A First-Person Testimony About The Heroic Battle of Vasbouragan


Vagharsh(ak) Shirvanian

EDITOR’S NOTE: Last spring one of Asbarez’s long-time readers, supporters and community leaders Savey Tufenkian brought in a letter that was published was published in 1978 in Hairenik Daily newspaper, our sister publication, which was published in Boston at the time.

Mrs. Tufenkian asked if we can translate it. The letter recounted the story of her father, Vagharsh Shirvanian and his role in the heroic battle of Vasbouragan. The letter was so moving that we offered to publish it. Mrs. Tufenkian agreed, only if we could publish a biography of her mother, Verzhin Shirvanian, which was tranlated into English by Dr. Garabet Moumjian.

We thought it best to save the publication for the Genocide Centennial Special issue, as the stories of selfless heroism are emblems of our nation’s survival and perseverence and provide us a window into a world conquered by resilience in the face of harrowing tragedy.

A Letter From Vagharsh(ak) Shirvanian

Editor’s Note:

Between April 7 and May 4, 1915, the free-spirited and courageous Armenians of Van had no other means but to defend themselves in order to escape massacre and total annihilation. Like the Armenians of Musa Dagh, Ourfa, Shabin Karahisar, Hadjen, and Ayntep, the self-defense battles of Van-Vaspuragan were to become shining examples of the will of a people who refused to be slaughtered like sheep in 1915. They preferred to stand tall and die fighting rifle-in-hand to show that they, too, possessed the will to live with dignity.

1. (Unknown); 2. Arshavir Kazandjian; 3. Krikor Tutundjian; 4. Kapriel Hatsakordzian; 5. Mardiros Dabaghian (Vesber); 6. Vartan Maksabedian; 7. Vagharshak Shirvanian; 8. Aram Markarian; 9. Harutiun Kishmishian; 10. Nerses Basian

The self-defense of Vasburagan in 1915 was the precursor to the battles of Pash Aparan, Gharakilise, and Sartarabad, which took place three years later in 1918. They were to become the cementing blocks of the creation of the Republic of Armenia. As a matter of fact, in both cases, it was Aram Manoukian of Van, popularly known as Aram Pasha, who assumed the leadership of the Armenians in Yerevan and became the symbol of hope and courage for the Armenian people. He led all Armenians—men, women, even the elderly—to fight and, if necessary, to die struggling for what had remained of the ancestral homeland. The Vasburagan Armenians, who at the time had found conditional refuge in Eastern Armenia, were on the first lines of defense. They brought their unequivocal participation in the battles that heralded the establishment of the free and independent Armenian homeland!

The letter we present below is about the period just before, during, and after the heroic self defense battle of Van-Vasburagan. We present it here is a memoir of the events and the general psychological conditions in the city at the time.

The writer of the letter is Vagharshak Shirvanian, the husband of Mrs. Verzhin Shirvanian and the father of a well known California Armenian community member, Hagop Shirvanian.

Vagharshak had come to the United States to continue his higher education. However, after studying in this country for several years he had preferred to return back to his ancestral city of Van.

The letter was written in 1916 and was addressed to his paternal cousin, Megerdich Shirvanian who resided in New Jersey. Megerdich was a known member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also refered to as Tashnagtsutyun). Megerdich died last year. This letter was found among his papers. He had copied and sent it to Mrs. Verzhin as a memento from her late husband.

We thus print Vagharshak’s letter with very minor editing as a personal memoir of the heroic battle of Van in April-May 1915.

My dear Megerdich:

I had thought many times to write to you and to tell you about the sometimes awful, sometimes happy, and sometimes unbearable conditions we are in. However, tears have always suffocated my desire and my wounded heart has bled yet again…Today, I decided to write to you no matter what…

As soon as I returned home (Van) from America, things changed dramatically. My family’s home had been blessed five folds during my absence and it had become one full with all the amenities that an oriental abode could provide. I was happy to see our home in such a prosperous condition. It was as if the home had been transformed into a monastery, where daily some 30 visitors were welcomed and fed in accordance to our Armenian customs and hospitality.

Alas, times were to change and nothing remained the same. The war started and soon all males between the ages of 15 to 55 were to be conscripted. I tried to evade conscription by assuming the role of a physician’s aid, or a teacher, or even a cleric. In the end, I joined the [Ottoman] army through my own means; we were sent to the Persian border. We remained stationed there for some time until the battles started, and the Russian army, together with the Armenian volunteer units, advanced.

