Anjar during the Second World War

By Naira Der Kiureghian

The village of Anjar–Lebanon–was established in 1939 when 6000 Armenian inhabitants of Musa Dagh–in the then-Syrian province of Alexandretta–carried out a mass exodus from their historic homeland–under the auspices of the French. In the years preceding the outbreak of the Second World War with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939–France ceded the Syrian Sanjak of Alexendretta to Turkey in the hopes of securing the former German ally as a partner against the new Axis threat. As a result–thousands of Arabs–Armenia’s–Circassians and others opposed to living under Turkish rule left their homes with the belief that they would one day return. Unlike the other immigran’s–the inhabitants of Musa Dagh relocated as a community to Anjar–Lebanon–where they were cared for by the French authorities. Because of their close relationship to France and the assistance they received–the story of the Armenia’s of the six villages of Musa Dagh is a unique narrative of resettlement during World War II.

French ties to the Armenian population of Alexandretta predated the Mandate era. During the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923–the Armenia’s from the villages of Musa Dagh resisted deportation by waging a resistance movement against the Ottoman army. As a result–approximately 5000 Armenia’s left their homes and sought refuge in the mountain of Musa. The siege lasted nearly forty days–at the end of which they faced near extermination due to lack of food and ammunition. After attracting the attention of a French ship–the Armenian population was rescued and taken to a refugee camp in Port Said–Egypt. Shortly after the population had settled into refugee camps in Port Said–600 Musa Daghtsi men volunteered for the French Foreign Legion as part of the Lgion d’Orient–which was "composed overwhelmingly of former Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire." The participation of the Armenia’s in the Lgion d’Orient was instrumental in winning the Battle of Arara in Palestine against the Ottoman forces in 1918.

After the establishment of the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon–the Armenia’s returned to their homes in Musa Dagh in 1919. While under French dominion–the Armenia’s of Alexandretta experienced an exception to the vast majority of Western Armenian history. Having survived the Genocide–the Armenia’s of Alexandretta were able to return to their historical homeland and traditional communities. In contrast–over a million other Armenian subjects of Ottoman Turkey were expelled from their homes–initiating a new chapter in Western Armenian history characterized by poverty–immigration–alienation and diaspora. Furthermore–traditional elemen’s of cultural distinction between different Armenian localities–(i.e. regional dialects) began to diminish as a result of the upheaval of the Genocide and the ensuing mixing of communities. In contrast–the Armenia’s of Musa Dagh were able to return to their villages and were spared–for the time being–the perils of immigration and resettlement.

During the French Mandate in Syria–the Turkish government was aggressively pursuing a claim for the province of the Sanjak of Alexandretta. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s–Turkey petitioned France for greater influence in the region–in the name of guaranteeing the rights of ethnic Turks of Alexandretta– and to secure the province’s autonomy within Syria. With the passing of time–Turkey’s deman’s increased and France succumbed by making concessions. In opposition to these Turkish advances–hundreds of Arab–Armenian–Alawi and Greek inhabitants of Alexandretta held a mass protest against Turkish acquisition of the region in Antioch under the leadership of Ba’ath Party founder–Zaki al-Arsuzi on January 8–1937. Their calls for continued union with Syria were unheeded by the Mandatatory Power. By 1939–France’s concerns centered on the rise of Nazi Germany and the French position in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus–in an effort to keep Turkey as an ally–France consented to the final cession of Alexandretta to Turkey in an agreement on June 23–1939. The agreement was clearly in violation of international law which forbade the Mandatory Power from altering the boundaries of the mandated territory. However–France provided the inhabitants of Alexandretta with the option of obtaining Syrian and Lebanese citizenship and relocating with all their "movable property to their new homes" within the first six months after the "entry into force of the agreement."

From July 1-23–1939–30,000 Armenia’s–in addition to 20,000 other Alexandrettans–began a mass exodus from their homes to Syria and Lebanon. Due to their unique relationship with the French authorities during the resistance of World War I–the Musa Dagh Armenia’s received special provisions from the French Mandate stating that they would be provided for with land and homes for a community of their own in Lebanon. Land in the Biqaa Valley purchased from a local Turkish bey by the French was to be appropriated for the settlement of the Musa Dagh Armenia’s. As a result–the Musa Dagh community was able to stay intact in spite of two migrations. This paper seeks to create an understanding of the experiences of this migration and the creation of the village of Anjar as remembered by those who lived through the events.

