and Hassitsche. Working out of these bases, the agents scoured the countryside looking for Armenians in Muslim homes. Those released found shelter first in tents in a refugee camp in Aleppo, until more permanent housing could be provided. The projects jointly run by the DA and League of Nations included agricultural colonies, schools and orphanages. In Aleppo, the DA refugee camp, known as “the city of the 20,000,” survivors found material assistance, food, medical aid and training for future employment.
The documents now being published are the handwritten admission forms that each refugee filled out on arrival, with basic information, i.e. names, date of birth and origin. Some examples, taken at random: Siranoush Koresian, aged 16, came from Zara and her father’s name was Vosgehan. Admitted to the Karen Jeppe orphanage in Aleppo on July 20, 1922, “She came with her elder sister to Urfa. Her father was killed in a village around Urfa. She ignores what became of her sister. She lived in a Turkish house for six years as a servant. She desired to escape many times but she was afraid because they treated her very cruelly. Later an Armenian woman helped her and she went to the Armenian church from where she was sent to Aleppo. Her uncle is in America. Siranoush came into connection with her relatives, who sent her money and are preparing to take her to America. Siranoush entered our camp and is living on her own account. Left our care: February 28, 1923. Relatives.”
Or take the case of Krikor Turkmonoghli, son of Kevork from Mosheg (Andreos), aged 12, admitted to the same orphanage on August 2, 1922: “Deported with his family until Malatia, where he lost them. He went on to Room Kale where he lived 7 years as a farmer with a Turk. His work was too painful for him, he could not endure it any longer and he fled to Biredjik. There he met an Armenian priest and so he met after 7 years a man of his nation and people. He was supported several days and afterwards brought him to Jirablous where he met our organization. Krikor was sent by our man to Aleppo. His elder brother is supposed to be in some environing village of Urfa. Krikor was received in the Armenian orphanage March 31, 1923. Left our care: March 31, 1923. Orphanage N.E.R. (Near East Relief)”
Or there was Khachadur Baroian from Harpoot, aged 20, whose father was killed and his mother deported. He lost contact with his mother, then was deported with a caravan of children to Mesopotamia and on the way was taken in by a Turk for whom he then worked seven years. “One day some merchants were passing his town. He heard from them, that Armenians and foreigners have opened orphanages for Armenian boys and girls. He decided to go back to his nation. He fled, joined the leaving merchants and came to Aleppo….”
These are samples of the short biographies of those who arrived in Aleppo. In the protocols there are also several longer entries (not quoted here for space reasons), which provide a fuller picture of the experiences of the refugees. Taken all together, the testimonies paint a vivid chronicle of the genocide.
Another young Armenian, Avak Garabedian from Dersim, also lived seven years with a Kurd. “Avak was told that all Armenians were killed, he believed it and then never wanted to return to his nation. Once he heard some Kourds talking about Armenians in Aleppo, he felt a will of fleeing. He fled the same night joined some muleteers and he came with them to Aleppo.”
As the editors note in their introduction, although “all the testimonies are unique … and atypical … many are also typical” because of the pattern that emerges of how the genocide took place. One theme that recurs is the desire to be reunited with Armenians and the project directors concentrated very much on reinforcing or in some cases reviving a sense of Armenian identity, that some had lost in the years living with a Turkish or Kurdish family.
They write: “After having been admitted into the reception home, the survivors received housing in dormitories, education and vocational training, not only to acquire skills necessary to survive and to provide for themselves, but also to become what was regarded as truly Armenian, i.e., Armenian-speaking Christians. In the Ottoman Empire, Apostolic Christianity, not language, was the principal ethnic marker for Armenians. Depending on where in the empire they lived, Armenians could be multilingual, have Turkish or Kurdish as their mother tongue, or speak Armenian dialects that were incomprehensible to an Armenian-speaking Armenian from another part of the empire. But after WWI and the genocide, when national as well as individual salvation and regeneration was of the highest priority in the diaspora, the (Western) Armenian language was regarded and taught as ‘the of identity,’ at the expense of other languages. As one of the Armenian orphans at the Aleppo reception home, Harutiun Tchakerian, expressed it, the home was a Babylon where Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and Laz was spoken alongside Armenian, a language many had to learn or relearn after years in captivity. Many Western missionaries and aid workers consciously and actively participated in this project of national recovery.”
Publication of these rare documents represents a valuable contribution to reconstructing the drama of the Genocide, as told by almost 2000 individual survivors. The English may be stilted — because those recording the accounts of the new arrivals were themselves not native speakers of English, but Danes or others — but the brief biographical sketches are powerful vignettes that communicate a dramatic human experience in abbreviated form.
The Armenian Mirror Spectator