Prison Diary of Asbarez Founding Editor Abraham Seklemian

Grandpa Apraham, 1896 (2014_04_16 19_09_02 UTC) (1)
Apraham Seklemian   date unknown.  Founding Editor of Asbarez in 1908

Apraham Seklemian date unknown. Founding Editor of Asbarez in 1908

Editor’s Note: Twenty years before joining six of his like-minded colleagues in Fresno to establish Asbarez in 1908, Abraham Seklemian, the newspaper’s first editor, had a harrowing experience as a prisoner in Garin (Erzerum) from April 1888 to May 1889, when Ottoman soldiers, under the direct order of Sultan Abdul Hamid II began rounding up Armenians and sending them to prison as a precursor to the Armenian massacres of the late 19th century, which would serve as a blue print for the planning and execution of the Armenian Genocide.

Last fall, Asbarez was contacted by Abraham’s great-grand-daughter, Leigh, who had found copies of Abraham’s memoirs that were translated into English by Leigh’s father, Robert. Working with Leigh and her partner, Jon Miklos, we obtained a portion of his memoirs, an excerpt of which we are publishing in our April 24 Special Issue.

Asbarez will be working with Leigh Seklemian to ensure that his documents are preserved and his memoirs are published. The below excerpt is from Abraham Seklemian’s first days in prison.

Arrest and Imprisonment

April, 19, 1888: It was an hour before noon, I was teaching my class as usual, when suddenly Turkish police entered and placed me under arrest. I told my class to be patient and wait a moment until I return—that I must attend to a bit of business.

This was just before the great Armenian massacres Persecution of Christians had just begun. I was destined to be one of the first victims.

I was taken to the office of the tadakhaz (general prosecutor) where I was questioned and re-questioned, grilled for three and a half hours regarding my alleged conspiracy against the Sultan’s “fatherly’’ government. Then I was taken to Terskhaneh Prison.

The guard house is situated on the earthen roof above the main prison gate adjacent to the warden’s office. Here I was detained for a time while they decided which cell should occupy. The warden commanded that I give him all papers I had with me. There were five or six letters I had received from brother in America and from my fiancée at Adapazar. These J gave him willingly. However, I had written my brother a letter that very morning which I had expected to mail that evening. I did not give him that, because in it I had mentioned briefly the ominous developments that might possibly involve me with civil authorities.

I pulled out a picture of Magdaline which I kept in my pocket wrapped in paper, telling him it was that of my fiancée.

“Oh well,” the warden guard said with mock politeness, “If that’s the case, keep it.” But how dismayed I was to see that lovely picture broken across the middle! How it happened to break I don’t know. However, from that time on I felt this to be an omen of misfortunes to come.

I offered the warden guard my pocket notebook. He glanced at it as if examining it. “Keep it,” he said in a tone of one granting a great favor, and went out the door.

I sat there in the guard room on a dirty worn-out straw mat. I began to feel hungry. For breakfast I had ·had a piece of bread and two cups of coffee with milk. I had had nothing since but three demi-tasse black coffees while being questioned in the tadakhaz’s chambers. I requested the sergeant to send a messenger and have food sent to me from the school. He did so immediately but with a reluctant tone.

As I ate my roast chicken and pilav, I conversed with the sergeant and the guards, occasionally joking with them. My arrest still seemed to be a joking matter. The conversation warmed up. I was laughing and making those around me laugh – when a harsh scolding voice came from the adjacent office cursing and berating the group. It was the warden. Everyone became quiet and no longer dared to speak to me. I began then to realize that I was no longer free and that these were not normal circumstances. I was arrested as a revolutionary agitator, so to be classified as a criminal of the worst sort and not allowed to have communication with anyone.

Apraham Seklemian  1896; the year he fled to New York upon learning of his impending re-inprisonment. Based upon the context of the Massacres of 1895 and through direct information from connected friends/supporters/patriot, the threat to his life was starkly real.

Apraham Seklemian 1896; the year he fled to New York upon learning of his impending re-inprisonment. Based upon the context of the Massacres of 1895 and through direct information from connected friends/supporters/patriot, the threat to his life was starkly real.

A sense of weariness came upon me. I lied back on the straw mat but couldn’t sleep.

I then took a seat near the window from which I could see the prison yard surrounded by high walls. Groups of prisoners were moving about, pacing to and fro. Most of them were Kurds, each wearing a pair of wooden sandals, rustic baggy trousers, a hairy jacket, a long culah (a cap of thick felt) with a big calico turban wound around it, all of which gave them an ugly and horrible appearance.

I could not help thinking of what murderous crimes these men had committed! How many Armenian youth have they butchered; How many Christian girls and young brides have they abducted; How many homes have they ruined! Here are members of those terrifying brigand bands we hear about from time to time. Only two months ago 13 Armenian boys were cruelly slaughtered. How many grain fields have they set afire and reduced to ashes the livelihood of struggling farmers. How many flocks and herds have they driven off by night, murdering the resisting owners, pillaging homes and abducting women.  Entire villages are devastated, entire populations exterminated!

There is not a mountain nor a plain, not a river nor a brook in the entire region· surrounding yonder hoary Ararat that has not been dyed with innocent blood which these savages have shed!

These criminals however, were not brought here for those crimes. They would never have been arrested and cast into this prison for robbing or killing Christians, if their insolence and impudence had not led them so far as to do mischief to Turks themselves.

And now, Heaven help me!  Here I am arrested, to be imprisoned with these cutthroats – to be considered a criminal like one of them. My God! My God! Can anyone believe that this should happen to me! No! No! It cannot be! Of course they will not keep me long. They must release me soon!

