Written by Raffi in 1878
Translated and Annotated by
Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane
Now that the reader is familiar with Sarhat, we need to introduce his friends, the members of his gang. Sarhat was the leader of the group, but he called them his brothers, and they were worthy of the label. They were composed of just over a dozen men who had come together at different times and from different places. Included among them were men from Sason, Zeitun1, Çatak, Diyarbakir, a priest from the Kurdish-speaking Armenians in Kharberd2, and a teacher. The latter had been a member of a charitable organization in Constantinople who had been sent to teach villagers in the region of Van. He had joined Sarhat’s gang in the chaos of the Russo-Turkish war after several Kurds beat him in front of his students at one of the village schools he had taught at. The Kurds had then kidnapped a number of his pupils before freeing them again several days later.
Sarhat’s gang resembled a Kurdish gang and had a Kurdish name. He was averse to using an Armenian name—not because he hated Armenians, but precisely because he loved them and thought that such a name would be unfitting for the gang’s activities. In his life as a wanderer, he and his gang would frequently clash with Kurds, and they always settled their accounts with Muslims; if it was apparent that the gang was really composed of Armenians, their counterparts might have tried to take revenge on unprotected Armenians who had nothing to do with Sarhat.
Sarhat had been with his gang in the region of Diyarbakir when he had heard of the violent movement of the Kurds and Jalaleddin’s horrific plans, and when Sheikh Ubeydullah’s hellish counsel came to light. He and his gang immediately headed toward Aghbak. Two motivators drew him back to the homeland he had long tried to forget. First, he had heard that Aghbak would fall in the scope of the Kurdish invasions, so he wanted to help his compatriots. Second, and more importantly, “someone” was there to whom he was devoted with all his heart.
The words Sarhat had spoken when roaming the ruins of his native land—those words he had mercilessly poured onto his father in his final moments of agony—were lamentations that emanated from his hopeless heart, deathly lamentations that he read upon the graveyard of his native land. He was furious, and his fury made him violent when he saw that his native land was not what he wished it to be. He well understood the evils of his situation. He was horrified by the blood on his hands, even though those hands often protected the oppressed and never spilled innocent blood. His selfishness was made apparent to him when he saw that, even with all his merits, he had been running a gang of outlaws when he could have been helping to clear his native land of criminals.
Before they had reached Aghbak, he had sent his friends ahead of him, directing them to help the residents as needed, while he traveled independently toward the city of Van. He had appeared before the Pasha, told him about the impending threat to the Armenians of Aghbak, and asked for permission to form a gang composed of Kurds and local freebooters to defend against the raid, but his request had been denied. He was told, “The government has concentrated all of its resources on defense.”
He well understood the significance of these words and returned to Aghbak dissatisfied. But his determination was not completely gone. When he arrived in Aghbak, he tried again to achieve his objective. He met with a few priests and homeowners, and tried to convince them to arm the people to preempt the impending danger. Jalaleddin was at that time just beginning his incursion, but barbarity had already ensued. Sarhat’s appeal drew on the neighboring Assyrians of Jolamerk3 who were armed and prepared, and did not allow the Kurds to take a single footstep onto their soil; the government was not able to force them to surrender their arms because they responded by saying that they must protect themselves when the government does not have the ability to do so. He persuasively shared many such encouraging examples, but the clergy and landowners thought he was mad and foolish. This angered him more than the Pasha’s deception, and as a result he became all the more convinced that the Armenian people had condemned themselves to a lowly slavery and had been the cause of their own terrible circumstances. That was when we first met him in the Khoshab Valley on his lonely return to Aghbak, sad and in despair.
Since separating from his friends, he did not know their current whereabouts or what they were doing; he only knew the day they had agreed to gather at the “ruined chapel.” But the unexpected sight of the caravan with the captives had forced him to send his friend Město to gather his friends from the chapel instead and send them to the Sakal-Tutan gorge, where he hoped they would be able to free the captives.
Město’s enterprise had not proven fruitless: Sarhat’s gang was waiting near the gorge at the planned time when he arrived. Seeing his friends, he embraced them all and said, “I am happy to find you in good physical health even though you must be injured at heart, having seen the destruction and massacres performed by the hand of the barbarians. But today offers a beautiful opportunity to put your strength to the test, which is why I called you here. The fourteen of us must go up against over fifty violent Hartoshis.”
The priest, whom the gang called Deli-Baba4, replied first. “Město explained everything to us. With this cross,” he said holding it up, “I will say a ‘prayer’ for the Hartoshis.”
“This really is a beautiful opportunity. We will have some fun with the Hartoshis in this gorge,” added the enthusiastic teacher, who was now called Kitap-Delisi5.
“It’s good to work with the Hartoshis in tight places. Those damned people breathe fire from their mouths,” agreed Haro of Sason, who was also called the Bear of Sason.