[Three illegible lines here]

New directives arrived and they disarmed all Armenian soldiers. Each moment we thought our end was near. They took unarmed soldiers to the mountains and ravines where they were brutally killed by their comrades in arms. Many were taken away to join the work battalions only to be slain once reaching there. One day I felt that my turn had come too. As if to accomplish an important mission, I and a Turkish soldier from Van were sent to a remote village. While en route, I noticed that my assumed comrade was not himself and I understood that his mission was to get rid of me. I, without any hesitation, drew my pistol and killed him on the spot. I took his rifle and, after journeying for three days on snow covered mountains, reached Van and joined the other soldiers who had deserted the Ottoman army.

Times were dire in the city. The situation became really tense when Vramian was shot, and Ishkhan1 killed.

Van Armenians are born as courageous people like their forefathers Vartan and Vahakn Mamigonian. They were ready to fight and die for their freedom and dignity. The forces on both sides were unequal; 600 to 700 Armenian fighters to defend the city against an Ottoman army of 30,000 led by Jevdet Bey, the governor of Van. The battle was one that the world had not seen before…

Of course you are interested to know about what I did during the fighting. I wanted you to read about it from the articles and books that are inevitably going to be published about it, however, since I am writing to you, I can’t remain silent. After all, you are my paternal cousin and the destroyed home and tombstones of your father and ancestors beg me to tell you about how I exacted vengeance against the attacking Turks. Yes, I can say without any hesitation that I was the leader of the important skirmishes at the Sokhag Bey and Tovmas’ house area, which was an advanced Armenian post and almost surrounded by enemy forces. I had become an instrument of vengeance and I had sworn to kill as many enemies as I could before being killed. I was looking death in the eye and never budging. All I thought about was revenge.

The Turkish army shelled our position on a daily basis. We were receiving some 400 artillery shells on a daily basis. We responded to these with our rifles, by singing patriotic songs, and by swearing across the battle line…Those were the best days of my life dear cousin. I was the leader of a group of five young fighters, and though we were surrounded by thousands of enemy soldiers and were without food and water for almost a week, we fought tirelessly day and night. The enemy had cut our communication line with our other forces by taking hold of the homes of Bakr and Hamze, from whose windows they were sniping at us all the time. Our comrades were trying to burn down Hamze’s home so as to reestablish communication with our advanced post; the plan didn’t succeed. When they tried once more without any success I became restless. I came out to the open, and while thousands of bullets were whizzing on all sides, I was able to go up Tovmas’ house street and started firing at the enemy post. My friends were shouting for me to stop and retreat. However, my spirit was unshaken, and I was utterly defying death. Once near the enemy post, I put the house on fire. I rolled back to the orchard of the house and started firing at the enemy, who thought that there was a big advance against them and started to retreat. I returned only after I had exhausted all my bullets. There is no time to go into details dear cousin. I later participated in several other such commando acts and even became the leader of bigger groups of fighters. I was by now very good at throwing grenades at enemy formations.

My dearest Megerdich, I was able to execute my revenge tenfold [illegible words here]…

Finally, after five centuries of Ottoman Muslim rule, the sun came out with brighter rays. The Armenian flag was now flying over the historic castle of Van. Van was now under the rule of an Armenian administration and was defended by Armenian soldiers!

It was time for me to get engaged to the girl I loved. Soon, there was going to be a big wedding at the Varak Monastery, and Aram Pasha was to be our godfather. The only mission for me was to go to Mogk and teach the Kurds there a good lesson for the atrocities they had committed against Armenian villagers during the siege of Van.

We accomplished the mission successfully and returned to our city.

Alas, those bright days were followed by the retreat of the Armenians from Van. It was not a normal retreat since we were informed only several hours earlier that the Russian army was to retreat and hence the populace had to follow suit. We started on our way to Igdir, with almost 200,000 people on the road. The Ottoman army was attaching our flanks. We fought and were able to rescue thousands of deportees, but the most difficult battles were fought at the Pergri gorge, where several thousand Armenians were killed. Members of our household were sage…

Alas, dear Megerdich…After surviving such hardships the members of our household were to succumb to death in utter distress in the vineyards of Igdir. Only I and my youngest brother, Ardashes, remained alive. I would not have cried so hard had they died in their ancestral home. However, it is hard not to weep because they died not of enemy fire, but succumbing to illness and malnutrition. My heart is bloodied, dearest Megerdich. Yesterday, I also buried my dear fiancé…Instead of the big wedding at Varak Monastery, I witnessed her burial ceremony. Your sister and her husband are alive though and that might be a solace to you!