Wedding picture of Magdaline and Apraham in 1890 in constantinople. Magdaline had followed her fiancee across turkey, at great personal risk, to work for his release. Their marriage occurred while he was under virtual house arrest & subject to constant surveillance by Turkish agents.

Wedding picture of Magdaline and Apraham in 1890 in constantinople. Magdaline had followed her fiancee across turkey, at great personal risk, to work for his release. Their marriage occurred while he was under virtual house arrest & subject to constant surveillance by Turkish agents.

I was deep in these meditations when suddenly I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned around and saw standing before me a short lean man of very dark complexion. He was a Turk of the roughest sort, with the most disagreeable, frowning sour face I had ever looked upon. I learned afterward that he was Mehmed Agha, the assistant warden and superintendent of Arka-Kalluk, the short term prison.

“Follow me!” he said with a commanding voice. I obeyed. We passed over the flat earth-covered roof which zaptiehs (guards) were patrolling, and came to the other end of the building. There we descended a small flimsy ladder, and stopped before a dirty low door.

“Enter here” .commanded Mehmed Agha, throwing the door open. I entered. It was a dark cell with low ceiling. The floor was covered with trash. Along the walls the guard had stacked straw mats.

“This is your cell” he said. Then he began at once to examine my pockets, snapping, “Let me see what you have!”

He took my purse, pen-knife, watch and Magdaline’s photograph which the warden had been kind enough not to take. Somehow I was successful in hiding that un-mailed letter to my brother. As soon as he went out I folded it into a square and tucked it in the lining of my pocket. He soon came back and returned my purse and watch.

“You may keep these,” he said, and made another careful examination of my pockets. This time he took away my notebook and a few scraps of scratch paper I usually kept in my pocket for immediate need. But he allowed me to keep a pencil (which did me great service afterward) and two keys belonging to the school building, one to the front door, the other to my class room.

After this third examination Mehmed Agha went away shutting the door upon me. I sat there in the corner of the dark damp cell which was to be my lodging for how long I did not know. The place smelled like a prison – It was a prison! Oh! How dejected and miserable I felt. Loneliness in this detestable place was crushing me like a heavy burden. Now, for the first time, I began to realize what prison might be like.

After about half an hour Mehmed appeared again bringing back the photograph of my fiancée. I asked him where he had taken it. He answered laconically that he took it to the tadakhaz,(the official who had ordered my arrest and was my chief examiner). I inferred from this curt reply that the other things were kept for further examination, and only this picture was returned to me as harmless. Poor little thing! If Magdaline only knew into what a place I was carrying her, who knows how many tears she would shed!

I unwrapped the picture to look at it. It was broken exactly in the middle. The pieces were torn apart entirely. And indeed, could there be a more suitable place for it to be broken? Has this not a sufficient sign that she was grieving with me? Weep, weep, poor little thing! But maybe Magdaline is now joyfully dreaming beautiful dreams and building magnificent air castles for our future happiness!

I had written her in one of my last letters that I wanted to get married next summer, and that I had “almost decided to do so.” She wrote back in her last letter that she wanted to erase the word “almost” in my letter, and read only “have decided.” 0h, happiness! How cruelly elusive you can be! If you really do exist in this world of woe!

My Cell

The Garin prison building is divided into two principal wings, northern and southern. The northern wing is called Terskhaneh, which means in one sense “navy yard.” It is absurd however, to imagine a navy yard 6,000 feet above sea level and 400 miles inland without a lake or even a navigable stream nearby (unless it is assumed to have been Noah’s navy yard, since Mt Ararat is not far away). Rather it is because all prisoners sentenced to hard labor are confined here. In previous times prisoners sentenced to hard labor were made to work in navy yards, hence the name given to this prison. There are lower basement chambers below ground level especially for chained prisoners –windowless, unlighted dungeons.

The southern ·wing of the prison building is used for confinement of prisoners waiting trial, or for those confined for a short term. The two wings have no direct communication with one another except over the top by way of the earth-covered flat roof over which I was brought to my cell. Both wings are surrounded by high walls enclosing the prison yard. My cell is situated on the eastern extremity of the southern wing (called Arka-kulluk), at a point nearest the main gate of the prison. This part of the building is very old, evidently part of the fortress, which Theodorius the Second had built in the fifth century. The cell is about five and a half yards long east to west, four yards wide and about two and half yards high. The wall is about two yards thick. The only opening beside the door is a small window in the middle of the south wall overlooking the prison yard, from where I was able to get glimpses of prisoners walking about during the day.

The bare walls are black and dirty. The ceiling, which is only a little over my head, is as black as tar from the constant smoking. Pieces of dirty mats are scattered here and there on the floor, half rotten from dampness and teeming with fleas, bed-bugs and lice. The room seems to be an especially favorite place for mice, which have their dens and tunnels both in the floor below and in the ceiling above. Their holes in the ceiling supply the room with an abundance of dirt, insects and all kinds of vermin that breed in the flat earthen roof above.

In this cell with me are 10 to 12 prisoners, all of whom smoke. With twelve inmates all smoking at once, and with the smoky wood stove wastefully loaded with wood, until it is red hot -endure it if you can! A perfect example of hell! Especially when embellished by their hellish conversation. Ordinary language as used in polite society seems out of place here. Here everything is expressed in a distorted language… Expressions derived from those of the most degraded classes, obviously stemming from hellish sources. Here I am then, surrounded by such cell-mates, I prepare for my first night in one corner of this un-earthly cell.