“We are wasting time with this meaningless conversation,” said Nerso of Zeitun, whom the gang called the Rock of Zeitun. “The Hartoshis are not an easy snack.”
“Time is of the essence,” Sarhat agreed. “Let’s focus on our job. The strength of the Hartoshis is obvious; it’s idiotic to play around with them. The only things that work to our advantage are location and placement, which is why I chose this gorge. Each of us will stay hidden behind the rocks and wait until the whole caravan enters the gorge. At that point, seven of us will block the entrance and seven of us will block the exit. When I make the sound of a falcon, we attack. Try, as much as you can, to avoid a bloodbath. Speak always in a Rawandiz dialect, because they are a rival tribe of the Hartoshis: let them think that they are dealing with the Rawandiz. If they surrender, I will set the conditions with them. The attacks should not come steadily from one place; quickly change angles, so that they think we are greater in number. If anyone tries to flee, shoot them quickly so that word does not spread.”
Sakal-Tutan was an imposing gorge, typical of the Armenian mountains. Both sides were steep and craggy, resulting in such a narrow passage that it was necessary for the animals in the caravan to form a line, nose to tail, in order to pass.
The caravan would be lined up in this way for the entire path leading through the gorge. The caravan was tired and traveling very slowly. Sarhat waited until the sun had completely set, but it was a moonlit night. He then took six men with him to cover the exit, and six men followed Deli-Baba to cover the entrance. The narrow gorge was like a closed pipe, with the caravan trapped inside.
The falcon sounded its call, as it does when it approaches its prey. Then the sound of gunfire rattled from various places, and loud noises were heard within the gorge. The Hartoshis started running like wild beasts, but they met bullets everywhere. The lion was trapped in an iron cage.
The Kurd reveals his sublime nature in moments of danger; he turns into a dragon and tries to eat through the rocks. The steep and craggy rocks were not obstacles to the eyes of the Hartoshi. Like tigers, they scaled the rocks to face their enemy. This time, however, the tigers fell from great heights.
The moonlit night benefited our brave men, who were careful not to shoot any of the captives.
After an hour of fighting hopelessly, a Kurdish voice yelled, “We surrender.”
Sarhat ascended a rock atop the gorge and started speaking.
“It would have been better if you had surrendered sooner—at least then the majority of your men would have remained alive. Your persistence caused more of your men to die. The damage is not great: it is the fate of warriors. I compliment your courage. Now hear our conditions. You will all remain in the gorge and let your captives go free with your spoils on the animals. We will not seize your weapons and horses; you will need those. But you must not keep any of the loot with you. You will remain in the gorge and will not leave until sunrise. At that time, you may go where you wish. Do you accept?”
“We accept,” sounded from the gorge.
“Let them free.”
Within a few hours the gorge was emptied, except for about twenty Hartoshis who stayed behind.
“Deli-Baba,” Sarhat said, “take four people with you and lead the caravan to Salmast6. You will cross the Persian border by sunrise and the Armenians of Salmast will keep you safe. That is where everyone who fled the massacres in Aghbak went. The Kurds are not able to enter Persia. Listen to me: under no circumstances should you give away that you are Armenian, and the captives do not need to know who saved them. At the Persian border, you and your group will turn around and meet us in the Irtsi Valley, at the cave you are already familiar with. I will keep these scoundrels in the gorge until you make some headway.”
Deli-Baba impatiently replied, “I’ll be damned if I gave such a long sermon when I was a priest. Blessed, why are you lecturing me? I’m not an amateur.”
“Our ancestors said, ‘Listen to the advice of others, and keep what you know to yourself,’” Sarhat answered with a laugh. “Now go. May the Lord be with you.”
The caravan started heading toward Salmast with the speed of free men who had just escaped from danger. In the silence of the night, mild blessings could be heard from the mouths of the many captives who looked affectionately upon their saviors with teary eyes.
A few days later, news of what had happened spread throughout the province of Aghbak, but there was no mention of Sarhat’s gang. It was so common for Kurds to steal spoils and captives from each other that no one was surprised to hear that the Rawandiz tribe had attacked the Hartoshis, and there could be no suspicion that the Armenians had been involved because they were considered incapable of doing such a thing.
- Zeitun is now called Süleymanlı in Eastern Turkey.
- Kharberd is now called Elazığ in Eastern Turkey.
- Jolamerk corresponds to present day Hakkâri, Turkey.
- Raffi notes that Deli-Baba means ‘crazy father’ in Turkish, and that the name is dedicated to his extreme and unusual personality, which caused him to exchange his forgiving Christian nature for the vengefulness of the Old Testament.
- Pronounced Key-top-deli-suh, this nickname means bibliomaniac in Turkish.
- Salmast is an old city in Northwestern Persia, modern day Urmia, Iran.