Megerdich jan, my health is not so good. I had to rest and be under a physician’s care. I was somewhat feeling better when the ARF Igdir Committee tasked me with providing food and shelter to the villagers of the Orgof plain. I accomplished the task to their satisfaction.

I can’t even start to relate how the deportees from Van were doing in their exile. They are dying by the hundreds and even thousands every day. Disease and malnutrition are the culprits.

I am much better now and will soon join my friends in the battlefield. Please convey my sincerest regards to my paternal uncle, Mrs. Satenig, and the children. My regards go also to the Teulian brothers and to Armenuhi. Please kiss Vartanig wholeheartedly for me!

Dear Megerdich: I sent my brother, Ardashes to the battlefront today. I will do the same and join Aram Pasha. The world has no value to me anymore. I am only at my wits when I am on the battlefield. My lips sing a patriotic song and all my being becomes an instrument of vengeance for my people whose bodies have filled the plains of my motherland, Hayastan. Revenge is the order of the day. Revenge that bursts out of the ashes of the motherland…

Vagharshak Shirvanian

1 [Arshag] Vramian and Ishkhan were ARF members and leaders of the Armenian community in Van. Their elimination was an omen that the ottoman army wanted to capture the city and kill all Armenian inhabitants. But first, the task was to eliminate the leaders of the community in order to be able to accomplish its barbaric plan.

Verzhin Shirvanian

My Biography


I am writing my biography—of course it is about what I do remember—and I dedicate it to my children and grandchildren.

I was born on April 1 of the year 1901, in the Aykestan sector of the city of Van. I had a very happy childhood. My father was a well known merchant in Van, and my mother raised her four children (two boys, two girls) & looked after them impeccably.

After graduating from the parochial school of our area, I was accepted into the Santukhdian Middle School of Van. Onnik Mkhitarian, a well known writer, was our classroom teacher. I have to say that I was a studious learner and had a unique talent in reciting poems, and Mkhitarian loved me for that. He made me memorize Siamanto’s poem “A Fistful of Ashes” (Aap Me Mokhir). It became a favorite piece for me to recite throughout my life. I used to recite it everywhere!

1914 and the First World War (WWI) soon came around and a dreadful situation emerged. Deportations & migration ensued and we left everything behind to journey towards unknown horizons.

I was 14 then. We left our flourishing fatherland and our comfortable lives to seek refuge elsewhere. One event that I could never forget throughout my life is this: Since we were obliged to walk the distance, the elderly were left behind. My grandmother, who was 90 years old at the time, was one of those left behind. She said goodbye to us with tearful eyes. She cried and said “Please kill me yourselves before you go.” She continued to talk, still tearing up, “I will look upon the moon and the stars at night and ask them ‘how you are doing?’ In the morning, I will ask the gurgling waters of our streams if they have any news from you. If I pick up fruits from our orchard, whom should I give them to? My dear grandchildren will not be there any more…”

We started our journey with tears in our own eyes. Our destination was totally unknown and we endured great difficulties on the road. Turkish soldiers stationed on heights would shoot and attack us. We were showered with bullets from one side, and bombarded by rain and walnut-sized hail from the other. Many lost their loved ones during the march; I thought I lost my parents during the turmoil…

The Turkish attacks became more menacing by the day. Soldiers kidnapped girls—especially adolescents—and young ladies. Many would jump into ravines or throw themselves into rivers than fall into the hands of the Turks. Even I tried to throw myself into a river, but an Armenian volunteer grabbed hold of my waist and prevented me from committing suicide. He took me back to the caravan of people, and I was so delighted to see that my parents were still alive. My mother tearfully embraced me and gave me some food. There was no water around us, so people dug holes in the ground to find fresh water in order to quench their thirst. We had no water and no bread. We continued walking and reached Igtir. They were feeding the deportees there. Unfortunately, the area was infested with cholera. People started dying in groups and mass graves were dug to accommodate the burial of those wretched bodies…

What (Avedis) Aharonian wrote really represented our situation:

Sleep my dear one; I am singing lullabies for you

Please don’t cry; I have cried enough for both of us

The gentle wind is blowing in the forest

It is mourning the unburied dead my dear one

Many are those who were left as such

Please don’t cry my dear one…

Suck my black sorrow with the milk from my breast

Let that become a black vengeance in your soul

Suck on it and grow; my future hero

We were relocated to Tiflis. I was registered at the girls’ Kananian Middle School there. Not long after, I became ill with typhus and was admitted to a hospital, where I remained for two to three months. Soon, we were relocated to Yerevan, where I continued my secondary education and also graduated.