The First Night

At nightfall the prison guard opened the cell door and gave me a blanket and a plateful of food, saying that they were sent to me from the school. I had no appetite for the food, nor did I believe I could sleep at all in this dungeon. Nevertheless, I ate the food then spread the blanket on the floor. Lying down on half of it, I covered myself with the other half. Thus I tried to sleep.

Sleep? Hardly! The dampness of the dark cell, the dingy smell of the putrid mats on the ground, the smoke, the smell of the chimney-less petroleum lamp burning in one corner, all made the air unbearably heavy.

But that was nothing compared with innumerable armies of fleas, bedbugs, lice and other voracious vermin, which attacked me as soon as I lied down on the floor at their mercy. Fleas as big as—well, I am not saying how big, but I will say, these were not baby fleas nor baby bedbugs nor baby lice! They were adults, and all seemed to be very hungry. They had apparently been fasting for some time, now they were feasting on me. Not knowing better, I decided to sell myself as dearly as possible. I started a desperate and bloody struggle with both hands and feet, rolling all the while from side to side like a rolling pin.

Only those who have had the experience know that a fight with fleas are inevitable and for sure ends in disgraceful defeat. I must confess that it was so in my case. I was overpowered! My muscles were sore. I was exhausted and felt numb. Decidedly, the vermin had the best of me. I had to let them have their feast undisturbed.

To tell the truth, is not the flea an appropriate symbol of man? It imbibes human blood; man does the same. If there is a difference between the two, it is to the credit of the flea. The flea does it straight-forwardly, without hypocrisy, while its human counterpart does his bloody depredation full of deceit and hypocrisy.

April 20, 1888: It is morning; my first morning in prison. What a terrifying sensation it is to wake up in a prison! What a horrible sight it was to open my eyes and find myself lying in a dark dirty cell – the dirtiest on the face of the earth. A faint gleam of light from the opening in the thick wall, which served as a window, was enough to show me the dark muddy walls and black smoky ceiling. I was terrified, and shut my eyes. For a moment I thought it was a dream. But the noisy tumult and the screams of the prisoners out in the yard, the cursing and infernal shrieks of the guards left no room for me to doubt. Seated about me were a dozen strangers, fiendish in appearance and speech, all .with cigarettes in their mouths and with their eyes staring at me. They were also burning the smoky stove, making the over-heated and extremely smelly air more unbearable.

I got up from the ground and folded my bedding. I looked around for a moment. I felt weak and sank to the ground. My God! Where am I? In prison! Prison to the right; Prison to the left; Prison above and below; – all around me – prison! Oh that terrifying word I I am no longer free to walk as I wish, to sit as I wish, to stand as I wish. I am not free to speak what I wish, to hear what I wish, to see what I wish. No longer free to breathe the fresh air freely! Prison! At the realization of this word I felt my hair stand on its ends.

I thought I was dead and thrown into the grave. Prison is nothing but a living grave. Just as the grave impartially treats all comers alike, so also in prison neither high social position nor great wealth, nor wisdom nor culture has any advantage. The prison door is too narrow to allow for personal abilities. Man is passive here. He is forced to allow others to use him as they wish. Prison! Where there is no friend no acquaintance, nor any hope of ever seeing friends again!

I cannot explain how, but events of my past life seemed to unfold before my eyes, starting from my happy childhood to just yesterday as I taught my students.

0h happy days of childhood! How precious you were as I walked and played and ran about among those groves and dense forests, At dawn my companions were the sweet-voiced nightingales; during the morning the trumpeting larks. At mid-day my resting place was beside a gurgling spring or a rippling stream, along which were spreading walnut trees and otter shade trees casting their cool deep shadows. Here also grew lilies and violets, roses and narcissus, perfuming the air with their sweet fragrance; and in company with others of their kin, adding color to the green carpet-like meadows. There was nothing here to prevent my feet from walking, nor my eyes from seeing, nor my nose from smelling. Here I fully enjoyed Mother Nature’s abundant blessings that she offers to all. Just as the fleet-footed antelope, which quickly appears and disappears from sight is a beloved child of Mother Nature, so also am I.

Suddenly the scene changes and I find myself at college. Here books open my eyes to deeper understanding of nature, that is to say, the God of nature. I am buried, engulfed in my books. I work hard; I sacrifice sleep; I read; I write. Just like a librarian I am surrounded by thousands of volumes. I read and read, and am not satisfied. They say knowledge is an ocean. There is no end; but that is not a problem. Happiness is in learning, not in having finished an education.

The scene changes again. I am still in school, but now not as student, but as teacher. There is no one to limit me. Even with backward pupils or elementary classes, I speak and teach, constantly trying to open the pages of nature’s limitless book before the young men and boys surrounding me. There is no greater, more excellent satisfaction on earth than in teaching others the knowledge you have acquired.

Suddenly the vision ends.Lord God! What a horrible letdown! What a catastrophe!

I feel as if an inner voice is saying to me, “This is all the life you may expect to live. This is the end!” Prison! I tremble, I am terrified at this horrible word! I cannot control myself. I am weak, very weak! What? I, in prison? I, in this den of criminals? It is impossible. I, who would rather stab myself in the heart than to cause the slightest harm to anyone. Why should my reward be a Turkish prison—a hell on earth?-Is there no justice?

Oh God in Heaven! Why did you let me live this night only to wake up in this cursed place? Why did you not strike me with a thunderbolt last night? For me, in the present circumstances, it would have been the sweetest boon you could have bestowed upon me!

