Note: The following quotes are translations of segments from an editorial that Raffi published in Mshak in 1880 following the Congress of Berlin on the state of affairs of Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds and Yazidis in the Eastern Ottoman Empire.
The distinction is not significant: Perhaps the Kurd does it knowingly, or perhaps mechanically—the consequences are all the same for the massacred Armenians. There is already proof. Only yesterday we read a telegram, which the English consul to Van sent to Constantinople, saying that the Kurds destroyed 13 Armenian villages.
We are asking, what should the Armenians do in such cases? Until now, whenever the Kurds plundered and murdered Armenians, and burned their villages, the Armenians approached the Turkish government and requested legal action. But now, when the government’s representatives themselves are instigating the Kurds to perform such barbarities, who are the Armenians to approach? They respond—Europe, which has taken responsibility to oversee the reform of Armenia. But until Europe examines the issue, the deed will already be done, and until help lends its hand (if it actually does lend its hand), it will be too late…
Raffi was right. Europe never offered significant help. Now, as we mentioned in our first post on Jalaleddin, and in several tweets, this question—“what should the Armenians do in such cases?”—gets at the very heart of the book. One could almost say it is the entire premise of the book, although these lines were written two years after its publication, by which time, according to Raffi…
They [the Armenians] have understood that a decisive moment has arrived, when it is either necessary to be extinguished as slaves, or if they want to protect their existence, to necessarily oppose the violent attacks of the Kurds with all their powers. There is no other solution. That was why Armenian militias were formed, the objective of which was not to engage in revolts, not to fight the Turkish government, but to punish the Kurds if they dared to disturb the peace and plunder the unarmed Armenian villagers. Those militias, which were few in number, moved about in the Armenian mountains and watched the enemy’s movements, and they sought vengeance in every way, when they witnessed any cruelty by the Kurds.
These lines help explain the activities of Sarhat and his gang, who Raffi counterintuitively called “thugs,” before going on to refer to them as heroes, stating that, “Atop the mountains of Armenia, on two opposite sides, stand two opposing nations: the Armenians having reached their ultimate slavishness, and the Turks having reached the ultimate barbarity of extremist Islam. If, from the side of the slaves, there was any protest against the despotism of the other side, it would not take any form but that of Sarhat’s criminality. Perhaps the most pertinent question is why there are so few Sarhats.”
And, indeed, Sarhat’s gang sought vengeance, like the real militias Raffi described. So why did Raffi call them “thugs,” or much worse, why did Raffi say that “Sarhat was a criminal, a brutal thug,” when the entire purpose of his gang was to seek vengeance for wrongdoings on Armenians? Probably because he saw Sarhat’s actions not as a preferred option, but as a matter of necessity. For example, in Chapter 3, we learn of Sarhat’s belief that, “for lambs to coexist with wolves, they must develop wolves’ teeth to avoid being preyed upon. The circumstances of his life had led him, against his will, to become a wolf, with all its mercilessness.” Deep down, Raffi (or, Sarhat) was a pacifist, who ultimately preferred not to fight, but saw that the circumstances of life were such that fighting was necessary to protect his people’s peace.
The Armenian militias even protected the peaceful tribes of Kurds, when they happened to experience the barbarities of other tribes of Kurds. For that reason, many of the Kurds have joined forces with the Armenians and consider it better to fight the enemy than to harm the Armenians, from whom they have always enjoyed assistance and loyalty.