Once the cession was ratified–the vast majority of the Armenian residents of Musa Dagh chose relocation instead of living under Turkish rule. The nine survivors interviewed for the purposes of this paper–ranging from ages five to 35 in 1939–did not mention any indecision–either on their part or on the part of their elders–concerning the choice to leave their homes. The interviewees did not consider living under Turkish dominion again to be a feasible option. They felt they "had to leave at any price," for fear of Turkish reprisals in retaliation for the Musa Dagh resistance of 1915. However–a limited number of families belonging to the Social Democratic Hnchak Party chose to stay. The interviewees–most of whom associate themselves primarily with the Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation)–attributed the decision of the Hnchaks to stay to political rivalries. On more than one occasion–the interviewees explained the actions of the splinter Hnchaks as an effort to defy the Dashnaks who were the dominant political faction in the region.

The survivors remember leaving with the knowledge that the French authorities would see to their safety and resettlement in Lebanon and the belief that they would eventually return to Musa Dagh. The French provided no such assistance for the remaining 24,000 Armenia’s who left their homes in Alexandretta. When asked why the Armenia’s from areas other than Musa Dagh were not given assistance by the French–the interviewees responded by citing the volunteer service of 600 Musa Daghtsi men in the Foreign Legion and their contribution to the victory in Arara–Palestine as a justification for their special treatment. Interviewees emphasized the respect the French had for the Musa Daghtsis because of their "heroic fighting." In addition–the interviewees pointed out that the community believed its relocation was temporary and that they would return after the resolution of the international conflict.

In July of 1939–6000 Musa Dagh Armenia’s boarded camions with their belongings and traveled to Ras al-Bassit–north of the Lebanese-Syrian border–where they settled into a camp site and awaited their transfer to Tripoli. Although the accounts of the survivors concerning the duration of their stay in Ras al-Bassit range from one to six months–the general consensus points to a stay of approximately forty days. Several interviewees remember the situation in the camp as haphazard and chaotic: one man–age 13 at the time–remembers people using any material they could find–even "twigs," to assemble their tents. Food shortages–lack of water and heavy rains contributed to a decline in the health of the population. Dysentery became prevalent–particularly among young children. In response–the Armenian General Benevolent Union established a hospital in Latakia which admitted over 200 resident patients from this camp. Out of 6000 Musa Daghtsis–forty-five perished during their stay in Ras al-Bassit. During this time–news of the outbreak of World War II reached the Armenia’s–resulting in a widespread fear that the French would not be able to continue their assistance.

An interviewee–aged 16 in 1939–traveled to Bassit on foot–independent from the camions. According to him–all those who wanted to bring their livestock to the new village walked with their animals to Ras al-Bassit along the Orontes River (‘Assi Nahr). There they joined the population and traveled by ship to Tripoli–and from there they boarded trains to Rayyak. The final leg of the trip was made by camions to Anjar–where they built a campsite in the Umayyad ruins. The population would remain in this vranagaghak–or tent-city–until the completion of the construction of their houses in 1941. Upon the arrival of the Armenia’s in September 1939–the Armenian General Benevolent Union provided each family with a four-square meter piece of canvas and three sticks for the assembly of a tent. One survivor likened their arrival to the French "dumping" the people out of the camions like "garbage." Another woman remembered arriving at night in complete darkness–as a result of wartime orders forbidding use of lighting at night. The next morning–she awoke to find fields of grass taller than herself and was shocked by the complete lack of cultivated land.

As a result of the physically exhausting process of relocation–exposure to new diseases and the wartime lack of supplies–the survivors describe the resettlement era as one of great hardship. In addition to having arrived almost naked at this swampy and disease-ridden area–they sacrificed a fourth of their numbers to malaria. The interviewees consistently stressed the devastation to the community caused by malaria which festered in the countless swamps of their new environment. They recall with detail the hapless winter of 1939–when the only available protection from the snow were their canvas tents. In response–the French established a hospital and a clinic with a permanent physician in the village. The heavy death toll during this time is so prevalent in the collective memory of Anjar that the interviewees used the same descriptions independently of each other. Phrases such as "The death knell would be heard all day," and "There were days when we had as many as seven burials" have become part of the oral history of Anjar.