I was sunk so deep in these depressing meditations, and my despondency had gone so far, I was shedding tears like a child. My cell-mates tried to console me. I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. “Look here neighbor, what is the matter? You seem very sad this morning. And weeping too. Well, I declare, misfortune is bound to come to anyone. Remember, there is nothing which comes down from heaven but which the earth must receive. All this was written on your forehead by destiny, and must be accomplished. There is no use crying about it.” He was saying this no doubt to console me. But at that moment I was in a state of such emotional misery that the words of my fatalistic consoler were more like arrows aimed at my heart.

There is no sanitary facility of any kind in my cell. For such purpose I have to go to the back of the prison building through the open prison yard, a distance of over fifty yards. However, I have no permission to leave my cell without a guard. Conversation with anyone is strictly forbidden. Since the prisoners are in the yard all the time during the day, and since I am to be kept strictly incommunicado, I have to come out for my walk through the yard either very early in the morning before the prisoners are let out, or late in the evening after they are shut in their cells. Sometimes, when I am obliged to take a walk during the day, a gendarme and a prison guard accompany me—one in front of me, one behind me. Thus they lead me through the prisoners in the yard, as a precaution to prevent me from talking to any of them. The prisoners stand on both sides, giving room for the procession to pass.

Trying to converse with the guards is also useless. They rarely remain in the cell during the day, except to sleep. When I ask a question, they answer, “Yah, yah” and or nothing else, which bothers me all the more. Yesterday, while in the guard house I had seen a copy of the Garin city newspaper “Envar Sharki.” I asked my guard here to please send for it. He shook his head in the negative, to inform me that even asking such a favor was forbidden me. Outside I would have refused to read that worthless paper even if they paid me. But prison makes it different. Here I would appreciate reading even that paper. It grieved me when such a small favor was refused.

At this moment a blue-spectacled physician entered the cell. It seemed very much out of place to see a well-dressed gentleman in this despicable environment. I had seen him in the past but had never become acquainted with him, nor did I know his name. He had come to treat the wounds of some of the prisoners. In the presence of the guards he made as if he did not see me until everyone had left the cell. Then he turned to m and said in whisper, “Why are you here?” “I have been betrayed,” I whispered. At that moment a wounded prisoner was brought in. He treated him immediately and soon disappeared. I remained alone end dejected.

The head guard in my cell is a chavoosh {military police). Although he can barely read, he is very proud of his knowledge. He makes a mountain out of a mole-hill. He brags about himself and expects to be called “effendi.” He claims to know everything but doesn’t know his own ignorance. He is proud of his religion—a religious fanatic. He started conversation with me, wanting to know how it is we Christians consider God as a trinity—a subject that has been an offense to many Muslims. I tried to explain this involved subject as much as one is able against a strongly prejudiced mind. My explanation seemed to satisfy him although he still considered all of us Christians, idolaters. He told me they accept Christ as a prophet and the Bible as true scriptures.

He then wanted to know what our opinion is regarding their prophet (Mohammed), I answered that their prophet had come much later than Christ, so there is no mention of him in the Bible. I added that we feel that Mohammed was a teacher, a founder of a great religion, and a famous philosopher. This also seemed to satisfy the chavoosh. Apparently he was accustomed to hear ridicule and cursing from most Christians when their prophet was discussed.

He mentioned that just as the Jews do not accept Jesus and his gospel because he came long after Moses and the prophets, so also Christians reject Mohammed and the Koran because he came much later than Christ. So, just as the Jews are in error in rejecting Jesus and the gospel as God’s word, we are as much in the wrong in rejecting their religion. I broke into a hearty laugh at his reasoning.

He was especially critical of the Bible that it does not explain definitely as to what man should do or should not do -what he should eat or not eat. It is very difficult for one with such a mentality to understand that the God of the Bible does not consider man as a spineless creature, but as an independent responsible being. Their Koran commands them definitely how they must eat, drink, work, pray, see and smell. He quoted a passage that there is nothing whether “Wet or dry, seen or unseen that is not written in their book. The Mohammedan’s God demands definite forms of worship, outward observations to be seen of men, and many petty ordinances. The Christian’s God is a loving Father. I am reminded of Dzirani, who had a cat that would not steal the meat on the kitchen table because it was afraid of its master’s whip that it had experienced once before. Dzirani had a son who would not steal the meat because he knew stealing was evil and dishonorable. If the cat felt its master would not punish it, you know how it would act.

Krikor and The Key

April 21—Yesterday, as we were passing between the rows of prisoners in the yard, I noticed two or three Armenians among them. One of them recognized me. He was well to do, and had gained the friendship of the chief warden by bakhshish (tips). He wanted to talk to me, and approached me for that purpose. However, he had barely uttered the usual ‘parev,’ when the guard pushed him to one side and threatened to beat him to death if he made any further attempt to talk to me. I heard them call him Kighetzi Krikor Agha. I recalled at once that this was the man who, a few days ago had murdered his wife by stabbing her thirty times. When I had heard of this brutal murder at first, I gnashed my teeth and said, “He deserves to be hanged immediately.” But now when I see him here as a fellow prisoner, I feel a real desire to meet him and talk with him: to treat such a person with respect that I had heartily hated only two days ago, even to express mutual sympathy toward each other.