I met Vagharshak Shirvanian in 1917—which is when we also got engaged. His courage during the 1915 defense battles of Van had earned him a hero’s name.

Our engagement was huge! All his friends attended the ceremony. When people started congratulating us one of his closest friends, Parunak Kaputikian—the father of the famous poetess Silva Kaputikian—raised his cup and said “Dear Vagharshak, I know that you have committed many courageous acts during your life. Now, even though tired, you are embarking upon forming a family nest. These are dire times when the fatherland still needs you…”

Vagharshak stood up, and, with cup in hand, in turn said the following, “Dear friend and comrade Parunak, I want to assure you and all those present here that I will be ready at any moment my fatherland needs me. I am ready once again to go and defend it with my life!”

A month after our engagement, Vagharshak returned to Van and remained there for two months. He returned on 18 December, 1917, and we were soon married. Twenty days later Aram (Mnukian) Pasha sent for him: Vagharshak, immediately get back to Van because you are desperately needed there. The people need leaders…Please come as soon as you can…

Vagharshak left for Van on January 4. I had no clue that he was to leave until the night before he actually did, when glasses were raised and good wishes were said for his return. We were gathered with our friends at the house of our godfather. Vagharshak was to go to van with a group of his volunteer friends. His friends told him: “Vagharshak, know that we are brothers. Don’t think about your wife; she is our sister and we’ll take care of her until you return.” I couldn’t have accompanied him on this journey even if he had allowed it since the weather was so cold that winter…

Vagharshag promised to prepare a home in Van as soon as he got there and to take me there when he returned. He told me, “Don’t cry. Be a strong Armenian woman. Be tough. If I don’t return and you find out that you are carrying my child, please call him Vagharshak.”

I didn’t have a child. I was sad, at the home of my parents in our fledgling homeland of Armenia. The republic was established on 28 May, 1918.

Vagharshak’s friends were always visiting and asking if I needed anything. They were looking after me like I was their little sister, and would accompany me wherever I went. They did this for two long years…

Van became inaccessible; the battles restarted and a new deportation ensued. Vagharshak and a few of his friends were protecting the caravan of deportees from Turkish attacks. They were responsible for 20,000 deportees and had to take them all the way to Baghdad. He couldn’t come to Armenia because the Turkish Army had cut off the road at the Pergri Gorge… They took a detour and finally arrived at Baaquba (in Modern Iraq), then Baghdad. Vagharshak was tasked with accompanying 400 Turkish prisoners of war to Baghdad where he had to hand them over to the British forces.

On the road, near a place called Sarinkale, one of the leaders of the Armenian defense team—Kosti Hambartsumian—was killed (during a battle with Turkish and Kurdish soldiers following the trail of the deportees). Let me say here that Vagharshak adored him dearly. It was for this reason that he called his youngest son Kosti.

Vagharshak and his friends got angry and killed several of their Turkish prisoners. The provocation was not without reason, because those same prisoners were arrogantly playing with the Armenian volunteers’ tempers and taunting them: “when we attack your fatherland again, we will take your mothers, sisters, and wives and take them to our harems.” One of Vagharshak’s friends later revealed that Vagharshak was so saddened and provoked by this that he kicked the Turkish officer several times and asked him, “Would you dare take my dear Verzhin too?” The conditions were so dreadful that the volunteers had to take their prisoners to Baghdad by way of Baaquba. The British asked for the missing soldiers, and in the end they had to imprison Vagharshak for a month. When he was released, he assumed an officer’s commission within the British Army (of the Levant), and it so happened that a delegation from the Republic of Armenia—including Krikor the Bulgarian (who was a close friend of my husband)—were to visit Baghdad. Krikor visited me before leaving for Baghdad and said, “Verzhin, The first thing I will do when I am there is to find a means to coax the British into letting Vagharshak return to Yerevan.” And I received a letter saying Vagharshak was coming back.

Vagharshak traveled to Yerevan with three of his friends and reached a place in three months’ time; it had been two years since he had left for Van in 1917. The situation in Yerevan at the time Vagharshak returned was terrible. Typhoid had spread like wildfire. Many died, including our beloved Aram Pasha who loved Vagharshak greatly and had even given him the title of Hero. Aram Pasha’s funeral was a big event and was attended by thousands upon thousands of people. Yerevan was in total mourning for the loss of the leader, who was instrumental in the creation of the Armenian republic.