Raffi is referring here primarily, but not only, to the Yazidis. And Omar Agha’s character in Jalaleddin shows us that inter-tribal rivalries among the Kurds saw some of the non-Yazidi tribes also become allies with the Armenians. Indeed, as Raffi describes in his editorial:
It was not rare to see one Kurdish tribe attack and plunder another, and these irreconciliations would be inherited, and pass from generation to generation… Those relations created between the Armenians and a few of the Kurdish tribes a necessary loyalty, which became friendlier [in times of conflict]:
But Raffi’s editorial shows us that the Armenians and Yazidis particularly were allies who had great respect for each other:
The Armenians of Aghbak1, Çatak, Bulanık, Mokk2 and Sasoon3 had their confederate Kurdish tribes, with whom they had allied, and often fought [alongside against] their enemies. The Kurds belonging to the non-Mohammedan Yezidi sect, who have always been persecuted by their Mohammedan compatriots, protected their friendly relations with the Armenians. The Armenians had so much loyalty toward that tribe, that they gave their animals to their shepherds to tend, and the large majority of people the Armenians hired to work in their households and for farming were Yezidi. They performed a few of the Armenians’ religious ceremonies, kept the feasts of the Saints Sargis and Kevork, conducted sacrifices at Armenian sanctuaries, and considered the Saint Gregory the Illuminator and the martyr Davit4 among God’s principal chosen ones. Almost all of the Yezidis knew how to speak the Armenian language…
We also mentioned here that we suspected that Raffi had a large respect for the Assyrians, based on a single line from the book, in which he refers to “the Assyrians of Jolamerk (Hakkari) who were armed and prepared, and did not allow the Kurds to take a single footstep onto their soil.” Raffi’s analysis suggests that the Assyrians were also respected by and allies to the Armenians (and Yazidis):
The brave Assyrians of the renowned Mar-Shimun have joined forces with the Armenian militias. Mar-Shimun, that mighty ruler and patriarch of the mountains of Hakkari [Mar-Shimun is the Patriarch of the Church of the East], could not forget that terrible strike of the past, which in the previous Mar-Shimun’s5 time, a Kurdish tyrant by the name of Bedr-Khan Bey of Bodhan6 sent the Kurdish marauders to the Patriarch’s home, completely plundered it, and massacred up to 10,000 Assyrians7. From that day, the Kurds and Mar-Shimun’s people have been continuous enemies, which often caused very bloody fights. Just two years ago, when the Kurds raided a few villages in Hakkari and took as spoils from the pastures the Patriarch’s pack of mules, the Assyrians proceeded to violently massacre the Kurds and took back their plunder. Having ceaseless collisions with the Kurds, Mar-Shimun had up to 30,000 – 40,000 armed men ready even in times of peace, and now all of the Armenians and Assyrians of Hakkari are armed.”
We also learn of a great famine in 1879, the year following the last Russo-Turkish War, that was cause for migrations:
Last winter’s famine, with its horrible consequences, hardly turned out to be helpful to the Armenians’ current movement. During the famine, the Armenians clearly saw the evil-mindedness of the Turkish representatives, who enacted every means of multiplying the number of Armenian deaths by starvation. That was when the Armenians became more deeply convinced that Turkey had the objective of completely eliminating the Armenian element. That was when the feeling of self-defense was sparked in the Armenians.
The famine had other benefits: it tied the hearts of Armenians together, who from the farthest corners of the planet started to send their copious gifts. The famine reconciled the Armenians with a few Kurdish tribes, who received equal assistance from the Armenian committees, which were organized from all of the Armenian cities with the objective of helping those who had suffered from the famine. Finally, due to the famine, this year the farmers of Van, Muş, Bitlis and Old-Bayazid migrated to Russia and scattered throughout all the provinces of Transcaucasia. Those farmers, now hearing of the impending danger to Armenia, are returning in groups to their native land.
Raffi concludes saying that, by backing the Kurds, “Turkey is provoking the justified rage of Armenians even more.”
The excerpts in this post are from an article entitled Kurdish Union, published in by Raffi in the 1880 issues of Mshak.
- Aghbak refers to the present-day Turkish district of Başkale.
- Mokk refers to the present-day Turkish city of Bahçesaray.
- Sasoon refers to the present-day Turkish city of Sason.
- This refers to St. Davit of Dvin who was martyred in 701 A.D.
- Raffi footnoted this saying that “the Patriarchal chair of the Nestorian Assyrians is inherited. All the Patriarchs are successively elected from the same house and are called Mar-Shimun, meaning Lord Simon.” Nicholas Al-Jeloo informs us that the position was literally inherited by members of the same family until the last Patriarch to be consecrated in this fashion was assassinated in 1975, after which the Patriarchs have been elected by the synod. @Byalda of Twitter informs us that the Patriarch at the time of Raffi’s writing was Mar Shimun XVIII Rouel
- Bodhan refers to present-day Cizre in south-eastern Turkey. Nicholas Al-Jeloo informs us that this was actually a Kurdish emirate and region to the west of Hakkari, between the Tigris and Bodhan rivers, and that although the main administrative town was Cizre, the Kurdish emirs usually lived in Deyr-Gule (present-day Kumcati)
- This refers to the 1840 massacres of the Assyrians of Hakkari.