I knew it was useless to ask the guard to allow me to meet him. He would refuse to grant any such favor. I am kept strictly incommunicado. While I sat alone and despondent, with only the prison guard who was lying on his mat, suddenly the cell door flew open and Kighetzi Krikor dashed in, a lemon in his hand. He called to the guard and tossed him the lemon. I wanted to speak to him but he didn’t stop to give me the opportunity, nor of course would I be allowed to speak. After a moment, the cell door opened again, and in came Krikor. He had barely sat down on a mat near the door, when the guard yelled at him to get out! “It is forbidden to enter this cell,” he said. “I want to talk with you,” said Krikor. (I felt he meant it for me). “Very well, but first come out from here,” said the guard and he pushed and forced Krikor out. He really did want to talk with me. That lemon was just a little bribe, but it didn’t succeed. Again I was left alone and dejected. The loneliness brought drowsiness upon me and I slept on the straw mat.

I don’t know how long I had slept when the guard woke me. He handed me a Turkish language Testament, saying that it was sent to me by my friends. I opened it immediately and expectantly, first to examine the fly-leaves, front and back. Perhaps a message may have been written there. On one of the pages was written the words: “With all my heart I sympathize and pray for you.” Z.A. Zorapapel had written this, a pupil of mine from Russia. I was very grateful. 0h Word of God, how precious and comforting you always are, no matter into what pit you may descend, or in what language you may speak.

I started to read here and there. The first passage that met my eye was: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” A moment ago I had felt that only my heart had cause to be troubled. Now I begin to think of those many thousands of martyrs who suffered and were tortured because of the gospel message contained in this little book. They faced torture and death with hearts untroubled. But Lord, I am weak! My heart is very, very troubled!

Time seems to be moving very slowly. Hours seem like days, days like years. Three days have passed already, and I have had no communication from outside. I am getting desperate! It is necessary that I send a letter to Rev. William Chambers, the superintendent of the High School, telling him of my whereabouts, and describing my arrest, examination and imprisonment, with the hope that this would enable them to work for my release. I had a pencil but no paper. The Turks are great cigarette smokers. I noticed plenty of cigarette papers scattered about. I picked up several of them and wrote a letter.

But now, how to send it out of the prison walls? It would be foolish even to attempt sending it in the empty plate of food which my pupils brought me daily. The guards would not let me have any of the food without first carefully examining the plate. Then when they took away the empty plate, it was examined again.

Suddenly, I remembered that I had in my pocket the big key to the front door of the school building—a large key with a hollow stem. I decided to use it immediately as the envelope for my letter. I rolled the thin cigarette papers on which the letter was written tightly into the shape of a cigarette then stuffed it into the hollow end of the key. It seemed to fit perfectly. Only a very careful examination could possibly show the existence of a letter. I was sure my guards were not very careful examiners.

That evening when the guard brought me the plate of food, I handed him the key, asking him to be kind enough to give it to the boy who brought the food, as I did not need the key while in prison. The guard consented and went. He soon returned, and much to my disappointment, he handed the key back to me, saying that the boy had left already. This first attempt did not succeed, much to my dismay.

At first my cell-mates were reluctant to converse with me, but now they acted more friendly. In our conversation one of them asked: “What crime did you commit? Why are you imprisoned?” I answered, “Mine is the most heinous crime of having been a school teacher!” Yes, it’s true! I am a prisoner because I am a teacher. Who is it that toils and labors? Who watches over precious tender minds? Who works without rest to produce the highest product—an educated man? And yet receives nothing? Who is it that sacrifices his entire life; and receives no compensation for it all? That is the school teacher. But I am mistaken. He does receive wages. He receives insults, dishonor, persecution! We are reminded what wages the Nazarene Teacher received.

Only two Sundays ago I had preached the sermon. Oh but I was free then. What a joyful Sunday. The following day one of my friends showed us a calendar on which he had made an entry for each day. He said, “Let me write for next Sunday that you are to preach.” I dont know with what premonition I replied, “Write opposite next Sunday that I have died.” He replied that he would not do so. But to me, prison and death are synonymous.

I stood by the prison gate to take a breath of fresh air. A pair of birds has made a nest in a hollow of the high parapet wall. They chirp and sing, they dart in and out, they hop about and fly. This is their home—this is their nest—and they are free. Oh happy birds. Oh little creatures of freedom. How blessed you are that you do not have anyone to dominate over you and limit the bounds or use of those little wings. The blue dome of heaven is your ceiling, and the green fields the floor of your domain. You are not bound by four walls. (Oh these thick black ugly walls!). Wherever there is free fresh air, your little wings can take you.

As I was watching these little birds enjoying their little home with happy chirping, a crow came, from where I didn’t notice, and sat on a rock near me. He turned his head about and looked things over. He saw me but did not move. I must confess that I had never admired these black birds as I do their other relatives. But prison is an awful place. It changes a man’s ideas completely. Oh, how beautiful, very beautiful are those black feathers and blue eyes. I began to be envious of this crow. And he, as if to mock me, chirped into my face, then spreading his wings he soared away. Go, friend of Elijah, go! You are much more fortunate than I.

I determined that today somehow I must send out that key in which I had placed the message. I tore a small piece of the flyleaf of the Testament Zorapapo had sent me. I wrote a post-script on it, rolled it up and carefully slipped it also into the key. When they came with my food, I gave them the key, to be given to the boy who brought my food. But again a little later they brought back the key, saying this time that the boy had told them, “We will not take it today, let it stay.”

I was sick at heart! Why should he not take it’? Why? However, I began to imagine that the boy may have looked in the key, and having noticed the paper, returned the key so that I may not be caught, and thus they may be thrown off the track. Shall I try it again tomorrow? I am not sure that I should.

With the key in my pocket I went out in the yard, accompanied as usual by my guards. I noticed my friend Krikor standing along the way. I was walking slowly, feigning weakness (which was not far from the truth). As I drew near Krikor he started to speak to me. “Keep still,” I said, and quickly drew the key from my pocket and slipped it into the pocket of his overcoat. It took less than a second to do it. At the same time I whispered, “Send the key to Mr. Chambers. It is important!” “Very well,” he said with an encouraging smile.