A year and a half after Vagharshak had returned to Yerevan, the republic’s government fell in the hands Bolsheviks and many of us were once again forced to leave our country, this time to Iran. At the time, our first-born, Anelga, was with us. I carried her in my arms at all times. We reached Tavriz (Tabriz) after numerous difficulties, but I will get into that later.

Another unforgettable event occurred when we had just reached Tavriz. One of the Anti-ARF newspapers had written about Vagharshak, calling him a liar and a profiteer. It accused him of selling the weapons in Salmast and Urmia to the Turks (when transporting Armenians to Baaquba). When Vagharshak saw the article, he was so angry that he threatened to kill the editor of the newspaper. He also told some of his friends, who went and complained about the issue, to Meliktankian, the Armenian leader of the day (actually, Archbishop Meliktankian was the Prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Tavriz during the deportation of Armenians from Van to Iran then Baaquba, and had helped his people all his life. G.M). One of Vagharshak’s friends explained who Vagharshak was to the prelate, and how he had left his newlywed bride of fifteen days to go to Van and fight for his country; how he had protected the people on their way from Salmast and Urmia to Baaquba and thus had nothing to do with the accusations of selling weapons to the Turks as the newspaper assumed.

Archbishop Meliktankian called the editor of the newspaper to the prelacy and told him, “What you wrote about this man [Vagharshak] is only lies.” The editor, understanding his mistake, knelt before the prelate and Vagharshak’s friends and asked for forgiveness. He then says, “Give me 24 hours, I will rectify the wrong that I did to Vagharshak and to present him as the hero he really is.”

This event in Tavriz was incidental. Now, let me relate the story of how we moved there from Yerevan. As I had mentioned earlier, Vagharshak and three of his comrades finally reached Yerevan on 20 December (1919). We were finally united and happy again, but is there a quiet life for an Armenian family? 18 months later, were again separated as we left our homes and the Bolsheviks took over our fledgling republic. What ensued was an atmosphere of oppression, several of the cadres of the republic were imprisoned. Many went underground until the February Revolution (1920). The prison doors were destroyed from the inside and outside. However, the Bolsheviks, in their zeal to avenge the event, killed many with axes and rifles. Nevertheless, some were able to be rescued, and the Bolsheviks had to leave; the republic was once again in the hands of our beloved leaders. We buried the slain heroes with large fanfare; some of them were important figures on the free and independent Armenian republic, and had been axed in the prisons prior to the Bolsheviks’ retreat. Our people started a counter attack and many Bolshevik cadres were killed. However, it was an unequal battle. Armenia was surrounded on all sides by either Turkish or Red armies, and inside we endured a great famine; life was really miserable.

On April 2nd, the Bolsheviks reentered Yerevan and reoccupied it. At that time, many of the young cadres of the republic started to leave in the direction of Zangezur in order to escape being murdered by Bolsheviks. I was pregnant with Anelga during this time and was ready to give birth, but Vagharshak could not remain because the Cheka was looking for him. He had to leave once more, and we were again separated. What a ruthless destiny this was…This time, Vagharshak told me with tears in his eyes, “If it is a boy, call him Vagharshak. Let’s see if we will ever meet again my dear…Don’t cry and be strong. Withstand this round of frustration too.” His friends and comrades were there too. They asked Vagharshak, “Why you don’t you take your wife with you?” He asked how he could do such a thing when I was so pregnant. The problem was I had lost so much weight that my advanced pregnancy was not apparent. His friends weren’t even sure if I really was. Many of them were taking their wives with them…

I returned home crying. I collected what clothes I had prepared for my baby and went to my brother’s home. As I was moving, I saw that the city (Yerevan) was being bombarded. I was afraid, but I finally made it to our godfather’s home. I was very tired and was carrying a lot of weight. They were puzzled to see me in that condition and kept me there for two hours. I had to go to my brother’s home, because my sister-in-law was waiting there to care of me. My brother had left with the others, as did most of the wives and children.

My godfather’s servant came with me to my brother’s house, where I saw my friend, the wife of Maksapetian Vartan. I sent the servant back. My friend and I continued our way to my brother’s house, whose wife was waiting for me and had now become extremely anxious that I had not reached there earlier. It was already night, I was very tired and could barely stand on my feet. I immediately slept. Of course, we were sent down to the basement. It was in this small, dark place that my firstborn, Anelga, came to this world at two in the morning. She was very tiny, and we weren’t sure if she would live. However, thanks to the caring hands of my sister-in-law and my paternal uncle’s wife, she did. Unfortunately, her life was one of suffering and misery. My health was deteriorating and I slept.