In September of 1939–two months after the departure from Musa Dagh–construction of the homes began at the expense of the French. The village was designed by an Armenian architect by the name of Hagop Keshishian–making it the only village in the area built according to a preliminary design. Keshishian’s design was in the shape of an eagle from an aerial view; in homage to the Musa Dagh resistance of World War I. The French hired all Musa Daghtsi men over the age of fifteen to construct the homes. According to one interviewee–the construction workers were paid fifteen ghurush a day. He added that despite the fact that women could not be hired to participate in the construction–families received fifteen ghurush for each female member over the age of fifteen–daily. In his opinion–this was a substantial sum to receive for building one’s own home and was evidence of the generosity of the French. Because the health of the general population had been "disturbed" since Ras al-Bassit–the completion of the houses was delayed. As a result–Arab workers were hired from neighboring villages and towns as distant as Homs and Hama in Syria–to supplement Anjar’s labor force. Interviewees remember participating by clearing rocks from the site to facilitate the project. The interviewees insisted that all those with the physical ability to work helped in the construction and that it was considered shameful for an able-bodied person not to work given the desperate conditions. The first homes in Anjar were completed in the summer of 1940 and priority was given to families with sick members and young children. Initially–each family was to receive a house with three rooms and one outhouse. Wartime conditions prevented the French from fulfilling this pledge. Instead–each family received a single-room house (4 x 4.5 square meters) and one outhouse on a 400 square meter plot of land. It was not until 1941 that all 1065 homes were completed.

During the winter of 1939–those especially vulnerable to disease–such as the elderly and young children–were given housing in nearby Arab-inhabited villages. Interviewees remember this as evidence of the kindness granted to them by their neighbors–signaling comfortable inter-ethnic relations. Several survivors–who were children in 1939–remember attending school in tents. Due to the lack of paper–bags of the cement mixture used in the construction projects were appropriated for schoolwork. Many remember being insufficiently clothed and suffering from the cold. One woman recalled–"We were barefoot in the summer and there were even some who were barefoot in the winter." The cold winter of 1939 propelled the Armenia’s to cut all the trees on the surrounding hills "from the root" to use as firewood.

Despite the lack of food due to underdeveloped farming and wartime shortages–no interviewees remembered experiencing starvation. Interviewees recall a lack of vegetation in Anjar and emphasize the barren landscape which was to be their primary source of sustenance. This stands in sharp contrast to their romanticized memories of Musa Dagh–which are characterized by an abundance of fruit trees and fertile orchards. When describing the hunger she felt during the war–one woman remembered an episode when Senegalese soldiers of the Foreign Legion distributed bread to the children of the village and said that she still remembers the taste of that bread to this day. Another woman’stated that French officials sold basic food items (i.e. flour–sugar) at subsidized prices and rationed quantities to each family.

During the early part of the war–the population resorted to alternative crops for cooking. In addition to widespread poverty–a shortage in supplies also prevented the purchase and consumption of necessary items. One interviewee explained that in the absence of flour–bread was made using chickpeas as a base. The product was of an unusual texture and its consumption caused acute thirst. The interviewee added that his experiences eating chickpea bread during the war have rendered him unable to consume the legume heretofore. Barley–millet and potato were also made use of excessively during the war and fell out of usage afterward.

The Holy Armenian See of Cilicia in Antelias funded the construction of churches and schools in Anjar with donations from the Armenian community in Beirut. By 1943–there were three schools in Anjar: the Armenian National Secondary School–the Armenian Catholic School–and the Armenian Protestant School. On June 16–1943–the Anjar branch of the Armenian Relief Cross–a women’s auxiliary charity organization–was founded. Its programs included providing needy children with meals at school. Thus–contact between the established Lebanese Armenian community and that of Anjar existed in the form of charitable outreach. When asked about the treatment they received from Lebanese Armenia’s upon their arrival–interviewees affirmed they faced no discrimination and did not consider themselves to be "needy refugees."

When the construction project came to an end–the men of the village had difficulty finding work. Some residents cultivated fields allotted to them by the French authorities–who divided the land into units of four or seven dunams (1000 square meters)–depending on their access to free-flowing water. However–most Armenia’s avoided developing their own land because they believed that they would return to Musa Dagh after the war–just as they had following the First World War. For this reason–Anjar remained uncultivated and barren until the mid-1940s–when the population finally understood that it would not be able to return. During the war–the villagers were not willing to come to terms with not returning to Musa Dagh and resisted making lasting contributions to Anjar–refusing "to plant a single tree." Instead of working their own fields–men–women–and children worked in the farms of neighboring villages as wage laborers. According to eye witness accounts–this was the first time the women of this community had done farm work. Previously–they had enjoyed the luxury of working solely indoors. Once conditions improved after the war–women returned to the domestic sphere.