At that moment the guard turned around and heard only Krikor’s last response to me. Not having noticed my part, he became very angry at Krikor and began to pour out a torrent of abusive and insulting profanity that only a Turk can utter. He threatened to beat him if he dared to approach me again. By that time I was several yards away trying to appear as disinterested as possible.

The key was not discovered. I felt something like happiness for the first time since my arrest. I came in with a feeling of joy, that is, if it is permissible to use the word ‘joy’ in prison. Thus, that key carried my first message to my friends. Five months later I was told the details of how it was delivered to Mr. Chambers.

The physician with blue spectacles came in while I sat all by myself musing. He had been examining the wounds of prisoners, and came into my cell to wash his hands. “Parev,” he greeted me after he noticed that no one else was near. This was the first Armenian greeting I had heard for several days. I wanted to talk further, but one of the guards entered, so the physician had to move away from me.

At about 11:30 usually the gates of the prison cells are closed. Presumably no one remains in the prison yard aside from the guards. At that time I have a brief opportunity to go out to the yard. When I went out this evening, sad and despondent, I saw a flock of geese flying overhead. This is a sign in Garin that spring has arrived, or at least is approaching. Ah! These new visitors have left me with a feeling of abandonment. If only I were one of them!

Solitary Confinement

April 23—What I eat to me is not food, neither what I drink satisfying. My mind and thoughts are far from here. Normally, I never did dream, or if it ever did happen it would be very unusual. For instance, one time I saw the resurrection day, another time I saw the moon broken into pieces. Heretofore, when I retired, occasionally I would determine that I should dream about this or that subject, but I would never succeed. Whereas now, when I retire I wish rather to forget my troubles, but my sleeping hours (which I must say are rather few) I pass dreaming. Here I dream all night until morning. I see my Garin friends and my relatives far away, my mother, my brothers, my sisters. How I had longed to dream of them heretofore but my wish didn’t happen. Now a night does not pass that I don’t see them. After going through the entire day of distress, almost like being tossed about on a stormy sea, is it too much to expect that at night I might have rest? However, in what sense can I rest or relax? Oh Sweet dreams! – Why can you not become a reality?

I wish to write a long letter, mainly to tell of the details of the interrogation at my arrest, which I thought may possibly be of value when needed at the proper time. But how shall I write? Whatever paper I had on me was taken on the first day. Only a bit of heavy paper was left me which I had used to wrap Magdaline’s photograph. I was using it to write brief notes for my diary. I had already filled it and had started to write on the fly-leaves of Zorapapel’s testament. If I were to ask for writing paper, not only would they refuse to give it, but I would be arousing suspicion, and so I would be watched much more closely. At last I found pieces of cigarette paper, and I tore off a piece of Zorapapel’s testament. Thus I had enough space to explain what I had in mind.

Another difficulty was my pencil. Yesterday I wanted to sharpen the point and so I asked for a pocket knife. “No! Never!” said the guard. “No knife will be given you.” Waiting until I was alone in the cell, I took down an ancient sword hanging on the wall, but the blade was so dull that the point of my pencil broke off completely. I found a piece of broken glass, and with its jagged edge I managed to sharpen the pencil. So finally I finished the letter. Now remains the plan of how to send it out. After all, that is the real problem. As I went into the yard, I tried to catch Kighetzi Krikor’s attention in order to give him the letter. But the guard with me would give no opportunity. The guard at the gate came running and scolded Krikor, so that he withdrew from me. I hid the letter in a crevice in the wall, hoping that I may have opportunity to tell Krikor of the hiding place, so that he may be able to pick it up and deliver it. But I did not see Krikor again today. The note remained there until evening. I removed it, hoping for another opportunity.

April 24, Tuesday—Snow is not appreciated when it comes in this season and covers the beauty of spring. But as viewed from a prison everything has a fundamentally different aspect. I liked very much this beautiful snow that came all night and morning and is still continuing. I watched the snowflakes as they floated down from the open dome of heaven. How impartial you are! Without favor you visit equally the castle of the king and the beggar’s hut; the mansion of the free and the prison of the condemned. You come endlessly, soaring as if on wings. You bear the imprint of those twinkling stars from whose presence you appear to come. 0h tell me, How are things up there? Is there a prison there, or are all as free as you are?

Lessons may be learned as one watches the beautiful snow descend. As I watched the tiny flakes come down and rapidly cover the face of the earth with a white blanket, I learned the lesson of what can be accomplished by cooperation and perseverance. Secondly an immediate benefit: In this little cell where 12 iron-lunged inmates burn wood -wastefully and smoke until I can’t bear it, this morning the snow has made the air much milder and more refreshing.

The blue-spectacled physician came again. I was alone in the cell. He bowed to me and I returned the greeting politely. Just then someone came in then went out again. When we were alone together, I gave him the letter which I had written yesterday. I begged him to send it to my friends. He promised to do it, and with a few words he encouraged me as much as he could. These two minutes of Armenian conversation were the first, (and who knows, possibly the last) for me in this pit.

There is a young Kurd among the prisoners who acts a bit foolish. His behavior and manner of speech seems to amuse everyone. His name is Resho. In a way he is the prison jester. When we were told two Kurds were released from prison today, Resho said “Oh, why should I not be freed. They are Kurds and so am I. They are thieves and so am I. Why should they be free and I remain?” One time, Resho had tried to hang himself, saying,”Why do they not release me?” If they hadn’t caught him in time, he would have been released forever from this life.