It was during those troubling days that I woke up one day and saw a young man standing over me. He was wearing Vagharshak’s clothes and told me that he was there to defend me. His name was Antranik, and he told me that he was one of the volunteer soldiers and that he was from Zangezur. He had visited our home once before, prior to the February counter revolution. He was there to arrest Vagharshak and take him to prison. If they had succeeded in apprehending him, my husband was sure to be killed by them…

This soldier had come to tell me that he had taken all precautions to take me back to my home, and that if I didn’t do as I was told, our home would be looted. He had asked for permission to remove my name from the list of those who had to be apprehended. He told me he knew that my husband and most of my relatives had already left, and also told me that (Simon) Vratsian (the last Premier of the republic of Armenia) was already under arrest. He also told me that the wives, children and belongings of all those who had escaped were now deemed the property of the Bolshevik government, and that the new government would take care of them. I cast him off and told him I didn’t need his care or protection.

He showed up every three or four days to see me. He asked my sister-in-law several times to convince me to do as he said, then was not seen for a month and a half. I heard that he was transferred to another place.

By now I was feeling much better. I went back to our home, but there was nothing left after the looting. They had taken everything…

I started to prepare for my journey to Iran. I went to the pertinent governmental institutions to put my travel papers in order, I wanted to reunite with my husband. It was the third time that we had been separated in the last three years.

At the time, Haykaka Kosoian had arrived to Yerevan from Tavriz. He had arrived as a delegate of the independent Republic of Armenia to negotiate the terms for the return of those who had left Yerevan. Of course, I knew that Vagharshak couldn’t be one of those returning.

I went to see Haykaka. He was from Van and knew us well. I asked him what I should do to be able to leave to Tavriz unviolated. Vagharshak had already sent me Iranian citizenship papers, and had told Haykaka that he’d become an Iranian citizen and that he wanted “to have my wife in Tavriz.”

In order to illuminate this last point, I have to mention here that Vagharshak’s father and brothers had been merchants of Armenian rugs in Van and had transported many such items to Tavriz. Vagharshak was also involved in this enterprise; they knew many influential Iranians and were thus able to become Iranian citizens once they had relocated to Tavriz from Yerevan.

It was very hard to leave Yerevan in those days. I went to see Kosoian, who told me that he was unable to help me since he was under constant surveillance. He told me, however, to go see Grigor Vartanian, because he too was on his way to Tavriz and that he could, somehow, manage to take me and my daughter with him.

I went to see Vartanian and showed him my Iranian papers. I asked him to help me to be reunited with my husband, but he refused to help me the first time since he considered it to be very dangerous. I went back to Haykaka, who revealed that Vartanian was very fond of cognac. I recalled that there might still be some good cognac in my brother’s home. “Take couple of bottles to him. They may entice him to solve your problem,” Haykaka instructed.

I went to my brother’s home. He had returned with the first group of those who were allowed back to Yerevan, and gave me three bottles of cognac. I took them to Vartanian, who accepted me very nicely upon seeing them.

He told me that he was leaving Yerevan on a certain date, and that he had a train compartment for his belongings. He told me that there were no traveling train wagons available and that he would be in wagon number such… He also told me that once I was in the wagon I should never approach him.

On the marked day, my sister-in-law took me to the train station very early in the morning. She put me in the designated wagon, then left immediately so that my case would not be discovered.

The train moved. Anelga, now three months old, was in my lap. When Vartanian saw the child, he asked me how old she was. I didn’t answer. He came and murmured in my ear, “You are the wife of a wanted person. You have a child with you, be very careful and remain aloof. Don’t speak to me. Act as though you don’t know me at all.”

We continued. I saw an Armenian whom I thought to know from somewhere. His name was Margar Hakopian. He was the translator of an Italian gentleman and I thought that he might help me. I was happy to have seen him. We reached the Russian army post of Julfa, but unfortunately I was exposed. My case was reported to the officer in charge as ‘wife of a Cheka officer who was trying to escape,’ and that I had paid a big bribe to Vartanian in order to smuggle me to Iran. Well, I didn’t think three bottles of cognac constituted a “big bribe,” and I was definitely not the wife of a high ranking Cheka officer…

They came to inspect our wagon. I asked Margar to carry my luggage with theirs since their luggage was more secure. He refused, and I started crying. Fortunately, an Italian man, a diplomat, understood what the problem was, and stowed my luggage with his own. The border patrol came, looked at my Iranian papers and went away, but they soon came back and started asking questions. However, the case was not as urgent as they had thought, and I was finally allowed to continue my traveling.