The Vichy military base in Rayak provided the local population with much needed work opportunities–which were in short supply after the completion of the construction project in Anjar. All male interviewees who met the age requirement of eighteen during the war found work in the French military–as did the brothers of several female interviewees. During the Vichy regime–Rayak served as an air force base for missions against the British in Palestine. An interviewee–who worked as a laborer for the Vichy military for three months before their defeat–remembered being taken with a dozen other workers to wheat fields outside Rayak–in the Biqaa Valley–and instructed to remove all rocks and stones from the area. At first–he did not know the reason for his orders–but he soon learned that the fields were to be used as runways for bomber planes on missions to Palestine. His unit was instructed to count the number of planes which returned from each mission and he remembered watching them return from different directions. According to him–the Vichy operated with the strictest discipline. Outside all military buildings was a box of wet sand which officers were expected to step in so that their superiors could verify that all the nails in the soles of their boots were in place from looking at their footprints. After the arrival of General de Gaulle–the interviewee was hired to work as a cook in the military hospital of Rayak and in the homes of high officials. The veteran interviewees seem to have had no particular allegiance to the Vichy over the Free French. They tend to associate the arrival of de Gaulle with a decrease in unemployment and improved living conditions. According to an interviewee–de Gaulle expanded Rayak into a more substantial airport and hired many men from Anjar to work as technicians and pilots. Another interviewee specifically referred to de Gaulle as being more "Armenophile" than the previous regime.

Interviewees who were children during the war remember air attacks by the British Royal Air Force as terrifying experiences. Residents were forbidden to use lights at night. Although the village was never harmed or attacked–the residents of Anjar were witnesses to bombings in neighboring Rayak. Older interviewees were not as traumatized by these bombings. An interviewee–born in 1934–recounted an anecdote which took place a few days after a night of heavy shelling by the RAF. While traveling in the fields surrounding Anjar with his friends–he came upon a dozen bodies of Senegalese soldiers who had been killed by air raids and whose bodies had been left in the open.

With the defeat of the Vichy Regime and the arrival of the Free French and British in the summer of 1941–life in Anjar took a turn for the better. Not only did bombardment from the British cease–but food and work opportunities were more readily available. In addition–steps were taken to bring an end to the malaria crisis. As part of the Spears Mobile Clinics program–doctors visited Anjar and administered free malaria vaccinations. Interviewees remember the entire community lining up to receive a white pill. Doctors and nurses kept close watch on the patients to make sure they did not covertly avoid swallowing the bitter pill. The interviewees also remember public works projects created by the British which hired the locals to drain the malaria pools in the area using DDT. During this part of the war–the community returned to a more orderly way of life and began to become more self sufficient. Food and work opportunities were more readily available and the community had begun to adjust to its new surroundings. Interviewees had few distinct memories from this part of the war and life seems to have settled into a less impressive routine.

French actions with respect to the Sanjak of Alexandretta in 1939 were in violation of its duties as a Mandatory Power. Its failure to take into consideration the wishes and "welfare of the native inhabitants" can be seen as "a step backward in the development of colonial administration." Having protected the Musa Dagh Armenia’s against persecution at the hands of the Turks–France ceded the homeland of its dependents to an authority it knew they were opposed to. By relinquishing its dominion over Alexandretta for its political interests–France was essentially forcing the Armenia’s out of their homes. However–the survivors of these events harbor no resentment towards France or the French Mandate. Instead–they are grateful for the assistance granted to them by the French and feel that they earned this benevolence by way of their participation in the Foreign Legion in World War I. Although they may recognize the injustices committed against them in 1939–they are understanding toward the French position in light of the international context of the time. They are not concerned with their rights as citizens of the Mandate and have a limited perception of France’s duties and responsibilities towards them.

Thus–life for the Anjar community during the Second World War is remembered in terms of extreme hardship. In addition to general wartime difficulties–the loss of property–exposure to new diseases–and relocation to an undeveloped region resulted in depravation and heavy loss of human life. However–the Anjartsis seem to have enjoyed good ties with the French authorities–their Arab neighbors–and the established urban Armenian community in Lebanon. The fall of the Vichy French brought an end to bombardmen’s in neighboring Rayak–better access to supplies and work–as well as public works projects for the improvement of the country. At the end of the war–the community came to realize that it would never again return to Musa Dagh and accepted Anjar as its final home. Today–they are proud of the prosperity of their village and hold its distinctive history in high esteem.

Research based on: Tovmas Habeshian–’Ainjare Yereg,’ Chanasser No. 15-16 (1-15 August–1970); Yessayi Havatian–Mousa Ler–Ainjar; Richard Hovannisian–’The Allies and Armenia–1915-1918,’ Journal of Contemporary History–Vol. 3 No. 1; Majid Khadduri–’The Alexandretta Dispute,’ The American Journal of International Law–Vol. 39–No.3; Vagharsh B. Oflazian–’Hrashke Aanjari Metch,’ Azdag–August 10–1963; Shahantookhd–’Aanjare Aiysor,’ Ayk–August 25–1967;Sisag Hagop Varjabedian–Hayere Libanani Mech: C Hador.


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