Apri1 25, Wednesday—You cursed lice! You miserable flees! What have you done for me that you feed on me? Do you think I slept any last night? If every prisoner has as great a multitude of these little voracious beasts as I have, he need not have any other pain or distress; this alone is enough to make prison utterly hateful. You turn, you roll, you scratch, you rub, it does no good. You just cannot escape the sting of these torturers.

There are twelve men in my cell. They are all lazy. Rather than taking their pads out in the yard to shake them, they leave them there. They don’t even sweep them. They sit and light their tobacco, puffing away incessantly. This morning they were seated jabbering away in their devilish manner. It seemed they were carried away in their conversation. The subject was who was to be appointed to office in the coming re-organization of the police force. They expected some gain in the matter. Suddenly without warning, someone came in saying that Mirala has come. You should see with what haste the twelve jumped up, dashed in twelve directions, brushing themselves, then rushed out helter-skelter to pay their respects to their chief.

Today is when the mail comes in. 0h Lord! What news will there be for me? Will they call me again perhaps for re-questioning?

Aoril 26, Thursday—Thursday has returned. A whole week has rolled by since I was condemned to imprisonment in this detestable pit. This was the moment (last week) when I told my class to be patient and wait a moment until I return—that I have a bit of business to do. Now a week—a whole week—has passed that I am in prison. I have seen no one to speak to. I have received no news which may comfort me. Oh Lord! What a bitter seven days these have been! And with what a slow pace they have gone! Were they seven days or seven weeks, as it seems to me.

The mail normally goes out today. Last Thursday I had intended to write to several people. The letter I had already written to my brother has gone. I intended to write to my mother, my fiancée and others. Now there is no permission for me to write at all. If permission were given, what would I be allowed to write? Lies, censored lies.

For an entire week the weather has been grieving with me. At times it rained, at times it snowed, or heavy clouds covered the sky. But today, how beautiful the sun shines. I have to be satisfied looking through the bars of the prison gate to enjoy a slight bit of the golden rays of the sun. Oh sun, how vital and indispensible you are. You arise every morning from your rose-colored bed with tremendous power. Darkness is torn asunder from before your golden rays.

April 27, Friday—I get no news from my friends. I dont know what to do. My patience is wearing thin. This strengthens my suspicion that the situation has become more serious. I wrote a petition to the governor. When the warden saw it, he refused to send it on, saying the governor has no jurisdiction in the matter. I wrote another petition to the tadakhaz, which I will send tomorrow. I am extremely anxious to be released. If I remain here much longer, I will surely lose my mind entirely.

April 28, Saturday—Oh what a delightful vision I had! I imagined I was out of prison. I moved about freely. I visited with my friends. I knocked at the door of Dr. Hanlahian. He opened the door, I cautioned him to keep quiet. I didn’t know what to say for joy. Then I awoke. It was a dream! Around me were snoring prisoners. By the dim light of the lamp one could barely make out the blackened walls and ceiling of the cell. Prison is a horrible place. Horrible!

Was the petition I wrote to the tadakhaz ever given to him? I wonder. Possibly not a petition from me. There is no news yet.

I saw a nightingale for the first time. ‘Thou sweet harbinger of spring’ You lucky creature. You have a pair of wings and can quickly fly away.

The foreign prisoner who was in the hospital in Terskhaneh has been exiled to Van, so the guards were saying.

This is the tenth day—my second Sunday in this pit. There is still no news of my petition to the tadakhaz. I wrote a note asking for books and paper. They refused to send them, saying I have no permission to write. I am a desperate criminal!

Sako Apar: A Memoir of a Genocide Survivor

BY MARY NAJARIAN

Author’s Note: About seven years ago, I became aware that my father, Haroutun Kevorkian had left behind a 250 page hand-written autobiography spanning the years 1903-1955. I have decided to tell my father’s story by translating it from Armenian into English. This task is much harder than simple translation. The stories are horrendous, painful, and heart wrenching. Every time I start translating, I end up in tears and remain sleepless all night. How did my 12-year-old father and the thousands of children like him endure, and survive? Here are a few pages from my father’s diary.

Sako Apar

In 1912, my father Krikor Kevorkian killed a Turkish Genderme in self-defense. The village elders arranged that he leave Vasgerd, go to Marseille, France , and then to America for the safety of all. My brother Garabed was born four months after my dad had left. We were anxiously waiting for my father to settle and take us to America , but it never happened. Few days before the death march started, our Turk neighbor, Khadre Khanem told my mother: “When they make you leave your homes, and displace you, leave Haroot behind. I will take care of him. If you come back, he is yours, if you don’t come back, he is mine.”

The Good Bye

On the morning the march began, I was twelve years old. My mother took me to Khanem’s house. She was carrying a bag of food on her back and holding my three-year-old brother’s hand. She gave me my woolen yorghan (quilt) and embraced me. We hugged each other and would not let go. We were both crying. “Mayrig, don’t cry. I will be a Moslem, but when I grow up I will go to Adana, make enough money to join my father in America, and become Christian again.”

I kissed my mother for the last time. My three year old brother, not knowing what was happening, waved to me. “Goodbye Apar!” (brother) he said. This was the last time I ever saw my mother and brother.

Khadre Khanem

Khanem was very nice to me and he treated me well. I helped around in the house doing chores like cleaning the floors, making coffee for guests, helping to make bread , and help her do the shopping. One day she asked me to run and buy some henna for her mother to color her hair. Khanem’s mother swore that henna helped cure her headaches. The two were getting ready to go to the hamam (public bath house) and she needed the henna immediately.