We came to the Persian border at Julfa, but I was already free, since I was entering as an Iranian citizen.

Vartanian said, “Take a deep and serene breath! You got away…No more border checks…You will be with your husband soon!”

We reached the Tavriz train station. Kosoian had already informed Vagharshak that Verzhin was to come on this train, and what a reunion it was! I bade farewell to Vartanian and the Italian diplomat.

Vagharshak invited Vartanian to a celebration in honor of my safe arrival. We gathered on one of these nights, Vartanian embraced me and drank in my honor!

We stayed in Tavriz for several years. Vagharshak became a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and was promoted to be a preacher within the missionary organization. While in Iran we had several children. Let me mention them and their names:
1. Anelga was born in Yerevan on 3 April, 1921.
2. Hakop was born in Tavriz on 20 August, 1923.
3. Anjel was born in Maragha on 23 November, 1925.
4. Savey was born in Gharatagh on 11 April, 1929.
5. Kosti was born in New Julfa on 3 July, 1930.

Now, let me pass the story telling to one of our brethren, Melkon Gasparian who was a student in Tavriz during the time we lived there. Let him relate the story of our workings there!

Vahan Papazian (Goms)

‘JONBEZAR’ (Vagharshag Shirvanian)


Translated by Haig Beloian

We had a teenaged group called “Grains” in a revolutionary (Dashnag) organization. Vagharshag was barely 16 years old and short and strong. With his independent judgement he liked to debate with us with short words. He was fanatical and stubborn in his ideas without lengthy considerations. He was vigorous and bold; he believed in striking, pulverizing and killing as a revolutionary member. He did not believe in being too tactful and hesitant. That was the reason why he was called “Jonbezar” (deathdefier). He would say in anger, “Why do you move slowly and peacefully? Why do they give us a rifle, bullets and bombs?” He loved to read old and new stories of our heroes, feeling very sad when they were fallen by the enemy. He was happy as a child when our heroes were victorious. In the meantime he had a sense of humor and a sharp mind.

We were at Vagharshag’s house habitually. As he was the youngest member of the family, we used to kid him a lot. He did not mind it, he tried to make us laugh more. His older brother was a Tashnag, too. One day when we were there again, he came in and saw some of the fighters, me and Sarkis. He approached us carefully and complained “isn’t it enough that you have treated me as a child? It is not my fault that God created me of such a short stature. I understand everything. While all of the older boys are working for the nation and revolution I have to stay home like a girl.” We were laughing at him and caressing his head. Sarkis said seriously cc Very well, sonny, we will do something about that.” Sarkis, who was fond of the younger member, convinced me to put him through a test. When we asked his older brother, Garabed, he agreed with us also.

We had already decided to have one active group of fedayees (soldiers that had sworn to give their lives voluntarily for the nation) to go for target practice at a Mt. Varak field. We used to send word to the Monastery of Varak, to Mr. Bedros. They had to be careful and send some food to them. Target practice was to lake place at the ruins of the upper Varak and the abaranchan (bracelet) fountain. From the Monastery of Garmiravor they would have to climb to Dziaturnoog and then down to the valley.

Vagharshag was to be the courier to go to the monastery at night and notify Mr. Bedros personally. It was dangerous to send them a letter, just oral words.

When we called and told him what he should do, he got confused at first, but he soon realized how important it was for him and said “I am ready.”

We told him about the night pass word and made him memorize the words that he was to tell Mr. Bedros. We also gave him a pistol and said to him saying “Now you try to win our confidence. You start going right after sunset. You are going along Oorpat (Friday) creek to the Shooshantz village, then turn to the right and approach the monastery along Chrig fountain. They will all be sleeping at that time. You have to go along the barns to avoid the dogs. You get in the yard by climbing over the wall. Mr. Bedros’ room is the third one. You knock on it gently three times, when he answers your knocking, you tell him what we told you to tell. You return back immediately before daylight, can you?”

“Hye, hye, why can’t I…?”

“Don’t use this pistol unnecessarily, there might be Turkish night sentries here and there. Your purpose is to get word to the monastery, not to fight anyone. Good luck!”

We waited for Vagharshag’s return all night without sleeping. He came in before daylight, all dusty and muddy and very tired. He said “I did what you ordered me to do.” He added “I wish I could use this pistol. I was hiding in a ditch when the Turkish sentries passed by me.”