Instead of going by the regular path, I took a shortcut through the fields. Halfway to the store, I saw a half-naked, emaciated a tiny human form, like a skeleton covered with skin, leaning against a tree behind the bushes. I closed my eyes to avoid the sight. As I got closer I heard a soft voice. “Haroot, its me.” I stopped in my tracks, and then started walking slowly towards him. I did not recognize him. “I am Sako, your friend Hagop’s brother.”

Sako

I was shocked. Sako could not have been older than seven. I had so many questions. What happened to him? Why was he hiding in the fields? “Sit here and wait for me,” I told him. “I will be back for you as soon as I can.”

I bought the henna and ran back to Sako. He was still standing there, waiting for me.

“I will take you with me, Sako.” I helped him walk. The soles of his dirty feet were raw and bloody. He could hardly walk. He leaned on me and tried to walk, but I carried him most of the way. When we got to Khanem’s house, I told him to wait behind the barn in the bushes until Khanem and her mother leave for the hamam.

As soon as they left, I took Sako to the barn. My mother’s wool yorghan which I was hiding in the barn came in very handy. I took a bale of hay and placed the yorghan on top of it. I told Sako to sleep on half of the quilt and to use the other half to cover himself. I went inside and brought a cup of milk and some bread. Still standing, he gulped down the milk and put a chunk of bread in his mouth. He had hardly swallowed it when he threw everything up. “I will clean it,” he offered, embarrassed. “Don’t worry,” I said. Sako had not had anything to eat for days. I was sure his stomach had stuck together.

“Why are you still standing, Sako? Sit on the bed and rest. I will bring you some warm milk, maybe that will be good for you.”

“I can’t sit nor I can lie down. My rear end is sore and painful,” he said. I lifted the rags that partially covered his waist down, and was shocked by what I saw. His anus was torn apart. The flesh was hanging loose in some parts, and yellow pus oozing from the deep wounds. “Sako, what happened to you?”

With tears he said, “My mother when she left asked Abu Subhi, our shepherd, to take care of me. Every day he did the bad thing to me. I used to beg him, cry and scream from pain, but he didn’t care. When my wounds got bad and started to bleed, he said, ‘It makes me sick to look at you, go away,’ and just like that, he threw me into the streets. I have been wandering for weeks. Will you take care of me?”

I was afraid to keep Sako in our barn. If Khanem’s older brother found out, he would kill both of us and no one would ever know. Still, I felt responsible to take care of Sako, and I had to be very careful.

Sako My Apar

Life at Khanem’s house went on, and every day I would go to the barn to see Sako. I shared my food with him, but I managed to get some extra food to Sako to get back his energy. We shared more than the food with Sako. We talked about our friends and family, sometimes we laughed together, and many more times we cried. We became best friends.

One day Sako said, “My brother Hagop fought with me and sometimes hit me. You are so much nicer, can we be brothers?”

“Of course, Sako,” I replied. “You can call me ‘Apar.’ My little brother Garabed used to call me ‘Apar.’ I miss him. But now I have you, and you are my brother, my Apar.”

Every day I looked forward to spending some time in the barn. I pretended to feed the animals and sweep the place, but secretly I was meeting and talking with Sako.

The Mulberry Tree

Spring came. Sako ‘s wounds were healing and he was getting stronger. He had stacked some bales of hay in the barn so he could climb up and look outside through a small hole in the wall. One day he told me, “The trees have started to grow their leaves, and soon they will have fruit. Will you take me outside some day?” “Of course I will, Sako Apar. I will take you out when it is safe.”

The trees did start to grow mulberries. Sako’s pastime was peeking through a hole in the wall, looking at the trees and counting how many mulberries were on each branch. One morning Sako said, “Last night I had a dream. I climbed the mulberry tree and was sitting on a branch when all of a sudden the branch broke and I fell. Please, Apar, take me out today.” I couldn’t say no. Sako had been hiding in the barn for almost six months. After all, it was Friday, which was the day when Khanem and her mother visited Khanem’s brother, Hassan.

As soon as they left, I took Sako outside. At first, he had a hard time opening his eyes. He had spent so long in the dark that the sunlight was blinding him. Eventually his eyes adjusted and he started laughing happily. He ran up to his mulberry tree, put his tiny arms around the trunk, and started kissing it. Sako and I climbed the tree and sat among the highest branches. He picked the sweet berries and ate them by the handful. All the while he repeated, “Thank you, Haroot Apar, you made me so happy.” We sat at the top of the tree talking, laughing, and eating. We were so content, and carefree that we didn’t know how long we had been there.

The Two Young Turks

All of a sudden, from no where, two young Turks appeared. One of them carried a rifle. I climbed out of the tree to talk to them. The younger of the two pointed to Sako and said to the other, “There is your chance to get to heaven. Shoot him.” The older one hesitated, but the younger continued to prod. “Come on, don’t you want to go to heaven?”

The older boy raised his rifle, aimed down the sights, and fired. The bullet passed effortlessly through Sako’s head. His body fell from the tree to the ground.

I was sure I was next, but for some reason they walked away, laughing. The boy bragged, proud of his marksmanship, “I killed him with a single bullet!”

I carried the lifeless body of my Sako Apar to the ruins behind the Armenian church. I dug a whole with my hands as deep as I could and buried my brother. I made a wooden cross from some twigs. I put the cross on his grave and said the Hayr Mer. All the way home I cried for Sako Apar. After years of torture, he had only a few hours of joy. His death happened just as he had dreamt, and it came from the bullet of a Turk.

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