Thus he proved to be bold, discreet, disciplined as time passed.

On January, 1908, Davo of Dher betrayed the Dashnag party and told the Turkish government where they had been secretly storing all of their guns, ammunition and bombs. Members and groups were suddenly terrorized and confused. Soon they were guided to transport the arms to other new places. Even ladies, children and old men carried the guns and ammunition away at night on their shoulders. Vagharshag was like an angry and fierce tiger, carrying heavy loads.

Then the Turks started to arrest the members of the Dashnag party. They found the leader, Aram, and about twelve of his comrades in an old aqueduct. Fedayees left town so the Turks would not have an excuse for a massacre.

Hundreds of members whose names were given away by the traitor Davo were in prison. Among them were Vagharshag and his young group.

The ones in prison were tortured so badly that a few of them could not bear it any longer.

Ethem and Husni Begs from the Jandarm (police) organization were doing all of the questioning and ordering the tortures.

Davo had told them that perhaps Vagharshag should be paid more attention than the others, to get secrets.

Husni Beg would yell at him and whip him saying,

—”You are the son of a doctor, you know a lot, where did you ‘khenzir’ [a Turkish cussword] transfer the guns, you son of a dog!” Then he would kick his face and eyes, until blood came out of them. He got real angry because Vagharshag would not say a word.

—”I will have your tongue ripped off, you son of a snake. Your elders have been teaching you to keep silent, yeah?” Then they took his clothes off and squeezed his knees with a wooden clasp so hard that his bones crushed and he became unconscious. After a short while, the executioners used red hot iron rods, they burned his skin making the lines look something like the coat of arms of the Dashnag party.

—”Now we baptized you a genuine Dashnag,” they said with a coarse laugh.

Vagharshag endured this, too, with bloody eyes and broken teeth that were in his lips.

He endured such tortures for weeks without saying one word.

Then came the false constitutional law with the Young Turks in Turkey. Fedayees were free to come home. Vagharshag with many other political prisoners were freed. He was like a skeleton. He was bedridden for a long time! His eyes showed a very deep grief and showed fierce revenge!

[Young Dajad Terlemezian shot and killed Davo. He later lived in the U.S. to a ripe age.]

At the time of the defense of Van, Vagharshag was right in the front lines. He was almost the commander where he was. Sometimes with a strong urge he would jump out of the trench and kill a few extra Turkish soldiers.

Vagharshag was extremely depressed when in 1916 Russian commanders forced the fighting Armenians to retreat from Vasbouragan towards Ararat. There he was, with the Armenians, defending them against the attacking Turks and Kurds on the way. Later, he was fighting with the Republic of Armenia’s soldiers against Mustafa Kemal’s armies that were trying to wipe out the remaining Armenians. Then without rest he fiercely fought the Red Army until Armenians gave up to the Red Army. He escaped to Iran with some others all worn out and hopeless when communist army took over. He had lost his vigor, he was an individual with a crushed spirit.

There he died in bed damning his and his peoples’ bitter fate.

When in agony during his last minutes, in the corner of his tarnishing eyes were two turbid drops of tears.


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  1. Sirvart Garabedian said:

    It is a bravery and sad upheavals of our history is. I have read or heard a lot about Van Vaspourakan Battle but never in length like this. God Bless the Soul of all our Holly Brave and ordinary Martyrs. Very interesting to read about the bravery heroism of Vagharshak Shirvanian, i’ll read it again. One thing i can say i was so lucky to have met Vahan Papazian 9Goms) in the same mountain of Polone in Beirut Lebanon with his wife and son Vatche, i couldn’t believe my eyes to meet in person and chat with him who was down to earth. He gave me and my eldest sister one volume of Khonarh Herosner wich i brought it with me from Basrah Iraq. There was Dashnagcutian cermoney, i couldn’t attend due to stomach flu, he himself brought me a little glass of coneac and told this is for our small dashnagcan and i’ll be fine. What a sot personality we met everyday at breakfast time. One day he told us there is white revolution in Iraq but not to worry, all is good, we were expecting my dashnagcaganpokh atenabet, my eldest brother Varoojan Misak Garabetian to arrive next day as his wife is Armenian Lebanese and with one 2 and halfson Sako and pregnant with second son Armen, our neighbour arrived and told us my brother was coming next day. We also were lucky to see Levon Pasha but he was quite never talked to anyoe unlike our big Hero Vahan Papazian. one of our friend was with us but he kissed me from forhead knowing i was Baptised Dashnagagan, All in my memory i’ll take it to my grave.

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